2. Love Isn’t A Quest
If romance is a game, and sex is the goal, the question is then what mechanics should be used to achieve that goal. Well, not really. That’s not the question someone who actually wanted to represent some kind of emotional connection in gaming would ask. But if you’re a lazy triple-A game developer with a quota to fill, sure.
And what’s the answer to that terrible question? Gifts. Whether we’re talking Harvest Moon, every BioWare product, or the multitude of games that are content to just copy those two, it’s become an accepted fact of gaming that if you give someone enough gifts, they will eventually put out, as though vending machines were the height of romantic interest. And to be honest, the gift thing is better than games that try to stick to the same formula but change it up, like how Fallout 4’s Piper will only bone down with you after you’ve picked a certain number of locks. Wait, what?
“Mommy, how did you meet Daddy?”
“Well, child, he picked a hundred locks and then Todd Howard compelled me to sleep with him. And then he married four other people simultaneously.”
Much has been written about how this idea – that people, particularly women, owe you sex after you do a certain number of nice things for them – has hurt society and contributed to the rise of the odious pick-up artist community. And all of that’s fair and good to point out, but even more than that – it’s just not very fun. Maybe in a “how do I solve this puzzle” kind of way, piecing together dialogue hints to figure out what gifts appeal to a character (or their bizarre lockpicking fetish.) But it’s certainly not compelling. How am I supposed to care about Piper knowing that anyone with a handful of lockpicks could sweep her off her feet just as easily as I did? I haven’t built a connection with this person. I’ve done little more than follow a walkthrough.
And love doesn’t have walkthroughs, because…
3. Love Isn’t Easy
As Don Henley once said, “You don’t have the slightest notion of what long-term love is all about. All your romantic liasions don’t deal with eternal questions like ‘Who left the cap off the freaking toothpaste? Whose turn to take the garbage out?’”
This is less a problem specific to gaming and more a problem with romance in media in general. Whether it’s a movie where two characters fall in love in the space of a week, or a game where all it takes is some lockpicking to open her heart (yes, I’m still gonna make jokes about that, because it’s probably the dumbest romance mechanic I’ve ever seen in my life), our media shows us a very idealized, very simplified version of what actual relationships are like. To a certain extent, that’s all right – movies and games, by necessity, have to move faster than real life. Besides, entertainment media is often a form of escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with escaping into a fantasy that’s an easier, happier version of real life.
But first of all, it starts to feel ridiculous when that’s true of the romance in every story. And second of all, with games especially, it cheapens both the narrative and the gameplay. Like I said, I don’t feel any kind of connection with characters when my relationship with them can be boiled down to Saint’s Row IV’s “Press X to Romance” button (and at least that was a parody of the industry.) And if you’re just gonna turn love into a game, wouldn’t it be more fun if that game was actually somewhat challenging?
And it’s still possible to gamify romance without making it feel so simple that it’s cheap. I’m thinking of one of the best examples of romance in a game I’ve ever seen – last year’s criminally underrated Duo. In Duo, you’re trying to get two little bean people next to each other so that they can kiss (not, it’s worth pointing out, have sex.) The game, while sweetly and beautifully presented, can get quite challenging in its later levels, making that kiss feel so much more sweet and satisfying when it actually happens. Okay, so as love stories go it’s not exactly Jane Eyre, but it still felt more real than a thousand Bioware-clone gift-a-thons.
Of course, while love isn’t easy…