Monthly Archives: February 2011

Interactive Digital Romance Novels

>I can’t believe I didn’t know about this until now: the rise of choose-your-own-romance e-books.

I got excited for a moment but upon a little bit more research it seems these are basically hidden object games with a romance plot overlay. That’s a bit disappointing, I was hoping for something like Plundered Hearts or Choice of Romance

I’m curious about the DS app though. Hm.

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Snuggling with Supernatural Vampire Love

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If you walked into a Borders (before they shut down, that is) and wandered over to the Young Adult section you would have seen an explosion of paranormal, supernatural, and fantasy romance novels — so noted my friend Kim Lau at dinner last night. (She’s going to teach vampire literature next quarter by the way — I so want to take her class!) I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in the e-book market, a darkly attractive brood of handsome vampires, irresistible warlocks, hunky werewolves adorning the covers of books targeted at young women and girls. Perhaps it’s the influence of Twilight but vampires (and their fellow-creatures) are hot, hotter than ever. And when, Kim wondered, did the horror get almost entirely replaced by sensuality? These modern vampires aren’t the hideous creatures portrayed by Bela Lugosi, but slim catwalk models as cool as death without a trace of fresh blood on their perfect pouts.

It’s an interesting question. Horror was, in the past, the dominant aspect of the gothic romance novel, an equal partner to the eroticism. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, revulsion around female sexuality created the seductive but terrifying transformation in Lucy from a vivacious flirt to an unbridled ravenous succubus who hunts innocent children as well as hapless gentlemen. Another friend of mine suggested that it’s possibly because as a society we’ve gotten over our fear and disgust of sexuality, which is a very intriguing comment. Anne Rice may have jump-started the sexy vampire archetype with her icy Lestat, but the vampires of her mythology, while gorgeous, were physically incapable of sex or sexual pleasure (although I suppose the female vamps could, like their human counterparts, fake it.) Their ecstasy was all in the feeding and drinking of blood, preferably human, and preferably from a lovely young thing.

I loved the Anne Rice novels as a Goth-inflected teenager but they were dark dark dark; and there was really no suggestion that a human female could ever be safe with a vampire lover — or even that a vampire could ever love a human. Vampires are so far out of our league after all — they are glitteringly beautiful things, usually wealthy beyond imagining, jaded from having walked the earth for so long and given in to so many temptations. All they really want is to suck your blood.

But somewhere along the evolution of vampire lore and literature all that raw evil power was absorbed perfectly into the conventions of a traditional romance novel. The vampire male’s supernatural strength is an exaggeration of the manliness of the muscle-bound hunk; his long life, an extension of the romantic hero’s previous life experience. His dangerous nature, well, he’s just fierce because he cares so much, and he stalks you not (only) because he’s a predator but because he loves you. He keeps secrets in order to shield you. And his possessiveness is just virile protectiveness because you are, after all, a fragile human girl whom he could easily crush in one undead hand.

At the same time the authors feel free to trounce vampire conventions where convenient, essentially sanitizing the grittier, messier aspects of vampirism which is, I believe, a result of our disengagement from old-fashioned Catholicism. Once upon a time, vampires were clearly and unrelentingly evil because they could have no souls. That’s why they burned to a crisp under the purifying heat of God’s sunlight, and hated holy water blessed by a priest and were wounded by touching Christ’s symbol, the cross. Twilight-era vampires have none of this angst. They actually sparkle in sunlight as if someone rubbed them all over with a glitterstick. They don’t care about holy water, crosses, sacred ground or any of that. They do drink blood, but many are “good” vampires, feeding only on nonhumans or, in the case of Buffy’s Angel, blood bought or stolen from hospitals and blood banks. Their fangs have receded and their claws have retracted.

It would be too strongly worded to say I am “disturbed” by this shift from vampire-as-killer to vampire-as-lover but let’s say I watch its unfolding with alert interest. I mean, I can’t be the only one who thinks it’s kind of gross, the idea of snuggling with a creature of the night? Anne Rice wrote vividly, I think, about their slightly sickly sweet smell, the smell of rotting flesh, of stale blood after they’ve fed. And the idea of embracing an ice-cold lover doesn’t exactly get me hot and bothered. I’m trying to understand the appeal of the genre (and I realize that I’ve been mainly focusing on vampire romance — there’s much more beyond that, of course.) I have a lot more research to do here — and a lot to understand about the balance of fear and love, power and powerlessness, desire and repulsion.

And just for fun: Buffy vs Edward.

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Eroticism in Horror

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You might not have realised, but it’s almost a sure bet you’ve played the finest example gaming has seen of the erotic horror genre. It happens to be one of the most critically acclaimed and talked about survival horror games of all time: Silent Hill 2.

Did you notice? You could be forgiven. Silent Hill 2 was subtle in its eroticism yet painted in broad strokes. It hid many of these aspects by using the elephant in the room syndrome, staring you in the face unaware until someone points out the bigger picture. Pyramid Head – the ever haunting menace of the game – was perhaps the clearest and most obvious metaphor. He is after all, a giant walking phallus.

Maria, representing James’ pent up sexual frustrations, is constantly murdered by Pyramid Head, over and over again, yet always comes back for another impaling. She taunts James, Basic Instinct inspired scenes where prison bars add yet another layer of untouchability.

Angela, sexually abused as a child, literally faces her demon; a bed where the sheets writhe and dance as if someone’s inside. When James kills this demon, in a room where the walls are adorned with poles pulsing back and forth, Angela is set free.

One can delve into the mysteries of Silent Hill 2 for days, there’s certainly a lot of material to digest. It’s an adventure I’d encourage as there is such a wealth of imagery and themes that it is clearly the work of artists at the top of their game.

Sadly, besides Silent Hill 2, there’s not much else in the genre to get excited about. Silent Hill 3 delved into these themes as well, but more from the perspective of a woman coming of age than a sexual exploration (a female gamers favourite as it deals with many aspects of young womanhood, menstruation cycles, fertility, etc). Silent Hill 4 was less subtle in its approach with peep holes into neighbours bedrooms, and unlockable costumes for the non playable female characters. Unfortunately, from there, the series continued its slide from erotic context aware themes and into blatant sexual imagery. Nurses no longer make sense in the context of the narrative, instead placed about the world for titillation; breasts and butt cheeks becoming more exposed as each new game arrives.

Where are the others? Clive Barker knows a thing or two about erotic horror, his Hellraiser series of movies sees characters seeking out sexual pleasure in pain and unleash demons on the earth who specialise in just that. But he hasn’t explored this much in his games. Jericho had a couple of sexual themes but not much more than your run of the mill shooter.

Monolith, the developers of Condemned and FEAR, some of the best horror games of the last few years, has hardly gone near the racier end of the genre. FEAR 2 had a bare (and thankfully all grown up) Alma taunt you throughout the game, concluding in a rather uncomfortable situation, but none of these were positioned as particularly sexual in nature.

There’s a lot of space to move and grow in the erotic horror genre, with films way ahead of the curve – Antichrist, Black Swan, Mulholland Drive, the list goes on. Are video games too immature a medium to tackle such concepts? Are they too controversial? In a world where publishers fold under the brunt of media backlash, is there any hope of seeing more brazen attempts than Silent Hill 2’s subtle approach?

I’d like to think there’s some budding indie developers out there willing to take more risks and push this genre forward. But until someone steps up to the challenge we will have to endure the endless crude imaginings akin to low budget skin flicks.

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Chrome Apps

>Are you checking out the new app store on Google Chrome? I’ve been mildly obsessed with Lord of Ultima since yesterday. I’ve also enjoyed (but suck at!) a pretty puzzle game, Entanglement. And Isle of Tune is adorable and addicting.

We all knew this was coming but somehow, seeing it “in the flesh” as it were, brings home what a serious challenge this could be to Facebook dominance, assuming it’s not too late.

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Romance Novels: Do They Give Love a Bad Name?

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This is not really about games, but about how one mass medium treats romance. A few months ago I dove headfirst into the vast, chaotic world of romance novels — not the classics I’d already read and loved but a sampling of novels from massive stars like Judith Krantz and Danielle Steele to the stock of books available from publishers like Harlequin/Mills and Boone. In my quest the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books was a delightfully helpful guide.

I was struck immediately by how diverse and strictly delineated the subgenres are. There are supernatural romance novels, romance novels about danger and adventure, romance novels set in present day, medieval times, and every era in between, erotic novels and chaste ones, Christian romance novels, romance novels for African Americans, for young adults (termed YA in publishing), even NASCAR-themed romances — just check out the list of Harlequin imprints (on their site) for a sense of how many subgenres there are. I wonder if this means that many consumers prefer to read within a very narrow set of parameters.

Which brings me to my main point: within the subgenres, the novels are astonishingly formulaic. The style, the word choice, the vocabulary, the personalities of the lovers are often so similar that I found myself checking to make sure they weren’t written by the same person. I tried to sample from various subgenres to get a sense of the breadth of the field, but I also spent a couple weeks reading through several romance packs comprised of several previously published novels bundled together, and that’s when I got pretty depressed about romance novels. They are so extremely formulaic — and openly so; every article I’ve read on how to write romance novels makes note of the formula and advises the aspiring writer to follow it. It’s defended as being “what the people want”. (We in games have heard that argument many times!)


And maybe they do, and we all want to indulge in something silly, even when you know that it’s not that good for you. I watched High School Musical last night and had a chocolate chip cookie for breakfast, so who am I to talk? But still, reading several dozen romance novels from one imprint back to back was, I have to admit, a pretty depressing experience. Here are a few of the tropes that are burned into my brain from reading these:

1. The power dynamic is inherently and extremely unequal. The man always has the upper hand — money, power, experience, everything; his attraction to the woman is usually based on her innocence (9 out of 10 times the female lead is a virgin) and her sensuality and her beauty (which she’s not even aware of, so inexperienced and innocent is she — so even if she wanted to, she couldn’t use her looks to get the upper hand.)

2. The man always has some vaguely important career like Generic Rich Businessman that has him traveling all over the world and dating lots of beautiful women while the woman’s career is entirely unimportant and/or subservient to his (that is, she is actually employed by him as a housekeeper, secretary, or other employee) although to be fair, my two favorite books had the female lead as a college professor, which was neat.

3. The other women, when they come into play, are presented in contrast to the innocent and sweet heroine as harsh, overly concerned with their personal ambition, success, or wealth, independent, modern, and fashionable. They are clearly gold-diggers and it’s made obvious why the man tires of them and prefers a sweet, unspoiled and unsophisticated girl usually much too young for him.

4. And that’s the other thing — the heroines are almost always in their teens, 19 being the preferred age. A few were 24. None were over 30. The men, however, are all over 30. They have pasts and interesting histories, previous relationships, etc. They have personalities, however unpleasant (see below).

5. The men are always arrogant, harsh, condescending, and full of instant animal desire for the women. They’re often very selfish. But they are extremely chivalrous, protective, and, at times, quite controlling “for her own good” because, naturally, they know best. The women are attracted “in spite of themselves”. I know where this trope comes from — from the great anti-hero Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights mixed with the overly proud Darcy of Pride and Prejudice; the inequality of station, from the romance of humble governess to the rash, rough Mr. Rochester. But please, authors, please inject a little charm into your heroes so they’re not complete assholes. It gets very tiring to read about complete jerks and I often wonder why the woman doesn’t just walk away. Elizabeth Bennet, Cathy Earnshaw, and Jane Eyre more than held up their share of the romance with their intelligence, sharp wit, and their ability to hold on to their own deep-seated independence.

6. Needless to say, the woman is ALWAYS a perfect beauty, slender and with sublimely lovely features. For some strange reason, however, she has never looked in a mirror to recognize her own attractiveness.

7. The female lead generally falls into two personality types: utterly shy, retiring, meek, sweet, uncomplaining; or “feisty”, headstrong, and usually irrational and foolish (I think we are meant to read these traits as charming.)

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Fantasy is just fantasy, but I wonder about the narrative that depicts love as an insatiable and dangerous attraction between two people who are so manifestly unequal, as if it itself could be an equalizing force. And I know not all romance novels are cut from the same cloth, so there are exceptions, some quite extraordinary (and if you know of some, please email me and give me your recommendations!)

There’s something to be said for tropes in art; just as the FPS genre has its silent-but-strong leading man, romance novels have the hapless-but-headstrong heroine and the surly-but-handsome hero. I think there’s a level of comfort in finding the same archetypes again and again. But in romance games, at least, I’d like to move away from what I found in those romance packs, to move away from comforting predictability and move into a realm that’s more interesting, more challenging; more, I suppose, interactive and engaging because the player, unlike the passive heroine to whom things happen outside of her control, must actively participate in the making of her own game experience.

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Can You Choose Romance?

>Since discovering the “Choice of” games a month ago I’ve been exploring “gamebooks” (which I think is what they call the choose-your-own-adventure book genre). By the way we need a better term; “gamebook” sounds too slight and trivial; interactive fiction perhaps too specific; procedural literature? Too academic. But I digress. I love the idea of these books — not as puzzle-y as pure text adventures — and the “Choice of” series are particularly witty and on the whole, well-written. My primary complaint about them is that they are too short! Novels need time to let the reader immerse herself, I think, and these experiences tend to clip along at an artfully brisk pace. I also wonder if seeing your choices ahead of time there on the page as you read the text hastens your progress, because you’re too focused on the goal — the next turn of the plot.

They make me wonder what it would be like to dedicate the same sort of massive volume of text found in, say, Jane Eyre to an interactive romance nivel experience. Something epic. A work that meanders so thoroughly you begin to forget the choices you made and each read-through is a completely new experience. Yes, I realize this is a massive undertaking. I can hardly imagine being able to write Jane Eyre, let alone a hundred, equally compelling, variations of it.

And that makes me wonder if romance is about choice at all, in the end. Modern romantic experiences like dating sites offer an overabundance of choices based on the philosophy that somehow, you’re going to sort through all those people and find the one that matches you. You tick off a list of characteristics and get as close to perfect as you can. But some of the most romantic novels of all time have nothing to do with choice — the hero and heroine are irresistibly drawn to each other and choice has nothing to do with it: they simple can not help themselves. And in fact, much of the delicious tension comes from both of them trying to resist the inevitable because they are separated by temperament, class, social standing, race, or some other deep divide that seems initially insurmountable. Their love, when it overcomes all odds, is an inexorable progress and unless the novel is Wuthering Heights all romances end happily ever after when hero and heroine accept their own feelings.

Since games are all about choices, I have to wonder — is the act of choosing unromantic? It turns the romance narrative into a chase, an achievement, a game, a series of actions to perform in order to get the reward. But in romance books and films the opposite generally happens: while one party may be pursuant, generally both parties try their hardest to NOT fall in love, and the delight arises because we, the readers and film-goers, understand that they are ultimately incapable of not falling in love (and in a separate post some day I’d love to drill down into the genre of screwball romantic comedy, which excels at this set-up). Are interactive experiences in some way fundamentally incompatible with traditional artistic expressions of romance?

Something to ponder on Valentine’s Day!

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Love in the Time of Extinction

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I recently had the privilege of taking part in the annual Global Game Jam; It was the first year San Francisco has ever hosted a location for the worldwide event, thanks to the organizational efforts of Jane McGonigal’s new gaming startup, Social Chocolate. The theme for this year was “Extinction,” a topic not normally known for its romantic undertones.
And yet in just 48 hours, fellow SF Jammers Chelsea Howe and Mike Molinari conceived, designed, and COMPLETED a game that tells a concise story of connection and intimacy: It’s called THE END OF US, and it’s pretty darn brilliant, and quite relevant to what we all intend on discussing here.
From the dual meaning of its title, to the lovable, at-times-frustrating, and downright playful AI, The End of Us is as romantic a game as one could make, and is all the more astounding for having been made in less than 2 days (Molinari cites the total productive work time as 31.5 hours).
Not to say that the quality of this game is in any way surprising. Chelsea was formerly a game designer on Zynga’s massively successful Farmville, and is now Director of Design at Social Chocolate. And Mike (aka: “Bean”), is well-known in the indie games community, having developed games like But That Was [Yesterday] and [Together]. Both developers (co-designers on The End of Us), understand not just games, but the connections between people as well. It’s no accident that they came away with such a pitch-perfect Romantic game.
After all, what are the required components of a good Romance story? We need our characters. We need to understand what brings them together. We need to watch their relationship go through its hurdles — both the highs and the lows. We need to witness the outside forces that threaten to tear them apart, and we always need that one last and final guarantee: the grandiose action that solidifies and confirms what their relationship means, to us as players/viewers/readers, and perhaps to the characters as well.
Anyone interested in exploring romance in video games (and that’s presumably anyone writing or reading this blog), should play this game. And take notes.

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