Salutations! Name's Adam. I live in Oxford, I'm about to stop being a student, and I've just started writing for www.gigagamers.com (join us!). I play all sorts of games, with FPSs being perhaps my favourite genre. (Perhaps.) I have a pretty awesome gaming laptop and an Xbox 360, and I'm kind of eyeing up the PS Vita, although I recently bought a bass, so I probably ought not to splash out another load of money...
I've long since disliked romantic subplots in my visual media. You know the ones I'm talking about. The only woman in the movie inevitably falls for and subsequently ends up snogging the musclebound, macho hero. Variations in theme, genre and the significance of said romance to the plot make surprisingly little difference; the relationship will fluctuate in a suitably dramatic way if the film demands it, but they always kiss and make up at the end anyway, a process I've always found slightly painful to watch. I've observed the pattern even in films that are supposed to be about romance.
I find these plots at the very least tiresome. They're predictable, samey, and usually add nothing to the film, in the case of the action movies I gravitate towards. A pretence at character development or relevance can be added by having the woman soften the hero's hardened heart somewhat, allowing him to make the right decision in Act Three, as if men are completely embittered or immoral if they're not in committed relationships.
I'm not saying that romance in movies shouldn't happen. The dynamic between Peck and Sosa in the new A-Team movie is great and adds a few extra tangles to the plot, for example, and Inception uses the complex history between Cobb and his wife to immense depth and effect. These relationships, however, stray a little outside the typical action movie love interest system, the latter more than the former, and for every Wash-and-Zoe, there's a Peter-Parker-and-Mary-Jane to turn your affections sour.
I'm sure Kirsten Dunst is actually a wonderful person, but I couldn't help wishing Pete had only made enough web for one here.
A related point, which I'll tie in later, is character development. As I mentioned, few action movies have much by way of subtle or interesting character arcs. People shoot at/beat up people until someone wins, and I'm not complaining. It's nice to deactivate one's brain for a while and watch pretty colours and explosions. I can't deny, though, that the best movies (of any genre) are the intelligent ones, and it's a little saddening to see so many films fall happily into the same trap of beauty soothing the savage beast, or - if the male lead is young - the inept, socially awkward nerd getting the girl, providing a piece of almost tooth-grindingly unsubtle wish fulfilment for the audience.
So, now that my bias has been explained, let's jump into what - just last night - broke my cynicism and pointed out to me that this kind of out-of-nowhere attachment leading to desperate pre-final-battle passion (and/or the celebratory kiss afterwards, of course) can, in fact, work. And work very well, character development and all. This wasn't even a movie; it was a game. Mass Effect.
You've all heard about Mass Effect's sex scene controversy. In fact, according to the Mass Effect wiki, you can get your rocks off with several of the game's characters. I finished the game for the first time last night, having only been aware of the infamous lesbian alien close encounter (of the fourth base kind, I guess?) with Liara, a team-mate of yours notable for being blue and having tentacles instead of hair. Features that Aayla Secura has long since proven not to restrict a man's libido, but I digress.
When I heard of Shepard's seductive prowess in the first place, I didn't think that it would involve actual romance, much less do a proper job of it. Games don't tend to include much character development at all. The interactive equivalent of the action movie - the AAA first-person shooter - tends to involve a satisfying setting and plot arc, but not much by way of characterisation, or even dialogue other than your support character/immediate superior giving you orders. In a way, I suppose this might be more true to life than the expectation that intense events lead to immediate and tangible changes to one's personality. Games like RTSs are even colder, told from the superior's perspective. And in racing or fighting games, who honestly cares? I'm yet to delve into RPGs in a major way, and most of the indie games I own happen not to be the deep artsy ones (World of Goo is probably the closest, and that has no characters at all. Well, maybe one), so perhaps my expectations of how much depth the game would involve in its inter-character relationships were shallower than they might otherwise have been, but the point still stands.
Not pictured: human emotion. For that matter, not pictured: humans.
My character, one Commander Vaderette Shepard, started the game a ruthless and somewhat feared war veteran. Slightly bitter and willing to fiercely defend her actions, she was military through and through, but had little respect for bureaucracy or politics. Harsh and occasionally abrasive, she rarely showed kindness to those she didn't know well or fully trust. In short, she was every inch the badass action hero, complete with a plethora of guns and the skills to use them.
Once I discovered you could chat to your teammates on board the Normandy, I started doing it as much as possible. Then, at one point close to the conclusion of the game, Shepard was talking to Liara when the asari shyly confessed that her initial interest in Shepard due to the visions the Prothean beacon had planted in the commander's mind had grown into something more emotional, something deeper. Then the game asked me what I thought about it. While I hadn't initially envisioned Vaderette Shepard as someone who formed deep emotional attachments that easily, you can't be mean to Liara. It's like kicking a puppy. Plus, of course, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I reciprocated, and Vaderette and Liara had a little heart-to-heart before the dialogue options ran dry for the moment.
The next mission started, and I took Wrex and Garrus for a spin in the Mako, deciding to use some of the other characters instead of my standard Liara/Tali layout. Shooting geth is relatively mindless and my thoughts drifted. It wasn't long before I realised that the game had in fact been continually setting Shepard - or rather, me - up to fall in love with Liara from the very moment we encountered her.
Even her default expression looks a bit worried and vulnerable.
Liara's the last of your six compadres to join your team. She's not military at all; she's a scientist, with her main area of research the study of the ancient, long-extinct Prothean civilisation. When you meet her, she's trapped behind a force field that triggered when she entered an area, sealing her inside. A true damsel in distress. She isn't the only one you rescue - Tali is fighting off thugs when you find her - but she's the only one that's completely helpless, separated from you by some physical barrier (here an energy field rather than distance or the captivity of an arch-enemy), reliant on you to save her.
Once on the ship, she starts offering her support, attempting to decipher Shepard's visions with the mind-melding abilities of the asari and her knowledge of the Protheans. Right off the bat, the game puts Shepard emotionally close to her in a sense. Liara is gentle, and doesn't hold any strong opinions or bitterness. While she's probably not the most straight-up likeable character - that would be Garrus, or perhaps Kaidan once you get to know him, in my opinion - you grow fond of her in a way you don't find with the others. The game even takes pains to make you feel protective of her. In combat, she has no martial skills, instead focusing entirely on her biotic talents. When she mind-melds with Shepard, she feels herself drained and exhausted afterwards, going to the medical bay to lie down. Despite Shepard's badassery, the game appealed directly to my own (completely soft) heart, and made it pretty much impossible for me to maintain the harshness in Liara's direction.
It's interesting to consider how she contrasts with Tali. Tali, too, requires saving, has no real merit as a gunfighter, and as a quarian, is shunned by many of the people she might meet and is far away from the place she's called home for most of her life. You never get the idea that she needs protecting, though. Perhaps it's the mask that distances her from you, as you don't see her face; perhaps it's her occasionally-acid tongue and air of being unafraid to confront situations or ask awkward questions. Liara, on the other hand, continually seems harmless or vulnerable despite the game never explicitly stating either.
So perhaps beauty, or at least blue skin and tentacle hair, can soothe Shepard's savage heart after all. Oddly, it didn't end there. I started feeling strangely attentive to Liara, even going so far as to sometimes choose another character over her for a mission so as to keep her out of harm's way (which is a silly idea, as I think my teammate deaths for the playthrough totalled a mighty one, when Garrus wandered into some crossfire when I wasn't looking; Mass Effect is supremely easy on lower difficulty). Moreover, a certain plot choice that occurred on Virmire left me feeling suddenly a lot more appreciative of my teammates in general, especially Kaidan, and I started changing who I had with me from mission to mission just to spend time with the ones I didn't use often. I couldn't bring myself to be mean to any of them any more, not just Liara. Vaderette had found herself some friends. I (spoiler, highlight to read) let the Council die, because fuck politics, and there was no way I was going to be civil to that douchebag Udina, but on board the Normandy, the abrasiveness was gone.
BFFs 4eva. Wait, what, you can seduce him in ME2?!
To put it bluntly, this is genius. The game carefully crafts character development in a situation where you control your character's opinions and actions by appealing directly to you, the player. You make your plot-changing choices during the game based on your opinions of the situations and the characters involved, not because killing the puppies gives you 20% more gold. As an example (another white-text spoiler), I saved Wrex on Virmire because Shepard and I got on well with him in a weird sort of way, and I chose Kaidan over Ashley because Ashley's kind of a racist and Kaidan's just some guy who gets headaches and puts up with having a temperamental Spectre for a commanding officer but never complains. I decided Liara's affection for Shepard was mutually returned because the game had made me fond of her as well, to the point where I didn't want to upset her by refusing. You can't get audience involvement this deep in movies, or even novels; you just can't. When the game ended, I felt quite sad; sad that I wouldn't be able to continue adventuring the galaxy with my newfound friends (and alien love interest).
I guess there's always the DLC. And Mass Effect 2. I'm buying that ASAP.
So, there you have it: the tale of how Bioware overturned my preconceptions of romance in the fictional media, and made it relevant and engaging to me in a way I can safely say I've never experienced before through any medium. Who would've thought that watching a spaceborne secret agent falling in love with a blue monogendered psychic alien who temporarily disappeared every time I pressed the pause button could feel so... real?