Know what’s really hard to represent in game mechanics?
It’s not to say it’s impossible. There are a host of games that strive to represent romance through some form of game mechanical framework. Indeed, there’s a whole genre of games infamous for having iterated on this question non-stop for forty years (or more – I’m not sure where we can say the first dating visual novels appear, but I’m definitely not confident in ‘about the eighties’ as a start point).
There are even games that explicitly try to model the complexities of relationships. Sometimes they do this in extremely abstracted ways – I’ve written about the way that the Matsuri level of Oendan strives to make a ‘romance’ story that’s about two romantically involved individuals having success or failure based on the mechanics of a rhythm game, after all. There’s also Fog Of Love, a remarkable board game for two that uses the asymmetric wants of a relationship as its fiction.
Fog of Love is really interesting, because it’s a game with potentially competing goals and a roleplay element that informs it but the fundamental mechanism for how it works is how the two competing players regard the way the other player is behaving. It creates a game about, well, communication. Some players will be mechanistically focused, trying to care about the priorities in front of them, and some will create the narrative as they play, and react to the other player’s choices directly. You don’t know, until you’re playing.
That’s a game that is literally just about a relationship, and it’s also a game that’s about maybe being interested in having the relationship. That’s not how games typically handle relationships.
In the past, I’ve talked about how visual novels create stories that are a bit like a maze. Some of them use flags to change it, but a lot of visual novels can really be just seen as mazes, where you take a series of binary choices (left or right turns), and those turns take you to new locations.
There’s more to it, of course – after all, you can treat every game as a series of forking choices and whatnot. Or you can treat them as stat accumulations – that’s how the Mass Effect games do it (and we’ll talk more about that later). In those games, you have to increase a stat (time spent with a character), then you have to take some opportunities with a character (choosing them on some missions), then you have to ensure they get the responses they want to particular prompts. It’s a set of systems, but they mostly can be relied upon to take three forms; exposure (just ensure you’re around them when you have the opportunity), trivia (answer questions appropriate to the character), and elementary maintenance (don’t let the character die).
This is a complicated system, in that it’s a mass of sprawling flags and bits and yeses and nos and memory systems all squirming against one another, but when you consider it as a simplified system, it means that all the relationships do follow a familiar kind of process. They’re also built on similar foundations: You will almost always be in a relationship with a combat capable character, you will almost always be required to learn something about their culture and backstory, and you will inevitably, because your character must be a cipher, address their wants and their trauma and their problems, rather than growing together and sharing in something of yourself.
This creates a set of relationships that are, well, puzzle content. When the atmosphere, tone and style of the game carries it, you don’t think about it, but for most people who play these games seriously enough to really think about the romance routes, you’re not going to play a romance and never see the structure – you’re probably going to play two or three of them in multiple iterations of the game. This is hypertextual.
Then there’s subtler games. Games where a romance is part of a pre-established narrative. These can be a lot more artisinal: Games where, for example, two characters or cards have an interaction that’s meant to reflect a relationship they have. Or maybe you could consider games like Fallout: New Vegas, where the relationships are largely about momentary interactions, signs and signals that hey, people do romances in this space, but yours is mostly going to be reflected in small moments.
Also, consider how many 3D-model based videogames, a medium notoriously challenged at having two characters even touch hands, struggle with an interaction that the visual novel can handle with the phrase “She hugged her.”
The medium you work with is going to have an impact. Fog of Love can play with the meaty space of miscommunication between potentially conflicting players’ brains. New Vegas can’t give you in-depth relationships without running the risk of breaking other systems. Mass Effect has to make your lover a lot like a broken watch you have to carry around and repair, and you’ll learn how to do it based on repairing watches like it. And a visual novel can express itself with text the way we do, in every day conversation, but tends to lack in ways to give you spaces to play around.