I am sure most of you would agree; you never forget your first love. I know I certainly won’t forget mine. It’s actually funny how you can remember all the little details when they mean so much to you. I remember she had silky skin and blond hair. I remember she had a magnetic personality. She was smart, curious, and always capitalized on an opportunity to learn. On top of that, she was sweetly innocence and constantly trying to make the world a better place. Seems too rosy? Perhaps, but it’s the way I remember her. We met under fairly tremulous circumstances, so romance wasn’t the first thing on our minds. However, as we spent more and more time together, the bond was undeniable. It was as if we were made for each other. As if in the infinite randomness of the universe, through nothing short of a miracle, our souls were brought together to enrich each other’s lives from now until the end of time. And then there were those hot pointy ears.
I’m referring to Aerie from the game Balduer’s Gate 2 done by the masters of character design at BioWare. While the above paragraph might be exaggerating the experience a bit (I do love pointy ears!), the impact that it had on my gaming experience was pretty big. This was the first game I ever had a “Whoa, I can choose who my character falls in love with?” moment. Before Balduer’s Gate, the only other experience similar to this was the romantic choice between Chelsee and Regan in The Pandora Directive. The main difference is that my choice, Regan, was a bit of an accident. I didn’t particularly like Regan as a character, but my Tex Murphy still ended up in bed with her (art imitating life?). Regardless, a personal romantic choice was a largely unused feature in video games up until that point.
Were it not for the love of Princess Peach and Mario, or the numerous incarnations of Zelda and Link, we wouldn’t be here today having our own love affair with video games as whole. Still, it is certainly harder to get drawn into the love story when there is nothing personally vested into it. In those games, we only saw the story from afar. Princess Peach never yelled, “Save me, Save me Kris”. That pot bellied plumber got all of the accolades. Now-a-days I’m front and center, and during my play time with BG2, that blew my mind.
Different Types of Love
While exceptions occur, the majority of the AAA titles released today that have a strong focus on story tend to offer the player some level of choice in their adventure. This also includes the main character’s romantic interest, of which there tend to be multiple options. One example would be Fable 3. While the path from Rebel to King can be played through with very little romantic involvement, the player theoretically has the opportunity to have a relationship with any non-player character in the game. The game will even go as far as tracking statistics for the player on number of sexual conquests, STDS, group sex partners , and other specifics. A more sophisticated approach has been used by BioWare in the Mass Effect series. Here they have specifically put more focus on character development and look to create personal attachments that are rooted in the characters past and experiences, similarly to what would occur in real life. The main commonality between these two approaches is that the relationship factor of character development is very much a “side story”. It is not required nor does it change the ultimate outcome of the end game. This is not the case for all games though.
There is a genre of games that specifically focus on dating as a goal. These “dating simulators” are rather popular in Asia (though growing in popularity in the western world). The main goal is simply to go on as many dates as possible by interacting with the various characters in the setting. In case you’re not familiar with this type of game, don’t let your imagination get the best of you. There is no pornography here. It’s simply set to make the characters “like” you, the hero. A more recent branch of this genre is known as “otome” and these titles are specifically focused on luring the female gamer. One example of this is a game called “Pirates in Love”, which is also available in Canada and the US.
Even MMOs find time for some love, specific on servers dedicated to role-playing. Role-playing is a choice by the person behind the computer to impersonate the character they play in the virtual world. This is mostly driven through interactions with other characters within the game (that are in turn controlled by other human players). While the theme of the role-play can range depending on the back story created by each character, an intriguing aspect is the possibility of two characters starting a relationship. For the sake of clarity, the assumption is that the relationship is fictional and exists between the characters in the game and not the people controlling those characters. This is easily the most fascinating of the three approaches we explore here as there is no developer impact on the relationships that are presented. The relationships are driven purely by the decisions and interactions of two players. The developers simply give the players the tools they need to have these interactions. It is this personal approach that really allows the players to connect with the game experience and have it resonate with them.
But, it’s still people, right...?
At the end it is you, as the player, that decide whether this form of game play is important or not. You can make the most of it, or ignore it completely. As a result, I thought that gathering some personal feedback from people out on the great interweb would be a nice addition to this article. The thought of a “Do you partake in romance options of video games?” seemed like a bit of an overdone topic. As a result, I decided to put a bit of a twist on it. I surveyed a number of people on their thoughts of a significant other playing a game with a romantic component. I also had an in person discussion with 4 of my closet friends. The questions I posed were:
• How would you feel if your significant other was playing a game where they had the option of being in a relationship with another computer controlled character?
• How would you feel if your significant other was playing a game where having a relationship with a computer controlled character was the main goal?
• How would you feel if your significant other was in a role-playing relationship with another player controlled character?
Before I discuss my findings I wanted to ensure that I clearly state that this approach has a number of flaws. I have no way of completely controlling the people that respond to the questions. I did, however, do my best to try to go to forums which would be exposed to gamers, non-gamers, male, and females. The goal was to get the biggest possible group of people to respond. In total, I received 73 answers, 55 being male and 18 being female. Unfortunately, due to a number of bans that I received upon posting in certain non-gaming forums, only 2 of the 73 participants identified themselves as non-gamers.
Certain aspects of the survey were not entirely surprising. 89% of the participants felt that their partner playing a role-playing game that included a romantic component with a computer controlled character was completely acceptable. That number dropped down to 67% percent when referring to their partner’s playing dating simulators. MMO role-playing romances resulted in only 19% unconditional approval.
Isolated, the male and female responses followed a similar pattern. As the focus on the romance components in the game grew, the amount of individuals comfortable decreased. This was slightly different when asked about role-play romances, in which 24% of the male responses were ok with the scenario, while only 9% of the female responses agreed. I remind everyone that my sample size was rather small, but it is something to consider. The last item to note is that in most cases, the participants, even if bothered by the activity, would not bring it up to their partners. The only discrepancy being the role-playing scenario, where the majority of the answers indicated a discussion would have to occur.
The in-person conversation I had helps to bring some context to the above findings. The one interesting point that had come up the most often was intent. If the intent was for the significant other to get away from real life and get lost in the virtual relationship in any of these situations, than it was considered a problem. While the wording of my questions was meant to disregard this as a concern, insisting that each of the examples was simply being done for the enjoyment of the game, intent seemed to be the first issue brought up regardless. There was an inherent concern around the sincerity of the loved one and whether they would be able to tell the difference between real life and virtual world when the experience was “rigged” to play with their emotions.
Overall, the findings seemed to indicate that we definitely live in a society where there is room for a level of this type of interactivity. The concern seems to start when the experience becomes central or “too real”.
I had to privilege to bounce some questions about this topic with Tobias Heussner. Tobias has been a writer in video games for years. I felt like his perspective would help round out some of the thoughts I tried to explore. He was able to summon up the main points quite well.
“Personally I think that romance options are a vital part of RPGs because relationships give the player (or character) something to care about,” Tobias wrote to me in a couple e-mail exchanges we had. “Normally a hero doesn't save the world because he wants to do so, he normally saves it as kind of 'accident' while saving something or someone else. If the hero is in love with another character he wants to save her, not the world, but to do so he has to save the world. For example Jim Raynor in StarCraft only wants to save Kerrigan, he wants to save his girl, but by doing so he saves the universe.”
Tobias also spoke about the future of this feature in video games saying, “I hope that it'll not only (be) a matter of choices, but also about how we present it.” He went on to cite quick time events, mini games, and side quests that would be specifically designed to grow our affection with the character of our choice. He also mentioned that the whole challenge comes from “show (or play), don’t tell”.
I tend to agree with Tobias on these points. Let’s take the most extreme, yet not completely unrealistic example, and review the Milo demo for the Xbox Kinect. Beyond all of the different jokes of inappropriateness that have gone around, think about this technology being used in a role-playing game like Mass Effect. All of a sudden, you are not just clicking the blue text to get the positive response from the character. Now you are interacting the way you want to. It’s not pre-scripted wording that you simply choose. This is you speaking with characters themselves. Sounds like it’s far away? Perhaps.
Granted, this will only further fuel the debate around what is appropriate for this type of interaction in a video game. The root of that question might even be connected to why we decide to participate in these game options in the first place. The better developers and designers become at creating a completely engrossing experience, the greater the risk. While it’s easy to say that it’s ultimately up to the individual on how to interpret what is happening on the screen, making the line more and more difficult to differentiate must have some consequence. All that being said, as a video game enthusiast, I can’t help but to be excited by such a high level of interactivity in the medium that I love. Don’t worry Princess Peace, I’m coming for you.
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