Romantic relationship in video games hardly works in the video game way. Romantic relationship in video game never works in the video game way. Do not misunderstand, I have seen extremely strong, emotional moment in videogames with love and twisted romantic stories just as good as Gone with the Wind, but almost none of them have been achieved without cinematics, dialogues or pre-determined sequences. As an eclectic art form, those moments definitely take the strength of other visual art forms to enhance the experience. On the other hand, though, video game as an interactive media is simply not good enough for portraying romance.
Or, is it? Building a love relationship is all about interaction, which also defines video game as an art, right? Well, both yes and no. A good video game is like a good partner: it gives you feedback for each interaction you attempt; it keeps rewarding you while not making the relationship too cheesy and offers you challenge constantly. By beating the challenge, it rewards you more as you become more intimate with it, and the expectation-challenge chart forms what have been known as interest curves. On the other hand, when comparing interactions themselves, the difference between romantic relationship and video game is just night and day. You have around 16 buttons on a regular gamepad, 107 keys at most on a regular keyboard plus two axis planar tracking by mice, and that is as good as you can get for a video game. For romantic relationship? EVERYTHING. Physical contact, eye-lines matching, verbal communication… With all those complicated interactions, how could video game even remotely match them one-by-one? Not to mention that video games are, as for now, scripted programs. In short, video game is always predictable; love is everything but. By the way, if romantic relationship becomes predictable, you know that it is going bad.
Well, so far we have come to a conclusion that video game is not able to simulate romantic relationship, but can it portrays it? Literatures and films do not give its audience any freedom on characters’ relationship at all, and yet people laugh and cry while reading/watching them constantly. Does video game have the same magic to keep its audience sentimental?
I almost writes down no, but during the brainstorming period of this article I sweetly encountered Florence. Florence, in short, is a video game adaptation of a love story. It has simple but attractive art style, great music, touching story, but it shines best at its interaction design. It is difficult to explain it with words and I do not want to spoil much of the game, so you have to play it by yourself to understand. Florence, despite of its pre-determined story, puts player into the relationship between two protagonists with its simple touch-based interactions, and with combination of novelty and repetition, this mechanism works. I would argue that Florence is as good as video game can get in terms of depicting romance. It is touching, putting characters and their relationship coming to life and very much believable.
Florence is a miracle in portraying romantic relationship, taking advantage of the touch-based control and focusing its theme strictly on the relationship. Would other platforms replicates its formula? Especially considering how bad a control input can be disconnected with the in-game event it triggers (remember Press F to Pay Respect?), meaningless interactions can only negatively contribute the immersion the creator wants to do.
My answer is yes, but only when the story, interactions and atmosphere combined organically together. It is a tough condition, so tough such that I have not seen any triple-A game successfully doing so. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt comes pretty close in terms of the chemical reactions among the triangle relationship in Geralt, Yen and Triss. The way Witcher 3 achieves it, however, still involves lengthy cutscenes and text-based choices found in other media. Where it shines, however, is that in two different chapters, players, as Geralt, are required to fight with Yen or Triss together. Such design choice pushes player to the front of both Yen and Triss and see what kind of person they are. It increases the intimacy between the player and the in-game love interest, which is more than the intimacy between in-game characters. After all, players are the subject to feel the love from games, not in-game avatars.
I am rather pessimistic about seeing a video game doing romantic relationship the justice in the video game way; but fortunately there are still gems like Florence and Witcher 3. I hate to see non-organic relationships between players and in-game love interests with pre-programmed animation that makes Tommy Wiseau an Oscar-winning actor. If video game developers cannot figure out a good way to do interactive romantic relationship, then taking notes from other form of media is a great choice.