Tuesday, November 25, 2008

General RPGs' Romantic Pacing

Today's rant is not about an RPG-only problem. RPGs have this problem, yes. But it is only natural that they would, because all the forms of media closest to them (other video games, TV shows/anime/cartoons, movies, even many books) have the exact same problem. It's an annoyance to me in general, but the blog's about RPGs, so I'll just focus on the problem in them.

This problem is the pacing of romance in RPGs. Now, don't get me wrong--I love a good courtship-under-fire, that situation where a guy and a gal (not that a guy and a guy or a gal and a gal wouldn't be fine, but RPGs haven't quite eased their way that far into the topic of homosexuality yet) fall deeply in love with each other while running around in constant, life-threatening danger on a long and complicated quest to save their country, world, galaxy, universe, or whatever. Their quickly-formed bonds of love will form over the course of the game (and often wind up somehow absolutely essential to the plot), and by the end or at least near end of the game they'll finally seem to accept that they're meant to be together, whether they actually speak the words "I love you," or, strangely often, just kind of reach some unspoken agreement about it. Sure, it sounds stupid, and, well, it actually quite often IS stupid, along with lazily and incompetently written and portrayed...but it does often work, too, giving us really lovely, heart-warming love stories like Tidus and Yuna's (Final Fantasy 10), Dagger and Zidane's (Final Fantasy 9), and Bastila and Revan's (Knights of the Old Republic 1), among many others.

The problem I have, though, is that this is more or less the ONLY romantic pacing shown--the "Boy Meets Girl, Boy and Girl Develop Attraction, Boy and Girl Finally Establish Themselves as a Couple, The End" formula is more or less the only love plot ever shown to any significant degree in an RPG. The "relationship" they show isn't actually a relationship until the last moments of the game. Just about never do we see an RPG where a main character actually is IN a relationship, whether it existed before the game or came about during the game's events. Some smaller, side characters might have boyfriends/girlfriends or husbands/wives, but they're shown as secondary. Actually, hell, scratch that--they're never even shown secondary attention. That's given to side characters who are ALSO working their way into a relationship. Any side character who's happily involved/married gets just about nothing. Most of the time, any romantic scene they get can be summed up by:

Party Member: Hello, dutiful husband or much-more-likely wife. It's me, your wife or much-more-likely husband. I'm going to have to leave on a dangerous journey with a group of people who call me old just because I've been able to legally consume alcohol for a year now, because they need my help with fighting or thinking, as I am either a renowned warrior or much-more-likely renowned scholar.

Spouse: Okay! Love you! Bye! I'll keep the house tidy!

Party Member: Your support means all the world to me. Thank you.

Spouse: Okay! Love you! Bye! I'll keep the house tidy!

Party Member: I'll be thinking about you the whole time, darling. I only have my courage by knowing I have something, and someone, to come back to. Goodbye.

Spouse: Okay! Love you! Bye! I'll keep the house tidy!

RPG writers never seem to want to deal with the task of writing two people who are in love with each other and actually KNOW it. There are 3 reasons I can think of for this, but only 1 that I really buy.

Reason 1: Pandering to their audience. Just like Quesada's decision to break up Spiderman's marriage, the RPG writers have determined that their audience is a collection of anti-social losers who are incapable of finding love due to being enormous tools, so the writers give them the only side of romance that they can relate to--the build-up to getting together with someone, except that they usually throw in the happy ending that the gamers imagine and strive for but never themselves reach. The game ends before any specifics of how the relationship works are shown because the gamers themselves have no understanding of it.

Actually, that's not exactly like Quesada's plan to insultingly pander--the RPG writers probably aren't projecting their own misery and psychological issues.

Reason 2: The conflict of a burgeoning romance. The conflicts and difficulties of hooking up with the person you like are always interesting to an audience, and of course you can't show those in a relationship where you have hooked up with that person already.

Reason 3: Just about no one in any popular form of media shows stable, happy relationships. Even in cases where two people ARE together and are focused on by the show/movie/whatever, their relationship immediately becomes all about outside forces trying to tear it apart (and usually succeeding...we wouldn't even have daytime television if not). A happy relationship's aspects and hurdles aren't ever shown in other media, so RPG writers have a whole new world available to them if they want to show a relationship in progress rather than starting...and the newness scares the dickens out of them.

I don't think that the first reason's the case, because you can usually spot the RPGs out there that are insultingly pandering to their target audience pretty easily (shallow teen stereotypes involved in empty, meaningless friendships and won't-last-a-week romances with each other in Final Fantasy 8, crappy writing desperately trying to hide behind lame and stupid jokes and women who qualify as naked even when fully clothed in Shadow Hearts 3...that sort of thing). And I don't really think that the second reason's the case, either, because really, most of the RPG romances come about with relatively little resistance from either side beyond occasional stupid anime "I'll do everything humanly possible to deny that I have a crush on someone because it's shamefully embarrassing, somehow!" stuff. I mean, sure, sometimes the guy and gal have to work stuff out to hook up, like with Dagger and Zidane, but in general, RPG couples just kind of hit it off from the start and cruise their way into each other's arms.

So I'm left with the third reason. It's annoying, because until a significant amount of people are willing to take the plunge into the creative waters of portraying a stable relationship, it's not going to become anything more than a rarity.

And for clarification, I don't mean cases where you're told there's a stable relationship, but never seem to actually see it for yourself. Senel and Shirley in Tales of Legendia may be involved with each other in the second half of the game, once they hook up at the end of the first half via standard RPG love story pacing, but they live separate lives in general, and when they're together (which is almost invariably while they're with the rest of the party anyway), little to no mention or development of their relationship occurs. Ark and Elle (underground version, I mean) in Terranigma might be an item, but since Ark's away from her for about 98% of the game, it doesn't count. And while Shadow Hearts 2 shows some rather touching moments of the love between Yuri and Alice established in the first game, I don't think you can really count it in this case since it's Yuri being grieved over Alice's death. I mean, I guess you don't get much more stable than death, but...not what I'm talking about here.

(Not to say, incidentally, that I don't think SH2 does a truly great job with Yuri and Alice, and that I don't think it's an uncommon thing to show in such detail in an RPG--it does and is. It's just not what we're looking for in this rant).

I would say that of all the RPGs I've played, the only ones that significantly show an actual relationship for a fair amount of time are Dragon Quest 5, in which you spend a lot of the long and tedious game wandering the world with your wife, and later children, Monstania, which has the main character Fron and his main squeeze Tia already established as boyfriend and girlfriend, and Lufia 2, which shows main character Maxim hook up with and marry Selan, a woman he meets in his travels.

DQ5 doesn't really go into the details (surprise, surprise) of the relationship it shows after the wedding (heck, it barely shows the details of the relationship beforehand, and that's if you the girl the hero chooses is the one he actually knew before wandering into town the day before), with the hero's wife more or less just blindly and cheerfully following the hero and popping out a couple of kids (good old Dragon Quest, always keeping up with tradition!). Monstania, though, is rather nice, showing Fron and Tia knowing each other, sticking by one another, having the occasional argument that's not serious, and quietly reaffirming their bond through actions and small, non-dramatic words and gestures. It's not a moving, epic story of Love Conquers All by a long shot, but it's different, nice, and believable.

I think Lufia 2 does it best Maxim and Selan fall in love in rather typical, somewhat-odd-but-we'll-roll-with-it RPG fashion probably about 1/3 through the game. They get married, and the player sees a few scenes of them living a happy married life as husband and wife, fellow warriors, and equals. After these scenes, the adventure picks up again, and they go off together to save the world. During this quest, they engage in light-hearted banter, deal with issues of trust and faithfulness, act on the desire to protect their child's future, and share tender moments together when circumstances allow...things real wedded couples do, from what I've seen of'em. It's interesting, it's touching (heck, moreso than probably the majority of average RPG romances), and the quality and appeal of the relationship doesn't suffer at all for actually being there. It's a shame we don't see more relationships like this in the genre.