So this time, I'm going to take the commonly accepted concept of "romance" and apply it to game development. Seems like a connection that doesn't make a lot of sense, at first. Games are just fun ways to pass time, romance is that mushy, gushy stuff best saved for Lifetime Network and real life. What do we want romance in our games for? And where does Romance fit into Halo, or
There's some very good reasons why the best games deeply involve the concept of romance in their creation, and more importantly, in their execution. During this article I'm going to talk a little bit about what romance means to me, and how it affects a game during its design and after its release.
Romance can be quite a few things. Any language derived from Latin is romance, for instance. And yes, there's the definition of romance as "pertaining to love/love-making". But there's a deeper meaning, one that exists in parallel with the first two that I like to focus on; something "romantic" has "no basis in fact" or, my favorite definition so far, is "marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized".
Now we're talking. This is the kind of romance that we have in books and movies, in the romantic scenes from real life. When we look at romance novels and romantic ballads what we're getting isn't the happily ever after. We're given the lead up, the build up to the big moment. Romance by my definition is all about the chase. The romance has to have at least two subjects, something doing the chasing and something worth being chased. Once you've established those two concepts in a story or situation, there's romance between them. For example: A fantasy couple that lives happily-ever-after doesn't have anything worth chasing, because they should already have achieved their goals (Get princess/prince and big-ass castle). So romance is the chase, the lead up to that moment (lose the princess, get the armor, train a little, fight the dragon, train a little, fight the kraken...etc). It's a negative and a positive, a lack and a need. But it also can be amazingly rewarding, both during the struggle and after the goal (just think: you don't see a lot of actually, realistically depicted sex during movies we'd consider romantic, because it's not about the sex it's about the build up. And you don't see legit porno filed under the "Romance" section of your local Netflix queue). During the struggle, you better yourself and/or the world around you to achieve your dreams, sometimes even destroy it if need be. And most importantly, romance is the time when the Hero gets to do heroic things (fight, climb, bleed, sacrifice, hunt, track, protect...) or die trying. Now we're beginning to see where games fit in.
Games are, ultimately, systems of rules we master in order to complete some objectives and win. It's a very unsexy, technical way to look at a game like Halo, but that's all it is. It's systems of rules (aiming, weaponry damage, covenant AI tactics...etc), we spend hours trying to master. And we do it very well, mastering them to the highest human levels of precision. Mastering the system isn't necessary for winning the game, though. We can win through luck, or patching together skill into some sort of flawed, yet effective technique. But to truly master a game's systems and rules is to win super effectively, and the payoff is proportionally greater both practically and emotionally. You set leader board records and win tournaments, and then feel like a god for doing so.
Games are designed from the ground up to offer attainable goals, and the steps to obtain them. Romance is chasing the goal, the path from start to finish and not one step beyond. By designing games with romance in mind, the experience for the player becomes romantic by holding their goal in clear sight. The player's objectives are clear and direct, and in most action games they're only moments away, easy little victories for the player to accomplish. The grand goal may be story driven, but the checkpoints and the crux of the game's goals will be game play driven. This pits the player versus the system of rules directly, a battle of patience and persistence over hard facts and artificial intelligence. The goal is progress, the romance is the struggle to achieve it. The best and most memorable games all find a way to write the path to victory in a way that leaves the player breathless, aspiring to greatness, filled with emotion and, to speak frankly, begging for more. Sounds romantic to me.
Let's get opinionated.
Games with good romance:
Bayonetta. The payoffs in the game just get bigger and grander, and the game play just ramps and ramps. Tack on leader boards, tack on multiple levels of challenge, and tack on the presentation of the game and you've got not just a fantastic example of how to show a player a good time, but a truly romantic adventure that'll take you from button mashing bad ass to a god of timing and destruction. Every inch of the game feels like it was carved from red lipstick, and the love for the world they're inhabiting comes through with each catchphrase, special move, hidden costume, secret playable character, cut-scene and song. What. A. Ride. (The reason that I use Bayonetta and Luka pictures during this article is because their relationship is based on the idea that she's unattainable to him, to anyone...and yet she still shows him more affection than anyone in the game. That's true romance.)
Final Fantasy VI. The only video game to make me shed tears. Not at flashy, but the stakes were high in this 16-bit opera. And just knowing around every corner was another character, around every corner was another dungeon...the world felt like it never ended. And the Armageddon does hit, a little over half-way through the game, the sense that all your hard work has rolled back leaves you feeling crushed...but not broken, as the game walks you through one character's after-apocalypse side-story to regain your confidence, and see the story through to the end. Freaking great.
Need For Speed Hot Pursuit. Talk about a racing game. You get the best of both worlds (Criterion's Burnout series and EA's NFS licensed cars) in this absolutely gorgeous, white knuckle racer. Cut out the dumb-ass fake TV shows, cut out the stupid story about pink slips and just give us the goods...and they did. It's got one premise: cops vs. racers. And...GO! The whole game is designed to put you into situations where you're managing three things at once. For instance: your drift angle, as you corner around this currently-exploding other racer, who was taken out by an EMP blast from a cop in a Lamborghini. That's for starters. Add in the Autolog, which shows your INSTANTLY if anyone in your friends list is COOLER THAN YOU...which had me hitting "Restart" even after some first place finishes. The game gets you fired up to win.
Honorable Mentions: Mass Effect 2, Bioshock, Killer 7, Lost Planet 2, God of War...
Games with bad romance:
Red Faction Guerrilla. So my reward for giant things blowing up in a really sweet way is that I get more tools...to keep doing that...for...hour and hours...It didn't add up, for me. The structures could get bigger and boomier, but they never really rattled the screen more than the first few whoppers. The pay off was too soon in this game, and the story didn't hold up. The bottom line: the game was about the thrill of destruction, and that was really it. Destruction has a fast and immediate pay off. The romance just isn't there.
Brink. Bought it cause I thought maybe everyone was wrong. Maybe there's something to be had here amidst a sea of mediocre reviews and chatter. So I played through it. And...the story was short, pretty lackluster. The battles were also really, really frustrating with the AI help, and the combat didn't really escalate or develop. One mission had me almost stop playing in entitled disgust, as all I did was guard the first checkpoint of a map against dumbass AI for ten minutes to win. That was one complete level, all objectives complete, in a campaign with eight levels. Again...there's no chase here. And certainly no pay off.
Vanquish. A shame, really, that three shooters occupy this side of the list but I had high hopes for Vanquish and...it let me down. Same as before: it was short, the only escalation in Vanquish comes through harder enemies. Your character never evolves beyond bigger clips for the games weapons, and the game's light features list leaves you feeling more like you've had a light lunch than a healthy supper. It has ramping difficulty...but no romance at all. This fate almost befell Shadows Of The Damned...but Suda 51 and Akira Yamaoka know a thing or two about romance that Shinji Mikami had better remember for his next project.
Honorable Mentions: Split/Second, Fable 3, Timeshift, Shadowrun, IL-2 Sturmovik...
So that's what romance is, why it's important for games, and some of the games I feel encompass a romantic feeling, and some that don't. The inspiration for this article? Catherine, the new game coming out from Atlus. It's about climbing, literally, to escape the demons that would prevent your ascension to the happily-ever-after, and about Vincent's romance with two women of the same name. Such a fantastic way to marry the game's play with the narrative, don't you think?
I hope you enjoy reading if you made it this far, and take some time to look at your favorite games. What makes them romantic to you? What sort of feelings stir when you hear that your princess is in another castle? I know how I feel. "Marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized"