When was the last time a videogame made you think about relationships? Truly reflect on them, I mean? BioWare has a knack for making them just about mandatory in each of their games, but they're hardly the only ones that have made romantic relationships a fleshed-out feature of contemporary gaming. We've seen a relationship develop between Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher over the course of three games, and Heavy Rain focused heavily on the fallout of a broken family. We could sit here all day and list similar titles.
But there is one thing I've never seen a videogame do, try as they might: treat relationships holistically and realistically. It seems like such an easy thing to do, but apparently storytellers just aren't ready to go there.
Nathan and Elena have obviously had troubles and tension, as can be seen when they reunite in Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3. But we never see what life was like between titles, only the happy moments or snippy barbs of humor. They're the videogame equivalent of a romance novel relationship. The Ross and Rachel of videogames.
Heavy Rain shows what Ethan's life is like post-divorce, as well as his pursuit of and involvement in a new relationship. But we never get a glimpse of what the divorce proceedings were like. We don't see the fallout of a family breaking apart. It's not like the game could've been made any more depressing, so why weren't we taken on the journey with Ethan as his wife blames him for the death of a child and forces him out?
On a happier note, I've always remembered the scene from The Darkness where Jenny rests on your chest as you watch To Kill A Mockingbird together, because relationships aren't always turned up to 11. Sometimes you are as much one another's friend as you are lover. Why don't we just “hang out” with our romance options sometimes?
And then of course there's Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Which summarizes the complexity of human interaction as “Buy me things and I'll wear sexy swimsuits for you!” Which, by the way, happens to be one of my favorite aspects of a relationship.
Seriously though, the only games that have come even close to showing the true complexity of a relationship for me -- though I'd love to hear if you have your own examples -- are the Mass Effect games. If you romance any of the original crew from the first game, they don't welcome you with open arms in Mass Effect 2. They have conflicting emotions and motives with you and your new alliance with Cerberus, and if you want to get back together, you need to deal with that issue. That's more realistic and a step in the right direction, but it's still too easy to persuade your crew that you are the impeccable pinnacle of perfection. Plus, as seen above, there are so many aspects to a real relationship that we just can't seem to get in one place.
But let me tell you why it's important that videogames get to that point. Let me tell you a story. Two, actually.
I've been plugging away at a second playthrough of Mass Effect 3 lately. After all, I gotta get 'dem 'cheevs! Only this time, a conversation on the Citadel gave me pause where I had previously skipped along on my merry Reaper-slaughtering way. This isn't an important conversation, mind you. It doesn't even lead to a side quest. It didn't mean anything to me before. But now, I can't stop thinking about it.
See, people do funny things when they're scared. Sometimes they become bitter, selfish assholes who wouldn't just shove women and children out of the way, but gladly offer them up as a sacrifice if it would mean sparing themselves a less pleasant fate. Sometimes they conquer fear and assert themselves as the righteous redeemed, a shining beacon of all that the spirit and soul can be. And sometimes, it's not always clear who's being which.
The conversation I'm referring to takes place between a human female and an asari, early in the game. You can find them chatting the first time you're able to visit the Citadel, on the Presidium Commons level. The first thing you'll hear is the human, denoted as “Wife” in the subtitles, say, “I think I'm ready to end it with him.”
The “him” being referred to is a male soldier, deployed and off fighting in the war. Want to add a little story and emotion to the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3? Maybe he's your multiplayer avatar. The Wife laments how she feels there has been a growing distance between them, and how she no longer feels happy. The asari, “Mistress” as she is described in the subtitles, assures the Wife that she must be honest. That she must tell her husband. Thus ends part one of the conversation.
While others rang in 2012 on New Year's Eve with toasts of wine and champage, party hats and streamers, kisses and cheers, I was nervously pacing before an audience of my friends and girlfriend. Did I have it? Was it in the bedroom, where I'd left it? Had anyone seen? Was this right to do? I thought forward, backward, up and down. My mind did not run in circles, but instead flew and buzzed about like a balloon oozing out a steady stream of dry, oppressive air.
My toes wrinkled the socks on my feet with a cold sweat. They flexed and gripped at the carpet. I looked to my girlfriend, my eyebrows piqued in concern and anxiety. I say her name. Quietly. My voice struggled to elevate itself above the cheering from the television behind me as crowds of euphoric humans reveled. “I need you to stand up.”
The next time the conversation picks up, it seems fairly innocuous. Wife is debating in her mind how to tell her husband her feelings. Text? Recording? Face-to-face video chat? The first is too impersonal. The second? No, she gets too flustered. Video chat is only available on open comm channels, and as Mistress points out, who knows when he can get to one of those? After all, he knew it would be difficult when he left her behind.
... Wait, what? Left? Left her?
It may seem like such a little thing, such a harmless way of phrasing things. After all, it's technically true: The man has left his wife behind. But the phrasing now makes it seem as though it's his fault. And perhaps this growing distance between he and his wife might not be so great if there wasn't someone in the middle, summarizing their relationship to Wife as a conflict of interests where he left her. It steams me to say the least, but the conversation, for now, ends here.
My knees quaked. My knees quaked. I let one fall. “I was with you in 2011. I want to be with you through all of 2012. And 2013. And every year after. I want to spend every year of my life with you.” I pulled out a box containing the ring I had been hiding in our bedroom. My fingers struggled to grip the edges and pry it open. It felt like wrenching Arthur's sword from the stone. Finally I felt it give, and the diamond revealed itself. The sparkles lit up as reflections in her eyes. “Will you marry me?”
The force with which she hugged and tackled me almost knocked the wind from my lungs. It had happened. I was engaged. It was the happiest moment of my life, lying on the floor with a beautiful woman I trusted and loved more than myself. She was warm, and I was whole.
The first time I played through Mass Effect 3, I'm sure I left this conversation alone by now. Hell, I probably didn't even stick around long enough to hear beyond “I think I'm ready to end it with him.” There are bigger things to worry about, better ways to be spending my time. The Reapers are coming, the Reapers are coming! But now... I'm finding myself transfixed. This conversation makes me all at once mournful, infuriated, and pitying.
I eavesdrop once again. Now Wife contemplates aloud how, “I guess it doesn't matter how I do it. I just need to tell him about us.”
Mistress responds, “Wait. Us?” I imagine a look, a mix of surprise and dread, washing over the asari. I imagine the blue draining from her face, and a sudden tightening in her stomach. I hope she's uncomfortable. She struggles to redirect Wife into staying tactful, to just tell her husband that they've grown apart. To mention another woman would be “rubbing it in.”
I hope the asari has a partner. I hope they find out. I want to rub it in.
I had a fiancee now. I had to plan for the future. I had to provide for her. We talked and decided to move into a new apartment, closer to our places of work. With adventure and joy in our hearts, we set out to search for our new home. When we found it, we both immediately knew. It was a beautiful apartment, and affordable. The carpet was soft and warm. The living room breathed with open air and large windows. There is a patio off of the bedroom, with trees and a small creek just behind the building. With bittersweet goodbyes, we said farewell to our friends in town, pack our boxes, and ship off.
The day we moved in however, I received a call. My fiancee had just lost her job. I could hear her voice cracking as she told me. I panicked. What were we going to do? There was already a new subleaser at the old apartment, and we wouldn't be able to afford this place now. I found myself getting angry. Furious. I told her once, I told her a thousand times, you need to be at work on time, or they'll replace you, I thought. I didn't come home from work that night. Not right away. I was too angry. There was a poison of resent pounding against the back of my brain.
When I did enter the new apartment, she said she was sorry. I told her to talk to me about it, to open up. Because I was the one who should be sorry. But she wouldn't. She wouldn't talk to me.
Now the Mistress and Wife are arguing. Mistress insists she isn't the reason for the breakup. It's the war. It's the distance. That's what made everything clear. Wife agrees... to an extent.
“Meeting you is what made me realize how bad it had gotten,” she pointedly insists.
Mistress deflects. “I'm not the one who broke up your relationship.”
No, of course not. It was the husband's fault before, now it's the Wife's. It could never be your fault. You didn't do anything wrong. I want to strangle this asari. Shepard stands awkwardly close to the two of them. It's really not her business to mind, and yet she doesn't leave. I won't move the controller to let her.
Wife shoots back, “Was it someone else who pinned me to the wall with her mouth?” I find myself wondering, a bit too much, what the dynamic is between these two. Is it a sex thing? Is it purely physical? Is there something more that they don't dare pursue? Or are they flirting with disaster, the rush and thrill of danger giving them a constant mental high? Has either one said “I love you?” Has either one secretly messaged the other while in the arms of their partner, “You know, if we were together...”
I feel like I know the answer. I look down to my hands gripping the controller and notice the small indent on my finger: a groove where something once rested, snug and tight.
My boss and I were good friends. We teased each other about videogames often. We talked about which ones we thought were good, and which were crap. A fierce Halo v. CoD debate was practically mandatory. I rolled my eyes and laughed every time she transformed into a giggling schoolgirl obsessed with her boyfriend, but appreciated her enthusiasm for life. I also realized that, with no job and no one to hang out with other than me, my fiancee could've used a friend in the area. I introduced the two, and was happy they found so much fun in one another's company.
My fiancee soon landed another job. Hard labor, early shifts. She would come home exhausted, mentally and physically drained. I asked how her day went, and she would often reply, “Tired.” Nothing more. Just tired. I would press and ask if she wanted to talk about it. I could see there was much more than just fatigue behind her eyes. “Just tired,” she would tell me. It would occur to me that these times were a test of our mettle. That maybe this work was going to show who we were. Maybe it would be something that would make our feelings clear.
Dropping the subject, I would pick up my controller and play as she sat next to me on the couch. My gameplay days were punctuated by gunfire, the roaring of dragons, the humming of Electoons, and the clicking her thumbs made as they pressed down rapidly on the keys of her cell phone.
I contemplate not listening in this time. I don't have to eavesdrop on the Wife and the Mistress anymore. I don't have to. I could just run right past them. The game won't penalize me.
“Where is this going?” Wife asks. “Because if this isn't serious, we need to talk.”
“Sophie, we need to talk.”
The Mistress responds, a tone of resentment and submission mixing in her voice. “These are two different things. You're important to me...”
“You're important to me, but I don't feel the same for you as I used to.”
The Wife is confused. Dejected. Her voice sinks. She laments how she'll lose her partner benefits, including an apartment.
Mistress suggests that, for her own safety, Wife should figure out an exit strategy.
“I thought I had,” Wife says, her voice pinned under the pressure of loss.
I felt I knew. I suspected. I grabbed my fiancee's phone and looked through the messages. So many from her. My boss. My eyes flipped through page after page, each message lighting a tiny fire in my heart, each one a punch to the stomach. Explicit sexts, doe-eyed longing for one another; each one ran me through like a blade, though none of these messages was so shattering as reading:
“I love you.”
I couldn't tell if it was the revelation, the lies, or my own weakness that threw me to the floor. I collapsed, my lungs struggling to pull in air as the carpet began to swell and choke with tears. How long? When? Why? The questions came all at once, thrashing against me like bullets and hammers.
Mistress assures the Wife, “I cherish the time we've had together. But...”
Days passed, and as I packed my things, I asked the woman I thought I had known, “How are you and...?”
“I don't know. She says she loves me but all she does is talk about her boyfriend. I don't think we'll ever really be together, as much as I would want it.”
“Yeah,” the Wife closes.
“Yeah,” I said as the door closed behind me.
People do funny things when they're scared. Sometimes they cower, sometimes they stand. Sometimes they work themselves single-mindedly into tunnel vision, focused only on the future and not what the present needs. Sometimes they run and flee the cause of anxiety, into the safety (however temporary) of another person. Who can say which is worse?
I love videogames, and I take them very seriously. Maybe a bit too seriously, I'm sure some of you would say. But this small, insignificant part of Mass Effect 3 produced a reaction in me unlike anything else in games ever has before. It made me think. It made me reflect on the human condition.
That's what I want more videogames to do, because that's what art does.
I want them to be seen as art. I want more videogames to show us and make us think about what it means to be human. I want to cry because I'm so upset by what I've seen. I want to smile and laugh, too. I want realistic, not-always-pretty, not-always-overwrought portrayals of life, love, and everything in between. It may seem like a pipe dream, but it's not.
I know videogames are capable of capturing the human spirit. They can make us ask ourselves questions we may not have the answers to, but needed to ask ourselves nonetheless. They can impact us. There was friends and family ready to support me in almost any way I could hope for after my breakup, but it wasn't until I heard a seemingly insignificant conversation in a videogame that I could truly allow myself to feel everything I needed to feel. By observing a similar situation from a distance in which I had no stakes, I was able to deal with my own thoughts and emotions in a more comprehensive way.
It was a mature vision of a relationship, and one infinitely more true than anything I'd come across before. And that truth was exactly why I needed to see it, hear it, and experience it. That truth is something videogames would do well to incorporate more in the future.
We don't need every game to do this, of course. I'm looking forward to mindlessly carving my way through zombies in Lollipop Chainsaw, and while many of my favorite games tell great stories, they're hardly going to make me stop and think about how I'm living my life. But sometimes... sometimes we need our medium to show that it can do that when it wants to; that it can reach those levels of maturity, and that it can make us believe in the power of art.
If nothing else, a real-life failed relationship and an asari Mistress have shown me that much.
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7:00 PM on 07.16.2014