Rachel Shepard - the particular Commander Shepard that inhabits the world of Mass Effect which finds itself brought to life every time my Xbox 360 powers up as of late - seems well on her way in her quest to romance her teammate, Garrus Vakarian. I have to admit: her interest in Garrus has come as a bit of a surprise to me.
Two years ago, during the battle to stop Saren and his quest to aid in the destruction of the universe at the hands of the Reapers, Shepard had seemed to form a bond with her Asari teammate, Liara T'Soni. The two met when our hero saved Liara from captivity deep in a Prothean ruin, and from that very moment some saw a spark between them. It wasn't usual for Liara to accompany Shepard on the various missions the Normandy crew found themselves becoming a part of, and that closeness on the battlefield no doubt helped to strengthen their feelings for one another once back in the eerie quiet of the halls of the starship they now called home.
Time, and events, can change people however, and the reunion of Shepard and Liara served as a strong example of this. Old feelings still lingered in both of their hearts, but it was obvious that the Asari had moved on with her life; few could really blame her for having done so. Shepard, meanwhile, found herself trying to fit back into a world that had now passed her by, in charge of a Normandy that felt both familiar and foreign at the same time, surrounded by a crew she hardly knew. Garrus was an old friend and comrade, and unlike Liara, he was ready and willing to return to Shepard's side as the universe was once again in need of a hero.
Okay, so, to be fair: not all of those details and plot-points come from the gameplay BioWare has infused into Mass Effect 2. Some elements are pieces that our brains are eager to fill in naturally when we begin to care about a game's characters. And romance, I have come to appreciate, can help in causing me to care in ways I never fully appreciated before.
The idea of love in games is certainly not new, nor is the idea of crafting entire titles around the concept of wooing a virtual partner. While not the first game to be classified as a "dating sim," Konami's Tokimeki Memorial series became a blockbuster franchise that saw popularity even outside of its native Japan; the game publisher has recently returned to those roots with Loveplus, a new dating sim series that seems to be on its way to gaining a similar level of fanbase and profits as TokiMemo achieved. Player-controlled romance has even been prominent in other genres of games that have made it to the West, from the farming sims of the Harvest Moon franchise to RPGs such as Thousand Arms and Sakura Wars.
Unlike Japan, however, Western gamers still seem to hold some hesitation in having games go in this direction. Some of that thinking may come from the not-so-pleasant reputation dating sims have outside of Japan - a game strictly created for dating an imaginary girl can seem to some (not totally unfairly) somewhat pathetic and desperate. More than that, however, I've seen more than a few examples of people simply not understanding why the option for romance needs to exist in a game, period, even when the game's genre is not directly focused on that goal.
The truth is, love - as a concept, a source of inspiration, or a final objective - has existed in gaming for almost as long as gaming itself has existed. Jumpman braved the obstacles thrown his way by Donkey Kong in order to save his beloved Pauline; the same character, now better known by the moniker Mario, did battle across an entire mushroom kingdom just for the hope of a little attention from a captive princess. Later, Sony's PlayStation 2 masterpiece Ico was completely dependent on creating an emotional bond between the player and an innocent and inquisitive young girl named Yorda. Twenty-four some years later, Link is still wielding sword and shield to protect the princess Zelda, and you'd be lucky to find a Japanese RPG that doesn't include one (or more) major plot lines based around young romance.
Video games are not some special exception in the world of entertainment, and as such we who enjoy said entertainment - whether we openly admit it or not - will find ourselves rooting for the guy to get the girl in the end. Or, you know, whatever other pairing we may be given for the more modern tales of action and adventure.
So why is it that many seem hesitant to allow that decision to be put into the hands of the player?