Bioware and the Love Connection

When I first purchased “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,” I had owned an Xbox for about three days, and I wanted something to play that wasn’t “Halo.” With a psychological rigor that would have left Socrates speechless, I reasoned that “Star Wars stuff is cool,” and if I was going to have a second game on my new system, KOTOR (as it is known to many) should be it. My first attempt at playing revealed an almost obnoxiously complex RPG, and I quickly dropped it. Somewhere down the road, perhaps sick of “Halo,” I picked it up again and gave it another go-round. Somewhere around the three hour mark, the game design clicked and I found myself in love.

Or so I thought.

Jump forward many years, and “Mass Effect 2” has just hit the shelves. Rabid Bioware fans, myself one of them, gobble it up without question. At about the ten hour mark, I set my sights on a female tattooed convict named Jack, deciding I will win her heart and ride off into the sunset with her, as Bioware games often allow you to do. Our courtship is rushed, and right when I’m really starting to charm her, she calls me on my seedy intentions. “If this is just about sex, then you should just f*ckin’ say so,” she sneers at me. What? I’m certain my reply options will shield me from the dark truth, but no, there it is: “Yes. I want you.” Jack shifts her weight and studies me, impatiently awaiting my answer. What do I do? I mean, I’m accustomed to slaving the entire game in order to watch an awkward but strangely erotic no-pants-dance between polygons. Is she really going to give up the goods now?

In a rush of passion, I consent. It happens, then it’s over, and I am speechless. I can’t believe my luck, Bioware has elected to let me bed my love early! I’m so grateful, I put her on my team for the next assignment, even though she tends to get herself killed. After the next mission, I eagerly saunter down to the bowels of the ship where she lives, pondering where our love will go from here. She doesn’t want to talk. Ok, no big deal, I leave her be. Two missions later, still nothing. Something isn’t right. Twenty hours in, I’m getting the same canned write-off she fed me on disc one: “Shepard, you’re just pissing around. No offense, but I don’t wanna play.” Panic sets in. She won’t talk to me! I jump on Twitter to bemoan my troubles, and immediately notice a trending topic on the exact same issue with hundreds of replies. This confirms my worst fears: casual sex with Jack was a critical mistake.

Now here’s where a bizarre revelation set in, one that rocked me to my core: as I continued to bemoan my fate, lamenting this momentary lapse in carnal judgment, my wife walks into the room. I’m not sure, but I imagine that the sound of her husband lusting aloud after someone called “Jack” raised a series of very dire questions in her mind, and she came to investigate. I explain the situation to her, so absorbed in what was happening that I don’t really consider the words I tell her. She chuckles at me derisively, and says words that are burned now upon my very soul: “It’s just like my girlfriends and I with romantic comedies.”

At that moment, KOTOR came rushing back to me. When was it that I started to get involved in the game? The three hour mark, right? What was happening about then? Well, I had just completed the racing challenge, and beaten up that mob boss, and…rescued Bastila. Oh merciful heavens, that’s it. Once Bastila entered the game and I started the romance subplot with her, I was hooked. Come to think of it, the same was true of Morrigan in “Dragon Age: Origins,” and Ashley Williams in the original “Mass Effect.” And I’m not the only one: a casual glance at Twitter the night after “Mass Effect 2” was released revealed hundreds, maybe thousands, of gamers locked in the throes of doomed romance. When I talked to my friends about “Mass Effect 2,” we always inevitably fell into an argument about who we were going after: one couldn’t keep his hands off of Miranda, another found Samara irresistible (which is sad because she turns you down), yet another lusted for Yeomen Chambers, and I had eyes only for Tali…after Jack dumped me.

At that moment, an almost brutal moment of clarity set upon me: Bioware had been making elaborately disguised romantic comedies. Somehow, with their fiendish genius, they had theorized that men are every bit as prone to vicarious romance as women, and they decided to set upon this tendency as a business model. They had been selling me my own personal “You’ve Got Mail,” dressed up in the trappings of nerdy science fiction, for well over a decade. All my looking down my nose at my wife’s favorite rom-coms was a bunch of hypocritical garbage. For twist endings, this has to rival “The Sting” or “The Usual Suspects.”

The sad truth is, Bioware is a maker of love stories, and men can’t get enough of them. We have put up a front for so long, maybe we’ve even convinced ourselves, but along comes a little game company from Canada, and our faÁade is penetrated. We crave a good romance as much as anyone; we connect with the desperate longing and the fevered consummation no less than a Jane Austen fan club. Perhaps romance is not so feminine after all, and perhaps we are not as calloused as we think.

Gaming is an art form, and like any art its limitations are constantly being redefined. Games like “Mass Effect 2” are proving, whether we like it or not, that even the most cynical among us is susceptible to a pull on the heartstrings. Have you ever looked closely at those Japanese RPGs you used to play on Friday nights instead of going out? They’re chock full of more romance and schmaltz than anything your girlfriend will make you sit through. And consider “Braid,” the indie darling from Xbox Live: a tale of love lost, a melancholic quest for redemption with echoes of Shakespeare’s mushiest sonnets. We pretend to be immune to this stuff, but the truth cannot be suppressed forever. Studies have shown that men are less practical about relationships and romance than women are, so in a weird way, it makes sense that we’d pay to experience the thrill of falling in love all over again.

So mock that romantic comedy all you want, Dear Reader, but look to thine own first. We are no more immune to Cupid’s weapons than anyone.