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S.EXE: Seven Stories About Love

The first time I ever wrote anything about games, it was because I was still brokenhearted about a relationship that had dissolved years ago. PC Gamer edited the 4000 word essay into a six pager about Dota in 2012 and it is still one of the best things I have ever written. But wherever I go, whatever I do, games participate in a meaningful way in many of the relationships I see. Welcome to a special edition of S.EXE: the love letters edition. Brace yourself, you are in for chop. Here are seven stories about falling in love next to a loading screen.

Grim Fandango

When I returned from Japan to Scotland in late 2010, I attended my friends Al and Carrie's wedding. I was finally home in Edinburgh and two people who I cared about and who cared about me were getting married to each other. It was emotional because the wedding was in a candlelit, fairy light-studded Edinburgh vault underneath the city, unashamedly catering to the tastes of a comics-reading, know-all-the-lyrics-from-Pulp's-Different-Class crowd. I thought I'd be okay until they signed the wedding documents to the track 'Manny and Meche' from Grim Fandango, and I had to go to the bar to get a stiff drink and those measly bar napkins to blot my face.

Within the confines of Grim Fandango, the track 'Manny and Meche' always seemed to me to convey the humour of a romantic back and forth - the Lucasarts game, after all, was delicately tongue-in-cheek. But I think in the context of that dimly lit cavern it took a different tack. The staccatos and the long skirls of bow, played in front of a quiet audience of witnesses, came to mean the intertwining of two different people, and I remembered how Manny and Meche seemed deeply in love in an adult way, a way that seemed subversively erotic when I was a kid at the computer screen. In that moment, it seemed to me that the past and the present became perfectly solidified, and Al and Carrie getting married was life showing the rarest, most perfect symmetry of two people who had grown together. The old memories of that game were part of it.

Thief Gold

I visited Tokyo and stayed with renowned Yakuza journalist and Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein (now to be played by Daniel Radcliffe in the movie of the book) in November. He told me about his early days before his police reporting beat, and how he spent a while reporting on the golden era of PC gaming. Having loved Thief: Deadly Shadows, Thief Gold came at a time of transition for him into his new investigative role, which was demanding and dangerous. The Thief character Viktoria reminds Jake of a woman that was important to him around this time.

"It was about late 2007 or early 2008, and I'd finished playing Thief Deadly Shadows," Jake said. "I had pretty much stopped playing video games but read about Thief Gold, started to play it at odd hours of the night. It was a stressful time in my life.

"At the time, without going into details, I started an affair with the mistress of a yakuza boss who I really didn't like very much - meaning I hated him, not her. She hated him too. I would say it was a total grudgefuck kind of deal at first, for both of us - we were united with a common enemy. I'd have to sneak into her apartment past the guards that were posted out front. Meetings were clandestine and often at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo where there was a floor with an extra level of security. I had a friend at the hotel who could get me good rooms on short notice, often cheaply.

"I needed her help in getting information I wanted, and she wanted something in return as well.

"She let me into his apartment once, late at night. I knew his bodyguard was in the apartment next door or had been told that. And as I was sneaking around inside looking for what I needed, taking a photograph of it when I found it - and those damn Japanese phones always make a fucking shutter sound as do many of the cameras - I thought, 'Jesus Christ, this is a lot like being in Thief.' Really terrifying. I felt like every noise I made was amplified ten thousand times. I couldn't turn on the lights either. I had a very limited time frame.

"It was a terrifying relationship. We both would have been killed or maimed if he'd found out. The game and life overlapped a bit in my mind after a while. If you've ever played Thief - 'sultry Viktoria' turns out to be not what she seems, and SPOILER alert - she rips out Garrett's eye towards the end and double crosses him.

"I thought she was setting me up, but what differed from the game was that she turned out to be a staunch ally.

"But her voice, which for a Japanese woman was very deep, and her whole sexy demeanour, reminded me of Viktoria in the game. And she was more than she appeared to be.

"Love and fear feel a lot alike. This is why guys take women to scary movies or roller coasters - that rush of adrenaline and dopamine, the excitement - it's just like falling in love. By the time I realised that I was actually in love with her and maybe she felt the same way, I had to make arrangements for her to leave Japan.

"Years later, like some sort of Pavlovian dog, the theme song to Thief makes my fight or flight reaction kick in. It was a batshit crazy time. I have a weird fear that if I started playing the new Thief game I'd plunge my now relatively quiet (sort of) life back into chaos. I'm forty five. Not so spry and not very ninjaish. ...But who knows?"

Now I know exactly why, the last time I spoke to Jake in person, he thought he'd make an excellent narrative designer for video games.

Alien: Isolation

I asked on Twitter if anyone else had games that they associate with being in love. My friend and co-host of Resonance FM's One Life Left, Ann Scantlebury, wrote to me about falling in love to Alien: Isolation.

"Falling in love with someone is weird and brilliant and terrifying," she wrote. "You ask them loads of questions because you want to know everything about them, but you're terrified they'll tell you something awful that'll make you question everything, and what if you let slip something that sends them running? Matt knew I played games, he knew what I did. But playing a game with him? Letting him see just how terrible I am with a controller? How I get killed ALL THE TIME IN EVERY VIDEOGAME I HAVE EVER PLAYED? Were we there yet? Terrifying.

"We'd talked about Alien: Isolation a few times (I'd heard it was good, he'd heard it was good, should we play it together?). We play with one controller passed between us, either at the end of a section or when a bit gets too tough and you get frustrated. I love the rhythm of passing it to each other, it's like a silent reminder that in this relationship we are a team, nobody is shooting off on their own. We point out areas to explore, remind each other which button does what, and high-five successes (I got really good at the puzzles you do to open the doors and felt properly proud when that was noted). Actually, a lot of how we play reflects how we are together.

"Bits I have loved playing together: I have the controller, I'm supposed to be shooting someone on the ship but I've lost them. I'm wandering around quietly, turn the corner, there they are. I jump, throw the controller, Matt catches it and with absolute elegance starts hitting them in the face, like that's how we meant to play it.

"We play it intermittently. It's like reading a book together - you play a bit, put it down, pick it up where you left off. I would never play it without him. It's like the bit at the beginning of Orange Is The New Black where he promises her he won't watch Mad Men while she's locked up, and then he does and it's the biggest betrayal. We play it at mine, sat next to each other on the sofa, and it feels really good having someone next to me whose heart rate is rising at the same time as mine. And, really, there is nothing like a celebratory make out session for no other reason than WE EVADED THE ALIEN.

"Knowing that he is next to me, knowing that he is scared when I am scared, knowing that he's got my back (and my controller), knowing that he is experiencing all the good and bad and terrifying things with me; it sort of feels like a dry run for our life together."

Mass Effect

Another fan of this column, Anne E, contacted me by email to tell me that playing Mass Effect with her now partner not only allowed her partner to fall in love with games, but allowed her to realise that she could love women as well as men.

"When I started dating my now-wife Foley, we had two little issues to overcome," Anne told me. "I identified as straight-skewing-asexual, and she did not really get video games. She had played some fighting games, some Goldeneye, but didn't really understand why games were important to me.

"I thought a good 'in' for her would be Mass Effect. I had finished it right before we started dating, playing a goodie-two-shoes dude, and had an okay time with it. It had a focus on narrative and character that are the big appeal of gaming for me, so we started a playthrough together. She made the character and directed the decisions, while I drove.

"And we both had an amazing time. She got to see that I loved games not just for graphics or shootin' dudes, but because of the stories that can only be told with gaming, and the fondness you develop over your time with these characters.

"I had a pretty transformative time as well -- it made me realize just how much self-loathing misogyny I had internalized, that it didn't even occur to me to play a woman before. It didn't occur to my wife NOT to play a woman!

"Beyond that, because she hadn't played a game like this before, she had no sense that Bioware games had previously been much more binary in their good/evil dialogue, so she pushed for renegade all the time. All of a sudden, for the first time, I was playing a game as a no-nonsense, badass woman. The game turned from something I enjoyed alone to something amazing shared with her.

"Playing as dudeShep, I had really wanted to romance Kaiden, and was so mad it wasn't an option, so it made sense that as a woman I went that route. Until I dared take a bathroom break, during which Foley exploited the game's design to fully commit to a relationship with Liara in minutes.

"I was absolutely furious, and after a lot of talking (and frankly three iterations of the franchise), I understand that it wasn't, like I'd claimed at the time, that I didn't like her character. It was that I was now playing a spacefemme aggressively pursuing another spacefemme. I had to accept those feelings without the cushion of love and the immediacy of navigating a new romance. I had to actively and consciously press a button to kiss a woman. It was holding my bisexuality at arm's length, taking a good look at it, and saying 'Okay, yeah.' And I did it while holding my girl's hand.

"Navigating my feelings about myself and my girl in the context of a medium that I loved, and sharing that medium with someone I loved, made it all so much easier. I honestly owe Bioware so much for that.

"As an epilogue, the Mass Effect 3 demo came out on Valentine's day, which cemented our plans for that year."

Anne included this photograph in her email, which made me feel a little bit melty inside.

World of Warcraft

Lysaara wrote to me about her years playing World of Warcraft and how it initially brought her and her now ex-boyfriend together. The legacy of their relationship, after it was over, was left in the remnants of her game, including in-game love letters.

"This guy was my first real boyfriend," Lysaara said. "He was a lot of firsts for me, and we were together for about six years. His enthusiasm for WoW waned over that time, but I kept playing, overtaking him in levels and gear. He liked speculating on the Auction House, and was so confident in his skills that he asked for a loan: two thousand gold, and I'll give you back ten thousand by the end of the week, he said. I was saving up for epic flying (I always have trouble holding onto money in games), but I trusted him so I gave the gold over. I never got it back, not a single piece, but I didn't say anything because I loved him and that's how love works, I figured - you just don't make a big deal when they disappoint you.

"That was a couple years ago; I have a new partner who I love to play games with, but he doesn't play WoW anymore. When Warlords of Draenor came out, I did a big bank clearout - when you've been playing one character for ten years, you tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. Old outdated raid gear, crafting materials from every expansion, a few hoarded items from quests and attunement chains long since completed - and a handful of letters I'd been ignoring for a long time. It gave me a bit of a pang, remembering how I'd felt to recieve them and how my feelings had changed since. I felt weird holding onto old love letters though, even digital ones, so I deleted them. I sorta feel like I'd rather have kept them, but they're gone now. You can't really go digging through the bin in WoW. I'd had some physical letters - written on actual real-life paper - that didn't last long after we broke up, and reading the digital ones I felt the same way... But obviously the years had dulled the pain into just like a pang. Maybe they were supposed to mean less, since they were just some entries in a database somewhere, but they didn't."

Dota 2

Another of my readers, Jonny Fuller, and his wife Emily, had the biggest fight of their marriage over Dota 2's obscure last-hitting technique when he tried to include her in his favourite game. I sympathise - for most of my time playing DOTA/Dota 2 I've given very little care to the nuance of the game, preferring instead of 'getting good' to use the time to chat with my teammates over Skype about the week's events and goof off. But Jonny's blind instructing, instead of explaining how the game's finer points worked, resulted in Emily playing the game the way she pleased: she didn't find purely following instructions fun. It's a neat parable for how relationships (and Dota 2!) live and die on communication, diplomacy and understanding. One of the many complex layers of Dota 2 is a metagame that requires players to indulge in what is, historically, the hardest thing for people who like games: social skills.

"In my mind, 'don't attack the creeps because it will push the lane' was a satisfactory answer," Jonny said, "and her repeated requests for further explanation made no sense. What I failed to do is explain how the experience mechanic worked and how by fighting behind our tower we could deny the enemy heroes experience. I failed to explain the ganking mechanic, and how if we pushed too far forward we could be murdered by someone bursting out of the jungle. She felt disrespected because in the heat of battle I 'couldn't be bothered to explain it'. I felt deliberately trolled and undermined because she did exactly and deliberately what I pleaded with her not to.

"To me, that deliberate auto attack said, 'fuck you I don't give a fuck what you say', to her it was asserting herself and trying to execute a strategy she thought was best.

"This failure to properly communicate is a running theme in our Dota togetherness. She becomes frustrated with me either trying to micromanage her, or worse, failing to fully articulate a point in a kind and gentle way. If she dies, and I continuously try to articulate what happened and why, I'm using a 'mean tone' or I need to not repeat myself. It's a careful balance between over explaining, under explaining, and ensuring my tone is never grumpy."

Championship Manager

My friend and journalist Daniel Nye Griffiths wrote to me about his obsession with Championship Manager at a difficult time, a time that was more about dealing with the loss of love, or understanding what to do with it when it is unwanted.

"Growing up, I used to inherit old computers, after they had been extensively gaussed," Daniel wrote. "So for the longest time I had a beige tower with a slow Pentium chip. When I first came to London, I had a tiny room in a flat, with no desk and no Internet. Like a lot of people in their first badly-paid job. I didn't go out much, and my partner lived a long way away.

"I played Championship Manager in the evenings, sitting on the floor, waiting to call or be called. As the relationship got worse, sometimes I noticed that I was playing Championship Manager without really thinking about it, just clicking through games robotically. The slow chip meant it took ages for things to happen, so it was quite a contemplative experience. I suppose there's a metaphor about worlds and relationships I could control in there, but I think it was also just like worry beads or solitaire.

"So, really, I associate Championship Manager not so much with falling in love, but with falling out of love, or being fallen out of love with. And also with the incredible power of Ibrahima Bakayoko."

Games can be part of figuring love out.

I've slowly been learning about myself too, from games. Since that first DOTA piece there's been a lot of time to think about how games mediate relationships, sometimes manipulate them, and allow us to experiment with them. The dissolution of my DOTA-playing buddies around the world after university may have been partly responsible for the way my relationship with my DOTA ex slowly disintegrated, and for the same reasons that not talking to people on your team in DOTA is a bad tactic. Once it's just the two of you against the world, the game becomes much, much harder. I understand that now, and I take it more seriously.

When we talk about games we very often try to divorce them from the personal context - we try to say how little cultural impact they have on us, that they don't really 'affect' us, or that they cannot really teach us anything about relating to other people, for fear that someone will pop up and say 'yes and that is why video games cause violence'. But I don't think of games as being causation, but more like another life system we fit ourselves into, to play around with the parts of ourselves, to see how we fit into things, adapt to things, and learn from our mistakes. They do affect us, because they can change our frame of mind however briefly, challenge our ideas, improve our bonds with others. I think that's the best use of games: to strengthen and explore our relationships with others.

As maker of 868-HACK Michael Brough would email to tell me, "These games are important. All the ways we spend time together are important."

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