Our Romantic Moments of 2011

As we celebrate Valentines Day this year, it gives us an opportunity to reflect upon our top romantic moments of the last twelve months; in games, that is!

We asked members of our mailing list:

“What were your favorite romantic moments in games from last year? Noteworthy achievements, innovative game mechanics, new depths of storytelling. Or, anything else that you’d like to highlight around love and romance.”

We ruminated on these key moments in games over the last twelve months (or roughly thereabouts!) – some of our fondest moments were highly subjective, others less so. Some of our responses are collated below, after the jump! We’d also love it if you leave a comment with your fondest romantic/love-related moments in games from the past twelve months.

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Battle of the Bads

A story can be offensive yet critically valid as long as the overall message is one grounded in its conviction. Take for example A Clockwork Orange, a film by Stanley Kubrick. A horrible story to witness, yet within lay many things to think about and reflect on of which the creator is attempting to convey. Without the surrounding frame the content would fall apart as the scenes would be nothing more than brutality, pornography and an insult to any thinking human being.

Two games of late that have made me think about this is Test Drive: Unlimited 2 and Saints Row: The Third, as both have received their fair share of criticism for offensive depiction of female roles, and critics thoughts oscillating back and forth as to which is more insulting. Let’s have a look at two outlet’s views for comparison:

Giant Bomb
Saints Row: The Third – 4/5 Stars
“Saints Row: The Third finds the series all grown up. Not in sense of humor, mind you (very much the contrary there), but simply in confidence, wisdom, and overall comfort in being very much its own thing. Whatever similarities Saints Row: The Third might have to the GTA series at this point are purely mechanical. In truth, it has more in common with the imaginary game every obnoxious parent group, pandering state senator, and hack activist lawyer believed Grand Theft Auto was during those tumultuous San Andreas years. It’s Grand Theft Auto filtered through the mind of a fucking lunatic, pushed to boundaries of ludicrousness that make things like giant dildo clubs and man-launching cannons seem altogether reasonable compared with much of the other batshit nonsense going on in here. In a sense, Volition has succeeded in making the mayhem and murder simulator that Rockstar never even tried to make in the first place, and it’s hard to argue that we, the video gaming public, aren’t better off for it.”

Saints Row: The Third – 6/10
“Saints Row’s weakest parts are hand-me-downs from its GTA source text, uncomfortably echoing the squalid business of pimpin’ and hustlin’ in the form of a lame cartoon, a whooping fratboyish endorsement of crime and female degradation, devoid of any conscience or commentary. GTA takes pains to voice moral unease. In doing so it may not offer up reconciliation with the violent mechanics of the game, but the best solution to that dissonance cannot be to pitch the entire thing into a swamp of near-uniform toxicity.

By the time you’ve ploughed through the mission in which you murder dozens of busty stripper assassins (‘Trojan Whores’), dabbled with the option of slaughtering waves of sex workers (‘Whored mode’) or packed whimpering trafficked sex slaves from one container crate into another to either be sold back to their pimps at a premium or put to work in your own prostitution ring (‘The Ho Boat’) you might find the sheer amount of violent abuse of women reaches the point of being oppressive, a sensation so bleak that the taste has to be swilled out with back-to-back episodes of Adventure Time. Clearly it’s possible to take dark themes and spin them into effective humour, but if there’s a hilarious joke about sex trafficking to be told, then it’s not found here. This representation serves no purpose other than shock value. We’re not saying the creation of something in which women only exist to be sold, killed or fucked shouldn’t be allowed, but what does it say for gaming as a type of entertainment?”

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Filed under characters, digital romance lab, dirolab, narrative, Saints Row, Saints Row The Third, Test Drive Unlimted

Data and Dating

Yesterday at the Center for Games and Playable Media at UC Santa Cruz we had a speaker, Nic Ducheneaut, come give a talk on social science research in World of Warcraft. I wrote up an overview and will be posting the video and slides soon, but I wanted to zero in on the idea of compatibility and games.

Nic and his team were able to collect a massive amount of data on what gamers were doing, moment to moment, in WoW. They also surveyed a number of players and gave them personality tests. They discovered that you can actually predict fairly well what personality type the player is from reading their in-game actions (along with, it turns out, some demographic characteristics!) So what I want now is for someone to go through the data and look for correlations between personality and group affinity, because I’m curious about whether certain types of personalities that prefer certain play styles get along better with other personalities/play styles.

What you could do with this is help solve the biggest problem of both MMOS and dating sites: matchmaking that actually works! My idea is this: what if you built a dating site that had games on it; and people both played the games and took personality quizzes (a little like OK Cupid, who currently own the dating+data space, but with more actual clinical personality test support). They you start collecting data about which personalities tend to play with which other personalities — and I don’t know if like seeks like or if you can build complementary personality sets or what; and they start building a sophisticated matchmaking algorithm that suggests other players you might enjoy playing with. I would LOVE to build a start up around this idea! Or partner with the OK Cupid guys on this as they seem to really get the playful aspects of dating, and data.

This would, I think, make dating sites both more fun and more effective at helping you find truly compatible friends or potential lovers. Although one piece I don’t know if we can figure out from Nic’s WoW data is whether you can predict the success of a real-life friendship based on an online or in-game friendship. Hm….interesting stuff to think about.

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Romance Novel Challenge: Interactive Fiction

I started by thinking about a traditional Romance novel for my challenge— you know, beginning, middle, wedding, end. But this, after all, is the *digital* romance lab and I grew a bit restless even thinking about how much text 50,000 words is, all strung together in a line like christmas tree lights. So I started looking once again at Inform 7, the streamlined and highly efficient tool for interactive fictions writers, and wondered what it would be like to write, instead of a novel, an IF with 50,000 words (not sure whether that means text displayed or total text written, including the codey bits.) IF uses natural language so it’s great for non-programmers like me, although you still have to think like a programmer (understand logic, order of operations, defining objects, etc.) I’ve played around with it a tiny bit before but my problem is always that I want to do things way beyond my skill level; like wanting to play Chopin while I’m still struggling with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

My sister and I had talked about working on an IF around the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. We both love that story because it’s one of the few traditional tales that feature female agency and character development: it’s Beauty who has to make the hard choices, it’s Beauty who grows as a character and experiences a true transformation (that the Beast externalizes in his physical transformation.) Beauty is the one with the power to change the world. Beast is her prize. That’s rare. Even in fairy stories that nominally star female characters, the female characters are often just along for the ride — and I’ve always hated that the only reason anything ever happens to them is because they happen, by genetic and cultural accident, to be considered beautiful in their culture. Of course Beauty is (obviously) beautiful too; but at least she is more than that — brave, loyal, thoughtful, and most importantly, able to take action.

Walter Crane, Beauty and the Beast (1874)

But the problem with fairy tales is that you know how they end. How do we subvert the tale in an interesting way and also offer some meaningful choices to the player? I really liked Emily Short’s Alabaster, about Snow White. (Also check out her designer notes about the collaborative authorship aspects of the work — really interesting.) But then Emily is a master pianist and as I mentioned, I’m on Frère Jacques.

Well, so far I have succeeded in placing the Manor House north of the Avenue, with the Forest to the east. Wish me luck!


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Nanowrimo Challenge: Write a Romance Novel in a Month

Yesterday I realized that today is November 1st, which means the first day of National Novel Writing Month (although it can totally be practiced internationally as well!) The first or maybe second year of its existence I participated and wrote — although sadly didn’t finish — a novel starring my favorite Roman poet, Catullus. But I haven’t joined since then because frankly, writing is hard and writing 50,000 words in one month seems overwhelming.

But this year I also just finished reading Brian McDonald‘s book on the grammar of drama, Invisible Ink. (You can read the entire book for free at that link, and if you’re interested in storytelling at all I encourage you to check it out. It’s really good.) At the same time, I’m contributing to a game research project at UC Santa Cruz that is aimed at young women aged 18-21 that I decided should use paranormal romance as its theme. All of this is to say, I have decided my Nanowrimo challenge this year is to write 50,0000 words of paranormal romance. Through that I hope to deepen my understanding of the genre, as well as of romance plot development, character interaction, and how to better communicate with an audience — all elements I’m interested in getting games to explore better.

I am debating whether or not to post the dailies here on the site. It would be deeply embarrassing and probably boring for a lot of readers, but it would help keep me on track I think. Perhaps I’ll find another section of the site to do that on.

Here we go!

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Kiss Controller Update

Hye Yeon Nam demonstrates the kiss controller.

At IndieCade I participated in one of the Well-Played sessions, which was a wonderful experience. Aside from the fact that I love IndieCade — it’s fun, sincere, full of good feelings — I’ve long been an admirer of the Well-Played essay series put together by Drew Davidson at CMU ETC. (As a side note, I’ve always wanted to contribute an essay on FAQs as an aspect of the meaning of “well-played” but I have to admit I’ve never been able to finish that essay — not yet! But someday!)

However, we digress. My idea of how the Kiss Controller could be “well-played” was in the sense of wanting that first experience of a game playthrough — or first kiss — to be special. If it’s a highly anticipated game, we want that sense of wonder and enchantment and discovery that can only really come the first time we play something. But there’s this other side to it too — that sometimes, the first time you play something you are really *bad* at it; and that it’s hard, and you don’t know what to do and where to go; and you feel awkward and clumsy because you don’t yet have the hang of it. (This is what most non-gamers feel, incidentally, when they pick up a controller to play a core game, regardless of gender.)

And that’s what it felt like to play the Kiss Controller. It was hard; it was an interface I’d never tried before; I didn’t have the hang of it, and it was frustrating! Add to that the fact that the entire audience is watching and telling me, “go left! GO LEFT!!” and you have an experience which is pretty much the opposite of romantic!

There was a disconnect, I felt, between the mechanical act of affection and intimacy — the lips touching, tongues touching — and the game goal of trying to manipulate a virtual car on a racetrack. Actual kissing has very different goals, more abstract and flexible. In the Q&A session afterwards, also, the audience pointed out that the way this particular game was configured, the control is directed pretty much solely by one person. I think Scott Jon Siegel, who was in the audience, put it like this: “Seems like one person just stands there while the other shoves a tongue around in the person’s mouth.” Yup, that was pretty much how it is, although I do think there is probably a way to play more co-operatively.

In the Q&A session, creator Hye Yeon Nam explained that she is working on the next iteration of the game, which will include second-player input; the first player will “drive”, while the second player will control acceleration by touch; and each person will have a monitor to look at. I think that’s a really intriguing idea, although the action of the kiss itself, which I believe ought to be co-operative in real life at least, will still remain an action dominated by one person.

Hye Yeon Nam also stated that she got inquiries from couples — mostly older — who didn’t want to try it out in front of people but who were interested in purchasing it to try at home. She believes it may be an aid to rekindling a spark that might have faltered in many longterm relationships. It could be! It’s unquestionably intimate to hold someone’s face in your hands and move your tongue around in their mouth. I’m very excited at what Hye Yeon has done and the direction she is going in, exploring the power of physical touch and tying it to game-like experiences. And you know, my experience — while not exactly romantic — was intriguing enough to make me want to try again. And get better at the game! But I can’t tell if that’s my gamer side or my romantic side coming out.

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Controlling with a Kiss!

Ever since I heard about Hye Yeon Nam’s Kiss Controller, I’ve been been super excited to check it out. I love the idea of this collision — most of us think of kissing as this very natural, instinctive activity; but once you have the controller attached to your tongue and you’re supposed to be playing a game, suddenly the activity is layered with this new goal that changes the way you approach the kiss itself.

And I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be talking about the Kiss Controller tomorrow at IndieCade’s Well-Played session!

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