The state of storytelling in video games is a point of contention for many. It is seen by some as the great indicator of the immaturity of our medium but others would argue that this is disingenuous and detracts from the efforts of the better writers in the industry. Indeed, it isn’t too difficult to create a litany of games that explore more complex, intellectual themes with some degree of success, from the nature of power and freedom in BioShock to moral relativism and the ethics of survival in the Fallout games. However, no games – at least of those stocked on the shelves of GameStop – have really been able to successfully explore the theme of love.
This is not for lack of trying. Romance as a mechanic is not a new concept in video games by any estimation; notable examples include wife-hunting in various Harvest Moon games and the seemingly endless bevy of dating simulators that can be found online with a little searching. However, at the popular forefront of these games are the works of developer BioWare, whose RPGs as far back as Baldur’s Gate II have included options to form romantic relationships with NPCs as something of a staple. Indeed, it appears to be the defining mark of a BioWare RPG, but it is not a speciality that they have refined over the years; rather, it is a formula that they have reiterated again and again. It is built upon, but not necessarily improved. The best known example of their approach can be found in the Mass Effect trilogy, where the player’s romance arcs were continued and developed over three whole games.
When looking at the way romance is handled in Mass Effect, one can clearly see stylistic similarities with traditional Hollywood romance sub-plots; the main protagonist and his or her lover are brought together through mutual adversity, climaxing with a scene showing the couple in the throes of their passion. It’s silly, overtheatrical and woefully underdeveloped, but that is not the main issue. It’s even forgivable – after all, bad writing can be made better with practice. It is the way that the game looks up to an older medium for inspiration in its narrative design that a fundamental problem begins to make itself apparent.
The problem is that films can, to a certain extent, get away with haphazard, unfaithful representations of love because in film, romance is a linear progression of events with a meditated beginning and end. Even if the writing is terrible and the characters are reprehensible people who could never function as a couple, the dissonance between the audience and the action on screen creates the illusion that the characters are independent beings that are capable of making their own terrible decisions. Mass Effect, on the other hand, cannot get away with this because the players are directly involved in that process. They guide their character, who always goes by 'Shepard', through the stages of attraction, courting and love through a series of dialogue choices, each choice feeding into an algorithm that calculates away in the background and ultimately decides whether your character loves another. This approach takes the entire intangible, inexplicable spectrum of experiences associated with falling in love and reduces it down to basic maths.
Of all the implications this has, the most obvious is that it means that romance simply cannot be represented with any facet of honesty with this approach. We cannot delude ourselves into suspension of disbelief because as players, we are given the power to create our character within BioWare’s framework. With this power comes knowledge of the system we are working within; essentially, we cannot escape the fact that the process of courtship we are guiding Shepard through is in fact nothing more than a glorified series of ‘Yes or No’ questions. This is not a problem for other aspects of character development within Mass Effect such as the development of philosophical belief and character morality because such aspects of our personality in real life are not accompanied with the smorgasbord of hormonal and chemical reactions that infatuation is. In real life, love is not a decision that one makes. It is not a choice that one has. It is an inexplicable phenomenon that one feels. We do not decide to fall in love in real life, so why should we in a video game?
That is not to say that video games are incapable of exploring or showcasing love, rather that BioWare is using a flawed approach. There is in fact a very good way to represent love in video games, and that is the approach employed by The Sims.
In The Sims, and particularly in the expansion Hot Date (bear with me, this is still the same serious article you were reading a minute ago), when Sims form relationships with NPCs there is still a program filling in the value of x and y in a background equation. However, the key distinction between Mass Effect and The Sims is in the agency given to the player; in the former, the player is in control of every aspect of the character’s movement and development, whereas The Sims removes the player from the character. The player is able to control their Sim’s movements to help them fulfil their everyday needs, but they are not in absolute control of their motor actions, and more importantly, the Sims will react on their own impetus to their surroundings. They take on an identity of their own, rather than becoming a strange marriage of developer script and player choice. Like film, the success of the romance mechanics in The Sims lies in creating distance between the player and the process.
The message to take away from this is not that romance in video games is only viable when the player has as little agency as possible. Rather, what BioWare needs to learn from The Sims is that love is an organic process that builds upon itself, and for video games like Mass Effect to ever portray it faithfully, it must create the illusion of this. Rather than a flow chart of dialogue resulting in a sex scene, love is something that is less controlled and more felt, and a player’s experience with romance in a video game should reflect this.
The first step towards improvement is changing developer attitudes towards their own mechanics. When romance is so simple it can be condensed into a walkthrough guide, it says something about the lack of depth to what is in reality a complex personal event. Perhaps the worst part of BioWare’s approach is the fact that a successful romance in each game is rewarded with an achievement or trophy. It belies a design philosophy that makes romance a task, a series of challenges with a victory condition. Surely if there is any aspect of character development suited to being quantified in Gamerscore, love is not it.
I have faith that one day, love will be represented truthfully in a video game, but we are not quite there yet. My best guess is that currently, developers are stuck in old modes of thinking, structuring the art of videogames in terms of the technology that drives it. It is a problem video games have always faced, and one that they will face for many years to come, such is the central conflict of an artistic medium built on machines and code. But in spite of this, perhaps one day with a little lateral thinking developers will begin to move out of this mindset and at last we will have our great romance.