Romance in the Computer Game Industry
March 2004 by Lauren E. Darcey
This year at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California, three top game designers were given a
challenge - to architect a game with a love story. While many good points were raised as part of this one hour panel
discussion, the games architected were mostly jokes, making fun of the romance industry as a whole. It is important
to note that the presenters were all male presenting to a male dominated industry whose primary audience is first-person
shooter gamers on game platforms and not familiar with the romantic literature industry.
The first presenter, Raph Koster of Sony Online Entertainment, punted with a humorous Romance Novel Generator, called Passion's
Tender Embrace. Although his research and design were delivered with a heavy amount of sarcasm, he pointed out that romantic plots
are generally predictable in nature, with characters that fall into the standard archetypes - making them quite formulaic
and programmable by nature. Each player in his multiplayer game is given a character flaw and a predetermined final outcome
(married, dies of consumption, dies in a duel) which is then passed to the game engine, which chooses a story to fit the
player characters. The characters are then placed in an initial situation, and they are allowed some choices, but always
the outcome is predetermined. Each player cannot deviate from their story arc, but they do get some multiple choice questions
so the player feels like they have some control. In short, the character paths vary to some extent, but the outcome is always
the same. Koster recognized the mass marketing potential of romantic games, suggesting that content be written by the likes
of Daniel Steele, with new plots and subplots available over time. He expressed a lot of skepticism about the feasibility of
a love story game, and claimed he'd never be able to show his face again in gaming if he tried it.
Are you looking for romance? When you're hunting for love, the internet is a good place to begin. By using singles forums, you'll be able to get advice about dating as well as find personals.
Maxis founder and game designer Will Wright, known for SimCity and The Sims, took quite a different approach, incorporating a love theme into an already existing game,
Battlefield 1942. He incorporated chatting and matchmaking technologies into the already well-defined game world, and giving
users playing civilians some diverse social situations and goals. This allowed the players to engage in some of the love-related
emotions and actions such as pride, loyalty and sacrifice. Wright has likely hit on the immediate future of gaming - having alternative
character profiles other than warriors, and giving them other goals and motivations.
Ultima producer Warren Spector struggled to come up with a love story game premise that did not involve giving the characters a gun. After a lot of research
on the nature and physiology of love, he came to the conclusion that a true love story was impossible to develop. He suggested that
love-related gaming should focus on the pursuit and lessons of love - not the senses of love - as the gaming industry relies only on
two of the five senses. Facial expression ability is one of the hottest issues at GDC 2004, and he feels the industry has only scratched
the surface here and also needs to improve communication technologies like chatting. Lastly, Spector expressed concern over the potential
issues arising from developing games that cause the gamer to experience these types of emotions over or with their computer.
No one in the room seemed to take the possibility of romantic entertainment on the devices seriously as a way to reach an entirely
different type of user. Romantic love was the only kind of love discussed. Perhaps the best way for the gaming industry to incorporate
any heavy emotion into a plot is to harness some of the emotions that have been possible - like pride, loyalty, greed and competition
which also tend to exist in your average love story. If you take Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet as an example of a love story, you have
all sorts of elements with gaming potential - duels, brotherly love of your fellows, and family rivalry - all which drive the outcome
of the story. All presenters may have taken on too much of a challenge by making the user an active participant in the romantic love
aspect of their games. Some of the most interesting characters in love stories are the villains and the well developed secondary
characters like Romeo's friend Mercutio. Movies have a distinct advantage here in that the viewer need not fall in love, but just
believe that the people on screen are in love. Frankly, this has a lot to do with well written dialogue, which you cannot really
depend on the user to come up with on their own.
Virtual reality is still primarily a violent place, and is likely to stay that way for quite some time.
For more information, see the
Game Developer's Conference website.