Love is a complex emotion that, unlike the many others explored in the forms of media we consume, some still can't quite grasp. Some attractions lack rational explanations, and others persist despise signals that point to destructive tendencies. Love is blind, love hurts, and love conquers all. The spectrum of emotions the seemingly simple idea conjures is mind numbing.
When particularly ambitious constructs like dating sims attempt to emulate that ephemeral, butterflies-in-your stomach roller coaster that is a crush or the lustful passion of a one-night stand, they're taking a leap of faith. Any genre that attempts to tackle such a tricky subject is in for a challenge. Can a game truly convey this emotion, “love,” in a convincing manner? We explored two ambitious dating sims and one intriguing indie platformer to find an answer to those questions. Can they show us what it means to be loved?
From the start of Loved, by Alexander Ocias, you are instructed that you have no choice. That you will fail. It's spelled out for you immediately. You're forced to play as a man if you're a woman and vice versa. It's hammered into you early on that obedience is the key to your survival, even as the disembodied voice instructs you to jump into a pit full of spikes, which means instant death. The choice to disobey the voice results in your traveling down less dangerous pathways, but elicits a harsh berating, denouncing you as an “ugly creature” or something equally painful and damaging.
It feels good to rebel, but sometimes I was moved while playing to feel remorse for not following my “master's” orders. In this, Loved resembles an abusive Dominant/submissive relationship where the submissive is so broken that even if disobeying orders results in a positive change, the deeply-imbedded consequences of displeasing their “owner” are too far-reaching to be acceptable. Loved, in all its simplicity, expresses a strange kind of love, and effectively communicates the feelings of mirth one can experience when pleasing that special someone in their live, even if it means engaging in destructive behaviors in the process.
A less analytical lens placed over the game would also reveal the colorful explosion that occurs when disobeying is the “happiness” that results in one when they feel as though they're doing the right thing, but it seems obvious to me what type of love the creator meant to express. Loved is especially curious in the relationship roles it portrays, and a fantastic case for video games pushing the margins of human emotion.
In stark contrast to Loved, Four Leaf Studios' Katawa Shoujo (literally “Cripple Girls,” though acceptably translated to “Disability Girls”) explores the typical sophomoric romances of one's teenage years. Just like the hundreds of other classically Japanese dating sims it emulates, it trots out a core cast of suitable girls that you can choose to date. Play your cards right and you'll unlock intimate scenes with said girl, and a different ending to suit the choices in dialogue you made throughout the game. It's a fairly standard trope and one anyone searching for the fleeting feelings of true love has seen before. Except Katawa Shoujo has one twist: its harem consists of girls with disabilities: blindness, deafness, amputated limbs, and disfiguration. With a male protagonist suffering from cardiac dysarrhythmia, it's a tale of adjusting to life changes, overcoming adversity, and learning to accept yourself and others for who they are.
Though it offers exhaustive introspective commentary via newly-debilitated teen Hisao, Katawa Shoujo at times feels more like the stereotypical dramedy harem anime that just happens to feature those with noticeable disabilities. Several conversations had with each girl indicate a growing rapport between each of them and Hisao, but the result feels more manufactured than genuine. Your aim, you know as you go into the game, is to choose which girl suits your tastes best and tailor your behavior to that of what she deems acceptable.
While many dating sims are perfectly capable of creating the illusion that the ladies in the game are falling in love with you, Katawa Shoujo demonstrates little more than the ability to near-perfectly mimic the conventional Japanese-made dating sim with demure, polite Mary Sues, tsundere sweethearts, and even the tomboys. Games such as Kana: Little Sister perfected the art of demonstrating passion and true heartrending emotion with dire consequences. There was much more at stake there. Though it's a criminally overlooked topic, disability in games, Katawa Shoujo feels more like an amputee fetishist's dream than an appropriate conduit or substitute for the complexities of love.
Love in the Time of Coding
Finally, you have Christine Love's Digital: A Love Story, unconventional in both its means of storytelling (which is excellent) and presentation. It eschews saccharine prerequisites and dating sim clichés for an archaic BBS interface from the 80s, something older audiences and those of us who grew up with the company of chat rooms, message boards, and newsgroups can appreciate. The player's name, gender, and personality are never explicitly fleshed out, leaving gamers of any orientation free to imprint themselves straight into the narrative. The ambiguous nature of Emilia, the partner the player exchanges BBS messages with and soon begins building a relationship with, is refreshing.
Despite the game's canon endings, it could be assumed that Emilia's recognizably feminine handle could very well be any gender the player chooses, implying more of the “forbidden” online chat relationships many of us flirted with back in the infancy of chats and message boards; before the advent of MySpace and Facebook. Before the transparency of the modern social networking mavens made it painfully simple to investigate a suitable beau and their friends, too.
Digital's story unfolds through a believable set of messages, bringing to mind the way long-distance relationships begin: getting to know and care for one another without the luxury of photos, voices, or other comforts of everyday life. Free of prejudice, conclusions, and assumptions. So when, inevitably, you begin to feel for Emilia, it's as though you're back in the days of the Amiga and dialers, which Love captured effortlessly in Digital, arguably a LDR sim with twists and turns you probably wouldn't foresee. In that, I found myself falling for Emilia, despite knowing of the predetermined outcomes.
Virtual Roses and Real Emotions
Our three specimens reach out to players in unique ways: whether it's the conflicting messages between Dominant and submissive lovers, appealing to the inner teenager, or reducing virtual affairs to their base forms. Where one seems to faulter, the other two effectively communicate to the player the tumultuous tidal wave that can often define a relationship and the feelings that come rushing in, proving that video games aren't only a viable vehicle for art or philosophical meanderings, but a possible substitution for the rush that falling in love provides as well, even if for just a moment. And if it's that easy to conjure such feelings, with that of excellent writing and concepts, we might be on our way to a more loving community of gamers. Next? The world.