I spent thirty hours in Fire Emblem: Awakening before reaching the end of my climactic battle over the kingdom of Ylisse. I clashed axe against axe, mage against mage, and even poor defenseless archers against mighty Wyvern Lords. It is the most cinematic Fire Emblem experience to date and perhaps the most impressive game on the 3DS as of this writing. Intelligent Systems crafted an accessible entry in this long-running strategy series, and I somehow spent the majority of it obsessing over who was marrying who. In a game filled with bloodshed, permadeath, and ludicrous story contrivances, I was reminded of my love of, well, loving in gaming. There I was, walled against the dreaded behemoth of Awakening's final level, paired with my wife Sully and surrounded by my two children and their spouses. Picture The Brady Bunch, except arm the Bradys with fantastical armor and weapons and imagine Ann had transformed into a terrible hell beast and was waging war against the family without hesitation—I was touched by the moment, to say the least. Units in Awakening that bond (i.e. have been placed beside each other in battle) will support each other with statistical advantages. This is not unlike past Fire Emblem titles, except that Awakening is far more lenient with who bonds with who. This leniency led to a rather amorous playthrough of Awakening for me, and I spent at least five or six hours ensuring that the majority of the bachelorettes and bachelors on my team found suitable mates to keep their bunks warm. It's never been easier for a serial monogamist to have unbridled joy since Awakening only requires four support conversations before marriage, proving that courting others was much simpler when dragons and apocalyptic magic ruled the land.
Awakening's dating sim is, however, very lite. Pairing two units together and sending them to fight four or five units will suffice and earn the player a support conversation, and so doing that about four times and reading the text conversations that follow is a rather basic way of marrying units. This simplicity makes sense in context of Fire Emblem's complex class changes and strategic gameplay, and the dating sim mechanics that are present simply add weight to the companions that accompany you on your quest. So, what happens when you make half of a game based around social excursions? In her criticism of Persona 4's handling of queer characters, Carolyn Petit wrote of Persona 4's strengths as a disclaimer: “Let me state one thing...Persona 4 is an outstanding game. As its story has progressed...I've formed a much closer connection to its cast of high school students than I have to the characters in most games. It has repeatedly made me laugh out loud...occasionally moved me, as its heroes have formed happy memories together and faced great challenges together.” She's right; it's nigh impossible to walk away from Persona 4 unattached to all of its flavorful characters. This is because so much of the game revolves around interacting with them on a social level for hours at a time, forcing you to cooperate in dating sim mechanics throughout the entire game.
These activities include lunch dates, cooperative grocery shopping, and copious sessions of listening to other people's feelings. Empathy is everything when it comes to loving the characters in Persona 4. Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, and the rest of the cast might mean nothing to the player by the end the story if the gameplay wasn't so focused on exposing the player to every character's fears, ambitions, and adorable quirks. Of course, all of this socializing would be tedious if the systems weren't working to better the dungeon-crawling gameplay. “Social Linking,” as the game calls it, is the process of getting to know these characters better to receive certain combat bonuses. Maxing out the various social links available to you allows you to: create stronger Personas (Read: demonic Pokemon); better your teammates in combat, and uncover truth about these very real and (mostly) well-developed characters you meet. The more you socialize, the more smoothly you're able to encounter and conquer combat situations.
It's not a perfect system by any means, as Petit points out that the few social links in Persona 4 focused around queer issues are handled distastefully and never come to a satisfying conclusion. Much like Awakening's dearth of homosexual pairs and the inclusion of both bestiality (!) and incest (!), the lack of diversity in these trend-bucking titles is frustrating. But if you can look past the gaping hole of LBGT characters, both Awakening and Persona 4 use these dating sim mechanics to attach you to characters you need to progress with in both the gameplay and the story. There's no Western individualism here; on the contrary, it's a very different cultural mindset that drives these games, an air of collectivist thinking that emphasizes cooperation over personal ego.
That ego can certainly harm, especially when Western developers empower the player to the point that your teammates feel irrelevant. Dating sim mechanics and their implementation in the games I've mentioned here help gravitate the story to a place where everyone matters. I can tell you why I care about Yukiko's struggles with inheriting the Amagi Inn in Persona 4 or Sully's marriage and two kids in Awakening, but in the heat of space battles in Mass Effect, I can't tell you whether or not I'd care if Liara momentarily died or if Kaiden was suddenly wiped out. Those two characters perform just as anyone else do in battle, no matter how often I've gone to their bunk and discussed their intimate secrets, held hands, and even had a steamy cutscene or two. A deeper level of companionship belongs in our biggest games. Fortunately for them, western developers have plenty examples to learn from when it comes to tying us to the characters that we should care about.
Even Binary Domain, a Gears of War-inspired Japanese shooter, knows the importance of relying on others in party-based gaming as you develop trust with your squadmates as you progress through each level. You're able to gauge each possible relationship, no matter how insignificant it may seem when you're busting apart robotic combatants. It's not a matter of asking every game to become a Persona, Fire Emblem, or even a Harvest Moon. Mass Effect would have benefited with more rewarding relationship mechanics beyond the “Go to shipmate's room, absorb dialogue and unlock Normandy upgrade” routine. Bioware knew to implement actual relationship gauges in Dragon Age: Origins, but decided to leave the more micro-oriented developments in their action-focused Mass Effect. Instead of being able to gift Liara T'Soni scientific objects she might like or even support her in a special way in combat, I'm “rewarded” with dialogue that's given to me when the game feels I'm fit to consume it. The result isn't more cinematic or immersive; if anything, Mass Effect doles out matters of the heart without even a smidge of spirit or passion.
The label of Dating sim carries a serious negative connotation with it, boasting portraits of pubescent anime ladies and a suspicious relationship with Hentai games, but the hybridization of its intentions and other gameplay styles might benefit gaming's continued fascination with big-budget, roleplaying-inspired experiences. Mass Effect gives us a cast of characters that are worth exploring, but rarely gives us the opportunity to pursue those relationships on our own. My Shepard and Liara should have had reacted differently in battle, or at the very least I should have been given the freedom to pursue her as I see fit. When Dragon Age: Origins opened up to the first night of camp, I spent a good hour or two using all the currency I had on trinkets and gifts to encourage my partners to spill their guts and fall in love with me while the other campers awkwardly watch. I was given the freedom to pursue these characters however I wish and as quickly as possible, and I found those systems incredibly appealing. Grinding love may seem strange, but Pat Benetar taught me well.
Implementing deeper mechanics (or mechanics at all) for game relationships is a start, but that in itself isn't enough to deliver what I need out of these systems. Further fleshing out this hybridization takes responsibility, and if developers don't take to heart articles like Petit's or Anna Anthropy's excellent response to Bioware's “Gay Planet,” then every joy I find in these systems are for naught. I want relationships I can flesh out at both my own pace and with rewarding mechanics, but that much is meaningless if those relationships are the same heterosexual fantasy time and time again. A part of me wishes that the Main Character of Persona 4 could bond and right the juvenile ways of Yosuke, or that MyUnit (who is male) and Chrom could have taken advantage of the clear romantic tension that existed between them. There's a reason I've loved playing Persona, Harvest Moon, and the surprising liberal Sims franchise: I love loving in gaming. Forming romantic and platonic partnerships should feel rewarding, both in terms of story (Mass Effect) and mechanics (Persona, Fire Emblem). I shouldn't have to choose between the two when I'm given characters to role play as or relate to. More importantly, these characters and relationships should be as diverse as the relationships I have in real life. Relationships in games currently feel too ordinary in comparison to the diverse relationships I know and cherish in my life. Let's face it, when reality supersedes gaming's imagination, I know the industry has lost something.
I imagine somewhere in the pantheon of obscure and niche gaming, there exists a game with these qualifications to soothe my amorous personality. The industry is shifting, thinking more about violence, equality, and a whole host of social issues that move with the weight of tectonic plates under the games we love. All I ask, is that along with the bloodshed, supreme graphics, feminism, motion controllers, and the other topics that are making games a more interesting landscape, is that we include rewarding relationships in the catalog of necessities when moving games forward. Until then, I'll grab lunch with Yukiko, marry women-who-transform-into-dragons in my spare time, and hope that Big Bo comes to love me for who I really am one day.