Who Needs Real Life?
Everybody’s heard of the online relationship. Two random folks meet over the web, they start chatting; soon they start going out. Yippee for them. Love in the digital realm has become commonplace, yet one wonders what strings our virtual overlords will pull as our lives become more digitised. For example, what are video games going to look like? With the technology constantly evolving, it won’t be long until players are having real relationships with dynamic and spontaneous NPCs, which sounds kind of terrifying. Surely the moment we start going to our gaming consoles to find love, is the moment civilisation crumbles? Yet what if video games are already providing players with the meaningful relationships they crave? And what if that’s not necessarily a bad thing? Case in point: Me.
This pains me to admit it, but my first relationship… was with Miranda from Mass Effect 2 (2009). It wasn’t Tali Zorah or Liara. Not even Garrus, with his scaly skin and his 5 foot long sniper rifle could save me. For me it was Miranda; all the way. I was fourteen, and she was a thirty something intergalactic Australian space traveller, but hey, true love knows no bounds. There was just something about her. Those sassy remarks, that jilting run, the way she would dip in and out of cover during combat like some leather-clad, cocaine-snorting Meercat. I played that game through twice and both times she was the only one for me. Romance another character to see the ramifications on the narrative you say? No thanks, I was busy spending time with the woman I loved.
I was an obsessive and nervous lover. While aboard the Normandy, I swore a strict vow of celibacy. If I had it my way Shepherd would have worn a customised chastity belt. There would be no flirtatious glances or eyebrow raises with any other crew member of any kind (regardless of how good they looked in their blue space suit with their 5 foot sniper rifle) . Once, when I accidentally triggered a flirtatious exchange with Jacob Taylor aboard the Citadel, I ripped the plug out of the wall so hard I almost took the socket out with it. I just couldn’t risk it. “What would Miranda think?” I thought, while I stared up at the ceiling from my Wallace & Gromit duvet. Thankfully it never got brought up, and when I rebooted the game, I gave Jacob dialogue choices so cold I might as well have thrown him out the airlock. By sheer coincidence, Jacob would perish in the Suicide Mission a few levels later, taking him and that salacious piece of gossip to the grave with him. But he knew the risks…
Now clearly this is insane, borderline delusional behaviour. I guess, compared to my day to day life, where women were (and are?) a complete and utter mystery, the chance to spend time with one where I wasn’t completely out of my depth was exhilarating. Real life was terrifying in its complexity and unlimited in its possibility. There were no helpful hints or guiding comments. No dialogue wheels or paragon points. How I would wish to see that glowing orange dialogue wheel appear above my crush’s head when I needed something to say. Or for some flashing paragon symbol to appear in front of my face saying “MAKE A MOVE YOU IDIOT!” when I was wondering whether to lean in for the kiss or take her hand in mine. I even once fantasised that Commander Shepherd would jump out of the bushes in full space gear when I was trying to tell a girl I liked her. But no, I was on my own, adrift in a sea of my own sweaty indecision, and when faced with the infinity of conversation, I crumbled. It would be fair to say I came up with dialogue that Shepherd would never have dreamed of. Stutter uncontrollably? Check. Mumble inaudibly? Check. Laugh awkwardly then dive into the bushes? Oh Shepherd you would be proud. I would stare at my crush from across the class, with all the gravitas of a possum facing the headlights of an oncoming truck, before turning into a blushing red mess when she looked my way.
In other words, I wasn’t ready for love. I hoped asking a girl out would be as simple as hitting ‘R2’ at the right moment, or choosing the right dialogue option at the right time. Unfortunately, life is slightly more complicated. Nothing glows blue, nobody tells you what to do and you have to make all the dialogue up yourself. To my pubescent fury, real life was beyond my control.
But with Miranda, things were different. Instead of an infinite number of dialogue options, she gave me four. When I didn’t know what to say, she waited patiently for me to make my next decision. After a few levels, I began to feel genuine affection for her. I would check in with her after every mission, each time learning something new and interesting about her. There were a few occasions (especially as the game began to reach its *ahem* climax) that I would get nervous before entering her cabin, my heart pounding with the same giddy excitement of one lover knocking on another’s door. I know it sounds nuts, but in my mind, Miranda didn’t just love Commander Shepherd – the hunky space commander on a quest to save the galaxy – but the shy ginger kid who sat on the couch controlling him. The conversations weren’t perfect and the animations weren’t flash. I’d usually to wait in the purgatory of an elevator loading screen before hearing what she had to say. Often I’d hear the same dialogue again and again before I heard something new, and let’s not forget, Shepherd’s eyebrows never moved in relation to the rest of his face and could turn the tenderest exchange into something strangely ominous. Yet there was something real there. Miranda was the first woman who actually reciprocated my feelings towards her, who actively enjoyed talking to me. And at that point in my life, that meant a great deal.
I guess the point is, just because our lives are becoming more digitised, doesn’t mean they’re becoming less real. Video games are a great way to build empathy and create experiences we might never get the chance to otherwise. For me, it was getting a taste of what a real relationship might actually feel like, albeit in a simplistic and slightly crude way (I will admit, knowing top left would pretty much always give me Shepherd’s sexiest dialogue option got me out of more than a few sticky situations). 10 years on and I still see that dialogue wheel in front of me when I’m weighing up what thing’s best to say. So to all the other awkward, lonely souls out there, there’s hope. Not all gamers grow up to be isolated solitary loners who live in their parents basement. Some of us just need a step in the right direction. And just because you’re romancing a scaly green lizard assassin with the temperament of a Tibetan monk doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you either. Although you may have to experiment a bit when you go to college.
Like all good things, it wasn’t meant to last. In the end, it was Miranda’s views towards polyamory that broke our relationship. By the time Mass Effect 3 came out, she’d been with four members of the rugby team, half my computer science class and two of my cousins. I’d become distant, my dialogue choices more vague. We started to see other people. I’d recently reconnected with Liara during some of the additional DLC. There was even a girl in my chemistry class I was thinking of asking out. It was over. Our morality meter had moved from paragon to renegade and we hadn’t even noticed. But at least for a little while, when I booted up the Playstation and heard that mellow, ambient soundtrack tingle down my spine, I knew I would be safe… in Miranda’s arms.