Depicting love isn’t easy–this is true of any medium that explores the subject. Love is a feeling, perhaps the most subjective of them all, and so far no medium has gained fame for its ability to make the consumer fall in love. Other feelings may be felt, explored: Silent Hill might make you frightened, Tai’s suicide in Gears 2 might be upsetting, but it’s unlikely that something will make you fall in love.
Naturally, video games still explore the subject. Here is my question, then: is exploring the nuance and different facets of love enough in an interactive environment? Can a depiction of love in an interactive environment only be considered to be successful if the player falls in love, too?
Or maybe love isn’t possible in a game. Love is a story about two people. Games tend to be the glorification of one person, and it’s not the avatar in that awkward sex cutscene. That person is you, the player.
Design wise, love tends to be a prize–plenty of girls are like Paula, from Shadows of the Damned–or an optimization puzzle, if only because it’s almost impossible not to approach a game that way. So then, if we cannot currently fall in love, could we at least see a convincing depiction of love? I’m willing to bet that most of us can only count a couple of convincing, non-simplistic depictions at best in the medium. Further question: when was the last time you saw love depicted in a flawed, ugly, or depressing, way; when was the last time you saw love as the nuanced thing that it is?
Not very often, right? I think there’s a reason for that: games exist to please people, they are designed to be escapism or indulgence, a fantasy. If a love interest exists, it’s been written specifically for the player, like a blow-up doll of some sort–think of how Anders in Dragon Age 2 is available to you regardless of your gender. The ability to present a nuanced depiction of love is severely lessened when a love interest exists to be another pawn in a power fantasy, another optimization puzzle.
What we’re getting at here is that the very interactivity of the medium, the very game-ness of a game, is what compromises the ability to successfully depict love. Love and romance become about the result, the prize.
And yet, there are moments which have come close to transcending those common pitfalls. What comes immediately to my mind is–and I’m sure this will surprise no one, if you’ve read anything I’ve written–Morrigan from Dragon Age. To give some background–and do not mistake this for me stating this is a completely successful depiction of love, because it really is a singular moment–Morrigan, like any character voiced by Claudia Black, is an impossible character. Impossibly stubborn, independent, pragmatic, cold…and immensely titillating. You spend the entire game bumping heads with her, regardless of how you interact with her.
Morrigan is a deeply flawed character. She’s been raised in such a way that makes her believe that love and compassion are synonymous with weakness. I spent the entire game trying to show her otherwise. The moment where she finally admits, despite her fear, despite her hesitation, despite her very nature, that she may be in love with you, is somewhat touching.
This is a fleeting feeling, though, like most beautiful moments are. Morrigan cannot fight against her nature, in spite of her ‘love’ for you. She’s gone on this journey with you because she wants something, and that something is power. She wants to have a god-baby, and you or a fellow warden will impregnate her to achieve this. The thing is, no matter what you do, no matter how she feels about you, she leaves. If you impregnate her, she leaves to raise the baby. If you don’t impregnate her, she leaves because you refused her.
I have no power but to accept this fate. There is no skill check, no dialogue option, no QTE, no different choice path, no reloading that can change this moment.
This isn’t what things would look like if I could convince her to stay. Nonetheless, this moment is powerful because I have no choice but to accept it. Though the fact that she is a love interest that can be won over is true, though her affection is denoted via numbers in a bar, in spite of both those simplifications of love, that last moment where she leaves you behind felt like a truer depiction of love and it’s nuances, its conflicts and its flaws than just about everything else I’ve played. This was only possible because interactivity and agency were stripped away from me.
Maybe one day, when we live in a Kurzweillian future where the AI in games think for themselves and cannot be ‘gamed,’ we might also have the (admittedly insane-sounding) ability to make video games a medium that can make its consumers fall in love. That’s the only way I can see love that involves two “people” working, at least. For now, the best we can do is explore the subject, and I hope that developers are not afraid to stop pandering, are not afraid to delve into true, complex nuance in order to give justice to that feeling called love.