Bad Romance: Love in the Time of Videogames «

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single hero in possession of a pirate ship (or a magical artifact, or a plasma gun) must be in want of a heroine.

Examples of love in videogames abound, from Harvest Moon’s set of collectable wives to Mario’s Sisyphean quest for the elusive Princess Peach. And certainly, games feature more sex now in the HD era than ever before, from the tasteful applications (the one-night stand in Mass Effect) to the simply titillating (Dante Inferno’s exquisitely rendered corpse-boobies).

But genuine, believable romance — an intimacy between two characters that can be passionate or pragmatic; long-simmering or sexually explosive — remains elusive in all but a select few titles. And for good reason: Writing love stories is hard.

“Conveying romance [in games] requires much more nuance than more primal emotions, like anger or fear,” explains Amy Hennig, creative director of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise. “A subtle thing like love or romance is very unforgiving… and if you get it wrong, it’s like the Uncanny Valley of emotional authenticity.”

But despite the risks, a juicy love story keeps players engaged, and a good romance can be its own reward. “If you care about the characters,” Hennig adds, “I think you’re motivated to continue playing, just to enjoy their company.”

Naughty Dog’s Amy Hennig.


Romancing the Pixel

Videogames have featured love stories almost since their conception — and we’re not just talking about that hapless plumber chasing after his hard-to-get royal, either.

In particular, adventure games, with their emphasis on rich characters and interactive dialogue, provided an ideal platform for the earliest digital romances. A handful of titles — most notably, Infocom’s Plundered Hearts — put romance on center stage. Others gave it a secondary, yet still important, role; the Monkey Island series, for example, features a drawn-out, screwball love story between protagonist Guybrush Threepwood and his beloved Elaine Marley.

Romance remained far from ubiquitous in early games, but it appeared in computer games with relative frequency, at least compared to arcade or console titles. But as flashier graphics evolved and more visual genres like first-person shooters elbowed aside text-heavy adventure games, story took a temporary backseat to gameplay. With it, romance lost what little relevance it had had in the world of game narrative. A properly developed romance required a level of character development and narrative detail that had become out-of-place in a world of Doom clones.

It didn’t help, either, that the late ’80s and early ’90s saw a shift in the typical gamer’s age. Previously, due to the knowledge required to operate PC hardware, computer games had generally attracted an adult audience. But as consoles succeeded PCs as the gaming platform of choice, the average age of gamers dropped precipitously, and more mature narratives — such as love stories — lost their target audience.

Monkey Island’s goofball lovebirds (from 2009’s Special Edition).


Even beyond that, however, romance has always had trouble meshing with some videogame archetypes; namely, that of the lone protagonist who solves riddles or fulfills quests in a world that is only occasionally, if ever, punctuated by dialogue. Myst, for example, had little room for a love story.

“These stories are essentially plot-driven rather than character-driven, because there are no other characters around for the hero to relate to,” says Hennig. “You could never make a film like that. Hell, even Tom Hanks had a volleyball to talk to in Cast Away.”

This prevalence of solo, silent protagonists in early games hints at a deeper challenge faced by developers of the time: that of improved technology that still fell too short. To depict romance in text-based games was simply a matter of choosing the right words. But graphics eventually became so essential to game design that players started expecting games to tell stories primarily through their visuals, rather than text. Yet the hardware still wasn’t strong enough to tell a good love story visually. The Commodore 64 may have been a graphical powerhouse, but its innards couldn’t yet render two characters kissing, embracing, or even engaging in a one-on-one chat in anything but the most abstract manner.

Bridging the Uncanny Valley

While technology has vastly improved since the 1980s, creating love stories for videogames remains a technically daunting task, says David Gaider, BioWare senior writer and lead writer for the Dragon Age franchise. And it still comes back to visuals: Dialogue and narrative may move a romance forward, but if a game’s graphics aren’t up to par, then the player won’t even give its story a chance.

“Novels create pictures in the readers’ heads, but games have to display it all on the screen — and we’re not quite up to the level of approaching what a reader can imagine,” he says. “We’re getting closer, but ever since we moved to 3D models as the norm, we started having to deal with the Uncanny Valley.”

 

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