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When Will Video Games Finally Tackle Intimacy?

A conversation with one developer who wants to explore deeper relationships in games

(Funomena)
(Funomena)

Video games don’t have a great record with relationships. Romance in games often feels shallow and puerile — and that’s been the best-case scenario. Robin Hunicke, the cofounder of Funomena, has some thoughts about that. Her studio’s latest endeavor, Luna, features animals instead of humans, but examines the consequences of decision-making in an intimate way. She shared her thoughts on how video games can look at human relationships in the latest Achievement Oriented with Ben Lindbergh and Jason Concepcion.

"I spoke at GDC maybe three years ago now, maybe four," Hunicke began. "I stood up onstage and started reading words out loud that I thought were not being expressed in games. And I put them up onscreen really slowly, almost like a strip tease. And it was like ‘intimacy’ and ‘passion’ and ‘vulnerability’ and ‘lust’ and ‘rejection.’ If you look at the world, most people are trying to find someone to have sex with, to cuddle with, to be with. Whatever that person looks like, whatever gender they are or however they express themselves, it doesn’t really matter — most people really love being with other people. And they love sharing their experiences and their bodies with one another. And we as an industry, and honestly as a society, don’t spend that much time really talking about it in our media."

For Hunicke, it’s not even just video games that have this problem.

"We have romance movies. We have the rom-com, right? But when you really talk about intimacy and love and the feelings that we all experience in terms of narratives and experiences, our best material is often books. So what I’m really interested in is thinking about, ‘What does it mean to build a game about a relationship and have it be moving and have the love part in it?’"

One 2016 game — Campo Santo’s Firewatch — took a look at a fictional relationship between a man and a woman on different sides of a radio as he spent a summer in Wyoming watching for forest fires. But the game didn’t fully explore what that could have developed into.

"Firewatch kind of takes you right up to the line and then [backs off]. … I’m enamored with Campo Santo and the team behind Gone Home because they’re making stories about intimacy and relationships that are really compelling. And Luna has a story that in some ways is a little bit based on this idea that you can do something in the moment and it will seem like a good idea, and then it wasn’t. And we don’t really celebrate that aspect of our lives; in fact, sometimes we hide it."

Luna considers this type of impulsiveness from a different perspective.

"We learn by making mistakes and recovering from them. What if I want to tell a story about why people get together and then break up? What if I wanted to really explore this notion of, some things aren’t meant to be? Some relationships teach you something, but then you have to let them go. That’s really the kind of stuff I’m interested in."

She concluded:

"I’m not saying you have to make a game with people having actual, physical sex in it. That would be great, too. But I want to see games where I can kind of explore what a relationship could have been like from multiple angles and really get to know this person and see them from a completely different perspective and different playthrough. I really want that. I know it’s hard. I know the reason we don’t do it is because AI is hard. Character design is hard. Writing is hard. But it’s not that hard."

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.