Love and darkness: A series of letters on relationship games

Leigh and Quinns talk about love ... and fur.
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Leigh Alexander, satellite freelance games critic and industry journalist by way of New York, and U.K.-based Quintin Smith, a longtime games writer with a concentration on board games, strike up a correspondence on games and their culture. Their regular letters here at Polygon are founded in the idea that games mean quite a great deal in the context of real-world relationships and the interactions among people, and that conversation and personal experience have a lot to teach us about how and why we play.

This time, they talk love — and games about sex, relationships and intimacy. Will games ever tackle these themes well, or is the natural whim of love anathema to the language of systems? Memories, hentai and Furcadia (?!) ahead!

To: Quintin Smith
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Love Games

Dear Quinns,

I've really been enjoying writing these letters with you, although this isn't actually the first time you and I have appeared at the same venue. I guess that's sort of a coy notation, for the benefit of our readers, about how I've known you for some six years now.

Early in my career, around the time we first became aware of one another's work, I was writing a lot about what I saw as "odd psychology" in video games, primarily focused on sex stuff. Remember? The games I'd begun to gravitate toward at that time in my life seemed to me distinctly in need of translation — opaque Japanese visual novels about sexual aggression as melodrama.

It's not that I found them arousing, necessarily, just interesting. They were about appetites and fantasies it's not socially acceptable to express. There was one game where you could have sex with a mermaid that lived in the bottom of a well.

I wanted to find ways to talk about dating sims, with all their uneasy tropes and sterile conventions. In the game with the mermaid, Nocturnal Illusions — through and through a sex game — how the story progression stalls if there is a single dresser in the massive haunted mansion that you have not elected to "Look At." About how their being "game-like" often renders sexuality uncomfortable and surreal, even apart from the cultural chasm these Japanese sex games illuminated.

In Princess Maker 2, you have to raise an adopted daughter, put her to work and ensure she marries well. Except you can put her to work in a brothel, or modify her bust size, or have her marry you, her father, if you play really well. It was definitely a sexualized raising sim, one I thought at the time was more like a sex game than not.

In the comments on that article, Kieron Gillen, the famous veteran games journalist, disagreed. It was the first time he'd ever commented on anything I wrote, and I practically died, I was such a fan of his. I've told you this story, I know. Ultimately it was Kieron who introduced you and me back then, via some email where he said he thought we'd "do wonderful things together."

Princess_maker
Princess Maker 2

And here we are, me with my spotty roots in problematic hentai games, and you with your history of putting gross metaphors about your genitalia in everything. OK, OK, not everything. I'm giving you a hard time. Ugh. Wait.

Um. Anyway, I didn't write you just to reminisce. I wanted to talk about relationship games. When we hung out in London late last year we got to talking about Catherine, the only relatively major console game I'm aware of to've attempted to capture the intrigue of love relationships between men and women (we also bickered some about the love triangle in Cowboy Bebop, though I think I'd had a bit to drink by then and I don't remember it so well).

More recently, I've been really excited about how people are using Twine games and dating sims these days to communicate about their personal experiences and their sexuality. I've always wanted to believe that it was possible for games to communicate something about sexuality, or romance, or relationships in general. I still do, I guess.

We do these letters together because we're interested in the context of how people play — games are never isolated, objective experiences, but things that happen to people, between and among people. Memorable experiences are about the when, why and who with; not the how many maps, not the controls.

I'll be in London soon. I am holding you to your promise to pick me up at the airport, but between now and then, what's your take on games' relationship to love and sex?

X,

– Leigh

EnslavedEnslaved CatherineCatherine
To: Leigh Alexander
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Loves Games

Dear Leigh,

You'd better take that bit about maps back. Most of my teenage years were spent happily behind locked doors, engaging in quality materials JUST LIKE Morrowind and the accompanying paper map.

Gamers still have dalliances with solitary experiences, but all the games that seem important right now are the ones that let us play together. The Journeys, the Minecrafts, the Dark Souls and DOTAs. But now that we're mining this rich seam of togetherness, why the continued disinterest in sex and love? The evidence is that we all want to connect with one another. The reality is inexplicably prudish. We'll stand back to back and kill until our arms can hardly lift the guns, but two years ago I was left speechless when a character in Ninja Theory's Enslaved used the word "penis." I'd never heard it before in a game. I still haven't, since then.

Here's my theory, which navigates the nauseatingly bleak response that it's because games are a male-dominated field. I think games have a disinterest in relationships because they have their foundation in play, and play is, in the first place, a non-literal means of humans fostering relationships.

I'm playing a lot of Monster Hunter right now, which isn't a euphemism for going clubbing with Brendan. It's a game where up to four players can work together to defeat some vast creature across fights that last for an hour, at which point you make jackets and pants out of the fuckers. When that monster collapses there's a heartbeat where you stare disbelievingly, and then you all scream. This is where you'll find relationships in games, is my point, and it's more tangible than any movie. For the rest of our lives, me and Keza McDonald, my hunting partner, will remember our time spent together. Isn't that even better?

Yeah, I remember talking about Catherine with you in some doomsday pub or another. But for weeks when you were in London, the most enjoyable conversation we had about a game concerned fruit machines in U.K. pubs. You were awed by this horrible, flashing obelisk in the corner. I'm telling you, every U.K. gamer grows up learning to treat those things like mimics in fantasy games. Don't go near it! You'll have a shit time! "But I want to!" No, Leigh! No!

It wasn't that way with Catherine. We took that game apart. We discussed the text-message mechanic, the morality test, it featuring pregnancy and fear of commitment. On some level, yeah, it felt like a sweat-slick artifact from a future where games reach further than the nearest goblin hutch for their inspiration. But you've got to agree with me that the presentation of the pivotal relationship in it, with the nerve-spangled Vincent and his bumfuzzled love triangle, was also the worst thing about it. The game's so bizarre that you think it HAS to be going somewhere clever, when in reality the ponderous,bowling ball of a narrative spends the entire game in the gutter, and simply vanishes from sight at the end.

Maybe games don't need to worry about simulating relationships, is what I'm saying. They improve real-life ones on a daily basis, don't they?

– Quinns

Red Light Center, built from the Utherverse 3D virtual world.
Red_light
To: Quintin Smith
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Loves Games

Hi Quinns,

I used to head up my employer's subsite on virtual worlds back when "avatar-based social interaction" outside of a necessarily game-like context was all the rage. People believed in this vision of a virtual web, whereby now that the capital-I internet had reached critical mass, we were all going to have second selves in the digital realm, develop second lives in online spaces that were fully literal.

I even I thought at the time it was an idea that was more attractive as a science fiction concept, versus something that could lock neatly into our "always-on" lives (rather than log into some virtual space, customize your avatar, walk it to a virtual store, et cetera, none of which is as efficient as a one-click Amazon purchase). Still, it was attractive, and once the MMO boom began, I really longed to live in online games, to "be" my character engaged in all kinds of ways in other characters.

In the 1990s, I role-played on AOL through text. Bunch of teens during the internet boom, making up characters or portraying fandoms, discovering their identities through chat rooms and IM windows. I don't think I can overstate the way online interaction with strangers typing out their ideal selves was instrumental in an entire generation discovering its identity and its sexuality. There was a secret world of self-invention and intimacy taking place in those days.

So when we finally got real, 3D virtual spaces, imagine my disappointment when MMOs turned out to be these lonesome experiences about jogging efficiently across endless cartoon landscapes to the next quest, conversation restricted to talk of trades and grinds. I even, a lifetime ago, tried out a WoW roleplaying server and was disillusioned to find out that this elaborate interface was really just a chat room where people talked the daily ins and outs of their personal lives.

It was the least sexy stuff ever, chatting about your internet connection problems in between gossip about horse armor. I even tried out a "sex-themed" MMO once called Red Light Center, and I've seen GIF porn that was hotter than those numb dolls reciting "erotic" animations to each other alongside seamy club techno.

Yet we know people who've met and fallen in love over video games. We've seen tons of pictures online about "gamer weddings" (eugh). Of course the act of bonding takes place over play. But the games themselves struggle with being about bonding.

Game_wedding
The Sims 2 Monster_hunter
Monster Hunter

I loved Catherine when I played it, but it was the kind of game whose flaws quietly encroached on me in the reflective months that followed. I remember it best, now, for its audience-polling about fidelity and morals, rigidity versus chaos when it comes to love. I still admire it for trying.

Are you saying that you teaching me to use a fruit machine would be "sexier" than any single-player video game can be? I'm not convinced, but I'll give you the opportunity to convince me. I mean, Keza is your Monster Hunter buddy, but that's not a romantic relationship, so you don't quite complete the circuit of your argument, here. Also, you mention "male dominated," but you haven't finished articulating how that affects games' ability to deal with love and sex.

More, please,

– Leigh

PS: Re "Maps" — didn't a certain dear friend of ours get married to that song? "They don't love you like I love you," and all?

Dragon-age
Dragon Age: Origins Tease
Tease
To: Leigh Alexander
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Love Games

Leigh,

You're really going to make me express why the male domination of video games would slow their development of romantic literacy. I can practically see your grin as you hand me the unicycle and point the way to the minefield.

OK.

When I worked at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, we had a half-joke, half-idea (that we never did) of telling our readers it was "Men With Guns Week." Every news post and review would have a reminder that this week we'd be taking a closer look at the dramatic world of Men With Guns, the joke being that we wouldn't do anything else differently. In video games, "Men With Guns Week" would be indistinguishable from any other week.

Now, 99 percent of movies have a romantic plot or subplot, because romance and sex have universal appeal and movies are trying to reach the largest demographic possible. Even the movies that could be video games! Die Hard is about a man trying to save his wife. Lethal Weapon has a heartbreaking scene where Mel Gibson breaks down in tears over a photograph of his wife. Every Star Wars movie is bloated with romance, but almost all of the 97 Star Wars games (a number that doesn't include mobile phone and flash games) don't mention love at all, taking place in a strange layer of the universe where men are expected to just fiddle with their lightsabers.

You know that media which actually targets women is uniquely dedicated to exploring romance and relationships, same as media which targets men is uniquely dedicated to finding out what the insides of a bad guy's chest cavity looks like.

Games have gotten pretty good servicing men with this lowest-common-denominator stuff. It now feels pretty fucking great to club an alien over the head in Halo! Perhaps if single-player games had been aggressively pursuing women for the same amount of time, they might have reached romantic and sexual pinnacles beyond the foursome in Dragon Age: Origins.

But let's get back to multiplayer. One of my first ever pieces of games writing (now lost) documented my travels in Furcadia, a virtual retreat for Furries that, I see now, is still going. Huh. Just last December it raised $155,000 on Kickstarter for an expansion called The Second Dreaming.

Back then, Furcadia had six or so "worlds" you could explore. My friends and I wandered through comparatively empty forests and dingly dells, finding nothing but the exact barren landscapes you describe. Finally, we tried the very last server, an adults-only realm called the Exotic East, or something. What we found took our breath away.

We spawned shoulder to shoulder in a desert world packed with players. From here, you could enter a hundred different portals to strip clubs and luxurious brothels. The first one we tried required a small download. When we entered, we found all of our fox and horse avatars had been given immense, forearm-sized erections.

Evidently, the desire for sex in games is alive and well, is my point.

You know what? So far, you've been doing all the questioning, like some e-dominatrix, watching me squirm from across the Atlantic ocean. Sneaky! Let me fix that.

When you and I looked at Tease, The Liberating Game for Couples and Adults over on my board game site we discussed what an accessible, sexy game might look like, and YOU wondered aloud if sex is at all compatible with systems. Let me just quote you, here: "Sexuality is hot precisely because of the unspoken rules, the sort of primal way we navigate flirtation."

You're welcome to pick on me and my Monster Hunting. I can take it. Not least because out of the two of us, you're the one with a bona fide crush on The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3.

But I'm not convinced you think multiplayer can be sexy, either. And yet you're the one who wanted to do a letter series about sex in games. What aren't you telling me?

Let me know. In the meantime, I'll prepare for your sexy fruit machine tutorial. I ever tell you I own a pair of leather trousers?

— Quinns

Braid, Passage, Façade, The Marriage
— all sophisticated games about relationships made by men.
Passage
To: Quintin Smith
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Love Games

Hi Quinns,

OK, got it: "Men like guns, women like feelings, Quinns likes furries." You heard it here first, readers. (That, I believe, was the sound of you hitting a mine. I'm sorry.)

More seriously, though. Part of why I'm so hot for increased diversity in the people who make games — not just more women, just more people from outside the standard white-nerd-dude experience — is because I think it'd lead to a broader range of experiences expressed through games, and that includes a better lens on intimacy.

Here, I'll take a trip to the minefield with you: Games, by and large, are founded in a culture of social awkwardness and fear of intimacy. Games used to be only for nerds, and nerd culture isn't exactly famous for its social success. People always ask me why I don't like multiplayer games, and my answer is always the same: "I play games to get away from other people." That's partially a gibe, but it's also partially true.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how one of the most attractive things about games of all kinds is they give us a world where we can control variables, where we're rewarded for controlling variables. If we fail, we get a do-over. If we wreck something irrevocably, we can load a prior save. That's attractive, I think, for a culture whose lingering commonality is the fact we feel a lack of power over real-life interactions.

But just so we don't trap ourselves into a "nerds can't do feelings" subtext, or, god forbid, a "men can't do feelings" subtext: One of the very earliest games I ever played was about hunting for sex. I played the original Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards at what must have been seven or eight years of age, and I learned the word "prophylactic" from that game.

There was a lot of "adult" subtext in the nerdy computer games of that age. I think about how some of the early Sierra-era game-makers collaborated on The Softporn Adventure, featuring a picture of them in a hot tub that made me feel squicky as a child. And you know every adventure game from the '80s had some affordance, often a scolding, for if you wrote the F-word — like even back then game designers knew what we wanted to say and do.

Silent_hill_2
Silent Hill 2

And there were the live-action games of the '90s, like the Phantasmagoria games or Tender Loving Care (my friend Rob got me drunk and convinced me to spend $10 on the recent iPhone adaptation of the latter odd relic) that tried awkwardly to deal with the dark underbelly of the human sex drive. Even in a nerdy, male-dominated historical game industry, the urge was there. It's been there.

Braid, Passage, Façade, The Marriage — all sophisticated games about relationships made by men. One of my favorite relationship games is Silent Hill 2, a man wrestling with the memory of his wife's entropy, his self-loathing for how he failed to negotiate his own appetites in the face of her illness and came to resent her. That's pretty deep stuff. Yet Silent Hill 2 is characterized by that loathing, disgust and self-punishment. It's sexual in its undertones, but isn't sexy at all.

Maybe my earlier hunch during our Tease discussion, that systems are unsexy, is right on. None of these myriad sex games we've discussed are "sexy," I think in part because we naturally want a certain voyeuristic distance from game characters (think of the objectification of Lara Croft).

If I've been turned on by a game it's been in spite of the game, not because of it. How about you?

I'm getting on a plane to your side of the pond in about half an hour as I write this. I'm looking forward to seeing you.

— Leigh

PS: Oh hell yes, I have a crush on the Boss. Boy, is MGS3 ever a game about love — complicated love.

Fallout
Fallout
To: Leigh Alexander
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Love Games

Dear Leigh,

A memory pops into my head of an editor of mine describing World of Warcraft as gaming's cathedral, which works on a sexual level, too. A certain god-fearing cleanliness, with, perhaps, some of the more permanent residents getting up to no good behind closed doors.

As I write this, you're asleep on my couch. Gonna try and get away with a confession before you wake up.

I can't count the number of times I've been turned on by games.

Role-playing in an online chatroom might have been my first sexual experience. As a kid, I couldn't believe I could hook up with Aerie from Baldur's Gate 2. I could build a sex ziggurat from the innumerable 2D and 3D models that have caused twinges in the reptilian part of my brain, with Fran from Final Fantasy XII at the top. What I remember most, though, is Fallout 2. Here's a thing. You mention games' appeal in that you can do-over key decisions. Sex is the only area where I've never been able to go back and change what's happened. I think this ties in with what you were saying earlier, about how systems and romance can't co-exist.

So. Fallout 2. I was 12 when I played it, playing a female character, and she'd just made her way to the first town in the game. I found some gang members and, in the tradition of RPGs the world over, proceeded to try and be as nice to them as possible. One of them asked if I'd like to retire to his horrible burned-out car. I said yes. The screen faded to black, and opened on him, having used me, telling me to fuck off.

At 12 years old, I didn't have the capacity to deal with what had happened to me, or her. I scrubbed the saves from my hard drive and started the entire game again.

Surely us questioning whether systems are compatible with sex is the wrong question. Isn't this stuff too intrinsic to human nature for games to dream about avoiding it?

Gonna send this email before my Englishness gets the better of me.

Sincerely,

— Quinns (from upstairs)

On a date with Catherine
Catherine_date
To: Quintin Smith
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Love Games

Good morning, Quinns,

So last night when we went out I finally played a fruit machine, that weird towering column of mad blinking lights and inscrutable inputs. Our Brendan was showing me how, though he only vaguely understood it himself, and I lost £2 as we tried, mostly by trial and error, to negotiate big shiny buttons labeled "HOLD" and "NUDGE." You wandered up eventually, disappointed we'd decided to try to learn the fruit machine without you.

It's a game that makes no sense. You're not sure when to touch it or why, what constitutes "success" or what will happen next. It's the antithesis of the sort of clear system of rules games seem to favor, and I wonder if a relationship game could feel like that — opaque, impossible.

But yeah. Maybe games can't systematize relationships, although you're right on that we'll never give up on trying to do them well within such an expressive, interactive medium. And "well" can mean guttingly, ambivalently, sexily, romantically, troublingly. Any number of things, I imagine, so long as they're about the delicate things that happen among hearts and bodies. Games could definitely use more of the delicate things.

If I were to tell you what turned me on in games, I certainly wouldn't do it in such a public forum. (Nocturnal Illusions mermaid?!? Come on, I'm totally not into that, I swear.) But I will share with you a recent relationship game I thought was really brilliant — Anna Anthropy's Survival, a gift for someone she's dating. It's about a domme and her babe in a captivating post-apocalyptic world, and how they help one another get by.

It's short, but I think it's some of Anna's best writing, and it's touching, sexy and haunting simultaneously. I especially like it because it challenges the assumption that sex and violence are somehow mutually exclusive — the implication we've strayed toward, even here, being that if we are going to make Love Games, they cannot have Weapons in them.

I like people making games as gifts for one another. Probably personal games, made by individuals as acts of self-expression and communication, are going to be the ones that convey intimacy best. I may or may not have made a few of those, but I don't want to share them here.

I'll show you later. Box wine from Sainsbury's?

– Leigh (from your bedroom) Babykayak

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