“The Love Grind”: Relationships as Gameplay in Persona 4 and Fire Emblem: Awakening

Over the past 5 or 6 months that I’ve been writing here at the Tertangala, I have ended up playing an unusually high number of games that feature significant romance and relationship building components. Somehow 2015 has become a year of digital matchmaking for me. It hasn’t just been the obvious dating-sim games like Coming Out on Top or Blind Love that have been asking me to play Cupid either. Plenty of Japanese RPGs and strategy games I’ve been playing lately have featured significant romance systems that have been woven into the gameplay, with varying degrees of success (Or ‘for better or for worse’, undecided. In the spirit of the #iluJam that was held in June to challenge how relationships can be explored meaningfully in games, I figured I’d take a look at two other Triple A games I played recently in order to give people an idea of how relationships in video games are generally handled.

Persona 4 is an extremely popular, genre defining Japanese role-playing game. Set in a contemporary Japanese high school, Persona 4 features a large cast of interesting characters that populate the school, shopping district, and residential areas of the city in which the game is set. Aside from the usual JRPG trappings such as turn-based combat, the game features a dedicated relationship system that can be pursued with a number of these characters in the game. As you spend time with them you grow closer to them, and they steadily reveal more about themselves as you do so.

As they entrust you with more and more of their secrets, your relationship with them (called a ‘social-link’) levels up. These higher social-link levels equate to actual changes in gameplay, giving you a strategic advantage in combat. With several female members of the cast, the upper end of the social-link scale will lead to a moment where they confess their love for you, and you will be able to choose whether or not you openly reciprocate it. This is where things get complicated.

The ways this social-link system actually present ‘love’ and ‘relationships’ ends up being rather messy. For starters there are a lot of heteronormative assumptions being made about the character and the audience when it comes to this dynamic. It is worth pointing out here that the player-controlled character is a male. There’s also no way to change this. Secondly, it is only the female members of the cast who will confess their feelings for you. None of the men make themselves available to you for romance, no matter how close you get. This is despite the fact that one of the male cast, Kanji, is frequently suggested to be questioning his sexual orientation. Why can’t I win the heart of Kanji in the same way I can win the heart of any female character?

Yosuke understands that representation matters.

Another issue I take with the Persona 4 example is that it doesn’t put value on love, but rather on the benefits that come along with it. That’s not to say you won’t find the moment moving in some way. My heart skipped a beat when Yukiko admitted her feelings to m-err….the main character. But when this moment is presented as the goal, the relationship that follows suddenly lacks purpose. There’s no deeper layers to uncover. No new experiences to share together.

Then there’s Fire Emblem: Awakening; a turn-based, military strategy game with a fantasy anime aesthetic. In this game you don’t really play as any one character, rather you act as a kind of omnipotent, unseen agent that guides an expansive army of characters strategically through a battlefield. But as well as ensuring your forces slay their foes, you are also put in charge of pairing up units for relationship building. Similar deal here as there was with Persona 4; stronger relationships mean stronger attacks. But there are actually additional benefits on top of those. Pairing units of the opposite sex will eventually lead to marriage (again, heteronormative) and  reproduction. When you’re done playing matchmaker you are rewarded with an additional character, the couple’s offspring, who you can place in battle with your other soldiers. What you might notice as you’re playing at this point is that the son/daughter of this pairing have inherited battle traits from both parents. Before long you are on internet forums trying to map out and plan who you should pair up with who to produce the most desirable offspring for your army and then boom! You’re people farming. All of a sudden you’ve found yourself playing out this creepy eugenics metagame in order to get the most out of your units and win a virtual war.

Eugenics aside, pairing Chrom and Olivia is a good gameplay option.

It’s evident that video games still have a lot to figure out when it comes to portraying ‘love’ and ‘relationships’ in healthy and meaningful ways. As soon as relationships get tied to another gameplay mechanic it seems hard not to see the relationship component as subservient to its gameplay benefits.

I ask, is that really the best we can do with relationship building in video games? To reduce it to an alternative form of experience grinding? I certainly hope not, which is why I would love to see the #iluJam carried out again. Then perhaps we can ditch the ‘love grind’ and really explore relationships in video games for their own sake. The aim should be to elicit an emotional response in all players.The first step to achieving this is to design the game with a more diverse audience in mind. Bring on #iluJam 2016!