Ambiguous Protagonists, Gender Roles in Romance, and, um, Action Figures?

Still haven’t finished Dragon Age yet–the world keeps hitting me with things like my day job, alas–but I’m most of the way through. I am, therefore, going to post about the broader topic the DA romance plots bring up, because I plan on rambling enough about that to make me need to split the other stuff about the game into its own post anyhow.

So, okay. You have three potential love interests in Dragon Age: two opposite-sex, one same-sex. There’s a Venn Diagram here, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just say that it involves bisexual elves and not!Frenchwomen* and move on. Already I’m liking this game. (I’d like it more if there was a non-buggy option whereby I could end up with both the knight and the assassin, but hey.) You also have a bunch of platonic companions, and you interact with pretty much everyone the same way: dialog options, gifts, and, in some cases, personal quests. Choosing certain dialog options will open up romance plot; you often don’t know what these options are, which is how I ended up hitting on half the characters in the game.**

First of all, I generally like that you can put just as much effort and time into developing the platonic relationships as you can into developing the romantic ones. I like my fictional romance, obviously, but I think friendship is just as important–and the moments when my character bonded with Sten or Wynne were pretty heartwarming.

Second, the combination of well-thought-out platonic relationships and the fact that your character can be either sex and any class creates a couple interesting dynamics, at least when you’re playing a female. Or, rather, it means that you don’t get the Standard Het Romance Character Interaction, with the power issues and the jealousy and the hey now. Often, though not always, heterosexual relationships in media come with the expectation that the man should be as badass if not more so than the woman, at least physically, that he should try to protect her, and that she shouldn’t be in a position of authority over him.

Not so much! CRPGs like this always subvert the position of authority anyhow–um, I’m the PC, therefore I’m the party leader, what’s up–but neither of the male love interests in DA has a problem with this, or switches to testing-my-power mode after the romance gets initiated. The standard dialog options have my character in the role of commander and friend, and the romance doesn’t subvert that at all. In fact, both of the guys in question explicitly state that they want me to be the authority figure here.

Which, not to get into black-leather-and-chains territory, is something I appreciate.

*As so many things should, really.

**Sorry, Leilana! I was just trying to be *nice*.

Romance and Video Games: A Personal Interlude

By which I mean “I haven’t finished playing Dragon Age yet, so have some personal rambling.” I haven’t been home a lot this week, and Orzammar’s political succession squalor is hard to take in large chunks; hopefully I’ll finish up next week.

Meanwhile, it’s occurred to me–while walking home from the T, as such things generally do–that video games and romance have been pretty well connected in my life for, oh, as long as I was interested in either. And I, um, started pretty early in both regards. Pretty ineffectually, too, as I recall.

I mean, yeah, I did kiss the neighbor boy who got a Sega Genesis as a result of major surgery (and was the most popular kid on the block for months, because: Road Rash) but that was a dare on both our parts (when you grow up as far out in the boonies as I did, “dare your friends to kiss each other” gets you through a lot of summer afternoons) and totally doesn’t count at all. My puppy-dog adoration of certain teenagers who would occasionally drop by my parents’ house to talk math or Latin and effortlessly beat my eight-bit nemesis was…well, I wasn’t even conscious of it in a romantic sense, I just thought they were the coolest people ever, oh my God Mom can you get Hesham to come over and show me how to do this level, pleeeeeease?* My giant crush on the boy in third grade who could beat Super Mario 3 (without the P-Wing, of course: I had standards , people) was, in one of the great tragedies of our age, totally unrequited.

Annnd then there was Brad.

Brad was one of my parents’ students when I was twelve. Brad wore all black, and had also dyed his hair black, and wore it in a ponytail, which made him SO DREAMY by a standard that I was just starting to use, and that I took a shamefully long time to get over. Brad taught me how to play Wolfenstein 3-D and Alone in the Dark (and how to find them on the school computers, which were very much For Academic Use Only, at least in theory) and Moria. He also came by and installed Monkey Island and Willy Beamish on our personal computer**. Swoon. Photographs of the scene would, I’m sure, have shown actual hearts in my eyes.

Blockily-rendered VGA hearts, of course.

Brad got kicked out of school for drinking, as you do, and I grew up, bought my own video games, went to a different boarding school, and started actually dating boys. (Most of whom, at the time, I met through MUSHes. Heh.) It was the second of said boys who, one day when we were hanging out at his house, mentioned that he thought I’d like playing Half-Life. Two hours later:

Him: “I love you, sweetie.”

Then there was the freshman fall fling who showed me Angband (and we remained on good enough terms for him to loan me Planescape: Torment that summer–thanks, dude!); the winter vacation where The Perky Goth and I stayed up in the attic playing through Super Mario World until we not only beat the game but got the weirdo pumpkin world setting; drowning my sorrows in DDR and Shadow Hearts: Covenant; and probably more than a few I’ve forgotten. These days, I can buy and install my own games, and I can offer my friends beer rather than undying adoration when they beat levels–which is probably for the best, ’cause I think the guy who got me past the last hellish Parasite: Eve fight would be weirded out if I started batting my eyelashes and showing leg–so there’s a little less of a connection.

Still, there was the time when the current and I went away for our first Christmas vacation, and he brought a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic III. He introduced me to the rules, we played a few games, and three hours later:

Him: “I love you, sweetie.”
Me: “I have no love for anything that doesn’t get me dragons. GOD DAMN PIT LORDS! STOP KILLING MY GRIFFONS!”

Some things don’t change.

* My dad’s school at the time had students do chores as punishment. I’m not sure if “play Nintendo with the Head’s kid” was on the list, but I have my suspicions.
**Using the three years’ worth of DOS commands necessary at the time. This was an imperfect system for many reasons, not least because the theoretical eldest daughter of your household could, hypothetically, in an attempt to free up memory for a game that rhymes with “grist”, decide that neither CONFIG.SYS nor AUTOEXEC.BAT looked like important files.

There were, as I recall, Words.

Secret of Monkey Island!

Kicking off my Romance in Video Games blogging with the extreme comedy end of the spectrum, here, and the Elaine Marley/Guybrush Threepwood romance definitely pulls some things you can’t get away with in anything more serious. Like confessing your love ten minutes after you meet someone: in a more serious game, I would have called shenanigans, but this is right after you use a staple remover on a giant angry yak. Plus, the dialogue involves the phrase “plunder bunny”, and that does not fail to crack me up.

So, yeah, played for comedy–but it’s an example of how to do extremely comedic romance right.

For one thing, the comedy doesn’t revolve around the supposed differences between men and women. There is, in fact, a total absence of the stale-and-offensive Mars/Venus “humor” that frequently comes into play when dealing with heterosexual romance. It would have been relatively easy to make jokes about shopping or commitment, and nobody does. Thank God.

Relatedly, Elaine Marley? Is *awesome*. She’s witty, she’s smart, and she has a life prior to, and outside of, Guybrush. (In fact, the Wiki entry on her says that she was originally going to be a much more ruthless character, and male, and not a romantic interest at all–and I think it really does help to create a character gender-neutral and outside of romance plot at first, a theory I’ll go into in more detail later.) I want to be her when I grow up.

Second on “how to do comedy romance right” is the fact that Monkey Island doesn’t do the stalking-is-funny-and-sweet thing. Guybrush doesn’t fall for Elaine and then follow her around until she loves him. (Yeah, he does break into her house, but that’s not romantically-motivated: it also, from the dialogue, seems to be a wacky Melee Island tradition.) The guy who tries that is the (hilarious undead) villain. It might seem weird to quibble about this in light of the aforementioned love-at-first-sight dialogue, but…I’m all right with comedy presenting situations that don’t happen; I’m less okay with presenting as awesome things that actually happen and are creepy when they do.

It’s really, really easy to do comedic romance badly; it’s really, really easy to do video game romance badly. (And there will be examples of the latter on this blog, ohh yes.) Monkey Island does video game comedy romance well, and for this it deserves some sort of shiny medal. Or at least ectoplasmic fireworks.

Soon: Dragon Age, Shadow Hearts, and the October Silent Hill WTFStravaganza.