Love is a Battlefield – Rambles about Bonding in Games

Love in games will forever be a topic of fascination for me. As games continue to evolve and experiment, how affection comes out in play tends to be an embarrassing but lovable mess. Like all other things, smaller games have tackled expressions of intimacy a little better, though I really can’t get enough of the really convoluted and often sketchy manifestations that appear in larger games. And this isn’t just about sex, but developing any sort of bond in a game. Fair warning, this isn’t going to get too deep, I just like to spark this idea up every once in a while. At the first Lost Levels, I gave a talk about how there should be romance play in every game, and I still stand by that. I feel like more involved ways to bond with characters or each other are still waiting for some creative people to uncover.

Within the larger spread of games, there are two main ways players develop bonds with other characters: one I call the action movie way, where you have a cutscene in between events where you have typically hyperbolized and extremely quick bonding moments, or the other, which is the visual novel way, where the entirety of the experience is character-focused and you go through events making decisions that change and develop the bond you have with others in the game. Some games do both, like the ones from BioWare, and there are leagues of pieces that talk about the pros and cons of these methods of intimate (or not) engagements. If you’re curious about these topics and don’t mind some of my older writing, check out a short series of posts I did about dating sims for Nightmare Mode and these two pieces for ctrl+alt+defeat’s issues five and eight. Wiping my eyes seeing baby critic Mattie writing, but all that serves as a nice start to how I think about the topic.

I recently got a 3DS, which meant I had to start catching up on the games my friends liked. Some of the first games I got were Fire Emblem: Awakening and Pokemon X. Both games stress bonding, though in different ways. Ways that I find both fun and really disturbing, mostly because they feel like the natural combination of games + love. Disturbing because of actually how complacent I was with all of it, though it’s all in idle entertainment. Mostly that combat and bonding are so closely linked, and just the general wonderment of how much martial combat is involved with the narratives created for us to view bonding in. Which is weird, I guess there is some strange carry over of brother in arms and getting the girl sort of seeped into everything. Though I’m going to be writing about these two games, Valkyria Chronicles is a game I think might actually get away with doing this war plus bonding theme, though good luck getting past some of those missions to even find out.

Fire Emblem might be a more obvious example as to why love + strategy = ummm… can be off-putting. In the game, characters bond when they assist each other in battle. This was actually the most enjoyable part of it for me, making sure certain characters were together (I kept a very close log of who I was shipping), and it felt like spending time together, in a weird way. I sort of miss the nonsensical in-battle conversations from previous Fire Emblem games, or at least, I could see a lot of possibility in just a little more voiced line interactions. If this happens enough times, they get small cutscenes that develop their relationship and level it a rank. If the relationship is between a man and a woman, eventually you will meet their child and they will become a participant in battle. It only takes a small perusal through GameFAQs and other materials to see how much the marriage aspect is gamed, who is considered a good father and mother, and how to get the best children. Outside of the protagonists, you rarely see non-rank interactions go on between the characters, so there is a rather jarring trajectory to how your party members get close. Interactions between opposite gender teammates go from subtle flirting, to less subtle flirting, to marriage in three scenes. Bonding is very easily seen as a ‘mechanic’ in all senses of the word, like I was the bad guy from Catherine trying to match-make all the heteros and ensure life goes on. I could see a clever anti-war twist on this, though really, I just want a smuttier Fire Emblem to come along, because really, the game’s battles are so easy to replicate and create and add on. There needs to be Fire Emblem: Barfights or Fire Emblem: High School.

The bonding metaphor in Pokemon is both a little more obvious and hidden. Throughout the series, a prevalent theme is the personal connection you have with the monsters you’ve forcibly captured to dogfight each other. Especially in Pokemon X, the reasoning that you do so well as a trainer is because you have an extraordinary bond with your pokemon, and there is the inclusion of Pokemon Amie, which lets you pet and feed and play with your pokemon outside the context of battle. I’ve been watching and reading some guides to competitive Pokemon lately, and very often in team building advice is to start with a pokemon you really loved. I’ve seen multiple videos where players will defend team placement choices based on their fondness for their pokemon. But as I explored in Pokemon: Unchained, an experiment in using house rules to explore the clash between themes and actions in a previous generation of games, there is little that supports this bonding. As you can also see in these competitive vidoes, you are effectively breeding pokemon for competition, and by the time you get to competitive levels, none of the pokemon you went on your original journey with will be used. Characters in the game will always remark on how well connected you are to your monster friends, no matter how often they are damaged in battle, or have memory wipes, or are downloaded into computers. Besides leveling faster, and one Pokemon’s evolution, there are some benefits to tracking how you’re treating your friends: there are moves that depend on how friendly or dissatisfied a pokemon is with you, and they get more powerful the more extreme these ratings are. So bonds, like in Fire Emblem, are pretty constrained to helping you in battle rather than having something intangible. Of course, there are plenty of people who have memories around the games (I’m one of them) and even certain pokemon, it’s just compelling to me that it’s surrounded by this context of forced competitive fighting.

It’s probably easy to guess why these sorts of interactions occur, that everything in the game has to serve it’s ‘core mechanic’ or thing the player does, and so in order to really justify having something like intimacy, designers probably only showed the aspects that related to things like combat. I don’t know why, but I’m really interested in strategy games as a genre trying to tackle abstract concepts like intimacy, though they very often come out rather, well, robotic. I’m curious as to what a game would look like, and thought of this many times. There is a political drama SRPG dating sim in space game that’s been in my head for some time, though that will obviously never leave there. If I had to guess, it’s that the movements of the game, being strategic and needing some sort of mechanical grasp by the player, could represent a very apparent and obvious ‘concession’ or ‘necessary evil’ that the player tries to resist at every turn, while grappling with the vague, unpredictable flow of connecting with others. Like play overall, we all have a structure of expectation around interaction, but it doesn’t always follow an expected course or go as planned. The only things that are formulaic are relationships in movies and, well, games. It would be neat to see an experience where the player had to continually deal with the unknown with relationships while working from this expectation, sometimes, or often, needing to depart from it.

 

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