4. Love Doesn’t Need Conflict To Be Interesting
Again, more a problem with media in general than with gaming specifically. See, most writers only know how to tell one love story: the one where the couple gets together. So despite the fact that millions of people every day are going around in various stages of relationships, experiencing love and loss and minor domestic squabbles and major acts of affection, despite the fact that romantic relationships (for most of us) can and do affect every aspect of our lives for years, all we ever get to see is couples getting together, breaking up, and getting together again. It’s why every sitcom has that infuriating “will-they won’t-they” relationship that won’t be resolved until the show ends. It’s why Han and Leia, despite having arguably one of the healthiest and happiest relationships in modern cinema, are inexplicably separated at the beginning of Episode VII – until they run into each other and immediately start talking about everything they love about the other.
And games do it too. Guybrush and Elaine end the first Monkey Island gazing into each other’s eyes and inexplicably break up before the second game starts, because why have an ongoing character arc when you can tell the same story twice. And at least that’s the only game in the Monkey Island series that pulls that weak move – Uncharted 1, Uncharted 2, and Uncharted 3 all end with a shot of Nathan and Elena walking or riding into the sunset, having gotten back together after unspecified breakups between games. Three times, Naughty Dog? If I was Nathan Drake’s actual friend I’d be staging an intervention by now.
Yes, love is hard. Yes, even the healthiest and happiest relationships take a lot of work. And, yes, often things don’t work out and people break up. But when you can’t think of anything for your paired characters to do other than break up and get together again, you’re a bad writer. Even if there was an interesting story to be told there, believe me – it’s been told. And re-told. And told a few hundred more times for good measure.
But at least these games understood that…
5. Love Isn’t All About You
Sure, the romances in Mass Effect are bad for all of the reasons I gave above. But they’re also bad because they all involve Commander Shephard, a character with literally no personality. Compelling romantic stories involve two people who deeply care for each other, not one person who deeply cares for a cardboard cutout with the viewer’s face attached to it. I’ve seen Half Life 2 on a lot of lists of good romances in games, but I never bought it for a second, because it wasn’t made clear to me why strong and brave rebellion hero Alyx Vance would fall for a pair of floating hands holding a crowbar.
The argument, of course, is that you’re supposed to project your own personality onto these characters. But that doesn’t work, because most gamers are well-adjusted people who aren’t going to fall in love with fictional characters (HPP’s own Nathaniel Terencio being a notable exception.) In short: I’m not in love with Alyx Vance, so I can’t believe that Gordon Freeman is in love with Alyx, either.
Even in games where the romance doesn’t just end in a tepid sex scene and a fade to black, games where your partner is doing all the work in the relationship are boring at best, creepy at worst. Either way, they’ll never have the impact of a Yuna and Tidus or a Max and Chloe – relationships in gaming where the player actually gets to play a character with an emotional investment in said relationship. And this gets especially bad when designers forget that…