Thoughts on Intimate Relationships in Video Games

One story that’s been around for pretty much as long as humans have has been the drama of an intimate relationship, and given the potential for interesting and intriguing stories with such as an element, video games have had them in some form nearly ever since the hobby started.  The question I sometimes find myself asking is whether games have, or can, display them well.

Max avenged his family's death by popping pills and making the coroner work over-time.

In most mainstream games, intimate relationships are usually displayed at one of two points—its beginning, or its end.  Whether taken seriously as in pretty much any Final Fantasy title, or treated more irreverently as in most Grand Theft Auto titles, it seems that developers—or, more likely, the publishers, since they’re the ones paying the developers—are only concerned with the beginning or the end of a relationship.

Consider Max Payne or God of War—both series were kicked off with the protagonist’s wife and offspring being brutally murdered, and the protagonist sets about destroying everyone even tangentially related to their family’s end—and plenty of people who weren’t.  Those aren’t the only series you’ll find such a thing in, of course—it’s sometimes like developers are only interested in families as a plot-hook, and even then with the very narrow focus of “revenge against everything in existence” stories.

There’s not much in those stories that really tells us how the protagonist really thought about their family—oh, sure, you had a scene or two of them bemoaning the loss, but a genocidal spree of murderous rage isn’t really the best way to show it.  If anything, murdering every-freaking-thing in sight to seek vengeance for the death of a loved one—that seems a bit selfish, if you think about it.

"Avenge us, Kratos, by sleeping with as many women as possible and be sure to stab random innocent citizens in the face. Repeatedly, please."

Now, unless nearly every protagonist in such a game had an emotionally crapped-up relationship the likes of which would make trained therapists wet their pants at the mere thought of, I can’t imagine any of the dead wives—or children—actually supporting the murder of innocent people over them.  The very few directly responsible, maybe, but even that’s a big stretch.  Yet, pick a game with a “revenge for the death of my family” theme, and you’ll find the protagonist killing not only the people who pulled the trigger, whether literally or proverbially, but their henchmen, their henchmen’s henchmen, and on down the line to the henchmen’s henchmen’s henchmen’s cousin’s postman’s dog-walker.  And that’s not counting the random people you can kill for things like health, information, or just for the heck of it.

I wonder if it’s because no one really knows how to make developing a relationship into a game play mechanic.  Even in the few games that do have a developing relationship as part of the story, those really don’t involve game play beyond fetch quests or clicking through dialogue options for a cut scene.  Even Dragon Age II, where you could have a romance with pretty much any possible character you wanted, up to and including the old “I want you to be happy, even as much as I want you in my life” sort of speech that ends with a suggestive fade-to-black—even with a person of the same sex as the protagonist.  The ability to have a true intimate relationship with anyone is great, and more than a few points in Dragon Age II‘s favor—but it’s still clicking through dialogue options for a cut-scene.

One game that springs to mind for trying to turn a burgeoning relationship—or six—into actual game play was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  I don’t know whether it was from the entire game being heavily tongue-in-cheek, or if the developers had no idea how to make relationship-building interesting, but it was easily one of the worst experiences I had in that game, and considering I’m not exactly a fan of it as a whole, that’s saying something.

You need a guide, AND maps.

It’s such a complex web of nonsense that an in-depth guide had to be written up for it.  It’s not enough that you have to know when one of six girlfriends will be available, and it’s not enough to know where, and it’s not enough to know what kind of man she likes.  No, you could know that Girl X appears on the thirteenth of June at precisely eleven-forty-three in the morning at the drug store, for only those sixty seconds, and only if there’s a waxing crescent moon.  You can also know that she likes her men wearing jeans exactly one half-shade lighter than every other bloody pair on the rack, has a physique only achievable by gorging on five hamburgers, two salads, and spending exactly two minutes and thirteen seconds on the stationary bicycle at the gym—you can know all of that and still be screwed.

You also need to take the girls on dates, which can be dancing, eating, or just riding around.  Sounds simple, right?  You have no idea going into it what type of each activity she likes until she starts talking right in the middle of it, when it’s too late to change.  So you get to figure it out by the trial-and-error method—which means you’ll be losing the girl until the next set of insane circumstances are met for her to even appear.

It gets better.  The girl might be lying.  Yep, you figure out she likes a slow cruise through downtown, she likes fajitas, and dancing at the club because she reacts positively?  That—actually doesn’t mean much of anything.  she might be lying, so you’ll be left confused as all heck as you go on what you think are successful dates, only to watch your relationship with her plummet.  You do all of that, with six girls, because if you get your relationship with them to maximum, you get a reward—things like keeping your weapons after being arrested, free paint jobs at the Pay-N’-Spray, that sort of thing.  Me, I got so sick of it that I murdered each girl in increasingly creative ways, and just cheated to get guns or what-not.

That’s not really a good reaction to trying to build an intimate relationship in a video game.  Granted, Rockstar isn’t exactly a company to go to for video games with serious looks at the ups and downs of relationships—but, again, San Andreas is one of the few games to really made an attempt at incorporating the building of a relationship into the game play.

"And then I turned it again!"

It does make one wonder if there’s really a way to make building a relationship into interesting game play.  There are two large hurdles to it—the game itself, for starters.  If you want something more than mindless fetch-quests (which, in a way, are what things like the San Andreas example boil down to), you have to devote serious game data, and that has to come from somewhere.  Some other element will suffer—combat may have to become mindless button-mashing, story missions may have to become simplistic “defeat everyone in the room and move to the next room” affairs, or whatever else.  While games and the hardware that run them are becoming more powerful, more complex—there’s still a data limit, so choices have to be made about what gets “depth” and what doesn’t.

That will change, though, as the technological progression continues.  The real problem is the other hurdle—real, stable relationships just aren’t that fun to play through.  They’re fantastic to live through, but they don’t exactly make for gripping game play.  Think about other game play elements—take combat, for example.  A real fight is usually over in seconds, but that’s not exactly fun.  Few gamers talk about the one guy they took down in one punch.  They talk about the long battles, the win pulled out by a hair’s breadth after the two characters go after each other for what felt like hours, the protagonist standing triumphant after a grueling battle.

Then you have puzzles—a Rubik’s Cube is a challenge, so much so that even today when a machine solves one in record time, it’s news, but fiddling with a small cube isn’t exactly exciting.  As much of a real challenge as a Rubik’s Cube is, there won’t be any national championships where viewers hold tail-gating parties and scream loudly when someone solves one.  Having to deal with gigantic blocks, or racing through cavernous rooms to figure out a take on the old weight puzzle concept—those are interesting.

Not exactly gripping story-telling, considering the target demographic of most video games.

The problem with real, stable relationships is that there isn’t usually much that’s “exciting” about them—but by “exciting”, I mean the sorts of things you talk about with friends, usually speaking quickly and exuberantly.  “Last night we watched some old television shows on Netflix!  Didn’t have to talk to each other because we were just there together!  It was awesome!”  Not exactly gripping, tell-a-friend story material, that, even though quiet moments like that are what every relationship should have.

The question becomes how to have building a relationship be an interesting mechanic in a game that isn’t itself a “dating sim” or some similar.  Well—to be honest, no answer really immediately presents itself.  Most of what makes a relationship valued for those in it would be boring as heck to sit through in a game.  As for the rest, well—let’s just say it falls under the E.S.R.B.’s A.O. rating, which is still something developers and publishers shy away from.

Games in general don’t really reflect reality, and we’ve never really wanted them to.  We know reality—we have it every day.  While we all have different reasons to play video games, most of them revolve around them being unrealistic by design.  Whether we use a game as some cathartic experience, just a way to kill an hour by blowing up tanks with our eyes, or as a way to view something from a different perspective, almost all of us come to games because they aren’t real.

Worst. Game. EVAR.

It might just be that building a stable relationship isn’t an element that can be really transcribed into the video game world beyond what’s already been done.  It might just be that extremely skewed views on the concept or starting out at the relationship’s end are the best way to deal with it.  Giant-block-puzzles are skewed views on puzzles, battling one-against-an-army and winning is a skewed take on combat—so maybe the skewed takes on dating are the best we can expect.

Considering that examples like San Andreas are the exception rather than the rule, perhaps we should be content that the closest we get to building a stable relationship in a game is through dialogue options and cut-scenes.


2 Responses to “Thoughts on Intimate Relationships in Video Games”

  1. WhiteWolf Says:

    The only time I felt a game showed good cause for the revenge scenario was in Dante’s Inferno. Going through hell just to try and save Beatrice’s soul was awesome. The cut scenes and game play made me feel more like Dante, and helped me to care about what I was doing then just good animation. But that is the only game I can think of. Though it doesn’t fall under dating it does do well to make the fighting countless monsters make sense.

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