Thursday, August 30, 2012

Where My RomComs At?

This is a post for the "New Horizons" blog round table thing at Critical Distance.

Literature, music, theater, and film all have long traditions of the "romance" -- and specifically in the Western romantic comedy tradition, it's usually about a handful of characters comically misunderstanding or misjudging each other until they're all forced to confess their true feelings, and then it ends with a top 40 pop song and a wedding.

Video games, comparatively, have a really weak romance tradition.

The closest thing I can think of is the casual time management / career simulator games that Emily Short regularly reviewed for her Homer in Silicone column.

Those games were problematic for all sorts of reasons -- they'd routinely suggest women have severe character flaws that could be fixed by being less ambitious in their careers or by finally settling down with a man or something -- but at least these games are problematic in fresh ways that are emblematic of a totally unrepresented romantic comedy genre of video games. These are problems that I'd love for a game to have, as right now games have much more basic problems like "women are currency."

One problem is the lack of genre convention for such games. Modern shooters are extremely convoluted experiences that rely on a lot of prior genre knowledge ("so I press A to sidestep to the left, and when I have strawberry jam on the screen, I need to hide behind a sofa so I can heal myself?"). These conventions are well-established and totally entrenched. Comparatively, the genre convention for human conversation as in, say, Mass Effect, is "talking to people is like navigating a phone tree; if I select the right option, they will have sex with me."

We need more designers on the front lines, willing to throw themselves at the holy grail of romantic comedy and fail miserably. The best design conventions that work, however, will be naturally selected for future games. We shall persevere.

Eventually your wife or boyfriend will roll their eyes at your inability to successfully flirt in Tryst 4; what, you've never played a romantic comedy before? If there's jam on the screen, you have to fill the flirt meter without -- ugh, just give me the controller, I'll beat this level for you.

So yeah, I don't give a shit about Citizen Kane. Instead, I want a sentimental, guilty pleasure of a game to play while hungover on a 7 hour transatlantic flight. I want a genre of games that always end with a top 40 pop song and a wedding.

I want The Sweetest Thing of video games. And photorealistic graphics aren't the problem; design is the problem.