More often than not, when we talk about the ways video games portray relationships, we’re likely to be talking about one of three games: Mass Effect, Dragon Age or Fire Emblem. If not one of these, then one of the many dating games available (mostly in Japan). Honestly though, it’s probably Mass Effect or Dragon Age—and for good reason: these games, by a Canadian developer called BioWare, have achieved a lot in terms of representing queer relationships, and giving players a necessary degree of romantic agency.
But the communication in these relationships often feels stilted. They sometimes fail to fully achieve what communication in a relationship actually looks like. We see the attempts at flirting and the awkward ways we try to navigate these new and (confusing) feelings.
This is not to slam the romance in these games: I will go to bat hard for the true love of Panne and Donnel in my version of Fire Emblem: Awakening. But as much as these games offer both heartwarming and heartbreaking romances, the ways relationships work (and fall apart) are not the main focus. Communication is left to a conversation tree, and there’s little nuance. Who wants to get bogged down in a video game with the minutiae that real-life relationships are composed of? Don’t you have enemies to slay and worlds to save or something?
But games like Lifeline by Dave Justus and Will Love Tear Us Apart? by Mighty Box achieve a different kind of truth about relationships. That is, the unique and difficult ways communication can empower a relationship, while at the same time break down in horrible, tragic ways. While two very different games, both Lifeline and Will Love Tear Us Apart? offer a nuanced view of how relationships work. And both games feature barely a hint of actual romance.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Lifeline is a text-based game that is played in real time, with the player receiving notifications when the game’s protagonist, Taylor, requires your help. Gameplay is structured through a series of in-game text exchanges with Taylor.
You play as, well, you, an unnamed person who happens to pick up the frequency of Taylor, a scientist stranded on an unidentified moon. Taylor’s ship, the Varia, has crashed and as far as they can tell, you’re the only person who has responded to their hails. The written dialogue follows the same branching structure as other games, wherein you can choose to respond sincerely, tease Taylor a bit, and develop a rapport that works for you. Where Lifeline differs, though, is the way it plays and intrudes upon your life.
At first, you exchange a few introductory texts with Taylor. You learn about their position, can inquire about their name, try to feel out the situation a bit more. Taylor asks for your help, and you offer your opinion by selecting one of two options. Eventually, Taylor will need to leave you to go accomplish certain tasks. You get a new message: “Taylor is busy.”
The first time I was told “Taylor is busy,” I was annoyed. I wanted to keep playing. I wanted to learn more about Taylor, the moon they crashed on, and what the world was like for them. But Taylor was busy doing things other than attending to my curiosity and desires. I had to be patient and not too eager. Give them some space, learn the particular rules and boundaries of this particular interaction.
Then, when Taylor is back and ready to chat some more, you receive either a series of notifications, or one simple one that says: “Taylor is waiting for you.” This little line summarizes the whole point of the game: your attention and willingness to be there for Taylor is the only ways to keep them safe and to keep the game (and the relationship) going. And that’s a two-way street.
WHEN LOVE FAILS
Will Love Tear Us Apart? is a puzzle game inspired by the Joy Division song “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The game features two distinct puzzles, both of which eerily echo the exact ways communication and understanding can break down in a turbulent relationship.
In the first puzzle, you sit across from a figure that is humanoid but also vaguely ethereal. The figure offers three cards for you to study. Your job is to select the card which best matches how the figure is feeling. While simple on the surface, you are given no hard clues as to the emotions of the figure. It becomes a sort of earnest guessing game. When you fail, the figure becomes visibly upset—how could you have not known how they were actually feeling? Your failure to pick the right card too many times will result in the sentence “This is going nowhere” flashing across your screen. Communication becomes a frantic, messy attempt at understanding or placating—anything to just move on from where you are currently.
The second puzzle is a 2D maze, with you and your partner situated at opposite ends of the maze. You must safely navigate both to the center, safe from enemies. The catch is that when you move the first figure, the other figure moves in the opposition direction. The struggle becomes not just of reaching safety together, but of learning how to move independently without harming the other. Without words, Will Love Tear Us Apart? deftly illustrates the ways in which a seemingly united partnership can be detrimental to the other’s safety, while at the same time urging you to prioritize independence and care. How can you move safely together when you can’t even understand the other person’s most basic emotions, as in the first puzzle?
Combined in this way, Will Love Tear Us Apart? evokes a frantic, almost claustrophobic sense of a failing relationship—and your inability to save it.
Together, Lifeline and Will Love Tear Us Apart? chart the progression of communication in relationships: from the tentative ways we learn to be there for another person, to the turbulent ways our words (and those left unspoken) can destroy somebody else. Will Love Tear Us Apart? intrudes upon your memories and recollections, asking you to consider how you navigate a failing relationship. Less emotionally weighty, Lifeline intrudes upon your life like a lover, both patient and demanding, gingerly asking for your time and attention. How much you give, of course, determines the success of your interactions with Taylor. How you let it exist in your life is of utmost importance.
After all, “Taylor is waiting”.
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