14 May 2014Interview – Christine Love On Visual Novels, Sexuality, & Queer Representation in Games
Christine Love is a video game designer. Her work includes Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus.
In this installment of First Person Scholar’s Interview series, Essays Co-editor Meghan Blythe Adams speaks to Christine Love about vulnerability, sexuality, and whether love really does conquer all. [The following text has been edited for clarity.]
First Person Scholar: Again, thank you so much for being willing to talk. The first thing I wanted to ask you is: what’s the power of cuteness, for you and your work?
Christine Love: It’s about coming from a place of sincerity. We really devalue cuteness. What cuteness is about for me is this sincerity, vulnerability, it’s about all these other things that we just sort of dismiss in favour of posturing, and power fantasies. I think a little bit of vulnerability is a good thing. I think we should be reclaiming this… it’s a diminutive. A lot of people take it, like “Oh, isn’t that cute.” No, it’s powerful. There’s a lot of power in it, exposing yourself like that. And that’s what cuteness is about to me.
FPS: Especially in relation to game culture, cuteness gets pushed aside in favor of the likes of Marcus Fenix.
Love: Videogames are really good at, basically, one specific emotion: they’re good at making you feel powerful. There’s a lot of triumph in games. I’m not against triumph, but there are other feelings other than “Yeah, I beat that guy!”
FPS: I’ve noticed that in things like Digital, Analogue, Hate Plus, there’s a feeling of vulnerability and loneliness, of horrible shock because something you care about is absent. And it’s a really piercing kind of feeling.
Love: Yes, and in all of them, there’s always high stakes, and you can never really do that much about them. That’s a common theme; you’re just one person. The best you can ever do is… in Analogue, you can just be there for someone. You can’t stop this horrific culture. There’s no one man against the odds. But maybe, maybe, you can help a traumatized girl.
FPS: And the fact that you can’t make someone’s decisions for them, stop them from doing things that you find heartbreaking.
Love: Well, to be fair–did you see the mod? People actually made a mod to the game [Hate Plus]…
FPS : They just couldn’t let her go, huh?
Love: …To take away the one bit of agency that character had, because they just didn’t want their waifu to be gone. And on the one hand, I appreciate the unbelievable amount of dedication it takes. You write extensive amounts of fan-fiction. I know how much work this is because it’s comparable to some of the work I put into this, and they go all the way to put this in. I really admire the dedication there—but man, way to miss the point!
FPS: Analogue and Hate Plus talk so much about the lack of female agency…
Love: Right. And this is the one bit that she has.
FPS: Actually, that connects to my next question. What annoys you the most about gaming culture?
Love: Oh God.
FPS: It’s hard to pick one thing, I know.
Love: It’s really conservative. I feel like that’s what it comes down to. There’s a very marked refusal to actually do new things. I don’t dislike games about shooting men. A lot of my favourite games are about shooting men. I don’t need every single game to be about that. And I feel like this is just the absolute example of what is constantly pervasive in videogames. There’s always a “maybe we’ll have one thing to make it stand out, and that’s our new Intellectual Property, we’ll now have seven sequels—wring as much blood from the stone as possible.” I don’t know—I’m not completely against sequels, but I don’t think I really need to play seven games that are basically the same. And if I play something amazing, I don’t want to just continue the story in that universe. I want you to take what was interesting about that and learn from that, sure, but give me something totally different!
FPS: I think that’s something that I’ve seen in your work. Analogue and Hate Plus, obviously, are connected, but they feel quite different.
Love: Yes, I’m normally pretty opposed to sequels, and I don’t want to do one myself. When I decided to make Hate Plus, it was originally just DLC, but it got kind of out of control. And when I realized it was going to be a sequel, I realized, okay, we’re going to really have to work very, very, very hard to justify this. Because a sequel in a universe that doesn’t need it… And it’s a prequel; it’s even worse. So… hopefully, it’s enough interesting things to justify itself. But it was definitely very important that… there is nothing conservative in Hate Plus. Everything is, “okay, I’m going to ramp this up to eleven.” It has to be more extreme. There has to be more to this. Otherwise, my approach to sequels is just… Analogue is fundamentally based on Digital. It’s basically the same mechanically. It’s not a different universe, but it’s five thousand years in the future.
FPS: But the connections are there.
Love: The connections are sort of there, but you don’t need to play Digital to understand Analogue; if you do, it won’t really help. But what it really is is taking the mechanics from it, and refining them. And I think that’s a good thing you can do in a sequel. That’s the power of sequels. Not just “you must understand the intense backstory of Marcus Fenix.”
FPS: As a follow-up to gaming culture and its various idiosyncrasies that can be very tough, did you see a positive movement at GDC this year, or was it kind of more of the same?
Love: Honestly, I try to avoid the bro culture of games. I get into that thing, keep up on “what’s the latest technology?”, because even Hideo Kojima does interesting things—yeah, I know, right? So you do have to engage with the terrible stuff if you’re making games, just to… “Okay, what’s he doing wrong here, what can I take out so that no one ever has to play this in order to get that?”.
FPS: (laughs) That’s very self-sacrificing.
FPS: Nobody’s perfect.
Love: That’s the worst thing. You find out your idol is human. Ugh.
FPS: It’s terrible.
Love: But aside from that, that’s really my only engagement with mainstream bro videogame culture. Otherwise, I try to avoid that entirely. When I go to GDC, I try to stay away from the show floor as much as possible. The one time I was there, there was an exhibit on experimental hardware games that was amazing. There’s super cool stuff. And it has nothing to do with the gross side of game culture. I certainly don’t go to the talks about “How to monetize your teams.”
FPS: “How to include women… sort of.” …You previously talked about not really having realism as a goal, that sincerity and accuracy are part of the goal but not realism. Do you mind expanding on that?
Love: Sure. I think realism is… a tendency to get lost in surface details. If you want to learn something about the way people are, about the way people act, the way things unfold, the way social systems work, I don’t think realism is what you should be focusing on there. Realism is trying to make sure every single blade of grass looks perfect. But what does that actually teach you? So a lot of stuff I do, I deliberately exaggerate. I find that subtle is sometimes useful, but very rarely, frankly. So… Analogue looks at a real historical situation. I don’t exaggerate any of the historical attitudes. If anything, they’re a little underplayed because I thought the audience might be completely turned off if it went to the real historical level. It’s a fundamental looking at an extreme situation. It’s looking at something that’s an exaggerated form of sexism by our standards, and the hope is that a player can look at that and then learn from it. They can go, “Oh, that’s kind of similar to what we do here, actually. Oh, wait marriage is about that with us, we just don’t see it, because we’re slightly more subdued.” So realism is about presenting the world the way you see it. But I’m not concerned with what you already see. I’m concerned with what you’re not seeing.
FPS: Speaking of realism, you’ve talked about some games that actually go far enough to depict sexuality at all frequently being not very sexy. Could you expand on that as well?
Love: It’s really frustrating. BioWare has great writers, and not great people in the animation department. This is like the most frustrating thing. You’ll have this amazingly written romance, and that just feels right, and then they try to show it and you’re like—aw, what are you doing? This… this is not arousing. A BioWare sex scene is just the most awkward uncanny valley. Watching fast cuts of bodies rubbing together is not… I don’t know what you think you’re trying to convey here, but it’s not working.
Love: But they also have this problem… I was playing the third Mass Effect, where they have this amazing, perfect depiction of two women in love and I’m like, “This is beautiful. This is exactly the sincere sort of conversation that I think they would have. This is perfect…Wait, why is there a sex scene now? No! C’mon! Why! This doesn’t make any sense.” At some point in the outlining process, they said, “Okay, sincere conversation – sex scene.” Because that’s what you need before a sex scene is sincere conversation. And they did this, and that made sense on paper…. And then it’s completely totalled. I think big budget games have this thing where people don’t communicate very well. It’s really easy for something to fall through the cracks. So your storyline is something that isn’t necessarily written in with what was actually for the scene, and certainly doesn’t fit with what was animated for the scene.
FPS: And that reinforces this idea that if you have four conversations, say the right things, and then you get sex.
FPS: I wanted to ask you about that category of games that have “say the right thing here, say the right thing there, compliment them” that sort of Persona Social Link thing. Because you’ve talked about Ladykiller in a Bind [Love’s announced next game], about incorporating the fact that it’s kind of manipulative.
Love: It’s manipulative, but also just really silly. I mean—c’mon. The hard thing about relationships is not getting the girl. That’s the easy part. The hard part is the relationship. You should start from there, and then comes the hard part. Then you figure out how you actually deal with interacting with this person.
FPS : Will Ladykiller explore that?
Love: Yeah, we’re exploring that, and it’s not using sex as the reward for saying the right things. It’s so silly.
FPS: It’s this really limited view of human sexuality.
Love: I know, right? I don’t know; it feels like a view of human sexuality completely informed by people who don’t have much experience with it, possibly. That’s the thing. If you’re holding off sex like this lofty goal rather than just… this is an interaction in a relationship. This is a form of communication. This is a development in a relationship. And the other thing—usually, the first time you sleep with someone… it’s not….
FPS: Maybe that’s why the scenes are so terrible. It’s the first time. (Love laughs) They’re making the point that it’s supposed to be terrible. But it reinforces the idea of an economy of sex.
Love: Right. Put kindness coins in, relationship comes out.
FPS: Yes, thank you.
Love: So yes, in Ladykiller that’s definitely not going to be our approach. It takes place over seven days, there’s going to be six nights of sex with the person you want to be with, then you’ll see how that works out.
FPS: That’s fascinating.
Love: And there will be character development over this. Because I think that’s a pretty good way of showing character development, personally.
FPS: I know Ladykiller in a Bind seems to have a strong focus on queer sexuality and kink sexuality. Why was that important for your work?
Love: Because if I’m not going to do it, then….
Love: Who will?
Love: Well, that’s not true. There are a lot of people doing works about queer sexuality and kink sexuality. But they’re not usually from the perspective that I want to see it from. There’s a lot of dommes in games. Which is great. I respect them a lot. I like them a lot. However, I do think, even if it’s a little harder, we want to see the other perspective too, and if no one else is going to do it, well, fuck.
FPS: And I think, statistically, there are more sub-inclined people than domme-inclined people.
Love: Sure feels that way. (Love laughs)
FPS: It’s interesting that when it comes to representation of kink in media, there’s the idea of this hyper-feminine domme—I’m thinking of CSI for example—or even Merrit Kopas’ Consensual Torture Simulator, which is fabulous, but it’s exclusively from a top perspective.
Love: And the reason why is that it’s really hard. Fundamentally, the submissive role is generally more passive. You’re coming from a place of vulnerability. And videogames are generally more focused on action. And doing things that have consequences. Not vulnerability. It’s really hard to make submission a compelling game play mechanic. I understand. This is something that I’ve struggled with. I’m hoping that Ladykiller is able to do this well. Part of it is we have a lot of other systems in the game so I’m not worried if the sex scenes aren’t too mechanical… I don’t think sex is all that mechanical.
FPS: With the focus games have on action, a game from the submissive perspective seems like it would be a rich potential for the inner experience.
Love: Absolutely. Really, that is what it’s all about. I think games are a little wary of that, of actually being in someone’s head. We really like being in big environments or social situations. You look at Consensual Torture Simulator, and still, it’s framed as a dialogue. Whereas a kink scene from a submissive perspective is very often very internal, which is something that videogames are not accustomed to dealing with, I don’t think.
FPS: I wonder if there’s a connection between games being not super comfortable with internality and the concern that it will be markedly different from the player’s experience. I wonder if game designers are more willing to have people play a part than feel something.
Love: It’s certainly harder. I don’t know if it’s an excuse. I think you can do that too. I try to make games that can make people feel things, and it… seems to work out. I think maybe they’re not giving themselves enough credit.
FPS: I’ve read that Ladykiller in a Bind is probably going to be your last visual novel. Have you found that the expressive potential of different formats differs widely, between the visual novel and, say, something else that you might want to try?
Love: Digital, Analogue, Hate Plus… they all follow a very specific form. Someone’s hiding behind a computer, having a relationship at a distance. They’re not games where you can punch someone in the face. You can’t do action in these stories. Ladykiller pushes that, but these are fundamentally games about talking rather than exploring an environment, for example. Because the visual novel isn’t good at that. So I shouldn’t do that. And I do feel somewhat restricted by that. Even Ladykiller, which I’m trying very hard to be not like the usual fare—there are no computers or girls in computers at all in it; hopefully that’ll help. But it’s still like I can only tell certain sorts of stories in visual novels and I don’t want to fall into a rut. Certainly, everything I’ve made so far has fallen under a very specific set of rules. What I don’t want to turn into is someone who tells the same sort of story over and over again. I don’t want to be Hideo Kojima.
FPS: No sequels.
Love: No sequels! No career spent making the exact same thing over and over again. Even if you’re bringing something new, even if you’re really good at making that thing… I don’t want to fall into a rut.
FPS: I recognize that you can’t see the future, but what are the different kinds of stories that you’d like to tell? Have you been thinking about what you’re reaching towards?
Love: I think there’s all sorts of stories I’d like to tell. Right now, I’m just focusing on what I’m doing. But I think there’s a limit to stories about people far away looking through archives.
FPS: One of the things I loved about Analogue and Hate Plus is that there is a real voyeurism that really gets attention called to it during logs that are more sexually explicit.
Love: Especially in Hate Plus, where you have the reading over the shoulder mechanic. *Mute just keeps blushing.
FPS: Was voyeurism something that you wanted to talk about, or did it kind of happen?
Love: It comes with the historic stuff. I don’t know if it’s an exploitative voyeurism, I don’t think it’s a bad kind of voyeurism; I think it’s a side-effect. But certainly I do want you to think about, “oh, this is me peeping in on real people’s lives.” Even if they aren’t actually real people, they’re certainly reflections of things that [were real]. I’m not interested in guilting you for reading through someone’s writing about sex. But I do want to show you that *Hyun-ae is feeling embarrassed by this.
FPS: That makes sense. Frequently, people position you as being interested in technology, and in response to that, I’ve read you saying that what you’re really interested in is relationships.
Love: Yeah, I’m interested in people. It just happens that most relationships now are mediated through technology. Every person I’ve dated I met through a computer. That’s a reality, a really common thing. Most of our conversations are on our cell phones. So I’m not really interested in technology, I’m interested in people. We just use a lot of technology.
FPS: With that mediation of technology, have you ever been tempted to try to work on a game where technology is less present?
Love: That’s one of the goals with Ladykiller. We were going to have a system of watching the social network, like in Don’t Take It Personally. Then we realized it would be a lot of work, and also that it doesn’t really need that. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it’s much more interesting if we can just have people meet face-to-face, even if we have to come up with a plot contrivance for it. And we’ve got a good one; it’s fine.
FPS: I remember reading the long form title and thinking that “that’s the story right there.” And that’s sort of fabulous. Not ending with the relationship, but starting and having it open up from there.
Love: Right. You develop over the course of the plot. I think that that’s always what I’ve been interested in.
FPS: You’ve said in interviews that queer issues don’t tend to come up a lot in your interviews, and it sounded like that kind of annoyed you. So can I get you to talk about queer representation?
Love: Sure. I think we need more. I think specifically, I get bothered when people play Analogue, Hate Plus, and don’t realize what’s queer about them. I think a lot of times when people talk about Analogue, Hate Plus, and talk about the queer themes, they’re talking about the people in the past, these very tragic lesbian lovers who speak in very flowery language and write poetry.
FPS: It’s all very delicate.
Love: Yeah. But they never talk about *Hyun-ae’s sexuality, where she doesn’t really care what your gender is, she doesn’t ask it, she’s not concerned with this. No one talks about what that must mean for her, in light of her being clearly bisexual or open in some other way and her marriage to the emperor. No one has looked at what that means. No one looks at *Mute; she’ll come along if you’re a woman, but only if you’re a lesbian. Very few people talk about this. I think this is largely overlooked.
FPS: Any sort of theory as to why that is?
Love: I think a lot of my players experience this. There’s an achievement for doing *Mute’s route as both a man and a woman, so I know exactly how many people have gotten this experience. And a whole third of all my players have done this. That’s a lot of people. So they know. But if you’re press, it’s understandable you’re not going to play a game through three times to get the whole experience. I think I need to start placing this out a little more visible if I want people to talk about it. But I think another thing is we’re not primed to look for this. I think people wouldn’t consider that. Hate Plus is interesting because no one talks about old Mute’s sexuality—she’s a lot less straight than her successor claims to be.
FPS: I think the character Mimi doesn’t get talked about enough. Very sadly, Mimi’s going through this stuck relationship but that character’s freedom and agency is really, really powerful in the game, particularly against the backdrop of this society going to shit.
Love: The other thing about [Mimi and Mimi’s male partner] is that they do a lot better than the women do.
FPS: That’s true. Why did you decide to do that?
Love: I made that contrast, and I also wanted to show that this horrible patriarchy affects men too. It’s not quite as harshly, but it’s still very, very strong. And it shows how this affects marriages. There’s a lot of marriages of convenience in Hate Plus, increasingly more so as the game progresses. I think that’s an important thing to actually understanding the institution as it develops, that love doesn’t really conquer all. Economic necessity conquers all!
FPS: So how does that relate to the name of your blog [Love Conquers All games]?
Love: I’m hopeful we can change. It’s aspirational.
FPS: Excellent. I think that’s a really good note to end on.