I was inspired this week. As this is a situation in which I normally do not find myself in, I thought it deserved some analysis. First, let me tell you what brought about this moment of inspiration: I was just poking around Deviantart one morning, as is my wont, when I came across this.
If you can't smile at this, then you are dead inside. Sorry.
Once I stopped grinning, I stopped to think about what this image means. It's not just adorable and funny, even though it is, but it also represents an area of gaming that has not been easy to depict without access to the technology of the last decade or so. I'm not talking about some boss who has been carefully crafted to make you want to tear your hair out, nor a sprawling dungeon map filled with turnabouts, backtracks, and other diversions designed to make you wonder just how long you've been there. What this image reminded me of is how game developers have been able to use this latest technology to take on a much subtler challenge that gaming companies are having much more leave to grapple with. I'm talking about romance.
That's not to say that romance in gaming is a new development, because it has been with us right from the very beginning, but in a form far different then what we're used to today. Despite some of the independent games that ended up being made for the Atari 2600, video game romance has been pretty straight laced to the point of being quaint to us now. When I was starting out playing video games, expressions of romance in video games usually amounted to something like this.
Oh, the passion!
A modest start, I think you'll agree, but as the technology of gaming increased so did the ways that game developers could allow for more romantic interaction between characters. Despite often having nothing more to work with then awkward computer generated characters some of these scenes are still viewed as the some of the best ever produced. Let's take a look at one popular example, the famous Golden Circle date scene from Final Fantasy 7.
Yes, Cloud, you -are- a clueless goon, but at least you got into the spirit of the thing. Nice pirouette, by the way. But as the graphical potential of games was increased, the potential depth of human expression was increased, often to the point of being actual able to see what your characters were thinking and feeling! A remarkable development that was, even when it manifested itself in off the wall ways, like with this…
I'm not sure if he has either bad taste in women, or bad luck, or both. Anyway, both of these scenes do have a definite emotional weight to them despite the larger then life events that surround them. However, when it comes to being able to delve deeply into the emotional sides of video game characters, I always look at RPGs, since that has always been one of their main draws to players. The above mentioned FF7 above is a good example, but RPGs have changed a lot since then, and the nature of player-NPC interaction has changed with it, bringing a good deal more realism to the process.
One of my favorite examples of this improved PC-NPC connection comes from Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which I've been playing lately, and involves (warning: spoilers ahead) Serena, who is the female vampire who you meet in the Dawnguard expansion. Normally I tend not to travel in the company of vampires, but Serena has become my permanent companion in the game now. Not only is she very useful from a combat perspective, but her behavior in regards to both the player character and surroundings is the best part of the game for me. Even though you can't pursue a romance with her(let's face it…even a makeout session could go horribly wrong) I think characters like Serena are a prototype for future deepening of the PC-NPC relationship.
Although Bethesda Softworks is one of the top tier RPG makers in business at present, I think it's Bioware that have really pushed the envelop when it comes to developing characters for their games and how they interact with each other. Although there are quite a few examples in their product line-Dragon Age, Star Wars The Old Republic- it is Mass Effect where this emotional depth seems to flourish, even amongst secondary characters in the game. Like with these two, for example.
And how loud did I say "finally!" when I saw that last scene. With major characters, though, the emotional avenues you can explore are so varied that I could not help but be amazed, even if I never tried it myself. You can meet a character in ME 1, get involved with them, get reacquainted in ME 2, then break up later in the game, meet up with someone else, then get involved with that person and someone else on the ship in ME 3, leaving you have to juggle saving the universe -and- your love life all at the same time! Complicated as it may be, folks, that's a damn impressive accomplishment. I wish people would focus on just how fleshed out these games are instead of just talking about the games(or parts of games) where things get blown up. Take this example from Mass Effect 3, specifically, the Extended Edition.
The emotions of both characters are clear to see in this scene… Shepard's struggle to say what she needs to say without letting her emotions get in the way of her mission, and Liara's desperation to stay with Shepard and continue on despite her injuries are plain to see. One of the things that make Bioware games great is their ability to carefully develop and orchestrate the emotional aspects of their characters to create experiences that feel real, even though so much else of what is going on in the game is certainly unreal.
To sum up, I think the words that the Asari Consort, Sha'ira, said to Shepard on the Citadel apply best to what I think of both the present and future of games. Video games may be "what they are now, but not what they will become". We've seen a great deal of increased improvement and sophistication in gaming over the last decade and I believe it is this that will, to quote Sha'ira again, that will provide "the basis for their future greatness" and from what I seen of games within the last few years that future will be great indeed. I believe that there will come a time when we are not just entertained on a visceral level by games, but we are inspired, moved, amused, and stimulated in a variety of ways by games.
I, for one, cannot wait.
All the content used in this article above are the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual property of their original creators. Also, my thanks go out to Deviantart user neehs for kindly allowing me to use his image in my article. The rest of his portfolio can be viewed at http://neehs.deviantart.com/.