The world could use a few more romance video games.
Oh heavens, the controversy. Let’s trust this publication’s readership is too intelligent to moan, “Oh gawsh, what a girl thing to say,” but maybe the sexists have a legitimate counter-argument here. Romance readership? Women. Romance viewership? Women. With pizza-covered adolescent white-male stereotypes running rampant through video game culture, do companies have any financial room to aim towards a probably female gamership?
A million times yes. Women make up 47 percent of all gamers, according to a 2012 study by the Entertainment Software Association. Even better, women over 18 make up 30 percent of the community while only 18 percent of gamers are boys under 17. The stereotype is so broken it’s not even money.
With that out of the way, here’s a bigger hurdle: what the heckz0rz is a romance video game, and why would any gamer, irrespective of gender, care about playing it?
A romance game contains a storyline, theme, and characters whose ultimate fulfillment lies in a romantic relationship. Most popular adventure games include an element of romance, like Mario’s rescue of the princess or the romantic choices the player makes in Mass Effect 3. Those aren’t romance games any more than Star Wars is a romance series: while Mario may have a romantic goal at heart, the storyline isn’t his progressively deepening relationship with Peach. It’s his progressively harder butt-kickings with Bowser’s minions. In Mass Effect, the romance is just another plot-point to add to gameplay, and if anything it’s more about adrenaline-born sexual attraction than deepened emotional communication.
A game about progressively deepening communicative relationships? Yuck. That’s gotta be all talk, right? Like IMVU, SimCity, Gaia, online flirting like that? No. While marketing gimmicks may have most IMVU players aiming for virtual smooches, the open worlds in both games allow characters to make choices that aren’t romance-based anyway: gameplay technically centers around pimping out your avatar, not achieving a romantic goal. In other words, the gameplay is auxiliary to players messing around with real-life hearts in a virtual medium. Those aren’t romance games; they’re just making a game of romance.
What’s a romance game, then? Something like the critically-acclaimed indie platform-game Braid. As you progress through Braid’s mind-boggling painted levels, you unlock pages in the book that details your protagonist’s crumbling relationship with his wife. The puzzle-pieces you organize into paintings depict romantic memory-stages in the relationship. You’re searching through a metaphor within a metaphor: you enter weird portals or pictures to participate in the “action” part of gameplay, but the game actually takes place in your character’s empty house. Even the game mechanics themselves–like the important ability to turn the clock backwards and forwards–play into the theme of mistakes within a relationship. Like Mario, Braid’s protagonist wants his princess, but he’s got to metaphorically fix the relationship, not just fight Bowser, to find her. The plot, themes, and characters all center around a romance, but guess what: it’s still a game! Deadly spikes, walking heads, time travel and crazy Celtic music all converge to create a solid, fast-paced, beautifully frustrating experience–it’s a romance game, not a colorful flirting forum.
No one markets Braid as a romance game, though. We do an odd thing with video games that we don’t do with most other artistic mediums: we separate them into genres not by content–say, humor, horror, action-adventure–but by mechanics like “role-playing game,” or “first-person shooter.” As experts have pointed out in the past, that leads to some rather ill-described game-play: both Portal and Halo are “first person shooters,” but there’s almost nothing there to guarantee a fan of one will enjoy the other. After all, we don’t really say, “Oh, I’m a big fan of the chapter book genre” or “I mostly books in first person present.” No, we say “I’m a horror fan” or “I’m a romance fan” or “I read trashy Harlequin novels all night long because I have no sex in my life.”
When developers, publishers, and critics begin talking about games in terms of content and mechanics, a world of wild creative possibilities opens up. Have we ever seen a horror strategy game? A romance first person shooter, RPG, strategy, or racing game? Historical war games already run the gamut from RPGs to strategy games to the traditional FPS: can’t we spread other genres over a variety of mechanics, too? There’s good money in wild content/mechanics mash-ups. Arguably Portal’s success was mixing the familiar first-person shooter mechanic with an unfamiliar science fiction puzzle–and the game’s sequel brought in nearly a billion dollars by expanding on that unique idea. Gamers will pay good money to see traditional mechanics thrown for a content spin. That’s why thinking in terms of romance games would benefit the video game industry: it would foster a money-making creativity that would broaden the entire scope of gameplay experience. Furthermore, video games have the potential to present romance like no other art medium can, for obvious reasons, and while romance is old, tired, and mired in tough competition in books and movies, in video games there’s a vast, open, untapped market just waiting to shower money on someone who gets it right.
What’s getting it right? Touching our hearts without boring us to death. In Daniel Benmergui’s lovely “I Wish I Were the Moon,” a little pixel man falls in love with the moon, and a little pixel girl falls in love with him. The game sets up the conflict immediately–that’s key. The little girl’s sad eyes implore the gamer to help. Through the artistically philosophical mechanic of taking photos, the gamer must construct a way that both people can be happy without drowning the moon in the ocean, sending the girl on a seagull-ride of depression, or taking away the man’s reason to live. The possible losses hit hard. The possible gains–bittersweet resolutions packed with emotional meaning–remind us all of people we’ve loved and night skies we’ve admired. Complete with harp music, the soothing sound of waves, and meteor-showers, this game’s a bit too short to market, but it’s powerful.
In video games, power isn’t just about new art or smart business: it’s about what games do to us. As gamers, we spend a significant portion of our time thinking about how to “beat this level” or “kill this boss.” The competition and aggression present in most of our games leaves an indelible mark on our minds, and it’s worth thinking seriously about, for better or for worse. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong: we all believe in some form of useful violence at some point, and we need the satisfaction of good/evil struggles, military triumphs, and the spikey blue turtleshell that punishes “the man.” Yet as human beings, we’re more than Arkham Asylum’s physical and mental struggles of skill, or even Minecraft’s expressions of creativity: we’re people who fall in love. Shouldn’t our games explore that?
Illustrations by Terry Mack
About the author
Jen Finelli writes health science and culture for clients from D.C. newspapers to research companies. She’s published a dinosaur picture book, a biochemistry textbook addendum, and ghost-written four other books. Now she’s pushing a novel about a superhero who shoots his author. Hit her up on twitter for superheroes and science facts!