Making games involves a lot of consideration about how players feel, as they engage with your game. When a player is playing a game like Doom, there’s a desire for some tension, but also for a feeling of excitement; you want to push players to feel like they can achieve things, and for their fear to be at odds with their sense of invulnerability. If a player thinks they’re able to defeat things, they’ll approach the frustration of the game with a proactive attitude, but if they’re afraid of dying, they’ll also be making threat assessment very quickly. Turn based Doom is a whole thing (DoomRL), but that timing and resource management becomes very different, and that game maintains its tension in the unreliability of turn-based math combat.
Anyway, while we’re talking about smooches in smooch month, and the smoochiest of games, Doom, let’s talk about how in smoochy games you want to maintain that tension to give people feelings.
Look, there’s a vein of itch-calibre indie games and RPGs that are about relationships. They’re often about relationships that suck, or have an awful moment in them, or are about a single moment in a whole work, and they’re often very artisinally crafted. They can’t maintain or sustain their idea for very long, because, well, it’s about deep exploration of a moment, or a conversation. And a lot of them are, no lies, a total fucking bummer.
I try not to dwell on these games in Smooch month, because they are, again, a bummer, but they’re not bad. They’re not less worthy of attention (and I made a point of covering one this month, because the whole point of Smooch Month is to get me out of my comfort zone), they’re just harder to talk about, harder to enjoy, and I am trying to focus on things I enjoy and why I enjoy them.
Still, they do ask a question: What do you want players to feel?
It’s an important question for all game design. I know when I’m looking at smoochy games to review, I’m often looking at action games or strategy games rather than the typical visual novel stuff. Those games tend to be about giving me something to engage with alongside the smooch elements, rather than make dwelling on that emotionality (a thing that tends to make me feel awful).
Sometimes these games make loading or reloading difficult – there’s a sort of anxiety about going back and recovering your position, because it’s made up of so many discrete, slowly achieved steps. Sometimes they don’t even allow that – the whole point of the game is it’s not readily recoverable and you need to just restart the whole thing. And some of them, like the TTRPGs, don’t even have the chance to do that – they’re just instantly resolved the way they are, and there’s no real way to go back and approach the game with the same pieces in the same arrangement. There’s a tension there built out of the inconvenience, or the impossibility of reset.
There’s also games that push the anxiety of the relationship itself to the highest level; this is about a painful experience, and you can fail invisibly several steps before you ever find out, like you’re defusing a bomb but what explodes is, like, your queer crush as a teenager.
I think the thing I tend to look for, the most, in smooch month, though, is games where the primary feeling of the relationship is comfort. Where the relationship is not tortured or difficult, not because relationships shouldn’t feature those things, or because games can’t feature those things, but because I live in a space where I see a lot of people going through hard relationships and all sorts of trauma unpacking to start with. It’s because when I look for relationships in games, often I’m looking for queer ones, because het ones tend to be boring and bring a lot of baggage, but also, because queer characters in relationships deserve to be heroes too… and I’m just sick of playing out Queer Tragedy.
The feeling, I think, I want people to get out of smooch media I make, is the primary feeling of comfort and indulgence. It doesn’t have to be easy, it doesn’t have to be convenient, but I do want to write relationships and make games about relationships, where the relationships themselves are things that give you enjoyment to play with, rather than being things to endure, or valuable lessons to be learned.