Other Princesses, Other Castles

The Problem with Playing Romantically in Video Games

by G. Christopher Williams

24 October 2011

Princess Peach kisses Mario (Super Mario 64, Nintendo, 1996) 

The Simple Mechanics of Expressing Love

Seeing romance as a game is, of course, by no means mystifying. The metaphor has been applied to romantic stories before. Indeed, the aforementioned novel by Jane Austen has often been understood as a complex game, a system as it were, containing rules that lead to complications, co-operations, and even competition among the varying characters concerned with the central romance. However, the slightly more developed version of the game represented by the Prince of Persia is one that is better integrated with that system’s roles and still maintains its commitment to the conceit that: boy saves girl. In this sense, maybe it is unsurprising that games and their stories are often seen as “boycentric”. They tend to presume a singular perspective on romance, and they just keep retelling this version of the story from this same perspective over and over again.

Games that seem to have been embraced by a wider demographic than a single gender that also include romance, though, do certainly exist. The Mass Effect trilogy is not centrally a romance, which might be in part why it seems capable of defying standard patterns of simply heading in the direction of the next castle as the resolution to romance. It’s also a way of avoiding the idea that the “capture” of the girl is necessarily the end of a story about romance, nor do such “captures” need to grind the plot to a halt (a la Moonlighting).

Romance remains a game here, as choosing appropriately attractive dialogue choices for the characters that Shepherd wants to connect with is necessary to create a relationship. Also, the fact that there are both male and female versions of Shepherd that can create relationships with the opposite sex also broadens the ability for players of different genders to relate to Shepherd. However, by shunting romance off as a subplot, a side quest, and essentially into a mini-game, it also does create some problems for seeing a great love affair enacted over the course of the series.

Since male Shepherd romances different female characters from game to game, and female Shepherd romances different male characters each game, both versions of the character come off as a bit disconnected from any long term affection. Romance is a circumstantial thing contingent on who Shepherd happens to be adventuring with in any given game. The mission is the goal, obviously, so any relationships that emerge along the way are conveniences. They literally are “side quests”. While the game attempts to acknowledge the fact that the Shepherds aren’t exactly the marrying kind but still care about their “side quest romantic entanglements” (such as the encounter with Ashley from the first game by a male Shepherd in the second game), even at that, the discussion is merely curt and brief. Oh, and interrupted by the further complications of the invasion plot that serves as the “real story” of Mass Effect.

In this sense, Mass Effect (and possibly even moreso Dragon Age II) seems to resemble the Japanese genre of okume, dating simulation games whose intended demographic is teenage girls (though in truth the demographic extends into a much older cohort of women) wrapped in a larger space-opera-style plot. Okume frequently offers a female protagonist the opportunity to date “complicated men”, generating the gaming equivalent of a Harlequin romance novel (one wonders if a Twilight-themed okume would be a slam dunk for an American publisher, as the market appears to be there for it). 

While “breathier”, perhaps (especially in the Dragon Age series), and maybe less “boycentric” than their predecessors, it isn’t clear that Bioware has necessarily matured the concept of romance, trapped as it is within gaming systems, but even moreso trapped within traditional genre tropes of the mass market women’s romance novel. While I feel like the Prince of Persia‘s more clear integration of the relational aspects of romance (rather than merely consummation as the exclusive interest of romance) and while some slightly better tales have been spun in some Japanese games (the more charming and better fleshed out teen romances of the Persona series, perhaps, which are terribly fussy and less than mature, feeling appropriately teenage and, thus, more authentic), one might hope that more mature storytelling could be grafted onto more mature systems than have been used in the past.

It’s hard to see how bopping turtles on the head or even choosing one of three dialogue options sufficiently portrays the larger social game that makes up a well told love story. The concept of co-operative action between two lovers might express something meaningful in an interactive space, such as in Prince of Persia (or as I have also observed is interestingly handled in Max Payne 2—see an earlier article of mine “Imitating Intimacy in Video Games” for more on Max and Mona) or maybe there is even something that could be built on in the exchange system that develops friendships in the Dead or Alive beach series (and no, I’m not suggesting that the content of those games is mature, but the system, which suggests that getting to know what is liked and disliked by others relates to getting to know them even better, might serve as some kind of base to build a social system on, something more complex than Dragon Age‘s gifting system). 

Simple mechanics might be a means of building a way of expressing love within the system, rather than merely seeking love as an outcome. Ico quietly understood this, why not more games?

In any case, it just really feels like there might be some other story that could be told rather than what seems to so frequently happen: just pressing continue again in order to look for other princesses in yet other castles. It might be better to make love not just a goal, but something to do, as well.

Elika reaches for the Prince (Prince of Persia, Ubisoft, 2008)

Elika reaches for the Prince (Prince of Persia, Ubisoft, 2008)

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