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Gamer's Paradise: Could "Relationship Games" Be The Next Great Frontier In Gaming?

In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she’ll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.

Given that games are about interactivity, inhabiting the lives of other characters, and inventing new worlds, it comes as a surprise that games about love and the interactions between people are still considered a relative novelty. It’s especially surprising given the close relationship the gaming world has always enjoyed with the computer and internet culture—in fact, they’ve evolved alongside one another and, in recent decades, have started to converge towards each other. Now, we see players and creators alike emerging from more solitary experiences of technology into a social media age, with an increasing focus on multiplayer environments and social play.

But in Japan, the “visual novel” genre—interactive stories about everything from wistful teen love to relationships formed against the backdrop of magical fiction—is exceedingly popular, catering to fans of romantic storytelling just as often as it ends up serving sexual fetishes that sometimes look peculiar to Western audiences. But although visual novels and “dating sims” are a robust and well-founded genre for Eastern audiences, there is very little crossover.

There have been a few interesting exceptions, however. Take the fascinating case of Katawa Shoujo, a crowd-sourced labor of love whose idea seeds were first sown in internet forums and have, over the course of several years, resulted in a multiple-choice love story set in a boarding school for high school students with disabilities. Its themes and explicit sexual content have made it a controversial piece of work, but inarguably a fascinating exercise in niche media and group creativity.


Screen shot from Katawa Shoujo.

It takes a certain unusual aptitude to gain success and visibility in the field of relationship games. One of the most exciting creators pioneering mature relationship games is Christine Love, an innovative writer and developer whose body of work manages a rare feat: To explore diverse ideas about love and social connection against the backdrop of technology and social media, without reducing those themes or pandering unnecessarily to “geek culture” tropes.

Love’s latest game, Analogue: A Hate Story, is a bit of a toughie to describe, but it’s catching tons of critical buzz, and it’s a finalist for this fall’s carefully-curated Indiecade festival, too. In Analogue, set in a far-flung future, the player’s cast as a silent protagonist tasked with investigating the log files of a vanished space vessel whose inhabitants may have been on their way to establish a new off-earth colony. Along to help are two attractive AIs, whose assistance and memories will help the player piece together the story of the ship’s vanished inhabitants.

Gameplay is primarily reading the logs, talking to the AIs and interacting with the smooth, white, futuristic interface. Yet it’s not the impenetrable sci-fi stuff one might assume: Where Analogue gets interesting is that, for unknown reasons, the ship’s inhabitants were a number of noble Korean families who for some reason regressed from a modern society to a dynastic, patriarchal culture. As players become engrossed in the mystery of the vanished families, they also develop highly personal relationships with the AI characters and are challenged to make difficult choices as to how those interactions advance and unfold.


Screen shot from Analogue: A Hate Story.

Love’s work is unique for the way it recognizes that the way digital interfaces connect people—and the way we imagine and personify those whom we meet across online distances—are significant forces shaping the way people understand relationships and romance today. Her Digital: A Love Story preceded Analogue, and puts players in an old-school BBS interface where a love story—and a sinister mystery—unfold through emails, calls to bulletin board communities, and cracked passwords. Also well-known among Love’s love-games is 2011’s don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, which examines social media, romance and online interaction in high school from the perspective of a schoolteacher.


Screen shot from don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story.

She may have such an intriguing creative perspective because, as she says, she never intended to make “video games” per se, or even interactive novels. Intending to be a “regular ordinary novelist,” Love began experimenting by adding music and interactive visuals to her work. When Digital was met with a rush of fascination from the indie gaming press, “I figured I might as well run with it,” she says.

And she saw an opportunity to fulfill an unmet need in the gaming space: “I don’t know why people don’t write games about social interaction and relationships,” she reflects, when asked to theorize. “…I don’t know about you, but I kinda figure that making sense of human relationships, or showing the ways in which romance is mediated by technology, is a whole fucking lot more relevant to my life than shooting space marines, you know?”


Screen shot from Analogue: A Hate Story.

Games are more commonly about adventure and violence probably because that’s what’s most often proven to work. “Is this because it’s easier to model firing a gun at another person than it is to model sustaining a romantic relationship with another person? Sure, probably. The latter is pretty complex, and the former isn’t,” she suggests. “I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse.”

Developing relationship games rooted in strong writing and storytelling is a fertile avenue for creators like Love—especially those who may not have considered becoming “game developers” specifically—to contribute to an emerging field where innovation is not only welcome, but needed. As for Love, she says non-gamers tend to have an easier time relating to her work than more traditional lifetime players, and creating that impact has meaning for her.


Screen shot from Katawa Shoujo.

“I read an article about a journalist playing Analogue with her mother, who’d never touched a video game in her life, but loved it because she treated it like a Chinese drama—that pretty much made me the happiest person in the world,” she says.

Even if the vocabulary to critically receive them may not yet be strongly refined in the gaming press, relationship and romance games have an important role to play. Says Love: “I’ve read a lot of comments on video game websites, and man, I think those people sure could stand to learn a lot about social interaction.”

@leighalexander

Previously: Rhythm Gaming Beyond The Band Game Boom

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