This week I've been trying to think about a relationship between a man and a woman in a game where they become close, but don't actually have romantic involvement or a silly damsel in distress situation. There's a strange set up that is echoed throughout our culture that [heterosexual] men and women can't be friends, just like in Billy Crystal's famous speech in When Harry Met Sally. 'You realise of course that we can never be friends. ...Men and women can't be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.' 'I have a number of men friends...' 'They all wanna have sex with you. No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.'
Well BILLY CRYSTAL. Why don't we start up Full Throttle and prove you wrong you silly Monsters Inc-voicing maniac.
I sat about trying to think of a game that has a better opening than the Lucasarts classic point and click Full Throttle and I completely failed. It's great for many reasons: that marbled blue sky, that opening line.
"Whenever I smell asphalt, I think of Maureen."
It's the Raiders of the Lost Ark of games openings, it's so precise and good that it's got this real kick of joy in it. The voiceover is so full of expression - Ben's character is played by the late great Roy Conrad, and his gravelly musings are just perfect for this role. But the main reason this is a masterpiece is because the storytelling is just ugh, MWAH MWAH MWAH. It's lean as hell and packs this giant haymaker of a setup. The smell of asphalt, "And the first thing I saw when I woke up was her face". Game design mastermind Tim Schafer manages to foreshadow something that will happen in the future and an important character to this game in just a few punchy lines.
"Yeah, when I think of Maureen I think of two things: asphalt, and TROUBLE."
Then it effortlessly moves on to Corley and Ripburger in the hover limo, discussing the main Stuff of the plot, and then Ben jumps his bike straight over the limo and gets a Gone Jackals track for his entrance. Credits roll in.
It's perfect! So concise. Nothing is wasted. You immediately want to know what's going to happen. You want to be along, ahem, for the ride. And Maureen's face hasn't even turned up yet.
When Ben first encounters Maureen, he's been knocked off the road by some biker punk who disrespected him and punched him the face, totalling his bike. The coolest thing about Maureen is that she is hilarious enough to put on a welding mask so that men who are passed out in her company will think that she is an alien when they come to in her workshop.
Maureen, when I was a kid with the giant screen of our Viglen-branded personal computer looming over me, seemed like the coolest woman I had ever conceived of in my life. There are so many ways in which she exploded my brain apart.
1. Maureen is a mechanic in a video game. She fixes bikes. It's not treated as something special by the other characters, it gets no fanfare. That's just what she does. I had never seen a woman just have a job, a menial job like that, in a game before.
2. Maureen has the side of her ear pierced. TWICE.
3. Maureen has a badass tattoo on her neck.
4. She wants to fix a bike for Ben, partly because she is a helpful and nice person, but you also suspect that it is because she is hugely interested in bikes. She's got her own little agenda and it has nothing to do with you.
5. She has this wonderful wry kind of smile, and a very good sense of humour - 'Send me a postcard from the ambush!' - she's charismatic and happy in herself. She is a contented woman who just completes the task in front of her. It's clear she's had a rough life - grew up on a mink farm, displaced from a family fortune and her mother passed away. But she is in no way bitter or anguished. She's just fine.
6. Her low voice is something I want to call 'handsome'.
7. She is not a person who ever needs rescuing, even though in this game all the action belongs to your main character, Ben. She still seems like a main character, though you never ever have control of her.
8. She has a biker gang. A BIKER GANG. And the gang is mostly composed of BIKER WOMEN. The biker gang also has cool badass woman Suzi who happens to be fat, and her body shape is not a source of ridicule.
9. She has no idea players are looking at her like the women of Dead Or Alive are aware that players are looking at them. She purely exists for herself and not for how a man might look at her. She just wears the clothes that assist what she's doing: grease-smudged loose overalls or, at the end, a suit. This doesn't stop Mo from being ridiculously sexy, if that's your thing.
10. Maureen in no way expected or expressed a wish to be romanced, kissed or fondled by the gruff hunk of testosterone that is the main character in this game. I did not even know that it was possible, at that young age of gaming, to have a man and a woman main character not immediately want to kiss each other. Even Mulder and Scully eventually wanted to kiss each other! Maureen didn't even care! What the heck! What sort of incredible human is this! She even has her own bike shop and the bike shop (where she fixes toasters, times are hard) is the only thing she cares about. In fact, the main character is the one that comes to care about Mo. You find a photograph of her and her uncle, you come to understand her family politics, you discover that she was the product of her father being unfaithful to his wife, you come to feel sadness and empathy for Mo's father and you want to help put her in charge of Corley Motors. All of this is done without ever making Mo look weak or helpless, you never feel like she is out of control of a situation. She is never made to look like an object that Ben moves around a map. She's a person!
(Aside: Maureen sort of reminds me of RPS's Alice O' Connor a little bit, but obviously ten year old me had no idea who that was or even had no idea that Rock Paper Shotgun would come into existence and I would write for it about Maureen 'Mo' Corley in 2015.)
There's a moment in Full Throttle in which you assume that Maureen is going to be kidnapped by Ripburger's henchman, but she takes him out effortlessly and heads off on her bike. For the rest of the game, Maureen suspects Ben of killing her father and becomes the main source of trouble for him. She steals his boost fuel, she holes herself up in a hideout that is hidden behind a goddamn minefield. She makes you resort to using small mechanical bunnies to get to her base. Then she tries to pull you apart by tying rope to your limbs and having her biker gang pull you in opposing directions. Essentially Maureen has become a side boss.
The thing is, there's genuinely a feeling, just like in Fate Of Atlantis, another adventure game I wrote about in this column, that the male and female character really are equal counterparts. They joke around with each other 'Remember that time you tried to kill me?' 'Yeah... We really TAUGHT you a lesson... Geddit??' but there's only chemistry between Ben and Mo as far as they like each other. They get on. They are similar people. In fact, there's a sense that perhaps Ben might feel a little more enamoured with Mo, but never pushes it or pursues it, perhaps in part because he really respects her, just like the player does. At the end of the game, the two sit awkwardly in a limo together (cars aren't their thing) and Mo says, 'So.... maybe we could do lunch sometime next week?' Ben replies that he thinks lunch sounds great. But Mo gets a business phonecall, and there's a sense that this is who she is now. The businesswoman. Ben leaves the limo and rides off into the sunset, and who even knows if they will have that lunch.
But the thing is, maybe that's the most romantic relationship of all. The relationship in which you both like each other, and don't have to do a thing about it.
All the previous S.EXE columns are listed here in a hot mess of empathetic exchange.