The Collection Paradox

I was inspired by the first episode of Border House’s new podcast. In it, Mattie BriceAlex RaymondAnnaRawles and Kate Cox talk about the ways that most games fail when it comes to representing romances in games. Speaking predominantly from narratives they experienced in Mass Effect (2) and Dragon Ages (: Origins, 2), they detail several situations where attempted alternative relationships — FemShep and Tali, FemShep and Jack, *Shep and Liara as just a few examples — failed because the game would not accept them. The “Hegemonic culture” of the developers locked out options that many wanted — same-sex options primarily with trans-gender or mixed-race character relationship right behind that. The entire conversation got me thinking, among other things, about something that had been brewing at the back of my mind for some time now: your in-game companions are objects in Western role-playing games*

On Alex’s post Women Aren’t Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex, Denis Farr makes the comment that:

“One of the problems I see with the concept of relationships (including sexual) in games in general is also largely user-focused content based on what the perceived desire of gamers [are]. So far games are very much about acquisition and collection, in general. The actual experience of the game? Not always, but frequently it falls to the wayside in lieu of collecting weapons, achievements, and gaining every experience (rather than enjoying the experience at hand).”

In my consideration of the narrative structure of New Vegas, I was struck by the fact if you never recruit a companion, the game fails two of the Simkins-Steinkuehler Criteria for Ethical Decisions, specifically:

“Players… have the emotional valence of their choices mirrored back to them in some way.”

“[Players have] a sufficiently rich in-game social context to render their actions significant beyond the individual level alone.”

The entire purpose of having any companion is so that humanity of a situation can be ‘mirrored’ to the character. The consequences of your decisions result in ethically bad situations not because you become more demon-like (e.g. Fable 2) but because people’s opinion of you change as a result. This is, as I understand it, what happens in Dragon Age as well. In the case of New Vegas though, the player has no clear ‘mirroring’ of their choices if there is not a companion there to be amazed, complain or even comment on their actions. Without a clear backstory (something that is of constant annoyance to me), Courier Six is forced into ethical compromises that help the player only. (In my own playthroughs, the temptation was constantly there to explore paths and seek out achievements not because the character would, but because I wanted them.) Companions could be pursued and kept on only as it served the player’s needs at the time, one could be switched for another nearly as easily as weapons or armor.

Despite their perceived narrative importance, companions are recruited and used not as themselves but as tools. I am not saying I did not personally include people in my party, in Mass Effect 2 for example, just because they were capable of certain actions. I liked certain members more than others and even included my romantic interest in as many missions as possible. However, the character selection screen highlights not just the people themselves but also their abilities. The game makes an emphasis on the capabilities of companions (especially in the case of Mass Effect), not their dialogue or conversation help. I’m even of the opinion that the conversation system in the Mass Effect games could have been improved adding additional options per companion. To think that someone would not step in to stop certain actions like Shepard pushing a soldier out of a window, for example, is ridiculous. The same could be true of The Lone Wanderer (of Fallout 3) or Courier Six (of New Vegas) suddenly start murdering people — your companions help you, morals be damned!

If viewed in the same light as armor or weapons, is it any wonder that a romance with any companion, if it is an option, is little more than prostitution? The more gifts given (in Dragon Age), time spent (in Mass Effect) or actions liked (in Fable 2), the greater the likelihood of sex. And that is the whole point, right? (I’m being facetious. It’s not. I know.) Yet, if the role of a companion is extended in the same model of adding to a weapon, it makes sense to follow that sub-quest to its logical extension. Loyalty missions, in the case of Mass Effect 2, are about taking time with each member because you need them to help you — it’s debatable if any player action is not taken out of self-interest — and so you help them with whatever their own problem is. Then that companion is loyal to you, the result of which is that they have greater abilities. If you want sex then, you will have to pay (in some currency) in order to get it.

The brute-force methodology to which some players approach this has little difference from rape, in a way. The dominant member continues to apply force, through actions or dialogue paths taken over and over, until submission happens and the dominant member gets their goal. Is it any wonder that few, if any, games have gotten romance right? Without some autonomy on the part of the companion — something both that Border House podcast promoted and I agree with — every relationship in currently talked about video games boils down to numbers that can be manipulated to the player’s whims. The only way to stop such actions is to put a wall in the path of the player, such as those that stop romance options with Tali with a female Shepard in Mass Effect 2. You cannot work Tali into liking you just to have sex, or even an extended romance, the game says. This cannot happen.

The Collection Paradox is that as long as players can collect companions, like any other object in the game, then there is not true equality in the relationship. No true romances are possible as long as the player has complete power in the relationship, yet the same collection process enables player choice of partner. As long as it is the player initiating the romance, controlling the romance and the player who can end it, then it is not really a romance. You have an object, not a person. Sure, some players can justify their choices and imagine rationalizations for the character’s actions but they are really just supplying their own interpretations for charming certain companions into a relationship. They, as the player, wanted certain people and, to put it in a very blunt way, talked or gifted their way into the character’s pants. (The one exception to this that I am aware of is in Dragon Age: Origins where a male character can approach the player with a romance option even if player did not prompt it — both male and female versions of the player-character.)

This Collection Paradox is not always a bad thing though. While it does, in most modern games, mean that any relationship can be bought into, it also means that the barrier of entry is lower. Something that both The Border House podcast talked about and Mary Flanagan spends time discussing in her book Critical Play is that games that have different romance options allow players the opportunity to explore gender and sexual spaces. The game world is a safe place for many to explore an emulated relationship with the same gender or difference race as the player. One of the strengths of both fantasy and science fiction as genres (i.e. Dragon Age and Mass Effect) is that they can wrap up gender and sexuality issues in a way that is easily digestible just by changing the visual aspect.

While I am saying that Collection Paradox is highly problematic, I do not see a viable alternative other than increasing the complexity of possible narratives in these games by several magnitudes. To increase the verisimilitude, the player must lose control. Each person in the world must be unique and capable of both starting and turning down romantic or even friendship advances. It cannot be just a matter of giving gifts but a combination of many complex attributes whose outcome is still left up to chance. For totally reality, the player must be able to be hurt, rejected and unable to get romances, something I do not want nor, I think, any one else wants in a video game.

If I have learned anything in my time as a Computer Science student, it is that you always lose something in every approximation. The cost of providing even some diversity of romance options means that such options have to be possible for any player class which means designing for the lowest common denominator: those willing to force their through way through the romance. This is what the Collection Paradox caters to and what many players come to expect. A large part of the market are straight males; they want to shoot things and buy their way to a sex scene. Since some already think of women as sexual objects, there is nothing to complain about in spending to bed Miranda or Tali in Mass Effect 2, for example. (In fact, Mass Effect 2 is an even worse offender by reinforcing the idea that sex should be apex of a relationship before a suicide mission, something misogynistic cultures did hundreds if not thousands of years ago.) By approximating relationships to fit this model, there will always be an aspect of adding to a collection more than a true romance with equality on both sides of the relationship.

*I understand I am being extremely simple here but this point applies to the most talked about games including the Mass Effect games, Dragon Age games and Fallout games, the ones praised for their inclusiveness (compared to other games in the genre). Eastern games, in another overly simplistic view, like the games in the Final Fantasy series are about people picking you, not the other way around.