The RomCom of Video Games

I don’t know that many people who play video games. Maybe five or six. And I know thousands of people. But in all honesty, it’s still a niche hobby. I’m okay with that. The gamers I know, though, feel like we’re all in on some rapturous secret. We don’t need convincing that it’s a brand new art form. We recognize its artistic merit in our bones because we’ve controlled that avatar, we’ve bounded through those worlds, we’ve experienced the lush landscapes that were lovingly created for us to test the boundaries of. We’ve rubbed up against it and had it rub back. That’s the beauty of video games.

But we’re still a young medium. Many people have compared us to film in its early days, when it was still trying to mimic the theatre stage, before it discovered pans, zooms and POV shots. It takes time to teach an audience how the medium conveys meaning. And it takes time for the creators to maximise what a medium does best.

For a long time now I’ve been trying to puzzle out what the romantic comedy of video games could be. When you go to the movies, you have a panapoly of genres confronting you. Action. Comedy. Horror. Thriller. Mystery. Sci-fi. Teen sex romp. Quirky indie. And while it’s true that games have been catching up, exploring its own versions of all those patented genres — for the most part, overwhelmingly, when you think of triple A, big budget titles, you are talking about first-person shooters. Call of Duty. Halo. These are the juggernauts. And, it must be conceded, its audience is primarily men.

Prince of Persia: The Prince and Farah

Imagine going to a movie theater and every poster featured variations on The Expendables. In that world, there are other movies, but you have to go to smaller, indie theatres. That’s where we are right now. We are in a transitional period. The medium is maturing and the audience is growing, but until some kind of tipping point, any high quality game that is going to need to make its invested money back is going to have to play it safe. And that means sequels and interactions on things that have been successful in the past.

This brings me to that other genre that dominates Hollywood — the romantic comedy. Instead of blowing heads off, we are easing hearts open. What is the video game equivalent of that? Why have video game developers not ventured into that territory? My friends suggested that The Sims was the best analogue for the romantic comedy. But this doesn’t seem exactly satisfying to me. The Sims is less a narrative story than a semi-open world sandbox dollhouse.

What is the primary goal of a romantic comedy? Two incomplete people overcome obstacles to come together. I would like to suggest to developers that they need a game mechanic that is as addictive and satisfying as shooting which they can then wed with a romantic comedy plot. Let’s go with something that is already quite addictive, like the match-three mechanic of a Bejeweled. Add to it the complexity of a Puzzle Quest, which contributes a layer of strategy and story to the matching. Also, add an antagonist. If the main character has a rival for the loved one’s affections, let the player compete against that AI.

Dom and Maria Santiago, from the Gears of War series

Similar to the way that Mass Effect allows dialogue trees as breathers in between combat sections, bring in dialogue trees to assess how well the couple are getting to know each other. Botched conversations can require additional match-three fields to be cleared. You can replace the jewels of Bejeweled with scene-appropriate icons. If it’s a dinner party, change the jewels to various foods. Spice the game with additional mini-games, possibly a chase sequence near the ending, and I think developers would have something quite addictive that they could sell alongside the wall of action games we see every fall.

Ultimately it’s going to be the story and the characters that compel a romantic comedy movie-going audience to take a chance on a rom-com video game. But just as shooters make you feel that you are the catalyst in “saving the world” or “warding off an alien threat” by (ludicrously) putting bullets in thousands of people or aliens, a good rom-com game should make you feel as if you are bringing these people together, or fighting off other suitors, or minimizing the obstacles to their union, by (ludicrously) matching three similar items.

As formulaic as it is, romantic comedies is a huge genre that the video game industry has hardly tapped. The right game mechanics coupled with a Hollywood-level story could spawn a whole new genre on the electronics-store shelves, and make a mint.

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Sherwin Sullivan Tjia is the author of five books: Gentle FictionsPedigree Girls (Insomniac Press), The World is a Heartbreaker (Coach House Books), The Hipless Boy (Conundrum Press). His latest is a choose-your-own-adventure story told from the perspective of a cat. It’s called You Are a Cat! (Conundrum Press). His most recent invention, the E-Z-Purr, is a CD with over an hour of cats purring! and is available for purchase from CD Baby.

Related on The Smoking Jacket:

Gaming: Ghost Recon, Interrupted
Game Review: Max Payne 3
Casual Gaming: Lego Batman
Alan Wake, American Nightmare
The State of Superhero Gaming

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