Waifu Wednesday – Without the Heart

Waifu Wednesday is a weekly column dedicated to the exploration of relationships in games, with occasional asides to explore the characters that make these relationships possible.

I sincerely dislike pick-up artistry. The idea that there are psychological techniques that can almost universally go beyond the conscious mind to foster an immediate sort of relationship is weird and unnerving to me. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that there’s a plug-and-play solution to interaction, and even more uncomfortable with the idea that such a thing may exist in favor of meaningful connection; just performing the right sequence of inputs.

Simon Says is probably the worst model on which to build a relationship.

However, in games, there’s often very little else that relationships are built on. In games like Harvest Moon and the recent indie darling Stardew Valley, relationships are built on “right” answers, daily conversations, and gifts. In Mass Effect, the same thing that endears squad members to unveil held secrets is also the same thing that inspires shed clothes and sensual encounters. In Persona 4, simply finding time to spend a few hours with someone when not finding a murderer yields the deep, close connection that accompanies a romantic relationship. Although these scenes are all well-written, well-acted, and almost universally personable, they’re tragically systemic. It’s just a numbers game, repeating a sequence of actions over and over and over and over until all the variables and systems line up properly, and then like magic, there’s a relationship!

In particular, Stardew Valley has to be one of the most systemic examples in recent memory. Villagers grow to appreciate a person more by being spoken to on a regular basis, by being given gifts twice a week, and by having errands and favors done for them by the player. When these actions are repeated enough times, the farmer and the character share a moment of connection or characterization, but it’s entirely scripted. Nothing of value is changed by any decisions within these scenes, and whether or not they happen is unrelated to any sense of humanity the player could ever hope to transmit through the controller.

Because everything is so determined by simply following the right recipe for success, relationships in games can be increasingly meaningless. As a player, that human ability is lost in favor of something more mechanical. Insert gift, insert time, insert conversation, get relationship. Every dedicated effort toward building a relationship is pretty much guaranteed, regardless of what the player would normally bring to the table.

Relationships are built on so much more than repeated inputs, though, and many of the things that make a relationship work (or don’t) have very little to do with having followed all the right steps and having made enough effort to simply talk. Relationships are built endlessly on connection, on pleasure, on shared experiences, on relatability, on successes and failures, on hopes, on dreams, on lifestyles, and on and on and on. Relationships are big, spiraling, messy, natural, perfect, confusing, cataclysmic, and sweet, all rolled into snapshots of life, tableaus of both the beautiful and bleak, set to the soundtrack of life. Relationships are both reality and poetry, in seemingly equal parts, so it should be no surprise that a simple system would be able to do that justice. They’re just too human to be so cleanly machined, shaped, and created.

As a result, it’s hard for games to represent the player-half of relationships. Players can’t contribute meaningfully. These contributions are instead more consumer-driven, like a vending machine, in which the player is expected to input gifts, conversation, and time, and without any other factors, affection is dispensed. Enjoy your bevera- er… bride.

Relationships in games are, instead, a strange form of stalking; in which players objectify their potential partners. It becomes a game of memorizing favorite gifts, learning daily schedules, finding the right things to say in the dialogue wheel, and repeating the action that is the most effective. “I love animals!” the player might say, and in some memory board or string of code, a 0 flips to 1, and the heart grows fonder. Is it the truth? Does it matter? These things aren’t really important for the relationship, because that part of the relationship isn’t realized. Instead, the trappings of having figured out the right answer, gamed the system, and checked the right box is the only metric that the game allows the player to interact.

Persistence is the only rewarded behavior. As long as a player shows up often enough, gives good enough gifts, and presses the A button enough times in front of the paramour-to-be over the course of several hours, days, seasons, or years, then a relationship will blossom. Even in instances where a not-yet-partner has no initial affection for the player character, relationships are still achievable.

A million bad gifts can only bring the system’s affection down to 0 – back to the starting point – but can never ruin the player’s chances with that character. There are no failure states to in-game relationships, because any relationship that can exist in a game is in one of two states: in a relationship, or not in a relationship yet.

Because these relationships can’t fail, they likewise can’t be meaningful. To be able to connect or fail to connect in any significant way requires that there are other aspects of a relationship. Any relationship, then, is just as fragile and inconsequential on its tenth anniversary as it was on its first meeting. The things that happen in-between are largely built on a mountain of diamonds, rabbit’s feet, favors, meaningless conversations, and a few scripted cutscenes. Give a gift. Press A a few times. Just follow the sequence.

Red, green, blue, green, yellow, red, red, green, red, blue, blue, red, yellow, green…

With that in mind, I can’t help but imagine the sounds of Jaws when my farmer creeps toward Penny with a melon raised overhead. In due time, she will grow to love him. One melon, one conversation, and one favor at a time. When they get married, it will have all the hearts on the menu filled out, but none of the heart.

Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and also among more qualified people as Features Editor at Haywire Magazine. If you want to read more of his words, you can check out his other works throughout the site, or his small musings on Twitter.

Special thanks to the strange minds of @pigeon_of_deux, @ZeRootOfAllEvil, and @Lost_inthe_Void for the inspiration of a Waifu Wednesday column.

One response to “Waifu Wednesday – Without the Heart

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