It's no secret that I have an enormous crush on Alistair from Dragon Age. Enormous.
I've also developed a few secondary crushes on some of the characters in the Mass Effect series in recent months. Now that I've about run out of single-player Bioware games, though, I find myself longing for more: more banter, more awkward or urgent or heartfelt moments. More obstacles to overcome together, more emotional drama. More romance.
Unfortunately, the state of romance in games is pretty dreadful. The closest you get as a standalone genre are dating sims, some of which are more like sex sims. (The latter are almost invariably designed only for male players.) But whether you're talking about the mild Princess Debut or the explicit Ganguro Girl, both types of game follow a similar pattern: the player makes choices about how to spend time and money in order to develop a romantic or sexual relationship.
If there is any element of effort to these games, it is in solving the puzzle of what words or objects might be necessary to begin (or consummate) a relationship with the would-be object of your virtual affection. Mechanical elements of the game typically require minimal skill or knowledge. They're meant to be wish-fulfilment and not challenges.
On the surface, these love sims look like they're adequate at modeling how relationships are formed. You meet, you try your best to make a good impression, find out how to please your would-be love, finally bust a move, happiness. There's just one thing missing. But it's a pretty big thing: feelings.
Games and the Emotional Journey
As an art form, video games have the corner on an incredible and under-rated market. In the discussion about are-video-games-art (and peace be with you, Mr. Ebert), we talk about whether games can make you cry as if that were some unassailable and objective benchmark for quality. But that's selling short games and what they're best at. Games can do something books and film can't: evoke emotions of agency. These are feelings you only feel when you've had a hand in causing a situation.
Books, movies, plays, TV shows can make you laugh and cry. (Well, the good ones can.) But a game can -- and probably has -- made you feel frustrated or proud. Games can also make you feel guilty (Shadow of the Colossus.) Or betrayed (Dragon Age 2.) That's because you're the one calling the shots. You're the star, the protagonist, the hero. When there is a difficult decision to make about how to treat Little Sisters or which squad member to send to death or which suspect to finger for the crime... the one making it is you, and the one who has to live with the consequences? Also you.
When well-written -- and without a doubt Bioware sports some of the best writers in the business right now -- that also means that interactions with a character feel like an actual relationship is forming between the character and you, the player. You become teammates. Allies. Friends. And maybe... maybe more.
Romance Novels Aren't As Good
Don't get me wrong. I loves me a good trashy romance novel. Even a mediocre one, if I'm honest. My Kindle is full of 'em. There's something primal about the story of one human being making a connection with another, falling in love, making it work despite the odds. That story speaks to a desire in all of us to not be alone, the hope that no obstacle is insurmountable.
But video game romance is way, way better.
In a game, one projects the self into the avatar being controlled. You're more likely to say "I died," or "Hey, watch me get that guy. BAM!" than to say "Lara died," or "Hey awesome, Chelle knocked down that turret." For the duration of the game, you're not playing the game so much as living it.
And by extension, when a character tells you not to die because they love you and can't live without you... the one they're speaking to, the one feeling that poignant brew of resolve and regret, is you. Novels? Hah. No romance novel in the world has ever -- could ever -- make me feel like I'm the one embroiled in the love story.
But... that's not so different from a dating sim, right...? Is is just a matter of better writing and clever relationship-status algorithms? No, no, a thousand times no. The reason the Bioware romances work so well is a function of excellent writing, to be sure, but also the fact that the games aren't fundamentally about the romances at all.
The straightforward arc of a successful romance is somewhat dull and small. That's why every romance novel printed has some other plot going -- stories of espionage, engagements to the wrong person, opponents in the courtroom, enemies by circumstance or culture or tradition. Conflict is the engine of drama, and a dating sim doesn't generally have much conflict beyond "how do I make this person like me?"
But because Bioware's romances are just the B-plot, the emotional dynamic winds up feeling deeper and truer than any shallow dating sim can. You're not just hanging out with the object of your affection on dates or at parties. You're risking your lives together in fighting for a common purpose. You're sharing horrors and triumphs. You're bonding through shared experience, the way human beings are wont to do.
Thus the quality of romantic drama on offer by Bioware winds up feeling richer, more complex, and truer than games that are supposed to be about love through and through. The relationships have more complexity and texture to them because the characters are all bigger than the love story. They have a place in the world that doesn't revolve around how much you want to date them.
It feels more genuine, more really real. It feels more sweeping and epic. Dating sims simply don't create the kind of romantic drama that makes you feel all of those powerful feelings.
Bringing It Home
There is, alas, a stigma to simulated relationships, both in making them and in desiring them. No doubt some readers are speculating by now that I am a sad, lonesome spinster, probably homely and without prospect, whose only chance at true love lies in pretending. Hah, no, don't shed any tears for me, I'm OK over here.
It's true that I feel a little uncomfortable playing through romantic story beats with my husband in earshot. But regardless of embarrassment, I'd venture that a good romance subplot in a game has a halo effect that benefits him and our own very real and meaningful relationship.
Let's back up. I, at least, consume stories because of the emotional journeys that they allow me to have. I like to feel things, you know? Odds are I'm never going to save the world. I'm not likely to be initiated into an elite society of dragon-hunters, either, or be run through potentially fatal "experiments" by a crazed AI. But in a game I can pretend. I can feel all of those amazing things, those fears and hopes and so much more. I live those lives, and when the game is over, I put the memories safely away and happily carry on with the real business of living. (And I measure the success of a game's narrative based on how well it evoked those feelings... or any feelings, really.)
Romance is the same. I certainly hope I never fall in love again, because I couldn't be more delighted with my life and my marriage. But oh, those feelings when you first fall in love! The excitement, the uncertainty! It's nice to feel that again, for a little while, just to pretend. And later -- the dark moments when you have to make a difficult choice that decides the fate of your digital beloved. I'm just as happy for that to always be pretend, but the act of going on that emotional journey opens me to be more compassionate to the real experiences of others.
Yeah, it's dorky to have a crush on a video game character. But it's also a safe way to experience a dynamic range of emotions that are either unavailable or just a really, really bad idea in real life. This is something video games are uniquely suited to do among all media. Here is where we will earn our merit badge declaring that Games. Are. Art.
When a game is over, the drama ended, I return to my real life and relationship, and I am grateful for all of the feelings the game has let me experience -- and doubly grateful for all the ones I don't have to feel for real, because drama is fun for pretending, but it's a terrible way to live. And back in the real world, with my real and wonderful and safely drama-free husband, I fall in love just a little bit more.