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So, granted, this will seem a little less insightful since Jason Rohrer’s latest game Between, but I wanted to write about the lack of a certain type of coop game – a romantic coop game.

Given that game developers do generally pontificate on creating a game “love story” (ala the GDC 2004 Game Design Challenge), why don’t we even have the simplest experience you can play, in a romantic fashion, with your loved one?

Not a single player game that has a romantic story, which gets into all sorts of narrative design problems. Not a massively multiplayer game where socialization allows you to meet others, so any romance is only a side note or just one of many, many possibilities. Something you can sit down and play with your loved one, say in lieu of watching a romantic comedy like say 27 Dresses (because let’s face it, Katherine Heigl’s a total B).

Sure there’s the perennial Slashdot thread that hints at this idea, but somewhere in the rise of coop gaming, I feel like we missed a important inflection point. There’s nothing inherently stopping us from making this sort of game (or even making this sort of game genre). We have the tools and design thinking.

Over the past few weeks I’ve played Little Big Planet with my girlfriend, whose prior encounters with videogames were mainly along the lines of Mario and Paperboy. It’s Michel Gondry-esque landscapes are practically the ideal artistic presentation for a game to win over any adult without much video game experience. The little sackboys and girls seem ageless in their appeal (well, turkey-headed sackboys may not be the most appealing things for us vegetarians, but hey). 

I don’t want to get too much into criticism of Little Big Planet on this vein, because I feel like that would be critiquing it for the game I wanted to play, instead of the game it is (after all, I’m not a game critic, and this isn’t Mirror’s Edge). It didn’t necessarily set out with this aesthetic design goal, so it’s not really fair to criticize the game for not meeting it. Instead, it’s interesting to think about what you would do if you did set out with that goal.

Admittedly, LBP comes so dangerously close it’s hard to avoid… Beyond the style, the interactions you’d want to have are almost there, but not quite. Although you can hold hands, you can’t walk hand in hand. (You can drag someone behind you as they hold onto their hand… a subtle commentary on relationships? Probably not I suppose).

You’d like to give gifts, but you can only give someone stickers, and not of romantic things (like a sticker of a kiss for instance). Or maybe you can, but it’s something that we haven’t unlocked yet (you can pick an sackcloth outfit with a kiss on it, but it isn’t something you give). Unlocking things isn’t the biggest motivation when there’s just one person playing the game who may not have all the time in the world, much less two.

Competition is ok, but in limited bouts, with minor consequences for failure. And opt-in or at least choosable as to when you engage in it. Encountering a steep hill and choosing to race down it, for instance. It doesn’t have to be an explicit competition, just an opportunity for implicit competition. The classic in coopetiton, ToeJam and Earl, had both of you throwing tomatoes at evil Earthlings to escape back to your alien home after crash landing here. Periodically, inevitably, the both of you would devolve into a much ketchupier version of a snowball fight.

Sections where one character has to work to help the other are great, when it’s clear that’s what needs to happen and what skills are required (lord knows in LBP we struggled through several sections where a button needed to be pushed to open the real path, but only one character actually had to push the button). It would be great if those sections weren’t strictly controller-skill sections. Hey I get to feel all macho and manly saving my girlfriend, sure, but the opposite helps build confidence and serves as interesting switch in dramatic tension. Plus I curse a lot, have tattoos, and drink whiskey, so I feel plenty macho already, that’s ok.

Continual markers of points and which side is winning is kind of daunting. I try to make sure enough points can be gained by my s/o but it can be hard by design if I have to venture ahead to push that damn button, so either I’m left feeling guilty or she could be left feeling like she’s not doing well enough. Periodic mentions can be humorous, like stage end designations for who helped the most or who was the most selfish (ala The Legend of Zelda: The Four Swords). The competition is a flavor to the experience, not the primary motivation (much like unlocking things).

The reason you’re sitting there is because you want to share an experience, where you can interact together in a world or in a way that you couldn’t otherwise. Like fantasy action rpgs where buff guys swing swords twice their size, the fantasy of being something you’re not or doing something you couldn’t normally is important. Only in this case it’s not teenage power fantasy, it’s romance, which is part fantasy. In a good way, I mean – a shared fantasy.

7 Responses to The love story(game)

  • The only game I’ve ever seen that is actually about romance in this way is a pair of “pen and paper” RPGs called Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon. I suppose Breaking the Ice is more “cooperative” (lets see if we can get these two characters to have a happy life together) and Shooting the Moon is more “competetive” (two characters each trying to woo/obtain the “Beloved,” who can optionally be played by a third person.

    Apparently the same author made a third game in the series, Under My Skin, but I’m not familiar with it. The first two, however, I’d recommend as showing what sort of mechanics can get people thinking all romantic-like, without excluding enjoyment by people who haven’t made a commitment to one another. (After all, sometimes people just watch 27 Dresses…)