Romancing the silicon wafer
Kim Moss recently penned an article here at Nightmare Mode entitled “You Know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” In it, she makes a brief comparison between the capitalist lens through which “NiceGuys” view real-life relationships and the way BioWare romance arcs work. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be struck by the superficiality of the examination. To me, the entire article could have been summarised into a couple sentences, which would have served as a an introduction to a much more involved exploration of why the relationships are depicted in this way, and what alternatives might exist.
I do not disagree with the comparison Moss is drawing between these so-called NiceGuys who feel that kindness is a kind of investment in future sex, and the way BioWare depicts romantic relationships. However, I feel the article ignores significant factors that are, in the end, much more interesting to the study of games. I have written before about very closely related issues, but it was in an academic conference paper in which I use words like ‘agon’ and ‘autotellic’ so is probably not something many people have actually read, so I will probably have to go back to basics here.
Firstly, games are patterns built out of rules. This is the framework that players learn to manipulate to their advantage, whether the goal is a dead enemy, a higher level, or a sex scene. There is no difference, in that sense, between rendering a sexual relationship and the process of learning a skill. Both are mathematical approximations of experiences inspired by real-world process, and neither are entirely representative. That is, in the real world, we don’t gain “levels” of skill which unlock discreet abilities: I don’t practice making pancakes until I suddenly have the ability to make a perfectly-formed souffle. Instead, I make a bunch of souffles badly and they gradually get better.
This fact is underappreciated by Moss in her piece, and leads her to advocate for solutions to the NiceGuy problem that would, in the end, lead to a very similar outcome. Moss suggests that a potential romantic interest could be influenced by the character creation process, “Sorry… you look too much like my dad.” Or a female character could turn down any male player-character regardless of appearance or behaviour, for hopefully obvious reasons. Alternately, the NPC could have concerns about the player’s behaviour during a mission, which leads to misgivings and a failed romance.
All of these are fine suggestions, but seem to miss the point that they can all be strategized towards just as effectively as the BioWare conversation trees can be currently. This is simply a longer list of “If, then” case statements than BioWare currently employ.
What I can say about Moss’ recommendations, and perhaps this was her intention, is that these key variables seem to encompass a wider tract of the player-character’s “life.” That is, the player’s behaviour throughout gameplay is important to the romance algorithm, not only during a conversation with the potential love-interest. If this was Moss’ aim, then it is a good one, even if it only addresses the problem up to a certain point.
Turning now to Moss’ address of relationships more generally, she says: “Relationships, especially romantic ones, are weird and complicated.” “The reasons for a relationship to not work out are limitless,” and “Sometimes people aren’t interested in others. Sometimes small differences make people incompatible. Sometimes people aren’t ready for a relationship.”
Obviously this is all true. But Mass Effect isn’t about “relationships” or “people.” It is about Shepard, Ashley, Kaiden, Jack, Liara, and the rest of the crew. Them, not everyone. Their relationships, not all relationships.
Focusing on Ashley as an example, consider her as a character for a moment. Compare her to Juliet, who will, no matter how many times one reads the play, will always fall in love with Romeo, will always be tragically, romantically, dead by the end. By comparison, Ashley is a far more powerful entity. Ashley will say yes to Shepard, indeed, but she can also say no. The confrontation between Shepard, Liara, and whoever the third angle of the triangle is a remarkable experience. The player is put on the spot, forced to choose. While not an outright rejection, the player must concede–he is not all-powerful. Ashley has a decision-making capability that literally no other medium can offer her. So, as a character, she is more powerful than every strong woman ever written in the most progressive novel.*
Videogames create the potential for rejection just as much as the opportunity to get laid. What Moss, and others I’m sure, overlook is the disciplining effect of videogames. One can view their playable nature as empowering, but simultaneously, the game is forcing the player to behave in a certain way. There is literally no other way to achieve that particular goal–the player must abide by Ashley (or Jack’s, or Miranda’s or whoever…) terms. One is reminded of the flows of power, Foucault’s approach to power and discipline which are at once empowering and oppressive. The same structures which restrict the player’s behaviour are responsible for allowing action in the first place.
The single biggest hurdle to this entire area of game design and game playing is player prescience. That is, foreknowledge of how the game works. On one hand, players of games of all kinds really need to know how things work in order to advance. You need to know that you can’t pick up the ball in soccer, you need to know the difference between a sniper rifle and a shotgun, etc. You need to know that you’re trying to “win hands” in poker, or put a ball in a hoop in basketball, or hold territory in king of the hill. There are single-player games where some pleasure arises in discovering a new skill (or unlocking one) but those are then utilised, as a known quantity to perform tasks later on. The pleasure in games is, at least partly, in mastering skills which are increasingly known quantities, in order to advance towards goals which are similarly unambiguous.
In dramatic media, however, much of the pleasure arises from unknown quantities. The story progresses to gradually reveal “what happens.” We may make predictions, and either be affirmed in our knowledge or pleasantly surprised. We may fear a possible outcome, and hope for another, and eventually we find out. Sometimes this isn’t true, there are dramas which end ambiguously, and the pleasure in those is in deciding for oneself what has happened, or in simply weighing up the possibilities.
When we combine these two pleasures in cases like a BioWare romance arc, there are difficulties. I’ve mentioned several times the notion that a player can strategize towards the sex scene–something Moss and I are both critical of. The only way that can happen, though, is if the player knows that the sex scene can happen. If a genuinely naive player were to work through Mass Effect for the first time, how can he be said to be strategizing towards a goal he doesn’t know is there?
In comparing real life romance to a BioWare arc, the flaw is not that BioWare’s arcs are based on rules, but that those rules are eminently knowable. It stands to reason that real life relationships can be explained through “If, then” type statements as well, a great many of them for sure, but the important part is that they aren’t all known ahead of time (probably not even to the person to whom they belong). The offensive part of the NiceGuy treatment is not so much in the “if I do X then Y will be the result,” but that any given rule can be generalised and thought to apply to all women, in all cases, and are equally true for all men, regardless of other factors (rules…) about things other than their behaviour during courtship rituals.
Returning to my earlier point: Moss recommends a number of interesting alternatives or addendums, but these are still rules that can be known. An experienced player could still post an unambiguous walkthrough on the internet, saying “Hey guys if you wanna score with Lady Hotness, this is what you have to do. The sex scene is totally rad!”
To address this issue, developers would have to actively frustrate this kind of collective strategising. That is, they will have to make their characters less predictable. I can envision semi-random, procedural assemblies of those If, then case statements being reorganised on each player’s launch of a new game, so that in one playthrough of Mass Effect, Jack likes one thing, but in another, she likes something totally different.
However, the huge problem with that solution is characterisation–it flies out the window. Videogames aren’t the only media that relies on rules, as much as theorists like to claim. Indeed, ‘characterisation’ is really a fancy, qualitative way of talking about the rules of a given character’s personality. What ‘would’ Hamlet do in this situation? That is simply another way of saying “if, then.”
The difficulty in BioWare games is that because the player-character is a variable quantity, it damages the sense of characterisation in the NPCs as well, even without the above-mentioned randomisation. The notion of “Shepsexual” is an apt term to describe the uncomfortable way that, regardless of who Shepard is in any given instance, the NPCs will always find him attractive. I’ve suggested in my academic work that the only way to interpret this situation in dramatic terms is that for each playthrough, not only is Shepard a different character, but so are the NPCs. That is, one cannot use knowledge from a previous playthrough to interpret events in the current one. The fact that Liara romanced a male Shepard last week has no bearing on the fact that she is interested in a female Shepard this week. But this is easier in theory than in practice.
Eventually, though, I assign responsibility for this to the player, and not to the game. There is no force we can apply that will coerce every player into appreciating all the nuances of a romance plot if all they want to do is watch a sex scene. Likewise, there is nothing that stops film viewers from copying down timecodes and fast-forwarding a genuinely romantic film to the point where the characters get their gear off. The fact that audiences can focus on what they want to, and ignore the rest, is not the fault of the medium. If Moss, or other players of Mass Effect interpret the experience of listening to Ashley talk about her family and daddy issues as nothing more than a necessary grind in order to access the sex scene, that is their prerogative. Others, however, can interpret that experience differently, and enjoy the role-play of someone who actually does care about what she has to say.
For some further reading, two conference papers on this subject: Canon and Contingency in Mass Effect (http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/ruchvhpaper.pdf) and Beyond Game-Fun (http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/ruchvpaper.pdf) get a little deeper into the theory behind this post.
*Ed: I asked Adam about this, in that it ignores that Ashley could be an awfully written character and her ‘choice’ doesn’t erase that. He responds: I still have to argue that at an ontological level, she’s a more powerful entity. Yes, exactly power as the ability to choose. And if her programmed nature makes her weak, then how weak are all fictional characters who are all written? If this isn’t powerful, then there is no such thing. (She could be better sure, but I’m talking ontologically here)