So if you’ve been following the world of video games during the last couple of months of the glorious heated atmosphere period of the North American Continent we call ‘Summer’, you may have noticed a trend. No, not that apparently, no one wants to buy a 3DS. Or that if a game takes way too long to come out, it’s probably not going to have a happy ending and in fact will turn out pretty mediocre. No, not those, even if they would both make excellent talking points.
Nor is it the personal struggle that’s plagued me throughout the heated months – my slog through Stranger in a Strange Land, which seems to get more interminable and less relevant with each passing page for anyone who was born after the nineteen sixties.
No, the trend is none of the above. Rather, it’s a trend of theme, and the theme is romance.
Yes, love has been in the air in video game land, and the last three games reviewed over here at CLR, Shadows of the Damned, Ms. Splosion Man, and Catherine have all used the completely relatable concept of the love between man and woman as their emotional centers. It’s intriguing that all three were released relatively near each other, especially seeing as romances in video games are generally either not present at all or are poorly handled cliche storms. I’m not sure why all came out so close together . . . it’s really quite odd, but since all three handle the themes wildly differently from each other, I don’t think it’s a form of “Dualing” you see between film studios.
I want to take a second look at these 3 affairs of the heart today. We’re going to break down the core relationship presented in each and see what made it work, and how it didn’t and could have been improved. Seeing as there’s no better place to start than at the beginning, let’s do that, shall we?
Oh and Spoilers will abound, naturally, since we’re going to be talking about key portions of these games. That’s our first and last warning on that, folks.
SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED
THE RELATION SITUATION
Unfortunately in my review of the game, I didn’t get to talk much about the primary female character, Paula. Why? Mostly it was due to spoilers, but since she’s already here in that tree, let’s break this one open shall we?
You see during the course of Garcia [EXPLETIVE DELETED]ing Hotspur’s journey through hell, he comes across a series of grim ‘fairy tale’ books, each telling the story of the various VIP demons (read: bosses) he encounters. Aside from a central reveal that these were all souls that lacked any sort of love in their mortal lives, which led them to awful fates, a few detail another demon hunter that once plagued the game’s villain, Fleming.
Called “The Unbreakable Huntress”, Fleming was so impressed with this woman’s independent fiery spirit (and apparently unstoppable ability with the sword) that he decided to turn her into his bride . . . of sorts. He kidnapped her soul, elevated her status to Queen, and then proceeded to spend several lifetimes killing her repeatedly in some sort of sadistic attempt to convince her to willingly be his. Or to put it in the traditional parlance of abusers everywhere, he hit her because he loved her.
Paula is strongly hinted at to be this woman, escaped from hell and possibly in a new body when meeting Garcia. The two fall in love before the game begins, and throughout the game, Garcia talks about his strange but actually tender relationship with her. Since Garcia is often the stereotypical “macho” archetype, (hard drinking, under-educated, and ass kicking) his reveals of a softer side, but only for Paula, are really the only reason he’s a relatable character at all.
What’s interesting is how insignificant Garcia actually is. At first it seems that Fleming’s torturing of Paula (which you witness throughout the game) is meant to taunt Garcia, but it’s not. This has been going on before him, and without his interference seems like it would continue. He’s the intruder into a story that’s gone on longer than he’s been alive. So what is his role then? What’s the greater point? Or to put it another way . . .
WHY DOES THIS WORK?
Because it’s a story about breaking a cycle of abuse. Think about it; Paula is in a LONG-term relationship (eternity) that she can’t get out of with an obviously abusive ‘boyfriend’ (Fleming). She struggles to get out on her own, and in fact does succeed at some point (hence how she meets Garcia), but gets pulled back in and needs Garcia’s help to make it stick (the rest of the game), much like how many people in abusive relationships can fall back into them unless they have support. The interesting thing is that you play not as the person escaping the relationship, but as the support, which makes Garcia’s almost minor role in the game’s plot (despite him being the main character) make WAYYY more sense.
If you’re looking for subtext in Shadows then even other things pop up too, such as the fact that you are fighting demons which could be seen on a metaphorical level for this kind of allegory about overcoming inner doubts. Part of me really wants to assign the entire game this elevated view that’s deeper than it at first seems, but it’s difficult to tell what’s intentional or not. Even if that subtext isn’t intended, the obvious emotionality present in Shadows gives the gaming and romantic standard of “saving the princess” some real weight to it.
BUT THERE ARE PROBLEMS
Mainly in the fact that Paula herself is almost a non-character until the very end of the game, when she flips out due to all the abuse and attacks her would be rescuer for trying to help. While this makes a large degree of sense emotionally, and is the only time when the game’s Giger-esque phallocentricity pulls a complete 180 into Vulville (seriously the last confrontation is pretty much in a gigantic birth canal), it’s unfortunately presented as just another “women are emotionally unstable” trope since we never get to see Paula when she’s strong, or heck, hardly at all. Thus even if the game had more on it’s mind, it just reverts to a maxim older than dirt.
THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED
Very easily in fact. If we were given some time to see a sane Paula, or at least a strong version, then the change in her nature would have been a lot more apparent and impactful. Of course the best method (since this is a game) would have been to play as her, even if it had been in her former life as “The Unbreakable Huntress” for a level or two.
But no, we only get the male side of the equation which pretty much halts any of the really interesting subtext from developing into full blown introspection or deconstruction, especially since the game’s sense of humor is still decidedly in a “Member’s Only” vein.
Yeah OK . . . that was pretty terrible. Let’s move on before I get PUNished for it . . .
MS. SPLOSION MAN
THE RELATION SITUATION
Actually, my review covers this pretty well, but basically Ms. Splosion man is a fully realized Distaff Counterpart game to the original ‘Splosion Man. It is a perfect homage to Ms. Pac-Man, which of course, was part of the idea. But what does this entail?
Well it means that as in the original, the story is rather unnecessary, and therefore motivation is done on it’s most basic level. You move from left to right and blow stuff up along the way.
In keeping consistency with the main character, everything’s ‘girlified’, but aside from an undercurrent of romance at a couple of points it’s not fundamentally any different from the first game. Until you get to the ending, where Ms. Splosion Man must fight off a monstrous rival for Splosion Man’s affections and then they get married and ride off into the sunset on a motorcycle. This finish definitely cements the minor elements of romance the game presents earlier into a core theme.
WHY DOES THIS WORK?
Because it’s a completely even and equal treatment, while giving us at least an attempt at a female perspective.
Ms. Splosion Man (the character) is no better or worse than the original pyromaniac protagonist of the first game. He innocently blew things up, so she does to. He loved steaks, she loves shoes. He spouted random strings of nonsense words, and she spouts random lyrics to pop songs (so the exact same thing really).
Plus gaming, as with television and film, has the vast majority of protagonists being white and male,so it’s just a nice change of pace. Especially for a female character doesn’t conform to the established gender roles in the medium, which (for the few non-gamers reading this) are as follows:
Ms. Splosion Man is a female that is both completely equal to her male counterpart, but retains a definite femininity. She isn’t put into any sort of “support” role, and she isn’t put in a kinky outfit or overtly objectified. Though the game doesn’t pass the Bechdel test or anything, it does present a woman as a hero who rescues her man rather than needing rescue herself, and that goes a long way.
However . . .
THERE ARE PROBLEMS
While I’m sure I saw a few names in the game’s credits that must have belonged to women, Ms. Splosion Man also feels a lot like a guy’s interpretation of what women are like. You collect shoes, you hang out at the mall, you want above all else, to get hitched. Perhaps it’s because these girly aspects are much more pronounced when compared to Mr. Splosion Man, who just comes off as a spaz rather than any sort of “manly”, but at times the game (and thus Twisted Pixel’s) views on femininity seem like a comedian’s mediocre standup act on women.
“What’s the deal with women and shoes? You don’t need that many. But the average girl has over twenty pairs! No man in the history of the world has ever needed that many pairs of ANYTHING – except Noah, and I’m pretty sure that’s because it was a direct order from upstairs. Which, isn’t that proof God is a woman? At first Noah was probably like any other guy ‘C’mon God, we really only need a few for specific functions right? Cows for meat and cheese, Chickens for Eggs, Dogs for stupid pet tricks?” But no! God wanted all the pairs of animals for the same reason Women want all the shoes – Accessorizing! You never know when you’re going to need a stink beetle, but you’ll keep them on hand . . . just in case! Oh and further proof? Like God, a woman is never wrong!”
So even though it’s cool to play as a girl who is both girly and heroic, it’s also coming from a place that, while not mean spirited, still seems to be playing to stereotypes a tad too much. I guess if I have a real issue, it’s the marriage between the Splosions occurring directly after the two characters meet for the first time. Ms. Splosion Man immediately decides to get hitched to her male compatriot because . . . why exactly? It’s not like the two ever go through any kind of courtship or dating montage, it’s just, “Hey! You’re also made of fiery death? Me too! Let’s get married!”
THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED
I suppose this would have been a non-issue if the two characters had some reason to want to get together earlier on, or heck, even knew of each others’ existence. If Ms. Splosion Man had seen the Mr. beforehand, or if there was a level of the two holding hands and blowing things up as a couple before the wedding, or well, something that doesn’t just promote the idea that women are just going to get married to the first remotely available dude that works.
But if I might have been reading too much into Shadows of the Damned, I’m definitely reading too much into Ms. Splosion Man; a game actively trying to be a light and shallow experience. So while it might not be the best implementation of a romance or even of a female perspective, I’d be making a mountain out of a molehill to judge it too harshly for these ‘faults’ when it’s still fundamentally about blowing stuff up above all else.
THE RELATION SITUATION
In my zeal to cover all aspects of the game in the review, I neglected to cover the finer points of the relationship drama at the heart of Catherine. Vincent, the protagonist, has to struggle with a choice between Katherine, his long time girlfriend, and Catherine, a cute coquettish (and possibly crazy) girl that’s recently entered into his life.
He wakes up next to this alluring temptress one morning and she claims that he was great in the sack, and yet he has no memory due to what is (presumably) too much alcohol. As the days progress, he finds himself unable to just call things off with Catherine immediately, and since Katherine keeps bringing up pressing concerns of their relationship (such as her possible pregnancy and marriage) and he does claim to love her, he ends up painting himself as a cheating louse. When you take into account the game’s pseudo “morality” meter (though I suppose it’s more about views on personal freedom) which affects how Vincent reacts in major situations, the game is at first glance is a deep look at a common relationship dilemma: go with stability but possible boredom, or break with tradition and accept excitement with a new love?
WHY DOES THIS WORK?
Because in the game’s best moments, the whole situation feels very real. Even if the specifics might not be the most common causes of such drama, the core dynamic of choosing between two prospective mates, one relatively stable and the other a bit wilder, in a love triangle is something so fundamentally basic that anyone can relate to it. Who hasn’t felt the tug and pull of the heart to these polar opposite types of potential love?
Though it’s not like this hasn’t been done before (Betty and Veronica anyone?), Catherine manages to tweak and subvert several of the dynamics into a more acceptably realistic and yet wildly unique blend. Katherine fits the role of the demure one, yet she’s a more aggressive and successful individual than Vincent ever is. Catherine meanwhile, is definitely the “wild unobtainable girl” who not only throws herself at our protagonist, but actually professes a need for his stability, kindness (and ironically), fidelity. When you count in the game’s other elements, such as the dream-scape explorations and the undercurrent of a magical serial killer, the end result is a completely skewed version of the archetypical “who will he choose” plot it at first seems to be.
Then there’s the simple fact that the game gives plenty of weight to the rather hefty issue of infidelity, something that’s been done to death on a Lifetime movies of the week, but is just unheard of in video games where it’s actually rather fresh. Taking something trite in another medium and bringing it to more fertile grounds in another has also been done before, but you know what? It works!
BUT THERE ARE PROBLEMS
But in the end (AND HERE BE THE SPOILERS), it turns out that Catherine isn’t exactly “real”. No one but Vincent ever actually sees her, and this is pretty obvious to the player, but still rather neat at first, since the idea that she’s representing some sort of internal psychosis over Vincent’s fear in his waking hours would still be compelling. But no.
She is in fact, a sort of succubus preying on men around the city and was summoned by an elder demon/god (of sorts). It’s all a part of the game’s background plot that involves all sorts of crazy demonology, curses and supernatural happenings and it just feels . . . “less than”. I mean, it’s sort of the equivalent of, say you were watching a really solid serious drama, Casablanca maybe, and you find out that at the end of it all it turns out THE DEVIL was the one keeping Rick and Ilsa apart and was actually her husband all along, and instead of Bogart being faced with a quandary of what to do, he just asks Renault, who turns out to be a priest capable of exorcism, to participate in a ritual to drive the demon out of the mortal plane!
THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED
If this were another game perhaps, but Catherine is actually sort of a spin-off of the Persona games, which are guess what? About demon summoners battling . . . survey says: DEMONS!
So complaining about such a thing is rather a null issue I guess, especially since I’m not complaining about this aspect of Shadows of the Damned. But in Shadows, the mystical elements are inherent to the drama and setting from the get go; the story wouldn’t work without them.
In Catherine, even though the demon magic stuff is worked into the game rather well and does create a solid explanation as to why Vincent is exploring the dream-scape, the choice to keep the the allegorical elements as a metaphorical method of delivering the game rather than make them “real” would have been a stronger one. The game is in general BETTER when it sticks to the realistic and relatable problems that people actually wrestle with. When it veers into it’s magical territories, it works, but also isn’t playing to its strengths.
Actually, this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. David Cage’s (of Heavy Rain fame) earlier game Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in the U.S.) had a similar issue. What started out as an interesting and grounded serial killer Noir story ended up delving into Zombies and AI and cults and all sorts of incoherent wackiness that completely derailed everything up till that point.
Unlike that travesty though, Catherine still ends up rather decent and keeps most everything together to deliver a satisfying (enough) conclusion. Plus it at least hints at all the demon and magic stuff throughout the game, so it doesn’t really come out of left field even if you didn’t play any of the Persona entries. At the end of the day, the romance elements do work well despite the distracting demonic influence, and this is still probably the best example I’ve yet seen on how you can do a romance in a game. Even if there isn’t a LOT of competition there.
So yeah, it’s a rather weird occurrence that all these games came out so close together, but in a lot of ways it’s weirder that they decided to focus on this subject. Though each of them have problems and issues unique to them, it’s still impressive that some developers are at least trying to reach beyond the expectations of the medium.
All three do end up with another problem I haven’t mentioned though: none of them create gameplay mechanics regarding their romance.
In all three, the romance, while key, is part of the story more than what you actually do (though in Catherine there is a touch of gameplay with the drunken texting). Considering that the method of gaming is about the player actively participating, doing rather than watching, this is actually a bigger problem. One which seems to lurk in the background of many otherwise viable genres of games that can’t be made unless its resolved.
But it’s a problem not easily solved. How do you make romance as interesting to play as shooting Nazis? Dating Sims are the closest thing to doing this (aside from straight up “Erotic” games) and really, they’re pretty boring.
Part of it has to do with conversation in games, which, as a gameplay mechanic is something I still think no one is doing in any sort of interesting or fun way. Since a lot of what would be important in playing a game about relationships and love would require the dialogue to be interesting to play (as well as well written), it’s probably the biggest factor holding back the romance from becoming a straight genre in gaming, but it isn’t alone. Gauging empathy, creating subtle problems that are misdirected lest the player game the system, crafting fun activities out of spending time together (without dipping too much into the weirdness of digital sex) . . . there are a host of issues in getting this to be a viable genre in the western gaming world.
Unfortunately, as much as I want to discuss this further, this session’s probably gone on long enough. So I’ll table it for now and leave this as a subject I’d like to bring to the committee at a later date. Perhaps trying to tackle individual elements one by one (such as Conversation and Empathy separately) would be the best course of action, but . . . I think I’ll take a cue from the book of Doctor Henry Jones Junior and figure that out once we come to it.
Until then, keep fighting the good fight gentle readers! Gaming will continue to improve, as it always does. Games like these three are proving both that the medium is growing and there’s still room for more growth – all at the same time.
This meeting of the committee is now ended. May you never be surrounded by cultists who want your heart, scientists who want your genes, or demons who want your soul. And may all your romances have a happy ending!