Choose Your Own Lover

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.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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9 Responses to Choose Your Own Lover

  1. Chris Lepine says:

    Denis, I found myself nodding in accord throughout the article. In my experience the quality of romantic relationships in the FF series is unimpressive in general. FF VII, while having a thoroughly compelling story, never quite matures the romances between the characters and leaves me feeling stale in many places. Romance, many times, seems to involve a cat-and-mouse game .. like, ‘Jeez Archie, do you wanna date Veronica or Betty?’I haven’t played QFG V yet, but I did play all the previous games in the series many, many, many times. It’s a shame to know that the romances are little more than a character stat choice!Even Planescape: Torment, a game that I usually revere in terms of its writing quality, *really* poorly develops its romantic Betty/Veronica choice. In the end, you say, ‘Should I keep Fall-from-Grace for the final battle, or Annah? Who’s going to help me finish off the end boss?’ I’m typically not that kind of player, but I never developed enough of an attachment to the romantic relationship for it to matter much in the end.Principally though, I can’t see why we can’t have thorough and compelling romances in games. As I write this, I’m trying to think of a romance in a game that kept me affixed. I can’t think of one right now.. that’s not a good sign!And re: Sierra.. I have to nerdily admit that I still find the games thoroughly engrossing. Their close connection with fairy tales, and oddball sense of humor, always seem to pull me in.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    Chris, I found much the same problem with FF VII. While I grew somewhat despondent when Aeris died, it was more because I had made her my healer and was rather annoyed that such was taken from me.The moment I could date Barrett as a joke in the Golden Saucer, I really didn’t see any of the relationships being worth merit. Even my favorite character, Vincent, uses such a stock romance plotline that he becomes more a parody (perhaps why I enjoy him so much).QFGV was fun. I attached my own emotional investment to the characters, and it was pure fan service. As an actual engaging plot point, it falls short, though.I was just discussing this with another gamer, and when we also brought up Planescape, and various others. The fact that we are pecking and hunting for these examples, as you said, is not a good sign.Oh, I still love the Sierra games. As soon as AGD Interactive releases the fan remake of QFG II, I will probably be writing about it and posting about why that series remains so fondly in my memory.

  3. 3 blogs, cross-conversation, lots of analysis…now this is my idea of games-blogging nirvana.I won’t repeat myself here, but I posted a comment on Chris’s site that suggests a both/and rather than an either/or possibility when it comes to incorporating some of the new ideas about game narrative.What I love about your response here is that you come at it from personal experience with gameplay examples drawn from hands-on play. Sometimes (and I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard) we get a bit too theoretical and forget to connect back to playing the game and describing the impact of that immediate experience. So, thanks for this.

  4. Denis Farr says:

    I do find your example of Brecht rather useful in terms of thinking of the evolution to this type of gaming, though I left my specific response to your thoughts on Chris’s blog as well.Often times I vacillate on whether I wish to stay more theoretical or personal. The former has its benefits in that it does not necessarily require more information with which to engage in the arguments, but I feel the latter at least gives people a grasping point if they don’t fully understand from where I am coming.Perhaps I’ll be mixing and matching that style as the posts continue.

  5. Michal says:

    Nice work on this post. Though I have been rather out of touch with the discussions on Chris’ blog for some time, I too find myself intrigued by these subjects when it comes to gaming.I was going to mention FFVII as well, but only because of Aeris’ fate as being a bit of a major cord on the heart-strings. Other than that I must agree in finding the games’ romantic subtexts as underdeveloped, though still somewhat appealing.Romance in FFVIII was interesting, though kind of ridiculous at times. Squall was just too much of a cold fish throughout, though I must say that the spaceship scene with “Eyes On Me” playing in the background had some effect on me. Maybe it’s just because you had to wait so long for anything to happen though, that when it finally does you think it’s the best thing ever? Admittedly, that’s not entirely unrealistic…One game I hadn’t seen mentioned here is Indigo Prophecy. This game grabbed my attention from the get-go. It’s one of the games where my engagement to the characters and their plight was very strong, and romantically, the relationship between Lucas and Tiffany felt very real and vibrant. As to what happens towards the end of the game… well that’s a different story altogether.Another relationship worth mentioning perhaps is that of Wing Commander’s Christopher Blair and Jeannette Devereaux. Developed over several iterations of the franchise, this is a relationship which does not come without its emotional attachments from the player. If you play all of the games, you get to see this romance begin, stagger, and flourish. Only to be squashed quite tragically.Lastly, one “game” which presents a very interesting side to all this is Facade. I would say that it does a fairly good job of engaging you in caring for the two characters, especially since it depends so heavily on your interaction. But before I get too far into that, what do you guys think that Facade present us with in terms of the interaction/engagement discussion? Your ideas are very welcome.-Michal

  6. Denis Farr says:

    These may well be games that establish this theme, but alas I missed them, Michal. I will most certainly look into Indigo Prophecy and Facade, however (have to fill that lull until Spore and Fallout 3).As to Aeris (and as stands with Quest for Glory), I found I cared for her, but didn’t necessarily believe my agent did. Cloud was an emotionally stunted silent protagonist who more often than not annoyed me than inspired sympathy. Sympathy existed for the other characters (beyond just having to put up with his presence).Much the same with Quest for Glory V. It was a reward and made me happy to finally revive either Erana or Katrina, or see my hero married off to Elsa von Spielburg. However, I didn’t see the buildup to that point as believable.

  7. Michal says:

    Denis,Thank you for the reply. I’m sorry I actually missed this, and forgot to opt-in for a notification.Facade is easy enough to get and a short game. And the best part is that it’s free… just realized how ironic that url is in lieu of our current discussions. As far as Indigo Prophecy is concerned, it’s about $6 on Amazon. So that’s easy enough to get as well.Which brings me to my recent excursion. I just finished a post last night where I try to delve into some of the issues concerning narrative that have been tossing around between these blogs. What began to be important to me is that uneasy relationship between interaction and narrative, some of which Chris hinted at, and I used Indigo as one of my examples to help me along.If you’re interested, you can find it < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>, and your input is obviously welcome. Though I must say that I probably am not as eloquent as you might be accustomed to, what with your English major and all ^_^.-Michal

  8. Denis Farr says:

    Michal, my English major is primarily used for explicating texts. Unless people are writing glorious prose or typing as if they were texting (u r so gr8!), I have no expectations.Thank you for the tips on those games. The fact that they are so simple to acquire makes the incentive to play them all that much more enticing. Will be reading your post shortly.

  9. Michal says:

    You’re welcome. I hope you enjoy them. Facade in particular might present some interesting points of discussion when it comes to narrative.

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