Romance in Video Games Can Sometimes Be Best Expressed Through Words Alone
‘Night in the Woods’ screenshots courtesy of Infinite Fall.

Romance in Video Games Can Sometimes Be Best Expressed Through Words Alone

‘Night in the Woods’ is a rare example of a game that convincingly shows a relationship in motion, even when its partners are apart.
May 11, 2017, 7:12pm

There's nothing like the thrill of a good flirty conversation. Forget rollercoasters, drugs and bungee jumping—I get my kicks from not-so-subtly implying that I'm thinking about ripping someone's clothes off. I'm terrible at it, but it's a lot like being witty: It's all about the ability to come up with something coy as an instant come-back, often accompanied by a wry smile. Or, if you're me, a sudden, red-hot blush and the inability to look the other person in the eye.

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Now, I'd really like to try not to mention BioWare in every single one of these columns, but I guess until mainstream gaming picks up the damn romance baton it's going to keep happening. So, let me tell you about my absolutely disastrous flirt-a-thon in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

There's this guy. His name's Dorian. He's a mage, incredibly fancy, with a stupid hipster moustache. He flirts almost accidentally, like breathing. It's just how he talks to people. Now, Dorian is gay, but, well, I didn't know. He was flirting with me, and I thought he was cute, and I'm just not the most observant of people. It took going on his personal quest for me to realize why he wasn't making a move, and that's only because his personal quest was to come out to his homophobic father.

Ohhhhhhhh.

When my character talked to him afterwards, hurt and confused at how he'd been leading me on, he apologized, saying that he didn't mean to hurt me—he was just a flirt. And oh, to have that acknowledged by the writers! To have "a bit of a flirt" actually written into his character! So many female characters in games are, by default, about 20 seconds away from tearing all their clothes off, speaking in that low, lust-filled moan of a voice. They just can't help it. You're just so sexy. But the boys? They just don't usually bother.

Blackwall from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Screenshot courtesy of EA/BioWare.

But after my awkward lovelorn run-in with Dorian, I decided to play the rest of the Inquisition field. There was this guy called Blackwall—he was a little boring, but he was also the strong, silent type. Big beard, heavy brow, large sword, could probably throw you over his shoulder and carry you off. We flirted a little, and by "a little" I mean that I think I said maybe one flirty sentence to him, and he fell madly in love with me. He kept doing intense, rainy rooftop declarations about how torn he was about "our love," while I awkwardly tried to back out without breaking his heart. It's not like that kind of overly intense guy doesn't exist in real life—we've all got legions of boys madly in love with us, right?—but to have it played out in a game was uncomfortable, to say the least.

But even when I think about games like BioWare's, which handle flirting so masterfully, they never really put the player in charge. Your dialogue options are usually limited to non-sexy things about politics, diplomacy and combat, and one "romance" option that triggers a sexy cutscene. You can't pick from multiple types of flirt. It's similar even in games designed to be about flirting, like visual novels, which handle it much better.

Gregg and Angus represent something incredible in games, and in real life: a relationship that exists out of the moment.

Ladykiller in a Bind lets you choose from a couple of suggested dialogue options during conversations, which are labeled with emotions/behaviors, from things like "Honest" and "Ruthless" all the way to "Flirty." Often, more than one of the options is provocative—"Don't fight over me" is apparently more flirty than "It'll take more than that"—but that's to be expected in a game that's about triggering sexy scenes with as many people as you like.

But the flirting isn't the sexiest, or most romantic dialogue in Ladykiller, for me. Instead, it was the tender, quiet scenes with in-game characters The Stalker and The Beauty, once both of you are naked, laid bare both physically and emotionally. It's then that the characters—and the protagonist—discuss their feelings, their hang-ups, their kinks. It's as real as relationships get in games, and it's heartwarming to read two people muddling through together.

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You can almost sense the writer reaching out through the words, drawing on their own experience of romantic and sexual situations, pouring their wealth of empathy and understanding into the dialogue. With larger games, there are more fingers in the narrative pie, and stories end up being sanitized into something more fictional, crowd-sourced, and less experience-based.

Gregg and Angus speak to Mae in a scene from Night in the Woods.

But good, romantic dialogue doesn't always have to be flirting. In fact, it doesn't always have to be something said to the other interested party. In Night in the Woods, which came out a couple of months ago, there is a couple—Gregg and Angus—whose romance makes my heart melt into a big puddle of weepy goo. It kills me. They're portrayed as this odd balance, with Angus as a quiet, stoic chap and Gregg as maybe the most excitable person in the universe, but they just work together. There are multiple scenes where Mae, the protagonist, spends time with just one of them, and they tell her how they feel about the other.

Gregg worries he is not good enough. "I just don't ever want to lose him. Ever."

Angus appreciates that Gregg is there for him. When he's at a party, and he wants to find a corner to hide in—"he's my corner".

Okay, I can't talk much more about Gregg and Angus because I love them so much it hurts, and also, spoilers. But they represent something incredible in games, and in real life: a relationship that exists out of the moment. One where it matters so much to each party that they can't help but talk about how they feel to other people, one where their love for each other spills out and gets all over everyone's shoes. I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff (even though my heart hurts so much), and judging by the amount of Gregg/Angus fan art, the internet agrees with me.

Related, on Waypoint: 'Night in the Woods' is Soulful, Empathetic, and Too Real

I feel like every one of these columns ends with the same sentiment: Hey, games aren't great at this one particular thing, let's do better in future, hire more diverse people, and play more indie games. That still applies here, of course, but I want to say something deeper, too: don't be afraid to put yourself into your games. Pour your heart out, if you must, dig deep for the most hurtful and most beautiful relationships you've had. Let that influence your writing, your design. When we are at our most vulnerable is when we can make the most meaningful connections.

What happened between me, Dorian and Blackwall genuinely hurt because they reminded me of real situations I'd been in. Gregg and Angus fill me with warm, bubbly happiness because their love is messy, imperfect, and beautifully aspirational. I want a Gregg or an Angus in my life. I want to be someone's Angus or Gregg. God knows we've got enough cynicism in video games—let's learn to be vulnerable again.

Read more Kiss and Tell columns here.

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