In case I didn't lay it on thick enough, there is some epic sarcasm in this article.
I had just set out on an adventure to save a princess/defuse a bomb/kill a monster/solve a mystery and my first stop was a little town that's known for having pretty decent supplies and friendly people. I wasn't really starved for company, but I had no goddamned clue where to go, so I was willing to strike up conversation with anyone who wanted to. The first person I ran into was a well meaning woman who knew all the town's gossip.
"You have to take care of the dragon up on the hill! He's blocking the passage so no one can get to the next town."
"Cool," I replied, hand already grasping for the sweet sword strapped to my back. "Where is this-"
"All the cows are stuck up there and the dragon is probably gnawing on their bones! We'll never have enough milk for the Milk Maid Festival '09." She was almost yelling, wringing her hands and looking around nervously like the dragon had some ninja spies watching her every move.
"Lady, I'm sure there's some left over cows up there. If you just tell me where the path to the mountain-"
"The Milk Maid Festival of '09 is a sacred tradition of our town dating back millions of years! Millions! Like, we have all these old statues we trot out to prove it. And, some pretty rad pixelated fireworks that conveniently go off just behind the clock tower for cinematic effect. There's also a competition that my daughter was going to enter but the dragon got her. He's in the cave up north. She had this pink dress that needed to be dyed a different color because all the other girls are going to be wearing pink and so she went to the blueberry garden where the dragon always hangs out because hey he likes fruit, too. I hope she's okay! I really love my daughter and she's so pretty that she'll probably win the Milk Maid Festival of '09..."
The truth is I stopped listening at Milk Maid '09. While she waxed poetic about blueberries or whatever I was busy thinking about why no one invited me to partake in the Milk Maid competition. Was it because I had a sword? Were ladies not allowed to carry them around? Did they think I was some effeminate warrior? Whatever the case, I totally missed the clue that the dragon was up north and instead went and asked around town fruitlessly until I was forced to wander like Jesus in the desert until I ran headfirst into that fire breathing monster. I like to think it wasn't really my fault. I mean, if you start the sentence with "There's an Arts and Crafts Fair" and end it with "OH GOD A GIANT THREE LEGGED ZEBRA IS ATTACKING" I'm probably going to be too busy thinking about glitter and Popsicle sticks to save you from the striped beast.
The sad thing is that I wasn't surprised where I had ended up. Truth is, I've been here before. I've played through countless games where Non-Playable Characters would rattle off about some uninteresting plot while slipping information I needed to know between bullshit. Mass Effect was riddled with uninteresting, one-sided conversations about a lost sister or dead troops that I had to go investigate on a planet in a system that I couldn't remember because I was too busy going to get something strong to drink while they cried about whoever the hell it was that they lost. Thank god the next game has the option to interrupt an NPC when they get too dull in order to push them out a window. I have a feeling I'll be doing that a lot.
Also, NPCs are dicks. Who hasn't played a game where an NPC will be happy to give you something if you either pay them an incredibly large sum of money or go on some annoying fetch quest to help them out? And, sometimes NPCs go beyond that in their ability to be complete assholes. My favorite example is in The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass when Eddo on Cannon Island asked me to yell as loud as I could into the mic in order to buy a salvage arm. I was hanging out in my friend's dorm common room at the time, so I did a small yell as close to the mic as I could. Not good enough. The NPC asked me to yell even louder, so I gave my best Sparta roar into my DS, confirming all suspicions of those around me that video games make me crazy. After embarrassing myself, the NPC just outside the door told me that I could have SNAPPED into the mic and it would have sufficed. I would have stabbed them both if I could.
Yeah, it's like that.
But, sometimes NPCs are just stupid. Beyond stupid, actually. It's like they exist on in completely different reality than my character. While the NPCs in Half Life 2 are admittedly pretty awesome, does anyone remember playing the first game? For a secret laboratory with the best paid scientists in the world, Black Mesa was sure filled with a bunch of idiots. Whether it's screaming about opening/closing a door, running into trip lasers that a blind person couldn't miss or asking who ate all the donuts during an alien invasion, it's a surprise those idiots could make it into work on time. It's like Black Mesa put "Must be Absent Minded Professor" on the Craigslist ad for their job openings.
In fact, you know NPCs are a problem when my favorite happens to be a less than talkative inanimate object that I had to murder for my own survival. I wish I could have taken you home with me, cube.
Hey! Listen! There's some Knights of the Old Republic spoilers up in here. Proceed with caution, yo.
No one else wanted to even touch the castle's plumbing system. If the bulbous plants with shark teeth weren't enough for you to tell the Princess exactly where she could shove that cake of hers, the scurrying Goombas intent on tripping up anyone who even came close to them would have done it. The other plumbers decided that Mario was probably strapped for cash when he accepted the job (or at the very least touched in the head) and never expected to see him again. The truth was that after sharing a bunk bed with his brother, Mario needed to see a woman bad enough that he'd do anything for just a glance from behind her pink parasol. When he arrived, the toad at the door was just about to ask how exactly he intended on fixing a pipe without at least a wrench, when a sharp scream sounded from inside the castle. Mario pushed the toad aside and ran in to see a giant mass of fur and primal rage holding Princess Peach over his shoulder as he began to climb up a series of ladders and slanted beams. Maybe the plumber wasn't very bright, maybe he wasn't fully aware that this would be his destiny for decades to come, but that didn't keep him from chasing that giant ape. Even if he'd only get a small peck from the Princess.
And, unless you count the three-way between the two panels and ball in Pong, this was our first big video game romance. It was simplistic, chivalrous and perhaps even a little dated, but it made perfect sense to the caveman in all of us. Pretty lady stolen by giant ape. Giant Ape needs to be smacked on the head a couple times to get pretty lady back. Despite the scenario described above, we all know saving the Princess wasn't anything but a simple reason to get Mario chasing that monkey. Everyone who played the game understood what was going on the second they saw Donkey Kong pick Peach up and carry her away as she kicked and screamed for help. The curious thing is that the relationship between Mario and Peach hasn't really changed after all this time. Yes, she has become a little more independent, but she's still being captured by monsters and then saved by Mario. The formula hasn't changed because it doesn't have to.
Link and Zelda might come to mind as something along the same vein, but despite the headway Zelda has made just for putting on some pants, there's not much romance to speak of between the two. It's almost as if they've both accepted their roles in the universe and simply work to help each other out because of their connection through fate and the Triforce. You see a minimal amount of 'flirting' in games like Wind Waker, but they're still children. And, frankly, it's not that different from the interactions between Link and the other girls he comes across.
The reason for this is pretty simple. These are kids games. Kids aren't interested in dwelling on some mature romance when they're in the middle of the Great Cootie War. But, what happens when we grow up a little? What happens when adult relationships seem like a good idea to add to a serious game? Is that what we want, or are we stuck with an immature and incomplete idea of what romance should be?
Before we take that leap, let's talk about Harvest Moon's take on courtship and marriage. I know many people in this community claim that the indie game Passage holds one of the best game commentaries on marriage, but Harvest Moon did it first and did it better. No matter which version you played (unless it was that puzzle one), you found yourself entrusted with a farm, but you were also expected to grow up. Part of growing up was finding someone you wanted to marry and have a family with. So, you wandered around town looking for an ideal mate. Personally, I played the Game Cube version and ended up being charmed by the hippy musician in town. I courted him with flowers and food, and in return he played me songs on his guitar and chatted with me. The more serious it got, the more I figured he'd be a perfect father who would stay home with the kid and take care of the house while I worked my ass off in the farm.
I was wrong. I was really wrong. Sure, we ended up having this romantic courtship and we eventually had a kid, but he was a terrible father. He'd leave the house without taking our baby and then complain when he got home about dinner. I ended up hating his guts while I was juggling being a fulltime mother and tending to our farm. Even our kid lost an interest in music and the older he got, the more he wanted to spend time in the garden with me.
The funny thing is that I should have known better. My husband told me all through our younger years that he couldn't stay in one place too long. Didn't want to be tied down to anything. I ignored it in the same way a lot of people ignore important things like that when it comes to marriage and suddenly I was carrying around dead weight.
On the other side of the spectrum, when my little brother played the first Harvest Moon, he married the mechanic girl because he hoped they could build stuff together at his farm. When they married, he felt guilty because she had to give up being a mechanic to take care of their kid. Then, one night he saw her sneak out to their shed to secretly repair and fix their tools. Overjoyed, he insisted on turning the shed into her own little work station and they lived happily ever after.
Harvest Moon tackles the relationship between romance and marriage in a way other games can't master. The system for courtship is basic, but it's based on what the player wants to pursue and how capable they are at it. Not every courtship works out and even if they do, you don't always get what you expected. For a kid's game, it's pretty mature in the options and realities it offers the player.
But, we play video games to escape the norm most of the time. In most games of today, if there's a romance thread, it's woven through a bigger plot. A good example of this is Knights of the Old Republic. The game won't force you into worrying about romance and it's very easy to identify and stop it from happening if you want to. It's also placed in a world of fantasy that is notorious for epic romances that either turn out pretty good, really terribly, or it's like kissing your sister. I only played the game through as woman since I have an strange, inherit hate for Bastila and the idea of the game even attempting to pair me up with her would make me go Sith in a heartbeat. And, if I went Sith, I'd have to kill Carth.
Carth is sort of a tricky subject with gamers. I personally enjoyed the verbal sparring that continued through almost the entire game and his tricky past is something you can grow to understand and relate to. But, he also complained a lot, bitched about your actions and was always Mr. High Road. If you have the patience and curiosity to get it out of him, you learn that his wife died in the last war and his kid ran off with the Sith. That's enough reason to understand why he acts the way he does, but that doesn't change much of who he is. You as a player have to like him as a character for the romance to work.
And, as much as I did end up liking Carth's character, I found the romance between Revan and himself forced. He finds out about two thirds of the way into the adventure that she ordered for his planet to be razed and while he's initially pretty shaken up about it, he learns how to not only forgive but love her if she stays on the path of light. I might have been a Jedi on the main quests, but I have a hard time believing Carth thought I really changed everywhere else.
See, I played the game as a Jedi, but a pretty middle of the road one. On one hand I was running around collecting Star Maps and defeating Sith, while on the other I was blowing shit up and getting into trouble with who should have been an alternative romance plot, Canderous Ordo. Okay, yeah, I've always had a thing for Mandalorians, but by the end of the game he was just as dedicated to me as Carth was. He understood and respected who I was before the Jedi mindfucked me and I helped him come to terms with his past. In the sequel, you find out that Revan actually gave him the mask of Mandalore and told him to go revive his race, overcoming their differences from the war to work together. Carth had fought and hated Mandalorians, wouldn't he be a little suspicious if his girlfriend was out having fun killing things with one of their strongest? Maybe it's too much to ask of a game to go over a romance plot with a fine tooth comb, but one of the best things about the game was the relationships you got to have with a wide variety of characters.
And, while games like Mass Effect have achieved in leaps and bounds what KotOR was working towards, most of the romance in these games simply add up to jumping through hoops to see who and what you can sleep with. That's all the gaming media has to talk about, anyway. You didn't hear how important the relationships between characters were in Mass Effect, you just heard about the sex scene.
Though I do see the challenge of trying to get into someone's pants, I don't think that romance in a game should be treated like a mini game or rushing a castle to save/protect/sex up a princess. It might be my love for old Noir films, but why not center a romance around a relationship like the one in Dark Passage or The Big Sleep? There is still room for action, but the tension between the two characters evolves from cautious hostility to making out in the back of a car. Oooh yeaah.
A couple weekends ago my friends and I went pub crawling in San Fransisco. There really wasn't a whole lot happening that night and I had made the mistake of agreeing to being the designated driver while my friends and everyone we met were busy getting obliterated. I had engaged in regular bar talk with some people that we had randomly met and though I never tire of watching a drunk try to formulate thoughts, I found myself slightly bored and irritated. Not one to wallow in self pity for attention, I decided to make a game out of talking to drunks that approached me.
When a couple guys came over to talk to my group of friends, I looked at them incredulously and said in a vaguely European accent, "Gentlemen." None of them seemed to get a joke that anyone who played Team Fortress 2 would get in a heartbeat. But, they seemed to suspect I was just being goofy and perhaps intoxicated, so they let it slide and started up the usual lines girls have heard since the pilot of The Pickup Artist aired. My friends seemed interested, but as the sober nanny of the group, I played the cockblock card and continued the beginning of the "Meet the Spy" video. "Tell me, did anyone manage to buy me a beer on the way here? No? Then we still have a problem."
The night continued in the same fashion. I did everything in my power to recite as much Team Fortress 2 that I could manage. Whether it was explaining that grass grows, birds fly, sun shines and brother I hurt people or how the difference between an assassin and a crazed gunman was that one's a job and the other's mental sickness, I found that I couldn't be more pleased to talk to befuddled drunk people. I suspect my love for griefing had finally spilled over into real life, but at least I wasn't spraying fire into a friendly sniper's scope or purposely building my dispenser in front of my sentry. Although, at the end of the night I did ask my friend if I could borrow her phone while she was speaking to her boyfriend, only to shout "This is Scout! Rainbows make me crrryyyyy." I'm surprised they still want to take me out after that.
The only problem was that the lines only worked sometimes. Most of the time, it was the TF2 equivalent to yelling "DO A BARREL ROLL" at a hockey game. Sometimes people actually did their best to engage in conversation with me, scrunching up their red faces as they tried to decipher if 'erecting a dispenser' was code for something dirty before finding someone else to talk to. The most disappointing thing about the night was that despite how giddy I was confusing drunks, no one understood what I was referencing. I couldn't believe that in the span of one night I didn't meet a single person who played Team Fortress 2.
After talking with other geeks I knew who reference games in everyday conversation, they assured me that if I was going to continue down this path, I'd have to get used to the blank stares. Thus is the life of a geek away from the internet.
As far back as I can remember, my father swore allegiance to Macintosh. He grew up in the era before computers and quickly recognized Macintosh computers as "stupid proof". While this may have been true, it didn't make life easy for a budding gamer like me. I had been fascinated by computer games at a very young age and didn't have as much selection as kid PC gamers, but thank god I had Rand and Robyn Miller on my side.
These two were famous for creating the breakthrough game, Myst and the sequel, Riven. Their style was a creative take on the first person perspective. The player was given nonviolent options while solving puzzles in an eerie environment. I was easily spooked as a child (The Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland made me cry) and the books in Myst that screamed for help and justice were enough to make me shy away from trying to solve the land's mystery. Though, that didn't keep me wandering around the grassy hills and deep forests. I liked looking at the artificial ocean while whimsically thinking about what sort of adventures I could have had if I understood what the hell was going on.
Apparently, Rand and Robyn Miller knew there were budding gamers like me waiting for some sort of white rabbit to chase into a world that was odd, but not beyond a child's understanding. This creation was called The Manhole and I was more than happy to be their Alice. The game starts off with a steel manhole on a slice of a seemingly normal street with a white back drop. Once the steel circle is selected, the cover pops open and what appears to be a beanstalk inches up towards the white sky. From there, well, the Wonderland comparisons are practically endless.
The world is rendered in detailed and beautiful computer graphics with vibrant colors (The 1994 version. The original Manhole game was made in the late 80's before Myst and I had never played it.). You can explore anything from a rabbit's room to an underground river, but one of the most interesting things is that the characters that you meet look hand drawn like they were sketched there on the spot. I had always loved this as a kid, finding it to make much more sense than seeing animals pieced together in the depths of Uncanny Valley. I don't doubt that with today's technology they could accomplish slick looking computer graphics for the entire game, but frankly I wouldn't want it that way. The bright colors and bold outlines of all the animals made them stand out in an already eye catching world. It felt like I was really talking to cartoon characters, a dream I had personally held close to my heart since I was introduced to Roger Rabbit.
And, unlike some other games directed towards kids at the time, The Manhole never treated me like an idiot. Sure, a couple of the puzzles were easy, but almost all the characters talked to me like an adult. Some were rude, impatient, preoccupied or just crazy, but they never babied me. Never looked at me blankly like Blues Clues to try and drum up an easy answer from beyond the television. The world didn't always make sense and I frequently found myself going in circles, but it was true exploration. I could go anywhere I wanted. Hell, I could call any of the characters provided I could find a phone.
What's interesting is that I saw a lot of strange things through my travels, but I accepted it. A lot of the time, things that are made for children can't be comprehended by adults. It's the Neverland Complex. I can go there as a kid to marvel and explore, but once I lost that innocence I could never go back. For example, the dragon below would like to offer me a biscuit and wants me to make myself comfortable. As a kid, I didn't question the fact that he looks like some ex-disco star. I didn't get offended when he called me baby, because he probably calls everyone that.
And, despite everything I learned about taking food from strange dragons, I did want a biscuit.
I hold this game so close to my heart because it taught me early on what I love about video games. I love to explore. I love talking to interesting NPCs. I love when games treat me like an intellectual and allow some breathing room to ponder. Blowing stuff up and shooting monsters is fun and gives an adrenaline rush like nothing I've ever experienced before, but it doesn't mean anything in the long run if I don't get some of the same experiences The Manhole raised me on. Maybe the Miller brothers ruined me. Maybe demanding an escape from reality every time I play a game isn't the point and keeps me from enjoying a lot of mindless fun.
Except, I know that's not true. Anyone who was raised on The Manhole went onto explore other strange worlds. From Ravenholm to Rapture, The Manhole might be forgotten like a fairy tale, but it prepared us for the explorations ahead.