Other Princesses, Other Castles: The Problem with Playing Romantically in Video Games

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.

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)