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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

One Life Left: Love in Video Games

I’ve played a lot of video games in my time, and I know that plenty of games are able to tell stories of love, such as Shadow of the Colossus. This game centers on a man named Wander, who must kill legendary colossi to resuscitate a dead girl named Mono. There are also the games where romance manifests itself in one of the female characters, who are usually very busty and not very well dressed for whatever occasion is going on.

Despite all this, very few games explore what it means to be in an actual relationship. Sure, I guess you could turned to the terrifying, niche genre of the “dating simulator” which essentially just boils down to you, the player, saying what the girl wants to hear, then being “rewarded” with a sex scene.

Moving away from these obscure games, we enter the Bioware role-playing games, specifically the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games. Both of these games offer various romantic partners that the player can choose to woo and/or sleep with. Mass Effect did this much better than the high-fantasy Dragon Age because the relationship was able to build over time, thanks to the ability to import your save files, and therefore your in-game decisions, into each of the sequels.

Dragon Age seems to trip over their own feet when it came to the “romance characters,” as the relationships often boiled down to a shallow system of giving them presents, or making in-game decisions that coincide with their predictable political opinions (sort of like managing and maintaining followers on a Tumblr blog).
But even with these games, something felt missing. The relationship felt like just another side quest. It boiled down to knowing what to say, when to say it and the successful completion of that characters optional side quest.

Despite flowing naturally with the rest of the game, it ultimately felt like another chore in the game.

However, there does exist one game where a relationship is not only an important factor to the plot, but it also establishes the entire context of the gameplay.

That game is Catherine. I’ve reviewed this game before, but want to revisit it, as I do believe it is one of the more important games to be released this generation.

Catherine tells the story of Vincent, a 20-something software programmer who lives by himself.

Vincent isn’t a fan of change and enjoys his current life: drinking with his friends at the local watering hole and spending time with his five-year girlfriend Katherine (with a “K”). Katherine puts the pressure on him to make the next big move (marriage), but Vincent is secretly terrified of this.

To deal with his anxieties he retreats to binge drinking, where he meets Catherine, a beautiful blonde with a bubbly, fun personality.

One thing leads to another, and next thing you know Vincent finds himself not only in bed with her, but having reoccurring nightmares where he must climb a puzzle block tower, or face death at the hands of the things he fears most.

While the gameplay is fun, incredibly stylized and very hectic, the story is where it shines.

When you’re not in the dream world, you control Vincent in the bar where you are allowed to do a multitude of things.

One of these things is, much like real life, texting. As the night progresses you will be texted by both K/Catherines and the way you choose to reply to them affects your standing with each woman, which in turn affects the story which then measures up to one of five different endings of the game.

The reason why I always bring this up is because of how real the simulation feels.

The text messages accurately portray certain aspects of each girl’s personality; sometimes it reaches the levels of hyperbole (such as when Catherine sends you half-naked costumed pictures for little to no reason).

You’re a man under a lot of stress as you try to balance two relationships at once.

Eventually the game transforms into a story of forgiveness, making decisions and taking change head on. But even Catherine fell flat on its face in one crucial aspect: the inclusions of a “morality bar.”

Sticking with Katherine netted you points on the “law” side while staying faithful to your new lover, Catherine, netted you points on the “chaos” side.

This bar would come up whenever you sent a text message or answered one of the games many polling questions.

The inclusion of this bar takes away all ambiguity and turns it too much into a video game.

By removing this ambiguity, there would have been additional stress added on the player because, much like reality, one could not have been sure of whether or not what you were doing was “the right thing” in the relationship.

While it pains me to see that no other games have explored such a distinctive aspect of the romantic relationship, I hope it is something that can be explored beyond easily-predictable decisions and character pandering.