Counter Attack is a weekly feature on Quad Nine in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news and the niggling issues plaguing the industry. This week he’s taking a look at video game romances. Bad ones, mostly.
Ah, Valentine’s Day is once again upon us. Yes, love is in the air. And in the true spirit of love it’s time to give in to rampant commercialism and the flagrant bastardisation of a Christian celebration by spending your hard earned cash on extortionately priced flowers and tacky plastic bollocks covered in hearts. For our part, to celebrate Valentine’s Day here at Quad Nine, this week there’s a very special edition of Counter Attack in which I’ll be looking at romance in gaming. And I’m not just doing this because there’s been no news of any importance this week before you point that out. Scout’s honour.
Many, many moons ago when I was but a boy, romance in video games could generally be summed up thusly; boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl is kidnapped by some sort of evil doer, and boy rescues girl by kicking the shit out of a legion of villains. One of the first video games I ever played was a Commodore 64 side-scroller named Prince Clumsy and the entire game was built around saving the love of your life from just such a villain. Helpless, the shrieking damsel in distress waits in a tower for her true love to run, jump and slay his way to save her from the prison cell her evil sister has placed her in. As Prince Clumsy arrives to rescue his beloved (spoilers for a twenty-six year old game, here) the music changes, the word “Congratulations” is thrown across the screen, and you type in your initials so the game can record your high score. Love is nought but a game and the object of your affections merely a trophy to be handed out to the winner. And they said romance was dead.
Okay, so let’s not give Prince Clumsy too much shit over this. The game came out in 1990 and featured a plot that could have been written in its entirety on the back of a postage stamp while still leaving enough room for a rudimentary schoolboy cock drawing; pubes and all. Prince Clumsy is a product of it’s time, and while it would have been nice to have seen more games where the lady was rescuing the prince or even where she rescues herself, the fact is that games like these couldn’t handle a sprawling plot like War And Peace and story was largely considered an after-thought. Prince Clumsy cost £3.99, came on a tape, took ten minutes to load, and ten minutes to beat. Appropriating classic rescue-the-princess-from-the-dragon fairy tales was about all you could expect back then and countless games from Mario to the original Prince of Persia all followed a template like this.
While the reduction of the female component of a relationship to a proverbial medal to be pinned on the lapel of our heroic male gamer adheres to a mildly offensive trope that gaming still hasn’t quite shunned, Prince Clumsy featured by no means the most troublesome depiction of love we’d see in a video game. Let’s take the NES classic, Ninja Gaiden, for example. Ninja Gaiden is remembered primarily for three things. First, it was a great game. Second, it was harder than a coffin nail. And third, it was one of the first games to use cut-scenes to attempt tell a story. Ninja Gaiden featured small cut-scenes at the beginning and the end of the game, as well as several sprinkled between levels. This was an important moment for gaming; cut-scenes went on to be a hugely popular method of relaying information within games and they’re still used frequently today.
Unfortunately, while Ninja Gaiden was making strides in story-telling in gaming from a technical standpoint, in a literary sense the plot was ridiculous and the romance was, shall we say, unconventional. Series hero Ryu meets a girl named Irene in the midst of his quest to avenge his fallen father and she promptly shoots and kidnaps him since she’s working for the enemy. Still, never one to let attempted homicide get in the way of a potential notch on his bed-post, Ryu still only has eyes for Irene. It’s love you see. Spurred on by the love of a girl he’s just met and who has already tried to kill him, he just flattens all of the villains and then announces that he’ll be taking Irene as a prize for completing his quest. He actually says that to her. He tells her she’s his prize. Out loud. Imagine if you said that to a girl on Valentine’s Day. You’d be going home for a Pot Noodle and a wank. But as it happens Irene is not your average girl and it seems that being the personal property of a man she tried to kill mere hours previous really gets her motor running. Seconds later the two stand arm in arm and watch a beautiful sunset together and then presumably go home to get up to all kinds of nasty ninja fucking. Just like When Harry Met Sally. Fin.
Still, there were glimmers of hope back then, too. In 1990, Lucasfilm Games released The Secret of Monkey Island; a massively influential and important point and click adventure game that took some interesting turns in regards to love. The game stars wannabe pirate and quintessential buffoon, Guybrush Threepwood, who wants nothing more than to abandon his boring life and sail the seven seas as a fearsome pirate. His quest to become a pirate largely revolves around completing menial tasks for other pirates, swordfighting, and dealing with a spectacularly annoying used ship salesman, but along the way he meets the plucky governor of Melee Island, Elaine Marley. Guybrush falls for her almost immediately since she tends to have it “goin’ on” as the kids on the street would say. Sadly, Elaine is soon kidnapped in a plan orchestrated by the evil ghost pirate LeChuck and our intrepid hero must venture forth into the unknown to save his fair maiden.
What’s interesting about this relationship is that Guybrush spends half of the game getting his shit together to go and save Elaine, and then when he finally catches up to her she reveals that her kidnapping was a ruse that she herself put into motion. She was never in any actual danger because she was totally in control of the entire situation, and Guybrush is actually cocking things up for her by trying to save her. It’s a cool spin on the traditional “save the princess from the castle” trope, and one that helped make the Guybrush and Elaine love story a little more unique.
That being said, despite the interesting approach Lucasfilm Games took to the romance between Guybrush and Elaine it still felt somewhat forced. The pair barely interact throughout the playing time and fell helplessly in love with each other regardless. But hey, it was 1990. It was a simpler time back then and technology was frequently a hurdle that gaming had to overcome. Game creators like Hideo Kojima had big ideas in the early years of gaming with the likes of the original Metal Gear, but it wasn’t until Metal Gear Solid years later that his dreams of an interactive action movie started to come to fruition. The limitations of the hardware meant that games simply couldn’t match up to movies or television when it came to building compelling relationships between characters, but as time has gone on and voice acting and motion capture have become the norm, complex relationships and believable character interactions are not just now possible; they should be expected.
Sadly, that’s not always the case. Unlike television or movies or books, video games are unique in that the person consuming the art, in this case the player, can have some level of sway over the outcome of the story. If you watch the classic ’80s movie Back To The Future, Marty McFly is always going to be late for school. He’s always going to go back in time. He’s always going to have his hot mum hit on him and he’s always going to ultimately save the day. But games aren’t like that. Even in linear games there’s no guarantee that the player will finish each section in a way that won’t ruin the pacing of the story. Getting stuck at an incredibly hard boss could make the player frustrated and lead to the following cut-scene not having the emotional impact that the developers intended. And once you start throwing player choices into the mix, trying to tell a compelling story can turn into a minefield.
Enter Quantic Dream and their 2005 game, Fahrenheit. Few games start as well as Fahrenheit does. Lucas Kane wakes up in a diner restroom with a dead body in front of him and blood all over his hands. He has no idea what happened but he knows that it’s going to look pretty incriminating if anybody catches him, quite literally, red handed. And so begins a game of cat and mouse as Lucas runs while a cop named Carla Valenti gives chase. Like my sex life, the game begins with a killer four or five minutes but quickly degenerates into many hours of confusion and regret. Narratively, the game is an unmitigated shambles. And the romantic sub-plot? Woah nelly. It’s ten out of ten dreadful.
Get this. Lucas meets up with his old girlfriend and some shit is going down involving Mayan priests and some rogue AI that somehow exists in the real world. The Mayan priests and the AI warriors are in some sort of conflict, I think. And Lucas is in the middle of it. No, seriously. Somewhere along the line he finds himself in a bit of a pickle and he and his ex end up falling to their deaths. Sad times. Well, sad times for the ex-girlfriend, who is now ex-alive, but not so bad for Lucas who is magically resurrected by magic. Anyway, Lucas is now some kind of zombie or the reincarnation of Christ or both, and suddenly Carla, the cop who has been chasing him for the whole game so far just starts believing his story for no apparent reason. Sure, because “He was dead when I got there” was ridiculous, but “The ancient Mayan priests did it” is an iron clad defence. Then, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, and despite having zero romantic interaction at any point during the game so far, Carla falls in love with Lucas and the two have incredibly badly animated zombie sex. It makes no sense to anybody who isn’t David Cage or hasn’t suffered some kind of brain damage, and the resulting sex scene is cock-shrinkingly awful.
Still, despite the flaws of Fahrenheit, you have to admire Quantic Dream for not giving up on their goal of creating “interactive drama”. Their next game would be the psychological thriller, Heavy Rain, which went some way in improving on the writing of Fahrenheit but was still littered with tropes, nonsensical twists and huge leaps in logic. The plot of the game essentially boils down to a kind of dime store Jigsaw Killer kidnapping young boys and then tasking their fathers with taking part in sadistic games in order to save them. The recently divorced Ethan Mars discovers that his son is the latest kidnappee of the so-called Origami Killer, and the player has to guide him through the trials designed by the killer in order to get closer to rescuing his son. Thanks to some fairly damning evidence the police coax out of Ethan’s therapist, he becomes the prime suspect for the crimes and has to go on the run. Along the way he meets a reporter named Madison Paige who wants the scoop on Ethan and his family problems, but also starts to fall for the downtrodden father for absolutely no logical reason whatsoever.
After Ethan completes a game which involves going to the home of a known drug dealer and killing him in cold blood, he returns to his motel room obviously, and understandably, shaken by the ordeal. Enter Madison Paige, who apparently has some kind of fetish for insufferably whiny, miserable recent divorcees who’re wanted by the police, and she decides that now is the time to make a move on her man. Ethan, of course, is so traumatised by the kidnapping of his only son and the hell that he’s been through to save him that he rejects her advances and tells her that he has more important things to take care of than his penis. Or that’s what he would do if Heavy Rain was written in a manner that gave even a cursory glance to what real life is like, but it isn’t. Heavy Rain exists in some sort of weird parallel universe where Ethan stops worrying about his soon to be dead son and decides to slip Madison his length in a sex scene so cringe inducing that I started to envy the blind. And the deaf. And the dead.
The problem with both of these Quantic Dream games, and to a lesser extent their next game, Beyond: Two Souls, is that the romantic sub-plots seem to exist purely because the writer thought that there should be a little bit of rumpy pumpy in the story. There’s no logical reason for any of it. There’s no build up, or flirting, or any sort of discernible chemistry between the leads. These stealth romances never feel like they actually belong in the story, standing at odds with everything else that’s happening on screen, like popping a baseball cap onto a statue of Horatio Nelson. It’s obviously wrong, and weird. And the sex scenes themselves are so awkward and bizarre to watch that there’s nothing remotely sexy about them. It’s like watching your mum in local stage production of Basic Instinct. No matter what the original intention of the writers was, the whole thing just feels wrong.
It’s not just badly written games that succumb to such poorly implemented romances, though. Mass Effect is a largely well written and hugely enjoyable space adventure in which galactic hero(ine) Commander Shepard solves the problems of the universe via a precise mix of tacit diplomacy and shooting people in the face. As you progress through the game you can talk to your crew members, and just as with real life, flirtations can lead to feelings, and feelings can lead to knockin’ space boots with a Krogan warlord. If you choose to play as boy Shepard then your romantic options are the blue-skinned alien Liara or the human Ashley Williams, who seems to harbour some pretty worrying prejudices against anyone that isn’t human. For the lady Shepards, you too get Liara, but your other option is the somewhat-boring-but-at-least-he’s-not-a-space-racist Kaiden Alenko.
While most of Mass Effect is well written with choices that are clearly presented and make sense, the romance options can be a little bewildering. You can attempt to do your bit for human-asari relations by flirting with Liara shamelessly. A compliment here, a cheeky wink there. It’s all going well. But then talking to Ashley a few times about guns or how she hates non-humans or other such non-sexy things for some reason registers as romantic intent, which can lead to a completely out of the blue scene later on in which she confronts Shepard about leading both her and Liara on and how he needs to choose between them. He already has chosen. He wants to stick it to the blue girl. Then this crazy broad turns up accusing him of leading her on, and that could cause all kinds of problems with him making a move on Liara. And nobody needs that, Ashley.
Imagine if that happened to you in real life. You kiss your girlfriend goodbye as you head off to work. You do what you need to do in the office, then pop out at lunch time for something to eat. You ask the girl at the sandwich counter if they have any cheese and pickle left, and then when you get home in the evening you find the sandwich girl has followed you and she begins berating your poor oblivious girlfriend for stealing her man. Even for science fiction it’s ridiculous and immersion breaking. Thankfully, Bioware obviously realised that their romantic detection algorithm was a little off, and by the time Mass Effect 2 rolled around they’d sorted it out with that game having some of the best romance options seen in a game that offers player choice.
Player choice is frequently an issue when it comes to telling a story. Bioware famously backed themselves into a corner in the Mass Effect series by giving players choices that should, theoretically, branch the story in wildly different directions. Not having the time or resources to make seven different games depending on who you decided should live or die in the last two Mass Effect games, Mass Effect 3 streamlined those choices meaning they didn’t really have much of an impact on the overall story. All of this led to a climax in which the player just picked one of three almost identical stock endings and a lot of people were unhappy. Linear games don’t have this issue as the studio can simply write a story in the same way that they’d write a movie, and then relay that to the player at carefully planned moments. Heavily scripted games such as the Uncharted series can use action set-pieces, simple puzzles, gun fights, and cut-scenes to pace a story in a much more believable and engaging way than a game with a lot of choices can, and this is one of the reasons why the love story between Nate and Elena works so well.
Naughty Dog have long been championed as the masters of the single-player third person adventure game, and one of the reasons that their games work so well is the quality of their writing. Uncharted might be inherently ridiculous and overblown, but because the characters are written so earnestly, everything feels like it belongs. The interactions between Nate and Elena are sweet and charming throughout the entire game, and so when the characters do start to display affection for each other it’s believable and it feels earned. It’s not just shoe-horning a bit of slap and tickle into the game at the last minute because somebody decided that it would be fun. It’s an integral part of the story from the very beginning and so that writing combined with the excellent voice acting that the series is known for makes Uncharted one of the few gaming series’ to feature romantic elements that aren’t awful, or even so-so – they’re genuinely quite touching.
Stories in gaming are getting better all the time. As the medium becomes more respected the quality of the writing increases and the voice actors bringing the scripts to life are more talented than ever before. Recent years have seen improvements in the implementation of romantic sub-plots in gaming with the likes of Uncharted, Catherine and Gone Home all tackling the subject in different but engaging ways. While we’re still too reliant on macho white dudes blowing shit up real good, the wind is changing, especially in the indie scene, and here’s hoping that in the future games get even stronger in this regard. For now, the bad outweighs the good, and for every well written love story there’s a dozen damsels, trophies, or illogical romances. So if you’re alone this Valentine’s Day and you want to make yourself feel a little better, remember, it could be worse; you could be bonking a zombie.