Quick, name a recent title whose story has shaped the gaming industry. Okay, done that?
The ones that readily spring to mind, and I suspect some of you may have picked, are Call of Duty’s shocking Modern Warfare stories and Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect stories with their homosexual romance options.
Call of Duty generated a lot of buzz in the press in MW2 by allowing the player to participate in terror attacks, gunning down civilians and in MW3 by graphically blowing up a small child. While it got people talking about it, it’s really serves as a cycle of oneupsmanship to create the most shocking, and therefore by extension the most “mature” game. Though there’s little that anyone could actually call mature about it; quite the opposite, it’s really pretty puerile.
There are often calls, particularly among the “games as an art” camp, to grow up as an industry. A great majority of games find themselves falling into the categories of “shoot the terr’ists” or “save us, chosen one!”, few are willing to tread the ground of genuinely mature territory, that of “serious issues”. It’s easy enough to see why, it’s a risky move on any level. The big boys are only interested in the mass appeal, big bucks type titles, and on an indie level, your success could well be the difference between eating ramen or living in a box.
Bioware flirts with this in their games’ romance options, openly allowing gay and lesbian relationships. It’s a hell of a step forward, no doubt, and hopefully the herald of better things to come, but it’s still only toying with the issue, it’s always optional and never has any real impact, either emotionally or on the course of the story.
Enter Christine Love, a Canadian game designer. Or Visual Novelist. The distinction’s a pretty grey area in my book. They’re stories told through the interface of what looks a lot like a game. And they’re nonlinear, have options and the occasional puzzle. That’s marking them out as being pretty close to a game to me. Irrespective of what you’d call them, in terms of narrative, Love’s works are strides ahead of the rest of the medium.
Her first title, Digital: A Love Story is set “five minutes into the future of 1988″. The player, having recently acquired their first “Amie” computer, joins a local BBS and finds the poetry of a girl called Emilia. From there it spirals into a world of romance, computer hacking and conspiracy. The entire game is played through the Amie interface, and you can respond to any post on any BBS and send private messages to any other user. You never once get the chance to see what you’ve written, though, only infer it from the responses you get. A lot of developers are given credit for a good silent protagonist, but Samus, Link and Gordon Freeman still all had an appearance and a certain amount of personality. By leaving the protagonist as a complete blank slate, it leaves plenty to the player’s imagination, adding a great deal to the story.
Her second title, Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, sees you take the role of John Rook, a high school English teacher in the year 2027. This being the future, social networking is huge and all your students are on a network called AmieConnect, reminiscent of Facebook. The school has arranged for you to be able to view all of your students’ public and private messages in secret in order to better assist them. this obviously raises very strong issues of online privacy. You’ll frequently be presented with scenarios where you can guide your students through tough situations, but you’ll only be well equipped to deal with them by violating their privacy at regular intervals. Being high school, bullying and LGBT issues are also prevalent.
Her latest title, Analogue: A Hate Story, has you play a similar role to the first game, a faceless, silent protagonist an unknown number of years in the future when mankind has colonised the stars. You are given the job of a salvage operation on the Mugunghwa a deep space generation ship lost thousands of years earlier. You contact the ship’s AI, but system issues mean you can only communicate in binary choice answers and by showing items of discussion to the AI. By trawling through the logs of the final seven years of life on board the ship you can piece together a picture of their civilisation. Primarily viewed from the perspective of a 13-year old girl put into stasis in the hope that future technology would cure her terminal illness, the civilisation has reverted to a deeply misogynistic culture based on that of the patriarchal Joseon Dynasty of medieval Korea. “Men are honored, women are abased” is the cliché the game asks you to keep in mind throughout. In a society where women are perpetually dehumanised, the game tries to show what life would have been like for those women. All the characters deal with differing degrees of tragedy and scandal, some powerful issues and shocking stories, others merely asides. Ultimately, the dehumanising culture, accepted as the norm for all but the young girl, is the root of it all.
Love tackles head-on issues that most people would rather tiptoe around or turn a blind eye to. Sexism, homophobia, suicide, alcoholism, and complex relationships are all expertly dealt with, even if not always the outright theme. The result is stories that are entirely captivating and deeply thought-provoking, and leave a far greater impact than any dime-a-dozen “chosen one” plotline.
I said at the start that there’s a contingent demanding games grow up, and I can get behind that. Christine Love’s work shows that it is possible, and it can work well. We need to sit up and take note. I think Christine Love may very well be one of the most important video game writers to date.