Finding and expressing love is the ultimate multiplayer activity in life. It requires skill, patience, understanding, intuition, courage, passion, regular showers, a metric ass-ton of luck, and usually a nice pair of shoes.
Games, like dreams, are often created in part as wish fulfillment. The violence in games is fun for us because it sublimates a very primal urge. Given that love (or at least sex) is also one of our deepest and most powerful drives, it's only logical that we would also use games to explore it.
While not every title needs it as an element, there's no denying that the meaningful and skillful inclusion of love in games is something that most players want to see. When it comes to violence, gaming is extremely refined. We can simulate carnage and combat with a frighteningly impressive degree of accuracy.
On the other hand, love, while no less important to our psyches, is woefully enacted in gaming. Even a relationship/story heavy game such as the excellent Dragon Age : Origins
still leaves the player feeling like they've been acting out a puppet show where sex is as deep as rubbing naked Ken and Barbie dolls together while making kissy noises.
That's not to say that games haven't made huge strides in this area. We talk about how gaming as a medium is maturing, and at times I feel that statement is more true than we know. In fact, to me the evolution of love in games thus far seems to mirror the evolution of a human's maturing understanding of love over their lifetime. I'm keenly aware of how pretentiously meta this may sound, but bear with me -- I will illustrate my meaning.
"And then the hero pressed X!"
Level 1 -- Puppy Love and Fairytales
When we're young children, love is a simple affair. We are innundated with information that tells us that love conquers all, there's someone for everyone, and that love is a magical force that compels us to honor and protect the objects of our affection. There may be an evil king, a wicked witch, or even a few trolls along the way, but ultimately the hero and heroine live happily ever after.
This is the love we see in early gaming. The stories of Mario and Peach or Link and Zelda mirror this rudimentary understanding of love. Whether barrels or octoroks, another castle or another piece of triforce, the barriers to love are all external. The relationships are static and defined, and the outcome is assured. . . after a few continues, of course.
"I have a great deal of respect for women with giant. . . sunglasses."
Level 2 -- Selfish Love and One-Night Stands
At some point, the fairytale comes to an end. We learn that love is actually complicated and occasionally painful. For many, it may be the first time they have their heart broken, recognizing that the good guy/gal doesn't always win the princess/prince. No matter how it happens, disillusionment with the magical "happily ever-after" paradigm is assured.
With this shift of perception, the pendulum often swings to the other side of the spectrum. Love becomes a competition, a form of conquest where all participants protect their hearts as fiercely as possible from the pain they've previously experienced. Relationships are defined solely by what the individual gets out of it.
In gaming, this was reflected in many ways by the overt objectification of women and the expectation of sex as a commodity to be acquired. The concept of sex as a mini-game, where Kratos comes in and "presses a few buttons" before traipsing away with no strings attached is characteristic of this. The ability to pick up prostitutes in the GTA
series is another example. Rescuing and wooing is NOT on the menu.
You have chosen. . . wisely.
Level 3 -- Transactional Love and the Open Sesame Approach
After some length of time treating love in a selfish way, we yearn for something with more meaning and substance. Or maybe we just learn that we can't always get what we want without giving something back in return. When this happens, we stop asking "Why aren't they doing what they should be doing?" and start wondering "What should I be doing?".
Whether the motivation is a genuine connection with another person or simply a shortcut to the pleasure we seek, we begin to assess our actions differently. We spend our time trying to figure out what we should be saying or doing to make our beloveds happy. We know this is a desirable quality in society when we hear a person referred to as someone who "says all the right things".
The gameplay equivalent of this level of relating to love is quite easy to see in the modern RPG. In Bioware games, this belief structure is almost the foundation of all character interaction and relationship building. Getting someone to like you is a matter of choosing the right dialogue options, performing the right actions, or giving the right gifts at the right times. The Social Links in the Persona
series are another solid example of this principle at play, along with many games in the eroge genre.
For some, this plays out as a semi-organic courtship where you try to learn about the character and respond in a way you think they'll enjoy while being true to your own character. For most, it becomes a simple exercise of trying to figure out the magic word that will get you into their digital skivvies.
6 more weeks of courtship?
Level 4 -- Unconditional Love and Tossing the Rubik's Cube
Eventually, even this equitable form of approaching love is proven to be wanting. A human heart isn't a puzzle which has a "solution". We can't simply try different combinations of phrases or actions and expect it to create genuine affection in another person. If you want to see this lesson in action, it is masterfully illustrated by Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day. He is given, in gameplay terms, an infinite number of continues in order to achieve his objective.
After trying every possible way to make Rita love him and failing, his focus shifts to simply expressing his love and bettering himself, expecting little to nothing in return. Eventually he learns, as we all do, that if we want to have true love we cannot will it to happen. Instead, we must make ourselves worthy of it. Rather than looking for love, we should invite it to find us. And eventually, he does. He learns that love is both work and pleasure, and that if done in the spirit of love that work can become pleasure.
Unsurprisingly, you rarely find these sublime moments in games. Developers are just as much at a loss to create the simulation of love in games as we all are at forcing love to appear in our lives. But as we focus on the gameplay, it occasionally happens.
Many gamers found themselves sacrificing the lives of thousands out of the genuine affection they had for their dogs in Fable II
. Others shed real life tears at the death of Aerith in FFVII
(not me, of course, but this friend I know). Even an imperfect but very real love like what developed between Max Payne and Mona Sax can jump out and grab you emotionally when you least expect it.
It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
The interactivity of videogames makes them more able to draw us into the splendorous ups and downs of love than any other medium, since we must participate in them directly rather than witnessing a depiction. Pardoxically, this is also one of the problems.
With violence, the rules and variables are all known. The only challenge lies in creating new algorithms and sub-routines to calculate where particles fly to in an explosion, which direction gravity will pull a building down when a support is knocked out, or how blood will realistically spray from a wound. We players are the beneficiaries of an ever-improving implementation of physics in games.
Why hasn't love benefitted in the same way? Well, despite all the variables involved in dynamic physics, the number of variables present in human interaction and emotion are exponentially greater. When you take into account the wants, needs, drives, psychological baggage, mood, biochemistry, physical attraction, social pressures, and cultural differences of two different people you have a table of
variables which is far too daunting to model mathematically.
Even if you have the NPC as a constant for half of those variables, there's still far too much to ever compute in accounting for how the player will respond. Just as in life, when it comes to figuring out love, it's tough to know where even to begin.
Also, love, despite being a topic of study since we had a word for it, still has variables which are unknown. A computer system will never be able to accurately depict something which we as humans cannot fully define. This is why our model for love in games hasn't progressed much beyond the Choose Your Own Adventure book structure of gameplay.
Now, that's not to say we shouldn't continue to explore love in games. Humans have an uncanny knack for stumbling into beauty and joy when it is least expected. Games are chock full of potential for exploring both our understanding of and relationship to love. It is one of the great challenges of being human, so it is only fitting that it should also be one of the great challenges of game development. Truly, it is far more difficult to create than it is to destroy.