Do any of our games reflect how people really develop relationships?
Why is it so rare for games to replicate relationships in any meaningful way? I don’t mean the trading of affection and compliments but the ups and downs and initial awkward contact between love interests. We enjoy seeing friendships develop like this in books for example, yet it’s an interesting blind spot in the gaming world. It’s even more noticeable given today’s hardware is much more capable and diverse in carrying the weight of our emotional highs and lows than ever before.
The first game that really attempted to display an evolution of friendship was Fumito Ueda’s 2001 classic Ico. It was also the first game of the new PlayStation 2 era to showcase just how much storytelling could be crammed into a DVD. This in fact makes it an ironic oddity due to its minimalist style and the use of very few visual guides that help you complete the game.
The story follows Ico, a boy who is locked away by guards in a coffin inside an abandoned fortress. He’s shunned far from the rest of the world due to the two horns growing from his head and considered a bad omen. After breaking from the shackles of his coffin he meets Yorda, the daughter of the evil queen who rules the castle and wants to extend her lifespan by taking over Yorda’s body. Throughout the game, you’re tasked with controlling Ico past obstacles, puzzles and shadow-like enemies, all whilst making sure Yorda is safe and by your side, holding her hand during the entire journey.
This concept of holding hands was pretty much a first in a video game, as it was both central to the gameplay but also validated our emotional connection to both characters, particularly Yorda. It’s interesting that the game, although widely considered one of the best ever made, reinvents the stereotypical trope of a boy falling for a girl, something you’d find in your average romantic-comedy. What’s also kept is the role of the male character being the protective leader of the two, although this can be forgiven as the game makes it clear Yorda is weak after being locked up and enemies attempt to whisk her away at any given opportunity.
This is in stark contrast with the 2008 version of Prince of Persia (PoP), which follows a desert-travelling bandit (not your typical prince), escaping from sword-swinging enemies in the search for his donkey. He ends up meeting Elika, the daughter of the god of light, tasked with healing the lands that have been taken over by supernatural dark forces similar to those found in Ico. (We should keep in mind the game is influenced very heavily on the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, which is still practiced today in some parts of the world.) Of course, the unnamed prince and Elika develop a bond based on his terrible one-liners and her ability to empathise and care for the world around her.
In PoP, holding hands is just as important. Any faults you make controlling the prince whilst carrying out extraordinary acrobatics are halted thanks to Elika’s supernatural ability to grab your hand and take you back to a safe platform. This symbolic gesture demonstrates female characters don’t have to remain idle or function simply as eye candy in our games, even if the protagonist in the story is a male, which still remains a huge challenge in the industry.
But these small gestures of affection are the best way we can see relationships develop in video games. Because the only thing more awkward than sex scenes in films are sex scenes in games. I still have vivid memories of explaining to a family member who walked into the room about what was happening on the screen whilst I played Mass Effect. Thankfully, the copulation taking place wasn’t between two different species, somewhat limiting the awkwardness.
Most games involving a relationship-building element don’t descend into a festival of sexual escapades, but they also rarely show the basic building blocks of the intimacy between two characters in a relationship, unlike books, TV shows and films. All of those things that are unsaid signs of mutual affection, the evolution from friendship to relationship, are rarely shown.
These examples are all based in worlds of very mysterious origins and only in recent years are we seeing more games showing friendships and relationships in more realistic scenarios, such as Life is Strange and Heavy Rain.
One of the best demonstrations has been through Nina Freeman’s Cibele, a partially autobiographical story of two people meeting through an online multiplayer game. Does this mean our games have to be more realistic in order to induce these quieter, softer emotional responses from us?
It partially explains why the Sims remains one of the best series of all time. Here we’re able to give hugs and gifts and make every interaction grounded with meaning. However, the challenge of making us more emotionally attached to new, creative worlds is the goal for many developers. As Ueda previously said, his designs are to “really illustrate or communicate that the world you see is real.” Perhaps it’s best to welcome the wonderful, unique ways our characters fall in love. It’s just a reflection of how it’s evolved for humans over the years.