Whenever someone asks me, “What’s a good game to get my girlfriend into games / a favorite genre / co-op gaming?” I find myself wary of the entire premise. Not just because it’s so often about a girlfriend or wife, not a boyfriend or a husband, but because I’m always sympathetic to the person confronting another’s enthusiasm. Dating a manga fan is the closest I’ve ever come to being trapped in a hostage situation: it’s difficult to appreciate anything when you’re “supposed” to react a certain way.
More importantly, my experience with my own partner, MK, showed me just how hopeless I would have been at anticipating what games she’d enjoy. Her tastes in all things remain her own, and that’s been as true of games as anything else. The games that got her into gaming were the ones she chose for herself.
When we first met, MK didn’t really care about games. She’d played them a bit when she was younger, mostly arcane adventures like Rendezvous with Rama (where the solution to one “puzzle” was to learn hexidecimal) but her priorities and interests changed. Perhaps related to this, her grade point average was nearly two points higher than mine throughout high-school and college. I certainly wasn’t going to press my interests on her, given that she was doing quite nicely with her own, thank you very much. Her disinterest was down to a difference in character, which was one of the reasons we were together.
A couple autumns later, however, she saw me spend a week totally absorbed in Grim Fandango. The snatches of dialog she overheard, and the glories of Rubacava, were enough to pique her interest. She borrowed my laptop to play it herself, and fell in love with it. It reawakened her interest in adventures, and with a couple recommendations from me, she was off to the races. In no time at all, she had outgrown my limited knowledge of the genre.
As she ran low on adventure games (a coincident event with her completion of the Wadjet Eye catalogue), she turned to RPGs. I told her that Planescape had always sounded like RPGs’ closest kin to adventure games, and that was enough to launch her on another genre. She was through the Fallouts in the blink of an eye. Now she’s playing through New Vegas and I’m having to compete for the use of my gaming desktop.
What I didn’t realize is that my girlfriend liked games all along. Just not the ones she’d initially encountered through me or her brother. She didn’t care for the fast-paced tactics of RTS games or the hyperkinetic action of shooters. MK likes puzzles, systems, and intellectual mastery of both. More importantly, she wants games that speak a little more directly to her and her interests.
Her characters in RPGs all tend to be of a type: female, slightly built with average strength, but highly intelligent and charismatic / diplomatic. They are tinkerers and fixers, scientists and engineers. She completed Fallout having barely fired a shot at anything that had the capacity to reason, and yet by the end the she had kitted herself out in the best gear in the game simply by repairing bits of equipment she found in the wasteland.
Enough has been said about characters like The Longest Journey’s April Ryan, and just how relatable they are. But it’s still worth noting just how diverse adventure games tend to be. They represent any number of experiences. College kids, Southern philanderers, a multinational team of astronauts, a woman saddled with a ghostly private-eye sidekick, a broken-hearted rabbi… the list goes on. The thing about adventure games is that, more than perhaps any other major genre, they are about the drama of day-to-day living. Sometimes the hardest puzzle to solve is just getting through another crappy day on the job, or manipulating an indifferent bureaucracy into actually helping you out. If there’s a power fantasy involved, it’s the notion that you can think and talk your way past even the most frustrating situations.
It’s been great seeing MK become a connoisseur of genres I’ve always admired more than loved. It’s also a relief, because she is actually a much better gamer than I am. After a month with Civ IV, she was easily better at the game than I was, and her stats in our Age of Mythology games put mine to shame. I’m glad she’s not extending her domination to my favorite genres on a regular basis.
Running out of history
But I do worry that most of the games she’s loved are throwbacks. They’re either classics from the 90’s via GOG, or conscious homages like Wadjet Eye’s adventure offerings. She got frustrated with the emphasis on combat in Baldur’s Gate, and the notion of her enjoying Mass Effect’s gunfire-filled hallways and simple conversations seems like a longshot.
MK enjoyed the Fallout so much that she fought down her motion sickness to play Fallout 3, and loved exploring a world in a mix of first and third-person perspective. But she also got tired of the combat, and just how much more constrained she often felt when it came to fulfilling quests. By the end she was tired of blowing away legions of feral ghouls and mindless henchmen, and she eventually gave up on the DLC. She’s moved onto New Vegas, hoping to find more of the original Fallout spirit alive there. I hope she does.
She is excited at having overcome her problems with first-person action, and wants to try Bioshock: Infinite when it comes out. But I still have my doubts about whether she’ll be anything but frustrated with what action games are about, and who they tend to be about. When given the chance, MK enjoys projecting herself into the gameworld through a relatable avatar. It makes me wish there were more games told from the perspective of the Alyx Vances and Elizabeths of the world, and not overwhelmingly the Gordons and the Bookers.
But good characters are good characters, and certainly MK never balked at playing Guybrush or Gabriel Knight. My greater fear is that MK has discovered in classic PC gaming a love of variety and possibility, and sometimes it seems like both have become sadly diminished in recent years, even in genres that used to be known for them. RPGs have, in too many cases, become a numbers based murder-simulator, where you can be a thief or a fighter or a mage or an engineer… and that basically means different flavors of destruction and the choice of opening a few more cabinets.
This is why I can’t be cynical about Kickstarter yet. Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and Double Fine’s upcoming adventure all speak to PC gamers’ nostalgia, but for MK, it’s not nostalgia. These are the games she likes, the experiences that have something to say to her. For her, these aren’t the “good old days” glimpsed through a rose-colored haze. For her, Fallout 1 and 2 came out just a few months ago. And when it comes to their expansiveness and possibility, they are far more modern and exciting to to her than most of what’s come since.
So as much as I don’t feel it’s your job, or my job, to go find something that will bring a significant other into games, I have become more conscious of how important it is to have a wide variety of games and subject matter. I don’t think it’s important that my partner got into games, but I do think it’s important that that there were games for her to discover and enjoy.