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Hope: The thin red string

Let's look at the ol' calendar and see what we have. Oh look, Valentine's Day is Saturday. Great. So we might as well talk about some great video game romances. But wait. There are very few actually good romances in gaming and I burned one of the...

Let’s look at the ol’ calendar and see what we have. Oh look, Valentine’s Day is Saturday. Great.
So we might as well talk about some great video game romances. But wait. There are very few actually good romances in gaming and I burned one of them just a week ago.
For every Anju and Kafei who melt your heart, there are an awful lot of Tidused and Yunas who you want to take a baseball bat to. But why is this? Aside from the obvious reason of “romances are really hard to write,” there are some inherent limitations in the medium.
One of the biggest problems that gaming romances face is that pacing becomes really difficult. Quite often, characters are thrown together at breakneck speed because the story isn’t going to allow breaks for such development very often. Those opportunities are often used to shoehorn in terrible romantic subplots.
Sometimes they’re as forced as throwing the protagonist at the only female character in the game. For example, this is pretty much what happens in “Star Fox Adventures” as Krystal is female and a fox and thus has to be an option for Fox McCloud, right? Right?! The end result is that instead of letting a plot development happen naturally, it’s mechanically checking off boxes in a romance flow chart.
The converse of this situation occurs in a lot of role-playing games, especially the Japanese variety. If there’s going to be a romance, it will likely involve two of your party members. Now, this means that the relationship development can be a slow burn, but it also results in overexposure because the couple is on screen pretty much all the time. And you will get sick of them. A perfect example of this is “Final Fantasy VIII.”
This is a game all about love. And because Squall is a weird cross among oblivious, unable to process how he feels about Rinoa (she doesn’t do him any favors pushing things along, either), and just a jerk, it’s near the end of the game before we get the big “Eyes on Me” scene when they’re up in space. There are numerous problems with this.
First, “Eyes on Me” is not a very good song and the lyrics make no sense. Second, by the time it happens, you are so over Squall and Rinoa that you’re going to be mashing on the “X” button to skip through the text. Third, it occurs 50 hours into the game. FIFTY HOURS! That crosses the line between slow and glacial pacing. No fictional couple is worth that kind of investment.
Some games try to avert forcing characters together by giving you a lot of options and letting you develop the relationship at your own pace.
Bioware and the “Persona” series are well-known for this. However, this raises problems of its own. Because of the diverse nature of your harem-or reverse harem, the protagonist needs to be adaptable, and thus kind of strips the love story of believability. The characters aren’t written for each other. Rather, one is written for a set of characteristics. It’s hard to believe that Rise and Yukiko would go for the same type of guy or Cullen and Josephine have similar tastes in women. This route is great for developing individual characters, but adds very little to the romance angle.
The general inability of video games on the whole to capture a love story is equally frustrating and fascinating. On the one hand, a well-done romance can add a lot to a narrative, but on the other, there’s something mystifying about games’ failure to capture a good story over and over again. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the real thing. Whoa, that’s deep.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. He’s still waiting for someone to come up with Jane Austen RPG. Check out his blog at bonusstage.areavoices.com and watch his Welcome to Bonus Stage videos at thedickinsonpress.com.

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