William Hughes over at The AV Club just posted a piece on why the Fallout series has long eschewed player character romance arcs like those found in Mass Effect and Dragon Age and it perfectly articulates one of the problems that I have with typical video game depictions of courtship:
BioWare romance has a nasty tendency to feel like a vending machine; the player puts in the correct responses and declarations of true love fall out. Nobody is ever simply ambivalent, provided the right options are picked. Those who resist the player’s charms are inevitably the ones who fall the hardest in the end, grateful to the hero for breaking through their walls. If that sounds harsh, it’s because it gets at the paradox inherent in video game romance: It’s an attempt to simulate a symbiotic relationship in a system where only one actor has any real control. The romances in BioWare games are a power fantasy, albeit one where the player’s emotional mastery is being flattered, not their martial skills.
I recently wrote a piece for Al Jazeera on the inclusion of same-gender marriage in Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series (its not out yet but I will link when it goes up) in which I caution people to look at how inclusion is implemented in addition to celebrating the fact that it has been implemented. I think Hughes’s observation follows the same logic. What good is it to be able to romance people of all genders and sexualities if every depiction of romance reduces your love interest to a puzzle that needs to be solved so that the player can get a sex prize? Or, to be more generous, an emotional validation prize. Either way, the focus is on what you get, not on what you give.
Of course, the most over the top version of these “vending machine romances” are dating sims. That is why I’m so excited about my current game design project: a dating sim in which the “prize” is the realization that real love means recognizing when someone doesn’t feel the way about you that you feel about them and that is okay because they are people who deserve to seek their own happiness.