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Mario, Mikie and the Pursuit of Video Game Love

High above the dungarees-wearing, moustache-sporting man, the damsel in distress quivers and screams, her dress flicking in the wind. Next to her stands a huge hirsute ape, its paws clutching a wooden barrel, ready to fling it down at the small figure below. It’s 1981, it’s Donkey Kong, one of the toughest video games ever. And it’s easy to imagine Mario (or Jumpman as he was known as back then) looking up nervously and shrugging: ‘The things I do for love.’ We’ve all been there, pal.

Video games and love have had a complicated relationship over the years. Platonically, the association can be made on an almost universal level: the love of your home planet, for example, forces you to take on an alien horde in Space Invaders. On a more personal level, like Mario, a host of other male heroes have been desperately trying to rescue fair maidens since virtually the dawn of gaming – and sometimes even heroines rescuing their men. Yet, side-stepping this and all those slightly-dubious dating sims, there’s an assortment of games that embrace the love, if not the oft-frustrating act of trying to find it. As the demographic of gamers has dramatically shifted in the last twenty years, gaining an older audience that is more willing to adopt mature themes, romance has increasingly become a bigger facet of RPGs in particular. From its clumsy beginnings in the Baldur’s Gate series to the epic stories of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, BioWare is one of the front runners in the world of video game romance. But its games aren’t specifically about love, with the pursuit of a desirable partner secondary, or even tertiary, to the main story, which itself usually involves a large amount of death and destruction. The love, the player’s partner, is there to add emotional weight to the experience, and on that level it succeeds, even if it is superfluous to the main story. In Mass Effect 2, the player can successfully romance a team mate prior to its final act; given this denouement is entitled ‘suicide mission’, it’s clear the designers were hoping for an emotive and heart-breaking separation as your loved one is torn away from your arms by a swarm of hideous aliens.

Like a character sprite, there are many different sides to the polyhedron of love (or polygon if we’re really talking retro). Take Larry Laffer, otherwise known as Leisure Suit Larry. The many adventures of this diminutive lothario generally involve him chatting up women using a variety of cringe worthy double entendres. It’s obvious there’s only one thing on Larry’s mind – but is this misguided individual actually chasing true love? Who’s to say one day he won’t meet that one special person that completes him, her yang to his, um, wang? Well, let’s be honest, he probably won’t, but you never know. Of other familiar staples, the love triangle – ménage-a-trois if we’re being fancy – is another avenue, most memorably seen in the Monkey Island adventure games. Elaine Marley, governor of the Tri-Island area, and a woman of some pluck and derring-do, must choose between an undead pirate captain and a hapless, clumsy and often childlike Guybrush Threepwood. Decisions, decisions. But, as with Larry, does Elaine’s wriggling, convoluted path lead to love? The eventual nuptials to Threepwood suggest they do, but I bet the lanky would-be pirate always leaves the toilet seat up.

Let’s remember, Valentine’s Day is not just about star-crossed lovers and married couples doing their best to recapture what it was like before they had kids. If you’ve got an unrequited love or (to use a Larry Laffer-ism) an itch you need to scratch, then Valentine’s Day is the day to put together that delicate love letter and post it to the object of your desire. Just like Mikie. Released in 1984 by Konami, arcade game Mikie is the embodiment of youthful desire and an elusive love, wrapped up in a quaint high school setting. Mikie’s paramour-to-be is Mandy, and his task is to collect the various hearts left carelessly around the classrooms and buildings of his school. Once assembled, the hearts form a delicate missive to Mandy that cannot fail to capture her heart, helped with his smart sports car and trendy haircut. Alas, as the saying (sort-of) goes, the path to true love is often hindered by janitors, cooks and American football jocks. Fortunately Mikie has a stunning head butt in his locker that temporarily stuns his rivals. All’s fair in love and high school, right?

Video games are exploring new ground all the time, with romance not the abstract rarity it once was. While the medium will always primarily be about violence and excitement, there’s still plenty of room left for fear, wonder, desire and, yes, love. Meanwhile brave Mario has jumped barrels, dodged flames and sweated up ladders, reaching his love. “My hero!” she gushes before the ape grabs her and climbs up another set of platforms. Mario is left stunned – he’s got it all to do again. The thought of going home, putting his feet up and having a nice cup of tea never even crosses his mind. On to the next level in Donkey Kong? Now that’s love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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