In games, love is just a lie, made to make you blue.
This post is an entry into Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table February 2012 on the theme of 'Love'.
There is no adventure. There is no romance. There's nothing but trouble and desire. ("Simple Men", Hal Hartley, 1992)
The things we do for love
It's the end of Prince of Persia (2008), Ubisoft's short-lived re-imagining of the series in all its cel-shaded glory. After hours of basically one-button action and mostly linear exploration of its gorgeous game world, the player finally succeeds - the evil god Ahriman is defeated and the world is not only safe, but also rejuvenated and purified by the player's actions: deserts have become gardens, ghastly tombs have become peaceful shrines. Everything is achieved; the world is saved. But at what cost?
This is not the happy end we're used to getting, the one we feel entitled to: Elika, the nameless prince's magical and sexy sidekick, lies dead in our arms, and the player is astonished and shocked to see the credits roll. Elika is, after all, the prince's romantic interest - a subplot that is arguably only weakly realized in the game. Surely she can't be dead? We'd have expected a final kiss, their first one too, a light-hearted walk into the sunset, and they lived happily ever after.
Instead, we are given a choice - the only choice, really, in an extraordinarily linear game: Accept her death, turn off the console and sigh melancholically - the credits have rolled, the fat lady's sung her last note - why are we still standing here?
Or, on the other hand, we could undo what we worked so hard to achieve and doom the world to destruction by Ahriman's hand. And resurrect Elika.
That this is hardly a choice worth pondering more than a few seconds should be clear to any player of games: Traditionally, we're here to save the girl, from whatever castle. So we save the girl; she lives, and Ahriman rises; the (really) final scene of the game sees the prince and his girl flee from the scene of the Dark God's triumphant return.
IGN's review got it dead wrong:
This is a story about love. Not the love between the Prince and Elika, but between you and Elika. She is your constant guide, able to cast a spell at any time to show you the path to your goal. Come across a gap too great for the Prince to leap? Elika can assist with a double-jump move. Want some help in combat? Elika patrols the arena, ready to attack at your command. Miss a ledge and about to fall to your death? No sweat. Elika will always save you. (...) She's your greatest asset and far more likeable than the boorish Prince. If Elika were just a little bit more real or I was just a tad more insane, I'd marry her.
If this is actually this reviewer's definition of love, their real-life partners will have a hard time dissuading their spouse from cheating on them with a variety of useful household aplliances. Or, say, A Boy and his Blob's Blob.
Sarcasm aside, this notion of the player loving Elika was definitely the developer's intention, and to prove it, the game sets up an illusionary test: At the end of Prince of Persia, we, the player, sacrifice the world for our love for Elika. Prince of Persia's end was designed to be a testament to love's power, and also to the medium's power of making us fall in love.
We doom the world for the girl. The things we do for love ...
Except we didn't. Prince of Persia's final test of the player's love is an illusion, a smokescreen. There is no real emotional dilemma involved. Interpreting this final act as proof of romantic attachment to this admittedly attractive heap of pixels and repeating dialogue would be a misinterpretation of every gamer's basic motivations.
We do it because this obviously isn't the end - we still have control of the prince, we can still move with Elika in our arms, never mind the rolling credits.
There's still content in this game and we'll be damned if we don't see it through. Doom the world? Doesn't matter, baby, it ain't over till it's over.
That doesn't mean that we, the player, can't become infatuated with gameplay elements - or that these elements lose their importance if we don't fall in love with them. On the contrary: It doesn't matter.
It is one of the great Portal's many expertly played tricks that the now infamous weighted companion cube has become a pop phenomenon and, in truth, an ironic symbol for all of videogames' digital love-interests. In a way, Portal's GladOS has a similar grasp of human romantic relationships as Prince of Persia's (presumably human) designers. The companion cube is a test chamber element designed for two purposes: to be used by the test subject, and to provide an emotional interest to be exploited. And while Elika's designers tried hard to give her the appropriate (female) shape to serve as such a device, GladOS, who is, after all, Aperture Science's test designer, opted for the bare essentials: The weighted companion cube is virtually the same as all of the other cubes found in Portal's test chambers - except for its pink heart symbol. It is that complicated human concept of 'love' boiled down to the essentials an AI like GladOS would understand.
Of course we, the player, can't help but smile at the absurdity of it all, especially at GladOS' exploiting this presumed emotional attachment to torture and manipulate us. It's the graffiti behind the test chambers' walls that tell us of our predecessors' deranged romances and infatuations with this lifeless object; but we, as players, basically treat the cube the same as any other gameplay element designed to be used and to provide an emotional interest.
In a way, we are as emotionally detached from Elika as we are from the companion cube. Of course, we still get it: Both are signified to be important; so it's part of our job to protect them. It's one of Portal's finest ironies that the companion cube, this absurdly ironic stand-in for any kind of love interest, actually works just as well: When GladOs forces us to destroy the companion cube for the testing to continue, countless players spent hours trying to save the cube in any way imaginable. Did they do it for love?
In the end, we dispatch Portal's GladOS for the same reason we free Ahriman in Prince of Persia: Not because we want revenge for our beloved companion cube; not because we want Elika brought back to life. We don't do it for love. We do it because that's what's to be done.
There's many emotions games have no problems in eliciting. Love, however, is hard. Love is one of the more complicated human emotions. Admit it: We don't understand it ourselves. It's easy to use love plots, like Elika's resurrection, emotional codes and symbols, like the companion cube; the player, conditioned by a world of culture and fiction and real-life experience, will reliably do their part: rescue the princess, avenge his beloved or protect their party. This, however, is not love; it isn't love for Princess Peach that motivates us; it isn't love for Elika or the companion cube that makes us follow the game's path to its end.
So love - true love, the emotion, not the plot device - may be one of the feelings games may never be able to elicit in their players at all. Because when it comes to love, games - from Mass Effect's varied matings to Prince of Persia's sexy sidekick to the murky world of Bishojo Games and dating sims - basically offer their players problems to be analysed and solved. For this, the player must try and understand the problem that is posed by a game element, even - and especially - if this game element sets out to elicit this mysterious feeling called love.
And here's the dilemma. Let's face it: You can't love what you have come to understand completely. In games, love is just a lie, made to make you blue. Or at least: made to make you press the right buttons.