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Love is a Many Splendored Game

2006-08-04 00:20:05·  11 minute read   ·  Anthony Burch
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ico Arguably the two most emotionally charged events a person can engage in are physical violence, and the act of falling in love*. And while videogames have practically perfected the art of virtual violence, they haven't really tackled the latter; while it is one of the most important emotions a human being can feel, love is also one of the most noticably absent in the world of interactive entertainment. Books can do it, movies can do it, music can do it, but as of right now, it seems that videogames cannot. Why? - "I have trouble thinking of anything that doesn't have guns in it." One of the main reasons is the sheer difficulty in implementing a concept like love into an interactive medium. At the 2004 Game Developers Conference, Will Wright, Warren Spector, and Raph Koster (he did Ultima Online) were met with the challenge of making a game that focuses entirely around the concept of a love story (article here). In the end, Warren Spector admitted that he didn't think it was possible with current technology, Raph Koster proposed what basically amounted to an online, sort-of-kind-of-but-not-really interactive romance novel, and Will Wright came up with simply taking a regular genre of game and then forcing the player to complete love-based objectives within that game (the example he used was crossing a warzone in a game like Battlefield 2 in order to make it to the love of your life on another side, before you were forced to separate and do the whole thing over again). WHOEVER WINS, WE LOSE That's three of gaming's finest talents, and they came up with almost nothing. Koster's novel idea would only work in theory, or as a free mod, and Will Wright's sounded like a regular action-based game with a nothing more than a slightly tweaked storyline. In addition, neither of their games will ever go into production; the entire challenge was a sheerly hypothetical one, so none of the developers even had to think about how to market it---although Koster did propose attaching his game to the backs of romance novels (ostensibly to reach the much sought after middle-aged woman demographic). How do you really make a game about love? What would the player do to interact? Our current technology doesn't have particularly intelligent AI or even complex conversation mechanics, which would mean that the in-game love of your life would either have to talk to you through noninteractive cutscenes, prewritten dialogue trees, or simply not talk at all ("My kind of woman." Har har.). It's not like in a book, where you are given a small bit of description about a beautiful woman and your imagination fills in the holes, or a movie, which is basically one long cutscene showing characters you can empathize with: videogames walk an artistic tightrope in that they have to develop a character's personality and make the player care about them, while simultaneously maintaining the user's attention through interactivity. - "Griddle cakes, pancakes, hotcakes, flapjacks: why are there four names for grilled batter and only one word for love?" Maybe including love in a game would be easier if we knew exactly how to define it. The word "love," as it is commonly used, functions as a noun, verb, and an adjective, denotes both sexual attraction and the act of getting pleasure from something, describes not only a zero score in tennis but also a term of endearment for one you care about. Since gaming is an interactive medium, a game that involved love would have to make the player feel that love for themselves, in a much more personally involving capacity than any of the noninteractive mediums of art are even capable of. In order for a game designer to make YOU feel love, he has to personally understand exactly what love is, and how it is supposed to make YOU feel. And how can anyone ultimately define an idea that the dictionary can’t even give a straight answer on? Again, movies and music and books do not have to deal with this difficulty directly: they can give the viewer/reader/listener a feeling as to what love is without the director, author, or songwriter having to know exactly what it means to you, or how it affects you. Movies and books detail love's affect on fictional characters, and music can use its lyrics to verbally describe it (or, lyric-less songs can do this through use of different instruments and moods), but they don't really have to make the person watching or reading or hearing these descriptions feel it for themselves. If a character in a movie becomes heartbroken, the viewer can identify with him, and shares in his grief: in a game, the player demands that he be directly involved in that character's suffering, which is much harder to do. However, certain games have managed to, at the very least, get close to the emotion through actual gameplay. These games are Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Ico, and Shadow of the Colossus. jade empire Bioware's RPGs allow you to experience "love" in a fairly typical fashion. In each game, there are characters you can optionally woo: in KOTOR, it's Bastila Shan, and in Jade Empire, you have a choice between Silk Fox or Dawn Star (if you choose to be a heterosexual male or a lesbian), and a choice between Sky or Silk Fox (if you are a female or a homosexual male). Bioware's method of falling in love is fun, but pretty shallow: in both games, the development of your relationship takes place solely through dialogue trees (and, in Jade Empire's case, one cutscene of suggested sex), and most of the time it's really obvious what you need to say to get the object of your affection to love you back (don't call them ugly, don't tell them they're stupid, tell them they have pretty hair, and you're in). ico In Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Fumito Ueda chooses a much more subtle method of developing love: minimalism. In Ico, the princess Yorda never says anything (in English, anyway), but the way she is implemented into the gameplay makes the player care for her. Everything from the way you have to grasp her hand in order to lead her places, to how helpless she looks as the Queen's dark minions take her away, develops an emotional bond between player and character---all without the game ever having to make a direct statement about her personality. shadow-of-the-colossus.jpg In Shadow of the Colossus, the player becomes attached to the girl in the game (in this case, a dead one the the hero is attempting to revive) by the sheer amount of crap the hero has to do for her without ever asking why. You slay 16 building-sized giants in order to save a girl who never talks, never moves, and does not even have a name. In confronting the enormity of the actions he has to go through, the player is forced to make up a backstory for the protagonist and the girl he is trying to save, which, in turn, connects him strongly to both. He cares what happens to the characters because the story behind them is his own. That being said, many players take issue with Ueda's style in regards to developing relationships. Many people found Yorda's constant reliance on you irritating as opposed to endearing, and I know many people were annoyed that you never found anything out about the identity of the dead girl in SOTC, even after beating the game. Of course, a game developer could ignore the way that Ueda and Bioware use actual gameplay to convey the idea of love, instead opting to use an abundance of dialogue or music or cutscenes to accomplish his goals. But this has been tried many times before. And it doesn't turn out very well. - "This is love. When someone drags you from the wreckage when you have given in, ready to just lie there and die. When someone, no matter what the cost, shows you there is hope, a choice, that you can put down your gun. This is love. Love hurts." max payne 2 For example, look at Max Payne 2. It's subtitled, "a film noir love story," and everyone raves about how great the plot is...but really, think about it. Summarize the plot of Max Payne 2 to yourself, right now. What did you come up with? Max Payne is getting shot at. He has to find out why. With Mona's help. And eventually he finds out why, and kills the guy behind it. And along the way he shoots a woman to save Mona, but he suffers absolutely no punishment for it because it turns out the woman was working for the villain anyway. And all of this is supposed to serve as only the backdrop for the "real" story: the love between Max and Mona. Really, how complex a story is that? The stylish and inconsistent narration helps distract from the fact that there is absolutely no plot, but there's no way to justify the total absence of the titular love story. Throughout the entire game, Max and Mona act like they hate each other, almost telling each other something of importance (but never actually doing so), and at one point they begin to have sex for no apparant reason. Then Mona dies (or doesn't, depending on the difficulty level). Now, all the individual pieces are there---the backdrop of violence, the refusal of either character to divulge their true emotions, the hard-boiled sex, and the tragic ending---but they add up to absolutely nothing. This is mostly because the only way you know these people are in love is because the game designers are constantly telling us, without ever giving us real reasons as to why. They don't really act like it, and have no reason whatsoever to love each other; in the first game they only had two real scenes together, and in one of them she was drugging him. Max Payne 2 highlights the way that a love story can be screwed up: flat characters, gameplay unrelated to the "love" theme (despite what the developers think, protecting another character with a sniper rifle does not somehow connect you to them on an emotional level), and overabundance of cutscenes. Now, is Max Payne 2 enjoyable? Of course. It's one of the most fun games ever made. But it is not, by any means, a love story. - "There are different tastes, so there are going to be different ways to approach this." Even looking past the difficulty in defining the word, and the inherent difficulties in putting such a complicated idea into an interactive medium, it still has to be noted that no two people have the same taste in members of the opposite (or same) sex. And yet, developers seem to think otherwise: all videogame women typically look the same, with variations usually restricted to clothing, facial appearance, and hair. Whether it’s Tifa Lockheart, Bloodrayne, or any of the DOA girls, most cyber-chicks are usually very well endowed in both the upper and lower regions, in addition to being very skinny. Hell, even Samus Aran has large breasts, and most of the time we thought she was a dude. Similarly, all videogame guys are either hilariously macho (Serious Sam, Duke Nukem, every space marine ever), or stubble-faced and brooding (Max Payne and his ripoffs). But what if you’re the kind of guy who isn’t into T and A? Or what if you’re the kind of girl who doesn't find tough guys attractive? Apart from text adventures or old, 32-bit adventure games, there really isn't much for you. If I am more attracted to this ellen Than this doa I am pretty much screwed as a gamer. However, in this aspect of gaming, there is hope: as times goes on, games will almost certainly become more graphically complex and, if games full of user-created content (like, say, Spore) begin to sell well, then we'll see games that are much more customizable for the individual user. The physical beauty of game characters will be forced to grow and change as graphics get better. Within the next five generations (or less) of videogame systems, we will have photorealistic characters, and the tried-and-true modelling strategy of giving every chick huge gazongas and a nondescript face will no longer be acceptable: game characters will begin to look like real people, and with that realism, we will have to see all different types of faces and bodies. And, as games become more customizable, players will have an easier time designing their own ideal mates---kind of like Weird Science, but virtual. However, this doesn't really solve the infinitely more important issue of giving a character the kind of personality you can fall in love with. Even if we someday get a game with a virtual Scarlett Johannsson, there's no way to feel love toward her if she's accompanied by crappy dialogue or a one-dimensional personality. The tragedy is that the personality of a character is the most important in making the player connect with him or her, and that it is the absolute hardest to do. Even if you've got the best writers in the world scripting tons of dialogue to make a character as three-dimensional as possible, the character may simply not be the kind of person you could fall in love with in real life, or wouldn't feel real enough because everything she said was being controlled by a writer. Unfortunately, the only real solution to this problem is the development of true AI, which probably isn't coming anytime soon. - "Love doesn't make the world go 'round; love is what makes the ride worthwhile." In the end, the question of love in videogames is one not easily answered: without true Artificial Intelligence, developers have found it nearly impossible to simulate a real human personality without relying on the crutch of cutscenes, or endless screens of dialogue. But regardless of whether the problem is purely technological or indicative of a larger lack of creativity, the Love Gaming question is not one that will go away anytime soon. If videogaming is to come into its own as an art form, it must be fully equipped to make the user feel a wide range of emotions: rage, sadness, elation, excitement, and, eventually, love. Making us feel that last one has just proven to be a bit more difficult. *If anyone ever starts a sentence with the word "arguably...", it means that the following statement is something they made up, and they are hoping that using a generic term like "arguably" will make it seem like some large and nameless group of people have the same idea that they do. If they use the phrase “It has been said that...”, then it means they're about to tell you something they heard from a movie. (The quotes, in order of their use, are by Warren Spector, George Carlin, Sam Lake writing for Max Payne, Frank Flores, and Franklin P. Jones.) But how do you feel on the subject? Comment.




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Anthony BurchContributor // Profile & Disclosures
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Lead writer of Borderlands 2, curator of  more


 



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