Love, Relationships, and Videogames

OR: ‘Why Catherine is So Great: Part II’

Learning to Love Snacked Up

For an expressive medium, gaming has spent an awful lot of time expressing itself from behind the barrel of a gun.

Tales of love and loss permeate our cultural history – from Romeo and Juliet through to Twilight – so it’s strange to see that videogames have veered so far from the ‘love’ part of the equation; so mired in loss they’ve struggled to conjure their own Lois and Clark, let alone Cathy and Heathcliff.

It begs the question: what’s so different? The ideas of love and romance (and their raunchier, after-dark children: sex and nudity) have been core components of the human experience since time immemorial, so it’s easy to think that we would have them sussed by now; that we could simply cut and paste Casablanca into the next Call of Duty and call it a day – or at the very least recreate ‘Jacob versus Edward’ in Tekken. Clearly, something is amiss.

Obsidian Alpha Protocol Scarlett Lake

Obsidian’s ‘Alpha Protocol’

Looking at film and literature, it seems so easy. When it comes to romance in other media, linearity is a boon. It’s the safety net that assures us the story is already set in stone; that Humphrey Bogart won’t balls things up, or at the very least, that Woody Allen will learn something from his inevitable failure. It’s this idea of inevitability that punctuates any classic romance, ensuring no matter how the tale ends, we know we’ll find ourselves enriched.

The moment we get our grubby mitts on a controller, however, nothing is inevitable anymore. In games, cutscenes and audio logs may be able to squeeze relationships into a linear structure (oftentimes adopting the tropes of ‘traditional’ media to convey their story) but they do so in complete defiance of the fact that a player exists on the other side of the screen, oftentimes one who isn’t in the mood for the mushy stuff.

Take, for example, the seminal Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, in which the titular Prince – and thus his controlling player – is set on a romantic collision course with the Princess Farah, with no means of changing direction. If the player fails to mirror the Prince’s adoration for Farah, then a rift is created between them and the subject of their control, providing an uncomfortable reminder that they’re nothing more than an awkward third wheel; some guy pushing buttons to progress a linear narrative.

In essence, it’s the passivity of a film or book that excuses linear romance. Even if the characters fail to woo us, they’ll still exhibit the same agency in attempting to woo each other, and our innate sense of voyeurism will allow us to tag along for the ride. The active nature of a videogame, on the other hand, removes this fallback; we can’t play voyeur to ourselves. It’s not surprising that the most oft-cited videogame romances are the ones that are implied, for example, Ico and Yorda, or Freeman and Vance: the ones that can be comfortably ignored by any player that fails to fall in love themselves.

Prince of Persia The Sands of Time Romance

Ubisoft’s ‘Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’

The logical response to this problem, then, is to move away from linearity and give the player more control, a goal admirably pursued in recent years by the likes of Bioware and David Cage. All it takes is a search for ‘Mass Effect Romance’ on DeviantArt to realise how disturbingly close the medium has come to building some sort of emotional connection. Post-search trauma aside, however, we’re now facing a different problem.

Flawed as The Sands of Time may have been, the Prince and Farah were always destined to get together, and – assuming you were complicit in their romance – their eventual union provided the dramatic and thematic release necessary to grant their tale closure. Give the player agency over that release, however, and it becomes entirely possible that they’ll balls everything up. Go into Mass Effect or Dragon Age looking for romance and fail, and there’s no substitute for that sense of closure; no lessons to be learned or strength to be gained – Woody Allen doesn’t narrate a closing monologue on love and life – you’re merely left with the absence of a relationship.

It’s a harsh dilemma for developers: give the relationship a fail-state, and people will meet it, lock the player on-course to a successful union and people will reject it. Rock, meet hard place. If there is a solution to this problem, it clearly rests in a middle ground – one that accounts for failure, but also gives the player agency over their romance, all while fighting off the persistent shadow of linearity.

Admittedly, it’s a tough challenge, and one we’re clearly still struggling with. Although games like Mass Effect embrace player choice with an overwhelmingly large number of narrative permutations, they’re still predominantly linear – we’re still crafting clear ‘A to B’ narratives. Linearity has become a harsh reminder that time is running out; that our story will conclude, one way or another, ready or not.

‘There are plenty of other fish in the sea’ is a rule that doesn’t apply to Mass Effect and its ilk; you’re presented with a carefully curated selection of fish, with which the first bite is the only chance you’re going to get at romance. To adopt an industry buzzword: there’s no emergence. Owing to this, these romances never carry the tension, tragedy or suspense of their literary equivalents; the player is led to act outside of themselves out of a desire not to ‘fail’ the developer’s given criteria. It’s a situation that should sound all too familiar: picking ‘nice’ options without reprieve just to get the girl/guy.

Romance becomes a one-sided argument, one where we melt into clay and repeatedly reshape ourselves in the name of love because the urgency of a linear narrative demands it. Any choice-based relationship becomes a teenage grope-fest; a desperate grab for the boobies before they’re gated away behind our own poor decisions or time-keeping; perhaps an apt display of some realities, but not ones often highlighted in a romantic narrative. Even when things fall into place, the outcome ultimately says little else other than ‘a relationship happened’.

Mass Effect 3 Tali Romance

Bioware’s ‘Mass Effect 3’

Surely, if all this suggests anything, it’s that we’ve reached something of a barrier. To get to a higher level of lovin’, we need to develop intelligent systems capable of eschewing linearity and embracing the user’s own romantic persuasions. It’s a scientific pursuit as old as science itself: but if videogaming is ever going to find its Casablanca, we essentially need to find the inner workings of love and make them bend to our every whim.

I’d hate to sound dismissive, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Perhaps, in light of videogaming’s numerous admirable failures, we need to move away from the Brontean and the Mills and Boon schools of romance, and start considering what we can do within the constraints of our own medium.

Atlus Catherine Vincent

Atlus’ ‘Catherine’

Last year, I wrote a short piece on Atlus’ Catherine; a game which, as you might recall, chewed me up, told me my love life was borked, and then spat me back out. It is, funnily enough, the most romantic game I’ve ever played.

Catherine has eight endings, only one of which can be regarded as typically ‘romantic’ – the rest tend to eschew the common game narrative in favour of direct, symbolic communication with the player. For the most part, it is a game aware that no player will truly buy into its romantic posturing, and thus relies on the power of its message more so than that of its performance. Essentially, it’s a videogame romance fully aware that it is a videogame romance.

From fourth-wall breaking surveys to a winkingly symbolic presentation (note that the vast majority of the game is spent with a fake TV watermark in the top corner), Catherine actively acknowledges its player at every given opportunity, and stitches together a postmodern story intended directly for them. It doesn’t attempt to make us fall in love with an unknown entity; if a player can’t understand why the Prince loves the Princess, then it doesn’t ruin the narrative, but merely places it on another track.

In Catherine – assuming you can’t buy into the experience as a straightforward romantic narrative – then the romantic interests become little but vessels for the player’s own experiences. They become walking, talking symbols of romantic insecurity and strife, informed by the player’s ongoing decisions. If videogaming is good at one thing, it’s communicating directly with the audience, and Catherine monopolizes on this fact, rather than trying to muscle in on the strengths of other media. It represents romance in a way personal to each player, rather than explicitly portraying it in cold, singular terms.

Ultimately, if there’s a case to be made for the lovey stuff in videogames, it’s here. Since its inception, gaming has relied on abstract representations of cultural or real-world issues, and it should be no different when it comes to romance. Catherine is to relationships what Silent Hill was to grief; it’s deep, reflexive, fundamentally familiar, and – I fear – tragically ignored in spite of those rare virtues.

In the end, it all comes down to that vital essence of art: the ability to communicate with others. Film romances aren’t successful because they show us romantic situations, but rather because those romantic situations speak to the viewer. It isn’t about what the characters are saying to each other so much as what they have to say to us; a lesson often ignored, and yet employed to great effect in Atlus’ work.

The first step towards getting workable romance into videogaming is getting the player on-board. Sure, Catherine‘s overt nudging-and-winking might not be our desired destination, but I would argue it’s our first real step in the right direction.

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