Video games have had a complicated relationship with romantic…relationships.
But what about *insert game with romance options here* ? Most games treat relationships as an act of lust. Rewarding players through building a bond with a relationship, often solidified by a kiss or sex scene, simplifies their complicated nature. This official label is also often associated with player benefits, reinforcing this notion that they’re a status symbol. Haven is different. You’re already in a relationship so there’s nothing to chase after, yet Yu and Kay interact so lovingly and with such genuine affection. The relationship isn’t the end-point. It’s the focal point from which a huge host of systems are derived. In reappropriating romance’s role, it provides moments of introspection.
Lust and Gamification
Video games often gamify the act of chasing after a relationship, resulting in boons for players after sealing the deal. They either provide minimal stepping stones on the road toward official relationship status, or hold off benefits until that end-point. That “end-point” becomes the issue. Once you’ve finally romanced the waifu or husbando of your dreams, that’s it. You can ignore that character the rest of the game while still reaping their benefits. It’s disingenuous to the way actual romance works. If partners aren’t keeping up with each other through the relationship, it’s bound to crash.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Gamifying romance in the traditional sense works for certain kinds of games and maybe that’s the best course of action titles like Persona or Mass Effect will ever see. They could add an extra management element by forcing players to keep their partner satisfied to retain their benefits. Persona 3 flirted with this, but it’s since been removed from the franchise. Not every game needs it, though. If improperly balanced, it could be more frustrating than rewarding or impactful. Regardless, some players simply pick the hottest girl or guy, which is a player-driven issue developers can’t account for.
Gamification of Romance
Haven gamifies many aspect of Yu and Kay’s relationship, but it does so more intelligently.
Haven centers around a couple, Yu and Kay, stranded on a distant planet without a reliable form of communication to the rest of space. Their relationship is already established, opening with a mundane conversation between the two in the kitchen. Kay seems as though he’s about to add something interesting to the conversation and says, “guess what?”, to which Yu responds, “what?”. Kay tells him he loves her and they embrace each other. These are the sorts of genuine human interactions within relationships games tend to gloss over.
The chemistry between Yu and Kay is immediately established through natural performances that enhance a script rife with routine. They can turn something as simple as finding a new fruit into a cutesy “couple conversation”, bouncing off each other with a raw energy that’s missing from most titles with relationship systems. In other games, couples talk the way a scriptwriter thinks partners talk. In Haven, Yu and Kay speak as though the development team picked some random couple off the street and brought them into the recording booth.
How Does Its Gamification Work?
The pitfall other games run into is turning the entire relationship into a single system or series of systems. Yu and Kay’s relationship isn’t a system in itself, but most of Haven’s mechanics stem from that intimate core.
The turn-based combat is simplistic, involving both characters taking their actions simultaneously. Coordinating these attacks as well as rhythmically timing charged physical attacks and energy blasts echoes the relationship. They work together in their day to day, coordinating each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Yu is an engineer, but is clueless about biology; Kay’s main interest. It’s through them combining these strengths that they’re able to manage surviving on this planet. This mutually beneficial nature extends beyond combat.
Cooking involves Yu placing one ingredient while Kay places the other. If players decide they want to cancel cooking, they have to hold down A and Down on the d-pad to mimic the act of them both making the decision that maybe it’s not the best time to cook. The way Haven implements combat and cooking frames them as clear analogues to couples making informed decisions together.
Several actions ranging from dialogue scenes to combat increase the pair’s relationship, the closest comparison to a traditional experience points meter. To level up after filling out the bar, players need to return to the Nest (the stranded ship they live in) to share a glass of appledew cider, followed by a dialogue scene that pushes players’ understanding of the relationship. Yu and Kay even restore small amounts of health by hugging or kissing after exiting the nest or finishing an encounter.
In an interesting turn, despite players selecting dialogue responses for both Kay and Yu throughout, it isn’t meant to put its audience in their relationship’s shoes. When chilling at the Nest, players explore the ship in first-person with Kay and Yu’s models visibly spending time together. The Nest’s disconnected nature from its playable characters provides subtle insight into what makes Haven tick. A couple’s home is generally their most sacred place; where they’re most free to be themselves unburdened by societal expectations. Home is also where couples are at their most intimate with each other, both physically and emotionally.
The disembodied approach to Nest exploration makes it clear that players aren’t meant to act as stand-ins for these characters as in other games. They’re passive observers, only given control as a means of deepening the connection between them and the protagonists rather than being active parts of the relationship.
Haven Gets it Right
As a video game, Haven leaves a lot to be desired. However, as a representation of romance, few games depict this human element effectively. Romance sits at the adventure’s core, with every mechanic reinforcing their relationship rather than the other way around. It also encourages a disconnect between players and the characters because without this imbalance, it runs the risk of trivializing Kay and Yu’s autonomy. When they’re at their most intimate, players are simply observing them and there’s something special about that.