Health Bars Are Red, Magic Bars Are Blue

By Aaron Matteson in Humor, Misc Nonsense
Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 1:00 pm



Romance in video games -- is the health bar half full or half empty?

One thing that I ask myself periodically as a gamer is, "Are video games just wish fulfillment?" When I play Fallout 3, are my adventures through the wastes a valuable collaborative story told in equal parts by me, Bethesda and Liam Neeson (playing the part of my futuristic dad)? Or is it just electronic crack for my id, a treasure-hunting, raider-killing romp through all my basic post-apocalyptic desires?

I would like to believe the former. Certainly the idea of an epic novel, the arc of which is created in part by the author and in part by the reader, is in some senses realized by modern video games. And what an idea! Books with all the wit and lushness of their author's words, but unfolding in ways that most suit the reader's sensibilities. Want to experience the terrifying twists and turns of Yossarian's combat missions in Catch-22, deciding exactly how much cowardice our embattled hero displays? Sure! Wish you got to control exactly how haughty the quips are in Pride and Prejudice? It can be arranged!

But one thing that prevents video games from ascending to this level of artistic consideration is their tendency to err on the side of wish fulfillment. Sometimes instead of depth and nuance a player is given a rocket launcher. This is not always a bad thing (let it never be said that I am anti-rocket launcher), but it is perhaps limiting.

Perhaps the biggest example of this is romance in video games.


Meant for each other



You had me at "It's a-me."

​Usually, in the games of days past, romances were built into the story. If the developers decided that the protagonist had a love interest, it was so. They had a pre-destined, chaste love that could not be avoided.

And there's a certain charm to this. Can you imagine if you, as Mario, had to open up a dialogue interface to talk to Princess Peach about her past and listen patiently and say vaguely suggestive things until she came around? No!  Ugh, smarmy! Mario and Peach were meant to be, and there's something nice about the certainty of that.

But as video games move into edgier, more psychologically complex areas, shouldn't the depiction of romance move beyond the "fated to be lovers" paradigm?


So many choices



I'd like to trigger your security field! Because you are one of several options I have for love!

The new trend, in gaming generally but also in game romances, is "more is better." The current generation of video games is keen on giving players a plethora of options as to where to go, how to accomplish tasks, who to arbitrarily kill, and this freedom is matched in many of these games' romantic subplot. Hook up with your gorgeous crewmate! Hook up with that townsperson! Hook up with that goat alien! With so many choices, games are more realistic, right?

Well, sort of. True, we've moved away from the "mandatory mate" kind of romance, but we're still only skimming the surface. First off, in most games, all the characters are enamored of you regardless of your actions -- it's just up to you to choose which one to go after. So you can punch a stranger right in the face in front of your potential mate, in some cases you can blithely destroy an entire village full of innocent people, and they still have that little crush on you. It seems like callous murder might be kind of a mood-killer for most people?



Liara's standards are, apparently, pretty low.

 ​This is indicative of sort of a general problem, which is that the game still assumes your character is near-universally attractive. When was the last time a player had to deal with a truly murky romantic subplot, one where just always choosing the "nice / flirty answer" in the dialogue tree doesn't guarantee success? One where the spark of attraction is based on looks, humor, morals, obligations and everything else in the game's world?

It doesn't sound necessarily fun, and it wouldn't be for every game, but it would add a dimension to things that is currently lacking.


A real conversation



Oh shit! I guess I SHOULD be nervous talking to girls!

​I'd like to close with an example of a video game that takes another route in dealing with romance.

The above picture is from the Xbox indie downloadable game titled Don't Be Nervous Talking to Girls (or, alternatively, Don't B Nervous Talking 2 Girls), meant as a sort of realistic tutorial for heterosexual men on effectively communicating with attractive females.

The sample female is a lovely young lady who will flip out and threaten you if you make the wrong conversational move and is fond of asking you trivia questions to determine your potential worth as a mate. You, as the intrepid player character, are forced to answer random questions about history and little-known bands ("Hunter Eves?" Who the fuck are "Hunter Eves?") or face the sting of rejection.

Is this what we think of courtship? That (contrary to the game's reassuring title) it is a random, infuriating back-and-forth of useless facts and basic memorization?

Yes, this particular game isn't exactly the most advanced of its generation with regards to AI. And yes, I'm mostly just featuring it because I think it's funny and kind of sad. I just hope that in the future games of all sorts can do better.



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