At last, a post about the exciting game "Love Story".
Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance may be the closest thing video gaming has to a "will they or won't they". On the face of it, there's really no reason to think that these two characters (and in reference to Gordon, I use the word 'character' very broadly) would ever get together. Yet the subject is advanced at least a little with each Half-Life installment. As much as I love Half-Life and Valve, and would trust them to pull off most things, I'm really wary about this prospect. Especially given how much attention Valve lavish upon Alyx, it's very hard to buy that anyone would have any feelings for Gordon Freeman whatsoever beyond "thanks for continuously saving me."
Think about the Half-Life fiction solely on its own terms for a second: has the character Gordon Freeman actually never spoken once? Or is this an abstract area we're not supposed to think about too much, like Half-Life only has to abide by the rules of its own Calvin & Hobbes-like reality?
Honestly, I think I'd be concerned even if Gordon had the depth of Charles Foster Kane. For the most part, love stories in games are handled really badly. My main criticism -- and I'll be criticising a lot -- is of love stories in RPGs, or, to use the RPG vernacular, "romance quests". Which sounds almost as stupid as "Police Quest", but at least Sierra has the excuse of being all about branding. (1)
It's an RPG convention but I still find it weird where "romancing" a character is akin to an Xbox Live achievement, a box you have to tick off, just another part of constructing the ultimate character. "Congratulations, you have successfully romanced Jaheira." What is that? BioWare's a good example, given they write the same romances in every game they do. Maybe it's too much to ask to make one of these very linearly-progressing relationship a story, or build it around the real story, rather than having it be this perfunctory sidequest (2) that's only there to distract you from saving the world for two hours and to satisfy RPG fans for whom "romance quests" are apparently a requirement. If you take them away it irritates players (3) but who really cared about them in the first place?
They're even in Morrowind, which isn't a game I would normally associate with emotion. Unfortunately in Morrowind the only available object of your affections is a cat, and maybe it makes me a little bigoted to physically recoil at the thought of chivalrously seducing a literal catwoman, but then I'm not an RPG fan. I might note that these quests are usually just a little archaic -- she might like a gift! Get her a gift! You're halfway there. These games are not only set in fantasy worlds but also within the confines of idealised 1950s morality. (4)
This is one reason why I really like the work of Chris Avellone, who's very conscious of these separate schools of thought. In Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II you'll note the "romances" are intentionally stilted, incomplete and a little tragic. Not only is it more realistic, it's more interesting. And beyond the existing "quests" in Knights of the Old Republic II, there's the character of Mira, who's the third and last hot woman in your party. Not only do you get to hit on her, instead of arbitrarily being confined to the repressed matriarch of the group, but you get unconditionally turned down. It's almost as if Mira had an actual personality.
I'm not saying every game has to be a Façade (as if anyone played Façade for the relationship drama.) (5) However, I do think relationship stories work the best when they're a restricted part of the narrative and not an optional diversion -- but this doesn't mean they still can't suck. There are probably more examples of this than of the romance sidequest model, and most of them aren't very good. For the sake of brevity I'm going to ignore the romantic arcs that are outright shit (Fahrenheit, Final Fantasy X) or totally banal -- like in the ending cutscene the heroine kisses the hero and they're both looking a bit embarrassed, ha ha, I'm gonna miss these morons. (Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter.)
What I just said about Chris Avellone remains largely true here: the emotionally fulfilling games are typically the ones where the characters don't get together. Who was honestly satisfied to see Guybrush Threepwood marry Elaine at the end of The Curse of Monkey Island? Maybe it was the abbreviated ending, but it didn't exactly feel like a pay-off seven years in the making. My guess is the players who this did satisfy are the same players who feel a game with an unrequited love is somehow lacking in "closure", whatever that is, and therefore a sequel is necessary to "wrap up the loose ends". I'd name some games that do "get it" but I'd be automatically spoiling them (6) and, four posts in, I'm trying to appeal to a broader demographic. Please take my word for it that these games exist. You've probably played a few of them.
This is probably true of fiction in general, so I can't pretend it has anything to do with agency or sandbox gameplay. Sorry. Heartbreak is, dramatically, more satisfying. Surprisingly, I can think of quite a few really good games that realise this. I say surprisingly because games are generally so far behind other forms of writing in every respect. For the moment, at least, I'm actually very pleased with this medium I complain about so much.
(1) There's going to be a post about Police Quest some time later, unless I forget about it. I wouldn't be the first person to forget about Police Quest.
(2) Yes, Bastila in Knights of the Old Republic may qualify as an exception, but Carth, in the same game, does not.
(3) Further reading: "the internet".
(4) So, two fantasy worlds.
(5) Façade anecdote: Ernest Adams used a Façade transcript I did in a lecture he gave at GDC called "A New Vision for Interactive Stories". Without my permission. Ernest better get ready for a new lawsuit.
(6) Note that I don't care about spoiling, say, Fahrenheit.