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New Challenger: Talkin’ ‘Bout Love

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It came to me recently as I was nobly contemplating the night sky, searching for the gossamer touch of inspiration, that I have been writing New Challenger for over a year now. I feel like this warrants some sort of celebration, so I decided that I would go back to the original reason I started writing about videogames in the first place: love. For those of you who listened to this week’s Primecast, I won’t waste my time repeating ideas that were discussed there. You really should listen though, as we dedicate the second half to a discussion of love in games. Here, however, I want to talk about why, of all the emotions, love is one of the hardest to induce in an audience.[pullquote_right]While we’re starting to deal with much more adult themes, we still have a long way to go…[/pullquote_right]

Strangely, this discussion will start not with love, but with fear and anxiety. You only have to watch the news or read the headlines to see that the world is filled with horrible disasters, death, war and all manner of depressing occurrences. The modern world has learned to deal with this constant onslaught of apocalyptic reporting where the smallest dramatic events are given priority over much bigger heart-warming stories. In short, there is a constant level of anxiety and fear in our lives. What does this mean for games? Well emotions that are already lurking just beneath the surface are much easier to evoke. This is why horror is such a successful genre; all the thrill of spine-tingling fear with none of the associated danger. Horror games invest the player further in such emotions; as players develop even the smallest of links with their character, they care more about what happens than if it were just a film playing out in front of them.

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Perhaps this emotional investiture is born of potential consequence. In Dead Space, if an alien jumps out of a vent and disembowels the player, it is not only a shock, but it also has a bearing on the player’s experience. This way, whatever dimension of fear is evoked (fear of the unknown, death, loss or repeating the same part of the game again), the game has succeeded in making the player feel these emotions.

Anger is closely related to fear in videogames, as often too much fear of death will frustrate the player. Games like Dark Souls are the cause of many a broken controller for the very reason that the entire experience is designed around a player’s fear of loss competing with his love of challenge. Yes, there’s that word again: love. Love is the reason why gamers put themselves through harrowing experiences, frustrating boss fights and merciless game design. Without this love, Super Meat Boy, and lots of other terribly difficult games, couldn’t exist. Love drives the industry; love of creation, of the act of playing, of the stories we can share with each other as gamers. It is the key to everything we know and love about videogames. And yet for something that often is the very motivation for our actions, it is incredibly hard to pin down.

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Engineering an emotion in a sterile environment is notoriously difficult. The intention of the writing is irrelevant if it isn’t backed up by a design and atmosphere that reflects the same goals. This goes back to my article on what gives a game soul; unity of purpose is so important. Yet even if a developer gets that right, it can be hard to stimulate fear, love, or anything in the player. Why? One of the problems to overcome is the fact that no matter how immersive a game world is, so long as we’re loafing around in a chair holding a plastic controller that controls something on a screen, we are removed from the experience. This is not to say we cannot become lost in a game, but unless we are completely captivated by a game immediately, it can be very hard to emotionally invest in a character or story. And again, even if a game is captivating, it does not mean the characterisation is right for the player to start feeling things for the characters in the game. And this is where the real problems begin.[pullquote_left]Finding the key to making us fall in love is going to take time, perseverance and a few more misfires.[/pullquote_left]

Fear is a pretty universal emotion as we all share a fear of being massacred by other-worldly beasts, and the fear of whatever is in the walls banging and squealing (the unknown) is very common as well. Love, however, is much more personal. Some people love strong characters, some love blue eyes, etc. There are as many tastes as there are people in the world, so developers are faced with the nightmarish task of creating conditions in which the player can fall in love with characters, or invest themselves in the relationship as characters fall in love with each other. So should they opt for insipid characters and hope the player projects his ideal partner onto a love interest, or go for a strong character and hope the player will be attracted to him/her? I think this is where my problem with Pandora’s Tower begins.

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Pandora’s Tower is a game where the developers have openly said they intend for players to fall in love with the protagonist/player’s girlfriend, Elena. The character they opted for was a very withdrawn, troubled young woman who spends most of the game in the passive role of a housekeeper. She cooks, cleans, washes clothes and performs all manner of other mundane tasks while the player is out slaying beasts in the towers. The twist is her vulnerability; she relies entirely on the player to save her from the curse that is plaguing her. The developers have tried to use the Florence Nightingale effect to engage the player and make him feel something for Elena. Forgive me, but I feel nothing towards her and mostly find myself frustrated at her lack of inaction. But then I’m someone who, in The Last Story, preferred Syrenne over the flaky love-interest and who will always prefer someone who has substance to their character.

I guess this is where we are playing with ideals. Especially noticeable in games coming from Japan, the ‘ideal’ woman is someone pure, caring and innocent. She will do all the menial tasks life necessitates without complaint and always have a few encouraging words to spare. Yet for many people, what they see is just the personality vacuum of a terminally boring but naïve person who has nothing more that they aspire to in life than to be the player’s servant. But maybe I’m being too harsh; there are, after all, some aspects of games where feelings of love can be provoked. The biggest of these is with videos and cut-scenes.

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As a burgeoning medium, videogames owe a lot to cinema. Games still primarily use cut-scenes to tell a story because they free characters from the cumbersome influence of the player and, as such, can perform much more intricate actions and interactions beyond vacantly staring at each other as dialogue plays out. This cinematic inheritance shows games are still in their emotional infancy, so while we’re starting to deal with much more adult themes, we still have a long way to go in terms of developing our own methods of exploring and evoking all the subtleties of our emotions.

If you don’t believe me about what games owe to cinema, think back to that initial Dead Island reveal trailer and compare it with the final product. One was a bit of a sensation, the other? Well… And while the trailer relied on viewers identifying with parental love in the face of a zombie outbreak (I know, we’ve all been there), the stark contrast of love and loss helped to make both emotions more extreme. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain tried to do something similar, making the player experience the loss of one child and then the kidnapping of another from the point of view of a father. Players shared the rocky break-up of Ethan’s marriage and the subsequent years of depression after such an upheaval. And that is just the opening events of the game that serve as a contextual frame for the player to experience Ethan’s horror at losing a second child.

The only problem is that while the game’s marketing tagline was “How far will you go to save someone you love?” the game had a mixed reception, with many branding it an interactive movie or a game consisting of quick time events and nothing else. I can’t help but feel that these people missed the point of trying something new and different for a game. So this generation has seen gaming mature a lot, but finding the key to making us fall in love with characters and emotionally invest ourselves more in the stories told as we discover new worlds is going to take time, perseverance and a few more misfires. But we love videogames, so we can accept that, right?

Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris
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