Ah, romance. Such a beautiful part of the human experience. Two people develop a special closeness that begins with accidentally brushing hands, progresses to smooshing your mouths together, and ends with spending years of your life living in the same home before both dying peacefully in your sleep from natural causes. For absolutely every single person on the planet, romance is a goal to strive for that occupies nearly all of our time. We consider our romantic relationships to be of unparalleled significance. We rejoice when love is cemented as a Facebook-official relationship and we mourn when that profile once again changes to ‘Single.’ To find that elusive one person to love forever is the greatest possible achievement on the giant X-Box we call life.
If you managed to read that entire paragraph without vomiting, you just gained skill points in Constitution.
Romance is one of the most complicated aspects of human existence. Each of us experiences it differently and some don’t experience it at all. It can end in a lifelong relationship like the ridiculous cotton-candy utopia described above, but there are so many different manifestations of romance that aren’t acknowledged by that narrative. Some relationships end, and it is healthy for them to. Others are never “officially” cemented with a ceremony or even a label at all. Some are brief but intense. While many have a mix of both physical and emotional intimacy, others have only one or the other. Yet while romance in real life is complex and fascinating, romance in video games fails to live up to that standard.
I’ve played a number of video games over the years, and plenty of them include relationships. There are some among that number which emphasize relationships as a major mechanism of the game, or the story deals with love in significant ways. What I have found, though, is that no video game has quite been able to capture what’s great about real-life romance and the myriad ways it can manifest. So today I want to talk about a few video games that fail to deliver on the promise of romance, and perhaps make some suggestions for how games can do better.
Romance is a big part of the appeal of many Harvest Moon titles. Your little farmer lives in a village full of potential spouses who can slowly be wooed through the process of daily conversation, constant gifts, and the occasional quest. Once you reach a specific level of affection, you can propose with a blue feather and marry your beloved in order to have lots of farmha- er, babies. It seems like your life together is the perfect realization of the American dream, but I have a lot of issues with the way romance works in Harvest Moon.
Have you ever been given a present by an overly-familiar acquaintance? It’s not a pleasant experience. I still have a wrapped package sitting on my desk at work from when a coworker thought it would be cool to give me a gift for helping them at the office – months ago. I know almost nothing about this person other than a name; when they handed me a present in an open forum where other coworkers were all standing around and could see me, it was honestly uncomfortable. And I only had to deal with it once! In Harvest Moon, you do this to the target of your affection every day to try to get them to fall in love with you. At best, it’s bribery; at worst, it’s stalking.
Then there’s the actual achievement of marriage itself. You finally manage to romance your partner to the appropriate level of affection and they decide they want to live in your house with you for the rest of your life. Once that happens, something changes about your partner. That person is no longer who they used to be. Instead, they are reduced to a generic “spouse-schedule” that is identical no matter who you ended up marrying. I can remember in one of the games marrying Ann, a character who is an inventor and often spends her days tinkering with machines. Once we were married, she stopped her mechanical work entirely. The same thing happened in a different playthrough when I married Eve; she quit her job as a server at the local bar to stay at home.
Now while some people do change their lifestyles after marriage, this isn’t the reality for everyone. Plenty of couples maintain their careers and hobbies after tying the knot. And in Harvest Moon, these hobbies are often the defining characteristics of the characters you are wooing – they are the qualities that draw you to that specific person. For those qualities to disappear after the wedding and replaced with a bland personality focused solely on you and your potential family is to cut out what made the relationship interesting in the first place.
When I played Fire Emblem for the first time, it was the support system that kept me coming back for more. Sure, it was cool to play out strategic fantasy battles and watch my characters level up their stats, but what increased the replay value for me was the way in which so many combinations of characters could develop their histories together by fighting side by side. Seeing the backstories of characters like Soren or Zihark or Mia through the support conversations in the game brought me back again and again so I could learn everything about the units in my army.
In the first few Fire Emblem games I played, relationships were present but they weren’t the only possible conclusion of a support relationship. Path of Radiance played at shipping but ended without any canon pairings – in Radiant Dawn, canon couples were established for most of the main cast, making it so that only specific supports would end in relationships. In Sacred Stones, certain characters had multiple options for who they could marry but not every support ended in a romantic relationship. It was Awakening which first introduced me to a Fire Emblem formula where every opposite-gender support ends in romance, a trend that was solidified into place by Fire Emblem Fates.
In case you can’t tell yet, I’m not a fan of the “everyone can marry everyone else” approach to the support conversations. I feel that this trend has cheapened the quality of those conversations as it shoehorns every support into the singular direction of romantic love. The way you get there may be different, but each and every one of these conversations leads to the same conclusion – two characters get married and have a magical warrior baby that will join your army through some kind of convoluted time-space warping mumbo jumbo. Because many of these relationships are formed solely because every character has to be able to pair up, characters who don’t have natural chemistry have dull conversations that fail to justify why in the world they want to live together by the end of it all.
My other issue with this is that every relationship caps out at the point of proposal, specifically. So once two characters decide to get hitched, you no longer get to see their relationship develop. While you are a direct participant in a video game, you are also an audience member, and part of the appeal of seeing a couple you ship get together is actually getting to see their relationship in action. Fire Emblem never gives you the satisfaction of seeing your chosen couple as a couple. Marriage is the end of the line – mechanically speaking, those characters are no longer interesting as they can no longer reach the pinnacle of relationship with anyone else. It’s the opposite problem of Harvest Moon – instead of your spouse becoming only your spouse and nothing else, once you’ve maxed out a support ranking the marriage effectively ends the relationship and the two characters are now nothing but soldiers for the rest of the game, unable to interact with one another except to fight side by side in battle.
Okay, this next game is a dating simulator. Surely to goodness this one totally nails it in the romance department, right? That’s the only thing this game is about! Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. To be fair, when I reviewed Dream Daddy I did so pretty favorably. Compared to other dating sims I’ve played, it’s quite progressive – it certainly knocks the other two titles I’ve discussed out of the park when it comes to acknowledging relationships outside of the hetero-normative model. All of the Harvest Moon titles I’ve played only include straight relationships, and the portrayals of bisexual individuals in Fire Emblem Awakening and Fates rely heavily on tropes (the stalker trope with Tharja and the “aren’t you just horny?” trope with Niles). When it comes down to it, my issues with Dream Daddy are present in plenty of other dating sims too – the genre may be dedicated to romance but that doesn’t mean it does so successfully.
One of the problems of the game didn’t jump out to me until I watched someone else play it. When I experienced the game on my own, my favorite daddy to date was Damien. Damien struck me as someone I wouldn’t like because the goth aspect of his personality seemed overplayed. However, once I spent some time with him I found his portrayal more nuanced and came to appreciate his strange hobbies. Your first two dates with Damien lean quite hard into his goth aesthetic and portray him very intentionally in a specific way. On your third date, things get changed up – it turns out that Damien is a dorky animal shelter employee who does not, in fact, live in goth world 24/7. I found the twist fun and it cemented Damien as my favorite character in the bunch – but I never thought about how this scenario might impact someone who didn’t like Damien’s transformation.
All of the dates in Dream Daddy are structured so that the first two outings with any particular daddy don’t lock you into anything. You can have what you consider to be an awkward first date with someone and choose not to progress that storyline any further. You can also date all of the dads to the second level of relationship without ending the game. It’s once you start that third date that you are locked in – whatever happens from that point onward happens, and you’ll have to see the credits roll before you can try a different partner. While Dream Daddy gives you dialogue options to explore, these choices have minimal impact on the game and ultimately you don’t get to choose how your character feels about anything that happens on the third date. So if you don’t like Damien’s new look or don’t want to hook up with Joseph while he’s still married or anything else that might happen on the third date with a particular dad, you don’t have agency to reject the event. The game hits you with new information when it’s too late to back out of a decision – something that should never happen in real relationships.
The aspect of Dream Daddy that bothers me but is ultimately a trap in every dating sim I have played is the portrayal of your character as a chameleon that simply adapts to whatever person they are trying to romance. This is a side effect of the gamification of dating – when you attach “affection points” to saying or doing the right thing, each date is little more than a search for just the right dialogue options to get you laid. It portrays you as someone who is conveniently interested in everything that your partner is – and in my experience, that’s true of very few relationships, if any at all. My wife and I have common interests but we have different ones too, and our conversations about the experiences we don’t share are some of the most interesting that we have.
Is there any hope at all for gaming relationships? I think there is, despite the fact that some of these issues are married to the very mechanisms of their games (pun intended). Perhaps the best first step is to simply portray more types of relationships in video games. Romance expresses itself in more ways than just one man and one woman making a commitment to live together for the rest of their lives and have babies together. Switching up the genders, switching up the desire for marriage or kids – these are simple changes that can breathe new life into the stories of romance in games, and quite a few titles are already moving in this direction.
The next step then is to realize how mechanics influence the portrayal of romance in the game. Rather than having a spouse in Harvest Moon contribute to the farm in the same boring way no matter who they are, maybe you could receive a different bonus depending on who you settle down with, continuing to portray their unique hobbies while also changing up the game based on your relationship decisions. Perhaps in Fire Emblem, some characters could start off married already so that their support conversations show how their relationship continues to develop. Or a support conversation could lead to a break up for characters already in a couple, showing how bringing an end to a damaging relationship is a healthy thing to do and can bring the two people closer together – just in a different way than they intended starting out.
Romance is a complicated, organic experience. I think that’s a big part of why it is difficult to replicate in a structured, mechanical experience like a video game. I don’t think games will ever be able to fully mimic a true romantic relationship, but perhaps a time will come when a game surprises me. For now, I’ll settle for grumbling every time I pick up a controller and find the romance a little less magical than I’d hoped for.
If you enjoyed today’s post, I’ve got some good news – the fun is only half over! You see, this is part of a collaboration with my friend Chris over at Overthinker Y. Charming and Open is an ongoing series where I ask another blogger a question and they ask me a question in return. We each post our answers for the other, giving our readers a two-part treat to enjoy. While Chris asked me about something that I never feel a game has gotten quite right, I asked him what he would do to save a terrible sequel – I highly recommend you go check out his article and see his answer to my question! Chris has an introspective yet humorous style, down-to-earth but intellectually engaging, too – it’s a blast to read his work, so if you’re not following him already I recommend you remedy that while you’re visiting his blog. If you’re interested in checking out other entries in the Charming and Open series, the sidebar to the right has a link that’ll take you right to all the posts submitted so far. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy both parts of today’s collaboration!