This is a post that has been brewing about in my head for some time, and thanks to Michael Abbott’s Narrative Manifesto and Chris’s Narratives and Interactivity Misunderstood coupled with various discussions I’ve had with friends in the past week, I believe I am willing to try and further vivisect this topic.
On Wednesday I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (I might note that the film plays with the title, rather than endorsing it). It led me to question whether any romantic relationships or, as Chris puts it, engagements available in videogames to date actually convinced me. Jein (German for yes and no), but only to a certain degree.
Final Fantasy VI still holds a mystical awe over my gameplaying youth. The complicated relationships that developed among the cast of characters actually had me believing there was something at stake and that decisions were being made (though the last time I played it I was in the fourth grade, so my nostalgia may be influencing this recollection). The relationships seemed fluid the first time around, and it was as if I actually were reading a story and watching this authorial pull on my sensibilities.
In the end, the game’s romantic relationships were a sidenote that were never fully developed due to other, more pressing concerns for each of the characters (and the sheer amount of characters probably diluted some of the connection, as emotional investment for each and every one became cumbersome and taxing). Games have offered a relationship mechanic in games since, but I stress the word mechanics. Or, if we are discussing a narrative game, the romantic development exists as a minigame or series of quests that seems wholly disingenuous because it becomes a reward of some sort (much as Pliskin observes) instead of actually working on engaging me in the story. As a player, I am asked to fill in the gaps.
The most poignant example for myself relates to this blog’s title. A rather large fan of the Quest for Glory series, I recall salivating over the little details I garnered from my dial-up internet connection concerning the release of the fifth game. Quest for Glory V gave the hero the option of marrying one of four females that had been present in the storyline of past games (most of whom only appeared in one prior game). These options came down to which would make most sense for my character, but the problem existed that the emotional attachment to these four women was not really developed very well and it really became a choice of aesthetics (and whether I wished to learn the Dragonfire or First Aid spell by choosing to rescue Katrina or Erana from Hades).
To return to Chris’s point, while I enjoy the emergent gameplay style that has developed, I often feel this leaves gaps where designers are afraid to offer too much structure into the game’s narrative. In a recent discussion with my mother (with whom I plan on eventually conducting an interview for this blog), she lamented the loss of Sierra’s adventure games. A woman who reads almost a book a day, she enjoyed the stories, which engaged her in a faux choose your own adventure gameplay. We have finally moved into a territory where we are offered more and more options, but it has yet to fully and successfully make me care about both the narrative and the options offered me. There is a disconnect between the two functions.
While my friend Cap’n Perkins became fully immersed in Oblivion, it does seem that the story did not really offer him much. Of our many discussions concerning the game, the plot has never really come up as something we want to discuss. Both having been English majors, this points out something about the script’s engagement of our attentions. It simply isn’t that novel or important as the rest of the game.
However, while I may not be able to believe the romantic relationships presented to me in Quest for Glory V or Baldur’s Gate II, there are relationships about which I do care: Pey’j and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil are a prime example. There are many engagements in which I do believe, but these are usually of a familial or platonic relevance. The complications of romance have yet to be, in my opinion, successfully written into games as yet.
The major problem I saw with this particular issue was the fact that a relationship in a game is either thrown in and expected to work because it was written in and assumes we believe the relationship exists or used as a gameplay gimmick. Give the NPC of desire certain items, perform quests, or compete in a trial of minigames. There usually isn’t some manner of both give and take until the NPC has been wooed and expressed a sudden love. The last time I checked, genuine relationships really don’t work that well in this model. If a prior relationship exists, we again fall into the assumption category, and very little comes forth to make us ever question this premise–meaning it becomes something in which I do not engage.
Since this is still a developing medium, I do feel it will eventually become something we will see. The balancing act becomes keeping the unique interaction that games offer while giving the players another form of interaction on a deeper emotional level (which seems a tricky problem overall–this is just one example I have noticed). There is also the possibility that I have missed some grand game, but this still speaks to the overall medium lacking this element.
N.B. While at first I thought perhaps this disconnect might exist because I am a queer male who was inspired to write this by a queer film, I quickly dismissed this idea in remembering how I have engaged in other art forms which have depicted heterosexual relationships.