Romance & Video Games

While most couples in the real world are probably busy sending each other chocolates or tacky Hallmark cards, I wonder how the numerous video game couples would spend their valentine’s day. I also wonder how Valentine’s Day would play in a video game. In a game like Mass Effect, you would probably have to talk down the florist by either persuading or threatening them to lower the price of roses. In a game like Final Fantasy, you would probably have to collect X amount of item A, which only drops from Monster B, which can only be found at location C (yeah you get the idea). After pondering this for a bit, it’s dawned on me that romance is rarely done well in video games. Seeing as it’s still the concept-themed month of February, and in honor of Saint Valentine, let’s talk about video games and romance.

For the sake of clarity let me define romance as follows: Romance is the event (either or developing or ongoing) in which two people form an emotional connection (ie: Love), either through a genuine bond or because the writer says so. Romance in video games is often reduced to a simplistic quest for a reward such as character insight, emotional support or the obligatory sex-scene (or all three if it’s Mass Effect). I hate to break it to you all, but romance in the real world does not work this way (what a shock). I haven’t been in a relationship myself, but I think it’s safe to assume that the relationship itself is its own reward. In video games, there’s always a point where the romance stops; where the romance is paused so that the main story can continue. The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow the romance to be ongoing or to naturally develop like it would in real life. This ultimately results in romances that are always separate from the narrative. It’s very rare for the romance to mesh with the narrative.

In a franchise otherwise devoid of good writing, the romance between the Master Chief and Cortana in the Halo games is one of the few relationships done well in a video game.

One of the few victories Halo 4 can claim is how it portrays the romance between Master Chief and Cortana. Unlike it’s predecessor (in which the Master Chief is forcibly reminded of Cortana’s absence every goddamn level) Halo 4 handles the romance in a subtle way. Once again Cortana needs to be “saved” but it’s framed much more along the lines of saving someone from a terminal illness. The key ingredient is that the romance is expressed mostly through subtext. This is effective because the audience has to think in order to uncover the actual romance. By doing this Halo 4 features a love story from the beginning to the end of the game that actually blends rather nicely with the primary narrative of saving the world. It also does this without rewarding the player with some sort of end goal; in other words the romance is it’s own reward. This is a very good example of how to do romance well in a video game.

It’s impossible to discuss romance in video games without bringing up the Mass Effect franchise. In any of the three Mass Effect games, the player is able to enter a relationship that can last across the entire trilogy. In fact, Mass Effect provides the player with options; there are several characters who are able to have the relationship with main character (only one person at a time of course). It may seem that because Mass Effect allows the player to continue a relationship across three games, that this qualifies as legitimate use of romance; this is incorrect. As I mentioned previously, romance in Mass Effect is done to achieve a reward of some sort. For example in all three games, the romance culminates with a sex-scene between the player and the chosen character. This doesn’t mean that the love is badly written. On the contrary out of the multiple relationships the player can be involved in by the third game, I actually believed for all of them that the characters cared for each other. Despite that the relationships are well-executed, they are being done for the wrong reasons. I don’t know why the characters love each other, only that they do. For a growing medium such as video games, this just isn’t good enough.

Putting a sex-scene in Mass Effect 2, Fox News might notice. Heavy risk…but the PRIZE!.

The relationship in Halo 4 works because I understand why the characters need each other. One is a human with little humanity, and the other is an AI with plenty of humanity. These characters need each other, and it’s implied in the dialogue. The relationships in Mass Effect only work because the writing and the voice-acting convince me that the characters actually love each other, but I don’t understand why they are together. This sums up how video games portray romance in general. They are able to evoke the feeling and sense of love, but they unable to give those feelings any meaning. As far as romance goes, video games have definitely come a long way, but it’s clear to me now that they still have  along way to go.

About Sam Hale

Autistic, young adult and lots on my mind.

Posted on February 14, 2013, in Game Design and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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