Mar 22, 2022 - Technology

A possible solution to video games' romance problem

A video game screenshot showing two characters talking.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey. Screenshot: Ubisoft via Kotaku

Video game creators should consider offering more complex depictions of interactive romance, designer Michelle Clough said in a talk at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Why it matters: More interesting in-game depictions of love, flirtation and courtship could attract players who crave more than the medium’s current simplistic approaches.

The details: Clough critiqued “kindness coins,” a common transactional form of game romance, arguing for more complex systems tied to chemistry and attraction.

  • Blockbusters such as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey use the “kindness coins” approach, in which players romantically engage computer-controlled characters with “nice” interactions — usually simple dialogue choices or the giving of a gift — and expect eventual reciprocity.
  • Player choices gradually fill an invisible meter until the other character responds, maybe with a flirtatious comment, a kiss or a ratings-appropriate, non-interactive sex scene.

Clough proposes a system tied to a range of actions, many of which already exist in scores of games, to attract non-player characters, or NPCs.

  • “There's no reason why NPCs couldn't be attracted to the way your character fights or their look, or how they talk, how they pet cats, conquer kingdoms, you get the idea.”
  • Broadening how attraction could work in games, she says, “frees us up to tell more kinds of love and sex stories and more ways people can be drawn to one another.”
  • Instead of a coin or vending machine model, Clough encourages developers to think about a house of cards, where each action delicately builds toward a goal. Or maybe a casino where players can’t game the system and feel like they’re taking romantic chances without guaranteed outcomes.

Yes, but: Some players don’t want complex romance in games, Clough said.

  • “Many players are busy and stressed and don't want to strain their brain just to kiss their favorite character.”
  • The simpler systems should remain in some games, she said, but she wants to nudge more developers to try more complex things.

Clough’s talk was preceded by another about the limitations of romance in games.

  • The presenter, academic Lindsay Grace, showed a slide of a game that included a prompt to press a button to flirt.
  • The packed audience of a couple hundred game developers laughed.
  • The recurring takeaway: Something better, more nuanced is possible.

The bottom line: Games may be great at many things — simulating baseball games, rendering rifle combat, depicting the exploits of a hungry yellow circle who eats dots — but decades into their existence, there are some topics with which they still struggle.

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