I was disappointed with Uncharted 3 for a number of reasons. Certainly one of those reasons was that the game had bizarre difficulty spikes and could be kind of a dick sometimes. But another, possibly bigger reason was that while Uncharted 3 generally mirrored the pacing and story-arc of Uncharted 2, it lacked one of my favourite things about its predecessor: chemistry. Specifically, the romantic chemistry born of the love-triangle between Nathan Drake, Chloe and Elena. More love-triangles in games, please!
Anyone who's played Uncharted 2 probably remembers this scene above many others (skip to 3:50 in the video). In it, protagonist Nathan Drake and his current girl Chloe Frasier stumble upon Elena Fisher, the love interest from the first game. Awkwardness ensues. ("Elena Fisher, last year's model.")
It's a remarkable scene: Fun, genuine-feeling, and a great break from the shoot-climb-run-shoot tension of the rest of the game. The ensuing love-triangle plays out over the course of the rest of the game, and Drake's eventual choice feels honest, earned, and does a lot to inform the player of the true nature of all three of the characters.
Have you guys read The Hunger Games? Those are some fuuunnn books, buddy. I didn't know anything about them, and then I watched the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation, at which point I said, "Wait a minute, that is The Hunger Games? Sold." I Kindle-d them over the holidays and read the entire thing in about three days; I haven't devoured a series of books like that in a good long while. I generally describe them thusly: "Bloody-minded teen fiction that merges The Running Man with a touch of Twilight. Nowhere near as annoying as Twilight."
The books, written by Suzanne Collins, actually have little in common with Stephanie Meyers' indulgently trashy vampire/chastity-porn. However, their most Twlight-ish element — the love triangle that runs through all three books — is also one of my favourite parts. As much fun as it is to read about Katniss Everdeen fighting for survival against a monolithic dystopian government, it's just as fun to follow her ambivalent, surprisingly low-key relationships with two young men, both of whom love her in different, unequivocal ways. Of course, The Hunger Games differs from Twlight in another key way: The love triangle isn't the entire point of the story. It's merely something going on alongisde the main storyline.
Game or book, neither of the love triangles I've just described are interactive, but some games attempt to allow players more control. Almost all of BioWare's games feature possible love-triangles to some extent, and players get to choose who their protagonist will ultimately wind up with. In games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, romance is always on the table, and if you romance too many potential partners, it becomes a problem. After spending the whole game romancing as many people as possible, a couple of them will usually decide they've had enough and come to the player to ask for clarity. "You've led us both on," they say, "now you must choose." And as the characters say it, so too does the game — once you've made your choice, there's no going back. Bo-oring!
This binary resolution loses sight of what makes ongoing love triangles so much fun. The triangle itself is much more interesting than the resolution. The actual resolution of The Hunger Games' triangle (don't worry! I won't tell you.) is less interesting than the ongoing, slow-burn tension between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Ditto Uncharted 2, except with the long-running, subtle tension between Drake, Chloe, and Elena.
Furthermore, BioWare has a formula that they seem to follow — you express interest over the course of the story, and then, near the end, you finally have some sexytimes. That forumla has become a bit tired for me, and I'm ready to see it shaken up. Most BioWare games keep characters separate, and it's to the games' detriment. There's little sense of a fluid interaction among, say, the crew of the Normandy, so the fact that my Mass Effect Commander Shepard can flirt with Miranda in her office before heading downstairs to flirt with Subject Zero in her basement room means that the relationships all revolve around Shepard, but rarely intersect with one another. The original Mass Effect (and to some extent, Mass Effect 2) had some fun moments where, in the post-mission briefing, Ashley would be catty and dismissive of Liara, seemingly out of jealousy of her connection with Shepard. But that was about as far as it went.
I realise how much more difficult it would be to pull this sort of thing off, but imagine how much more fun it would be if the relationships in Mass Effect or Dragon Age spilled over into the missions? I'm picturing the romantic tension between Samara, Thane, and Shepard coming to a boil in the midst of a highly stressful, action-packed mission. That kind of drama is what makes the latter half of Uncharted 2's Kathmandu level so tense — Drake has been reunited with Elena, Chloe's loyalties appear to have shifted in the heat of the moment, and everything has become much more fluid and interesting.
One recent game made built its entire gameplay structure on a love triangle, with damned cool results. I'm talking, of course, about Atlus' Catherine, a game that both literally and metaphorically concerned itself with romantic geometry. Everything in the game revolved around protagonist Vincent pushing upwards en route to one of two women — his steady girlfriend Katherine or his sexy, dangerous paramour, Catherine. Vincent was — oftenliterally! — balancing over a pit of nothingness, forced to face his anxieties and figure out who, exactly he wanted to be. The game's entire morality system was based around this one choice.
As I play Catherine, I feel like I'm getting to know Vincent, even if I don't really like him. The choices he makes aren't always the ones I'd make, and if you ask me, neither of these women seem like much of a prize. But that's the point — in letting us inside of Vincent's head and decision-making process, we learn about a character that is in fact much more human and interesting than your average video game protagonist, Nathan Drake and Commander Shepard included.
So, sure; love triangles can be terrific foils for character-development. They're a great trope for storytelling, and can even serve as a basis for the game's core design. But they're also just a lot of fun. People love to choose sides, to root for their favourite — there's a reason that "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob" t-shirts sell so well.
I hope to see more drawn-out, complicated love-triangles in video games to come. Furthermore, I hope that game writers can keep in mind that romance, much like video games themselves, is more about the journey than the destination.
Our friends John Flansburgh and John Linell may have said it best:
Triangle Man, Triangle Man Triangle Man hates Particle Man. They have a fight; Triangle wins. Triangle man.
See that, video game writers? Triangle wins.