In the late nineties, my grandfather passed away, leaving behind his farm. In his old age, he hadn’t been able to upkeep the land and it was falling apart: there were no crops, no animals, and the fields were covered in rocks and weeds. It was a mess. My father wanted to sell, but I couldn’t bear to lose the farm: it felt like we were selling off a piece of my grandfather. So, against the better judgement of my friends, family, and all common sense, I uprooted my life and moved onto my grandfather’s farm, dedicating myself to restoring the old plot of land to its former glory.
I was terrified.
Thankfully, the nearby town was filled with friendly, welcoming faces. While buying my first packet of turnip seeds in the local town, I noticed a pink-haired woman named Popuri behind the counter. We started talking and I learned she was the daughter of the seed shop’s owner. She was an upbeat, positive person with an unflaggingly optimistic outlook on life. She loved flowers.
Everyday I would return to the seed shop, pretending to browse the inventory, just as an excuse to talk with her. Once I worked up the courage, I started bringing her freshly picked flowers from the nearby mountainside. As time passed, we grew closer: she visited me at the farm, I came to her bedside when she was sick, we danced together at the town festivals.
One day I received word that seeds for a rare flower, the Blue Mist Flower, were in stock. I purchased the seeds and Popuri and I went to the mountainside to plant them. When the flower finally bloomed, Popuri and I came to see it and, out of nowhere, a butterfly with wings the color of a deep, rich purple appeared, hovering over the two of us. It felt perfect.
The next day, I proposed. And she said yes.
In reality, I chose to bring Popuri flowers because giving her flowers nets you 3 Affection Points (AP). Strawberries will actually get you 4 AP, but they are more difficult to acquire. You can forage the Moondrop Plant, a flower, from the mountainside for free in every season except Winter, making Popuri the most economical of the five women to try and woo in the town of Harvest Moon 64.
It was important I talked to Popuri each day because each conversation got me 1 AP which, combined with the 3 AP from the gift, was a valuable daily 4 AP. Interacting with her at a festival was also critical as it could gain me 10 or more AP. I was able to check her current AP levels by viewing the color of the heart indicator in the bottom right corner of her text box, which had a color corresponding to her current AP level (White → Blue → Green → Yellow → Pink).
Once she had at least 205 AP towards me (Pink), I was able to propose, knowing she would accept. Of course she accepted. The math checked out.
Video games tend to model relationships as transactional. In Skyrim, I give a character three amethysts and, in return, I get a potion and his disposition towards me increases. In Fable, I can marry a woman as soon as I have a “marriage house,” a ring, and a high enough Attractiveness stat. In Animal Crossing, I can string together a series of gifts and favors to increase my friendship with villagers.
This can be taken to an extreme in Harvest Moon 64, where a glitch allows you to present your dog as a gift to Karen, another eligible bachelorette, an infinite number of times for 1 AP each time, allowing you to go from acquaintances to soul mates in the span of about 3 minutes.
To a certain degree, this makes sense: video games are programmed systems and you need some way of measuring and quantifying intimacy to represent it within that system. Yeah, sure, it’s weird that villagers in Animal Crossing evaluate your heartfelt letters using an algorithm that includes the ratio of space characters to non-space characters, but, I mean, they’re computer programs. What else are they supposed to do?
This transactional model of relationships, however, leads to troubling conceptions of personal autonomy and ability to consent of the characters opposite the player. If I know the right inputs, I can get whatever result I want. By carefully balancing Affection Values, I can decide who goes on a date with me at the Gold Saucer in Final Fantasy VII. I can keep restarting Mass Effect and see the romance subplot of each eligible character using the right sequence of dialogue options.
This all starts to feel uncomfortably similar to the manipulative techniques of “pick-up artists” chronicled in books like The Game or shows like The Pickup Artist, wherein men learn a variety of psychological tricks (false time constraints, critical remarks, isolation) to pressure women into having sex with them. The game Super Seducer takes this comparison to its sleaziest conclusion, with a game that teaches you how to “seduce” (harass) women through a series of choose-your-own-adventure scenarios.
(Angela Washko inverts this predatory relationship in The Game: The Game, putting the player in the role of the person being harassed by the pick up artist)
Similar to the world envisioned by these pick-up artists, players enter a video game universe where characters exist only in their relationship to the player. The player even decides when characters don’t react positively to them: with a high enough Speech skill, I can convince Moira in Fallout 3 to give up her dream of writing a book, putting her in a sullen mood for the rest of the game (or, as far as she’s concerned, the rest of her life).
Viewing relationships as transactions also scrubs away the context in which relationships occur. Outside of video games, a friendship or romantic relationship might be impacted by any number of external factors: your schedules don’t line up, your families don’t get along, you remind each other of something painful, you just inexplicably fall out of love. In the real world, it can be difficult to describe exactly when you two fell in love or exactly when you two started to drift apart. In a video game, it’s quantifiable.
I created Blackjack to help me think through these ideas. Blackjack is a simplified implementation of the gambling game blackjack, only allowing the player to either “Hit” or “Stand”. In Blackjack, your dealer is a friendly poker chip named “Chip” who patiently explains the rules and offers encouragement when you win.
After a few rounds, Chip, instead of simply asking if you want to “Hit” or “Stand”, will ask you, “How are you doing today?”, forcing the player to either choose “Pretty good! Hit” or “Not so great. Stand”. As a result, the development of an emotional relationship with Chip becomes inextricably linked with the mechanics of the blackjack game itself. Depending on the cards, the player may want to “Stand” for gameplay purposes, but may be uncomfortable with “Not so great” as a response for emotional development with the character, Chip.
The difficulty of choosing between these options only grows as Chip keeps increasing the current bet (threatening a game over, which ends all dialogue options) and as Chip continues to ask increasingly intimate questions, furthering the opportunity for emotional development between you two.
Blackjack takes the player-centered transactional relationship and turns it rotten: yes, your emotional development with Chip is based on a series of choices made by the player, but your ability to choose, your autonomy as the player, is shaped by randomly-generated numbers. Sometimes you get the right cards and it’s easy to be nice to Chip. Sometimes you get the wrong cards and it’s hard. Maybe you want to be mean to Chip, but you just don’t have the right cards to make that happen.
Ultimately, Blackjack feels unfair: not because the game is designed to challenge you, but because the game is designed to be apathetic to you. The autonomy of you and Chip is secondary to the whims of an invisible guiding hand between the two of you. An invisible hand that’s always been present in video games, tallying affection points, speech skill levels, friendship indicators, attractiveness stats, and translating them into intimate character dialogue and romantic cutscenes.
But in Blackjack there’s no mystery to this invisible hand: it’s just a simplified implementation of the popular gambling game, blackjack. And any friendship between you and Chip is just the luck of the draw.