Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Week! Day Four

All this week, Erik gets into the spirit of a holiday cynically looked at by many as simply an excuse for crass commercialism and insincere gimmicks under the false title of "romance" to try to find examples of real, genuine relationships in media.  It's day four of "Valentine's Week!"

It's Valentine's Day!  A day for people to celebrate their relationships with close friends and with their significant other and to appreciate that they aren't alone in the world.

Of course, if you don't have someone in your life, this can also be somewhat depressing, so why not go for something a bit more...simulated?

...not that kind of simulated, I mean

 ...wh- no!  I'm talking about video games!



... witty picture?  Okay, let's continue.

Video game developers have been working on making "simulated relationships" a key part of the game experience.  If your action hero has a girlfriend or wife, they want you to have feelings for that girlfriend or wife.  If the RPG storyline allows you to have other characters fall in love with your character, the developers hope you choose someone you've developed feelings for, as well.  This isn't a new development, but only in recent years has it really taken off and become a key factor in a lot of games (see: most things put out by Bioware).

But this isn't new to video games.  Going back, there were moments in early role-playing games where you, the lead character, would have someone special to you that you were either trying to lead to safety, rescue, or fight an ancient evil alongside with.  One of the first I remember doing it really well was, as I've previously mentioned, Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy.

In this game, you're a gladiator who is forced to fight for the amusement of the Dark Lord (seriously, that's his name) until you make your escape.  You meet a "mysterious young woman" (a common trope in video games) who accompanies you at certain points in the game and needs rescuing in others, but for the young me, the bond between the two became the key part of the story.  At the end, when (spoiler alert for a game that came out in 1991) the female lead has to sacrifice herself to become the new tree of life, your character becomes the tree's guardian, never leaving its side.

I got choked up when I was 11.  It was pretty powerful stuff.

Now, while games where you build a character and try to build relationships with other characters is a big hit now, over in Japan an older variation of this has been around for quite some time.  I'm talking, of course, about "dating sims."

Now, there are multiple types of games like this.  Some are true "dating simulators" where you, in essence, play yourself trying to convince simulated people to go out with you and fall in love with you.  Another is the "digital novel" style, where there's one clear-cut story, but you can sometimes make decisions that affect the direction the story goes.  These are the equivalent of a digital Choose Your Own Adventure novel, just with slightly more ways to get a terrible "you die" ending.

Now, when I first discovered these (back in the 90s), mostly the stories were things like "you're a senior in high school, and you've got eight girls that you have crushes on, see if you can do things to get at least one to like you!"  However, in the past ten years, the "story" of the novel has grown to encompass everything from historical dramas or science fiction stories.  Sometimes the romance happens in the midst of a battle for the fate of the planet itself, other times you're just trying to run a successful business while making sure you have a personal life.

This is how I picture a bad date on eHarmony turning out.

I dabbled with several of these types of games, initially out of curiosity, and then it became part of my then-obsession with Japanese culture along with tickling the part of my brain that loves puzzles.  I was intrigued by the idea of trying to get inside the head of a digital representation of a common cultural stereotype (the quiet, artsy girl, or the athletic, abrasive girl, or the best friend who just never thought of you that way, etc) to see if I could sway their opinion of me.  I'd have to puzzle out which presented speech choice would garner me favor with the character, while in the back of my head trying to figure out if this was the type of person "I" would actually want to spend a digital life with.

Now, because it's Japan, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that many of these types of games are more "adult" in nature, with the culmination of your attempts to woo someone resulting in a presented sex scene.  And while "hooking up" was the ultimate goal of certain games, I always found the story leading to that moment to be the most interesting.  Having the digital "me" talk to these characters, finding out what their (fictional) hopes, dreams, and lives entailed, and finding there were characters I genuinely liked more than other characters.  It really was a simulated social life during a time when I was extremely shy and shut away, and it allowed me to envision what the "ideal me" would do in those situations.

Now, in the end these are just games, and whether it's developing a relationship during a Mass Effect game, fighting to save your girlfriend in Prey, or taking a supermodel on a date in Tokimeki Check-In, its' important to remember that these are still just collections of 1s and 0s.  They might have voices now and might look a lot more real, but buying a box of chocolates or flowers for a game disc not only makes you look really silly, but also comes across as really pathetic.

On the other hand, game characters don't ever say "hey, why don't we watch Jersey Shore?"
I haven't played a "dating sim" or "visual novel" in a very long time, and the ones I did play are pretty foggy in my memory.  But every now and again I'll hear of an attempt to bring this style of game play over to the United States, whether or not it's a romance or simply a means of telling a story with multiple endings.  I wouldn't mind seeing the more story-driven games become more wide-spread, especially since they'd be easier to have on portable game devices, but I think we can all agree that there's certain things that we can leave out of games.

...thanks for keeping it classy, Japan.

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