Other Princesses, Other Castles: The Problem with Playing Romantically in Video Games
The insensibly repetitious nature of romance present in both video game plots and in their mechanics leads to all too familiar storytelling.
One might argue that romance is one of the first attempted narratives to be applied to video games. Certainly, simulations of ping pong and the need to eradicate invading aliens precede some of the games that I am about to describe, but in general, the idea of introducing plot (and not mere premise) to gaming happened in the arcade, often not on the earliest of game machines.
Sure, I'm splitting hairs here between the idea of plot and premise, but 1981's Ms. Pac-Man differs from the original game in at least one way by simply trying to squeeze something like plot vignettes between its gameplay segments -- perhaps, as a motivating factor to continue playing through the game's mazes, or, perhaps, in an effort to give an appearance of progression within an otherwise repetitive gameplay style. These vignettes concerned the relationship between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. The first of these “They Meet” involved Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man literally bumping into one another while being chased by ghosts. However, this encounter has no clear relationship to the premise of Ms. Pac-Man as a game -- that Ms. Pac-Man spends her days chomping her way through a maze full of dots while fleeing and then sometimes devouring her ghostly opposition.
The majority of game “plots” that concern romance are very much based on rather traditional assumptions about heterosexual relationships -- that a major motivation for the male is to pursue the female. This is the “plot” of Donkey Kong, a plot that serves as motivation for the main character (identified now as Mario, but referred to then as Jumpman), whose girlfriend Pauline has been abducted by a rather large gorilla.
This urtext of video games finds its pattern grounded in rather classic stories that demonstrate these same traditional assumptions about male-female relations. After all, the entire motivation for the war at Troy is to go get the girl back or the motivation for returning from Troy is to return to the girl in a somewhat (*ahem*) timely fashion.
Of course, the problem that exists with seeing Donkey Kong as having a full-on plot is the futility of this goal when seen in the context of the repetitive quality of the game. While Mario is able (given a skilled player) to save Pauline, since the game has no planned conclusion, completing the four unique levels of Donkey Kong just leads to a recycling of the abduction-salvation of Pauline over and over and over again. (A cyclical futility that Suda51's Shadows of the Damned rather artfully deconstructs, see my essay on the conclusion of Shadows of the Damned, “I would kill the world before it did you harm", for more on this idea.).
In such an instance, the insensibly repetitious nature of this romance in this video game plot might seem somewhat sensible. After all, one of the downfalls of the serial romantic-comedy (I'm thinking of television shows like Moonlighting here) is that once the guy and the girl get together, what else is there to do with the plot? Again, underlying this masculine version of romance is the idea that the goal and the resolution of romance lies in getting the girl. There is no adventure to be had following this solution of the problem.
This is, perhaps, why there is a need for an “extended romantic” tale, like the one told in Super Mario Bros. (1985), to unnecessarily (from a plot perspective, not in terms of an extended game, though) add the red herring of Toad retainers cropping up at the close of the cycle of four-part worlds after Mario defeats Bowser in Bowser's castle. The announcement that “Our princess is in another castle” justifies a continuation of the quest and of the game for the player. However, its end is the same: get the girl, like any reasonable man should.
Romance is, thus, minimized to bare components as a game. It's something to be solved in a rather brute force kind of way, and then, of course, one can stop concerning one's self with it. Romance has been “solved”. One might make the claim that such issues exist in other forms of storytelling as well, though. After all, isn't the conclusion of Pride & Prejudice, the final “capture” of Elizabeth by Mr. Darcy? And doesn't Luke get Leia by the end of Star Wars (okay, admittedly that one gets way more complicated in the sequels)?
Really, the difference that exists in other forms of storytelling concern the presentation, perhaps, of relationships themselves. Sure, Darcy gets Elizabeth, but the relationship is complicated throughout the tale. Affections and loyalties shift, other relationships intrude. In general, we get to see both characters and who they are before the conclusion of the tale. Indeed, there are false starts in the story, but these aren't “other castle” moments in which the romance is derailed by the characters merely never encountering one another at all.
While many have criticized the portrayal of the relationship between the Prince and Elika in the 2008 reboot of the Prince of Persia series, one of the great strengths of that story as a romance is the fact that Elika is present as a partner to the Prince throughout that game. The Prince and Elika's relationship is basically integrated with the gameplay, making Elika an essential component of what the Prince is capable of doing in the game. She's an additional weapon in fights and serves as the means of continuation on the occasion of one of the Prince's many “deaths”. If he's going to fall, Elika is the hand that “gives him another life” or another try at the game.
Interestingly, “saving the princess” still remains the central goal of the game, as is revealed in the game's twist ending. Nevertheless, unlike other princess-saving-stories, the Prince of Persia allows for at least a slightly meatier story of a relationship, since the player has been allowed to listen to the characters interact throughout a playthrough and (better still, in my mind) to see how they operate together as a unit through the gameplay itself.