I’ve always had a particular respect for the original Donkey Kong, not that I find it to be particularly enthralling. If we’re being honest, I’ve never actually played it. I just can’t help but be impressed by a game that poses of the question, “What could motivate a man to do battle with a giant gorilla?” and succinctly answers “A woman.”
Asking a girl out on a date? I couldn’t conceive of anything more terrifying. Putting myself though physical inconvenience and misery? No problem.
I’ve always had a thing for that kind of romantic thinking. It’s ironic, because for much of my life, romantic love was practically a non-presence. My parents divorced when I was nine, but even before that I can’t recall any moments of real affection between them. There must have been something – my little sister didn’t come from nowhere – but to this day I know more about why they split up than I do about why they ever got together.
In spite of (or perhaps even as a result of) this, I’ve always very much valued love and as I grew older, my desire to find affection beyond what friends and family could provide began to take center stage. When adolescence hit and the other boys, hormones a-raging, could think about nothing except finding a way to get underneath the clothes of the budding girls … well, I was thinking about the same thing. My stratagems were more romantic, though.
Being the nerdy, scrawny, awkward, shy type however, I never met with much success. I had about a dozen unrequited crushes that I can recall, some of which went on for years. But they never progressed beyond that, even when the opportunity practically fell into my lap. I would open my mouth, air would pass through my lips, but the words would go unspoken.
Perhaps that’s why videogames became such an attractive escape for me. Those that included romance presented it as something you didn’t have to put yourself on the line for. In Final Fantasy VIII (my favorite game during my teenage years) the main character Squall spends the bulk of the game acting like a sullen brick of unfriendliness. Easily half of his dialogue is ellipses. In spite of this he makes friends, people like him and above all else, he gets the girl. Throughout most of the game he barely says a word to Rinoa that’s not disparaging and yet she falls for him and after the credits they share a starlit smooch so romantic it would impress a Disney princess.
It’s not that he doesn’t do anything to win her affections; he goes through a lot to get her and at one point in the story essentially consigns himself to a guaranteed death in the hope of seeing her once more. Squall, like the protagonists of countless romantic comedies before him, substitutes genuine kindness and caring with grand gestures.
I used to eat that stuff up, in no small part because it’s something I thought I could do. Asking a girl out on a date? I couldn’t conceive of anything more terrifying. Putting myself though physical inconvenience and misery? As long as I didn’t have to speak to a girl in a way that might imply I had feelings for them, no problem.
For years I lived out my romantic ambitions via the adventures of my digital avatars, though sometimes I’d have to stretch my imagination a bit. The Legend of Zelda games have always been fairly subtle in their depiction of Link and Zelda’s relationship but in my mind there was no question. They were together and every time I slew Ganon it wasn’t to save the world; I killed that pig demon for the express purpose of getting the girl. Every time a game provided me with even a morsel of the lovey-dovey I clung to it, and with time I began to believe in it.
I wouldn’t fantasize about the relationship I wanted to have but rather the ways I intended to get it.
I began to imagine the myriad ways I would sweep each new crush off their feet. I wouldn’t fantasize about the relationship I wanted to have but rather the ways I intended to get it. I thought about the feats I’d perform and the way she would swoon when I proved myself the man of her dreams, better than all the suitors that came before and all those might come after me. A part of me knew it was just fantasy, but too much of me didn’t.
I got my first girlfriend during my freshman year of college. Despite my predisposition toward the grand, our relationship began fairly typically: I asked her out and she said yes. I still don’t know how I mustered the courage to do that, but with the impossible part behind me I set to the all-essential task of proving myself to be the bestest boyfriend ever. One afternoon when she told me her day had been lousy, I skipped the rest of my classes and walked six miles in a Vermont snowstorm to get her roses from a nearby flower shop. Our first Valentine’s Day together I kicked out my roommate, made chocolate strawberries, got a disco ball and bought a romantic fireplace DVD. I once bought her diamond earrings because she was nervous about a class presentation.
Perhaps the nuttiest of my acts came after our first fight. Knowing I was wrong, but never having dealt with such conflict before, the only way I could see to resolve it was with an act of love so grand that Aphrodite herself would reach down from Olympus and give me a high five. Gathering up my favorite CD (Metallica’s Master of Puppets) I ventured over to my lady’s dorm room and after letting myself in I tip-toed up behind her at her desk and snapped the CD in two. I could think of no greater sacrifice at the time.
When the CD shattered behind my girlfriend’s head, no onscreen indicators popped up telling me that I’d accumulated enough points for our relationship to be safe. The credits didn’t roll and we didn’t share a starlit smooch before tramping off to live happily ever after. Instead of expressing amazement at how much I cared, her reaction was a shocked, “What the hell are you doing?” as she dodged shards of CD zipping past her head. “I broke this to prove how much I care about you,” I stammered.
For a moment she stared in disbelief and then with a sigh, she knelt down and started picking up the pieces. I stooped down to help. When we finished she shook her head. “My friends are going to be here soon. We’ll talk about this later.” I left certain that I’d messed things up beyond repair. A few hours later she asked me over and handed me a shopping bag with a new copy of my CD in it. “You don’t need to break things to say you’re sorry, dumbass.”
We stayed together, eventually marrying in 2009, and as the years went by, I began to learn more and more what true romance is. The big moments were fun, but the real foundation was simply the act of maintaining our relationship. Having arguments and coming to their resolutions. Accepting each other’s flaws and working on our own. Real love isn’t grounded in grand gestures but rather small moments and shared history. It’s the nicknames and jokes only we understand. It’s holding hands in the car and kissing each other goodbye as much out of habit as out of passion. It’s the boring moments that happen after the credits roll.
As my perception of love changed, the way I viewed many of the videogames that I’d once revered changed, too.
As my perception of love changed, the way I viewed many of the videogames that I’d once revered changed, too. Final Fantasy VIII, once a totem of romance in my eyes, seemed shallow and flawed. All the complaints that I’d read from people over the years started making a lot more sense. I began to appreciate games that portray love in a way that I could empathize with.
One wouldn’t think giving the player the ability to cuddle on a couch would be all that affecting, but it was easily one of the finest moments of The Darkness. Though the game suffered from some imperfect mechanics, it hit the bullseye in terms of its emotional resonance with its portrayal of a love with a rich history. More importantly, it put across perhaps the truest vision of a “love worth fighting for” that any game has ever achieved. The game’s protagonist isn’t seeking love. He’s not fighting the baddies for some promised vision of a perfect romance. He already has the woman of his dreams. We’re shown in concrete ways how he cares about her and when I played through the section where she’s taken away I shared in his agony.
Other recent games have touched on this as well, the brightest being Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. The previous games in the series fell very much in line with the old “get the girl” format that I’d grown up with. At the end of the first game the villain kidnaps Nathan Drake’s love interest, Elena. You beat the baddie and get the girl. The second game plays out almost the same way, with the game ending as Elena and Drake head off for an assumed happy ending.
Except, they don’t get one.
In Uncharted 3 we find out that Nathan and Elena are married, but estranged. Elena, no longer willing to deal with Nathan’s reckless obsession with treasure hunting, leaves him. They’re reunited of course, but their interactions have more weight to them. It’s clear that they care for each other, but they have a history now. They have a past together and not all of it’s good. The most touching moment in the game comes when Nathan, assumed dead by Elena, wanders back into her apartment. Exhausted, beaten, and having cheated death perhaps one too many times, he all but collapses into her and she holds him, a look of tired affection on her face. You can almost hear her thinking to herself “Why do I keep letting him do this to me?” but at the same time “What would I do without him?”
I wish I could see more of that in videogames. Not just the grandiose acts of passion, but the quiet moments of subtlety that color a relationship. I’d like to see more games that treat characters and relationships as complex, nuanced and imperfect. I’d like to see games that can help to give the impressionable the right impression.