Some critics are all too keen to investigate the macabre components that exist in games; their perception of the anarchistic, blood-baths we play through generally narrow-minded and shallow. Desire seems to blur with obsession as they attempt to compare highly-fictional scenarios with real, currently-happening World events, playing the sensitivity card and hoping to find a reason to have our favourite pastime irreparably censored, even outlawed altogether.
Yet what they fail to see is that so many of these long-haul campaigns, stricken with violence, are conducted by something much more universally encouraging – the power of love and coming together of nations in the face of insurmountable, life-threatening adversity.
Love and unity are common denominators which inspire many of our intrepid heroes. A heartbeat can stay a sword as much as it can encourage a strike. Belief in a cause can prevent a protagonist pulling the trigger on an individual who has caused them harm and suffering, just as much as it can evoke an open-arena gunfight where survival is the only option.
Romanticising in gaming isn’t a recent epiphany developers had in unison; games have always openly embraced amorous interludes, with the King’s Quest series from Sierra being a perfect example. Whether it’s Graham’s journey to find his Queen or Prince Alexander’s perilous journey through the land of the Green Isles to rescue the fair Cassima, it’s hard to dispute that the core of King’s Quest wasn’t founded on love. Both father and son travelled long and hard for their soul mates, traipsing the hot coals of hell, fumbling through catacombs, scurrying away from the Minotaur that dwells there, ascending to the clouds on high and seeking the advice of the angels. King’s Quest takes players on magical and mysterious, yet ever-perilous adventures, presenting many fatal scenarios for the player. Through these classics, players must be prepared to face the ultimate sacrifice in order to find true love.
However, these aren’t stories that have died old. You can find similar themes in recent games like Shadows of the Damned. Garcia Hotspur must go to hell in order to save his Paula, as he faces an other-wordly presence called Fleming. Fleming threatens to kill Paula again and again in the underworld, but Garcia is having none of it and chases him down into unfamiliar territory to face his worst nightmares.
Maybe a lighter tone, but what of the adventures of Link in Hyrule as he saves the Princess Zelda in multiple incarnations, or Mario as he tackles the Goombas to bring back Peach from Bowser’s Castle? Love forces our protagonists into difficult situations and expects them to fight for what they want. It’s a real test for the individual character, facing manifestations of their worst fears, or puzzles they were never intended to solve. Yet the only thing that keeps them going is reaching the woman they’ve fought so hard to find.
Unfortunately, love isn’t all about happy endings. Sometimes, it walks our protagonists along a darkened path. When one finds their soul mate, experiencing true comfort and blissful joy, when the cruel and twisted World is shut out of their lives, nothing could be so devastating as to have that person ripped away unexpectedly. Jackie Esacado experiences this in The Darkness; at a time when he is fighting with an evil yearning to get out, it is this horrendous experience which causes him to fully embrace those sinister intentions. Jackie becomes that which he fears, but is physically stronger for it, even though his actions are no longer his own. Jackie experiences sacrifice, but in a completely different and very twisted way. All in the name of love.
Of course, love isn’t just defined by romance. You can love your neighbour, you can love your friend and – of course – you can love your children. That is how you could begin to describe the relationship between the Big Daddy and Little Sister in Bioshock. Recognising that your character intends to either harvest or free that sister, a raging Big Daddy will push her aside, fighting to protect her. One could argue Daddy’s intentions are selfish ones, Little Sisters harvest Eve, and Eve is the equivalent of money in Rapture, yet there’s clearly a sworn paternal instinct in this half man mechanism that cannot be denied. He would rather drill through your entrails and see your blood splatter the wall in front of him, than see a Sister harvested for her Eve. If he can’t have it, nobody can.
Facing a Big Daddy for the first time was a frightening surprise to us all. Normally you control the player with the fiery intentions and will to prevail, but Daddy has a tenacity and brutality like few other AI enemies have exhibited. It’s easy to forget artificial intentions within a game when the one detached from that reality is in full command of them, but when an enemy fights back with equal ferocity, it reminds you where you are, and what you’re supposed to be. At least, for a few minutes.
Some characters never truly get to experience the love they so desperately crave. They become subject to suggestion and ‘what if’ scenarios as you listen to their exchanges with other characters. You can’t help but wonder if there could be more than friendship, or indeed, rivalry. One such scenario presents itself in the Gabriel Knight series, between Gabriel and his assistant Grace. While their relationship starts out as partners in a book store, both characters prove time and again that they care for one another, in ways that exceed professional courtesy. The things they say to one another, the awkward pauses, the looks. It all hints at something romantic, yet never quite reaches that point.
There are even those who refuse to believe their loved one has passed on, and so go on a journey to find them. These characters hold onto the slightest hope that life can exceed the physical realm. Yuna finds herself on such a pilgrimage in Final Fantasy X-2. She is haunted by the presence of her dead lover, and continues to find clues that suggest he may be still alive. She never gives up hope, even if it is the unlikeliest of scenarios, and holds on desperately to an ideal that may well be a figment of her imagination.
In games, love isn’t defined by race, gender or species. In Mass Effect, Commander Shephard can make the choice to bed a human, but also Quarians and Turians. Even those who hide away from social situations, bogged down by baggage, making them the most unlikely partner for any individual. Love knows no boundaries in gaming, and is as open-minded and forward-thinking as any entertainment form in the world.
The truth is that it’s not all chocolate and flowers. Nor is it all about dinner dates and candle-lit baths. Love is the greatest force in the world, and there are hundreds upon thousands of ways of demonstrating it. While I don’t suggest you take a trip to hell or start causing open-conflict in a shopping mall to demonstrate your dominance, games do carry important messages in their radical fictional scenarios. They can teach us to speak our heart to a person we’ve long harboured feelings for, or take the time to appreciate those already in our lives.
Pause for a moment, and attempt to look past the chaos and destruction to see the World beyond. You might be surprised by what you find.