Monday, February 21, 2011

If She Dies, You Die

My wife Summer is away for several weeks. She headed off to Florida with the baby for an extended family visit. Ain’t much sunshine in the UK to begin with, but to paraphrase singer Bill Withers, the pall certainly feels more pronounced when she’s away.

Good luck avoiding the reminders. On a stroll across town to the library, I might pass a shop selling a mustard-coloured couch she adores. Or a fudge place that sets her sweet tooth tingling. Silence offers its own reminder, that hollow space our conversation would occupy if we were walking together. When it’s time to crash at the end of the day, I instinctively apply the method I gleaned from an Amy Hempel short story: I sleep on Summer's side of the bed so the empty space I'm left facing is my own.

Sometimes during these longer separations, I’m stricken by the thought of what it would be like to outlive your spouse. The withering sorrow Johnny Cash felt after June’s passing, hastening his own death not long after. Though Summer and I haven’t been married nearly as long as those two, I can appreciate that sense of feeling utterly conjoined, like your partner is a siamese twin whose heart you share, and pumps the blood keeping you alive.

If she dies, you die.

Strangely enough, I’ve played two games recently that have used this very concept as a gameplay mechanic—Ico and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

In Ico you play the titular character, a boy whose brown hair and bandana are unable to conceal a grave omen—the pair of thick horns jutting out from either side of his head. After being hauled off on his 12th birthday and sealed in a stone casket within castle ruins, Ico busts out of his tomb and meets up with a shimmering, glowing-white princess named Yorda. Together the two of you set off to escape the castle.

Yorda is a weakling and depends on you to take care of the more strenuous facets of solving the castle’s many puzzles—shimmying along ledges, climbing ropes and chains, leaping across dangerous chasms. In return, she wields supernatural powers to help you open mystically sealed “Idol Doors” throughout the castle. At numerous points throughout the game, shadowy creatures emerge from the castle foundations and try to recapture Yorda. If Ico fails to beat back the demons and they drag Yorda into their inky-black portals, it’s automatically game over. She dies; you die.

Growing up, my view of marriage—informed by a rigidly fundamental Christian upbringing—fit the template of Ico’s storybook fiction rather neatly. The bride all dressed in white. Princess Yorda doesn’t simply wear a white dress; her entire being radiates white, casting off a pure, celestial innocence. It is Ico’s job to fend off the darkness groping hungrily at her slender frame. Yorda is fragile; Ico must be strong. Yorda desires to be led; Ico must call out to her to follow, or if that doesn’t work, grab her dainty hand and pull her along in the right direction. Yorda is angelic; Ico’s horns are bestial, signifying The Curse with unsubtle Luciferian panache. Yorda is a girl, therefore presumably virginal.

In the view of marriage I’d inherited, that final quality was paramount. She had to be a virgin, God please let her be a virgin. I had a serious girlfriend during my sophomore year of college, a good rule-following Christian like myself, but it came out several months into the relationship that she’d slept with a longterm boyfriend she’d dated her senior year of high school.

The revelation sent me into a tailspin of self-pity. I fixated angrily on the guy who’d forever be her First. I warded off thoughts of the two of them engaged in pleasures that she and I had mutually agreed to deny ourselves. Then I proceeded to cultivate the most despicable savior complex you can imagine, so proud of myself for mercifully pardoning her indiscretion. One night I went so far as to take her out on a date, presenting her a gift-wrapped Kleenex box—a symbolic gesture inviting her to officially mourn the transgression before we put it behind us for good. (The correct response would’ve been to double over ill from my puritanical bullying and use the Kleenexes to clean up the resulting puddle of sick.)

She broke off our relationship a few months later. I’m surprised she waited as long as she did. I cringe with regret still when I think of what a self-righteous asshole I’d been. So busy trying to forgive her, I never stopped to ask forgiveness for the cruelty and condescension I’d been meting out with such perverse generosity. I had my own set of horns—my own curse—to contend with, after all.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West bears striking similarities to Ico. The decaying castle that Ico and Yorda struggle to escape is filled with pockets of lush green grass, waterfalls and seaside views. Enslaved stages its action against ruins also, but these ruins are instead the husks of once-mighty skyscrapers, which nature has overtaken in the wake of some apocalyptic catastrophe. Enslaved employs a more fleshed-out narrative than Ico, but it too centers around a male and a female who must rely on each other if they have any hope of surviving.

Enslaved’s story opens aboard a futuristic, rocket-ship slave galley. Two escaped slaves—a brawny drifter named Monkey (whose abdominal muscles are so cut you could use them to pry off a bottle cap) and a tech-savvy girl named Trip—claw and fight for the ship’s final escape pod. Trip wins out, forcing Monkey to settle for riding the escape pod to earth like a rodeo bull rider straddling a meteorite on a collision course.

When he regains consciousness following the crash landing, Monkey finds that Trip has yoked him with an electronic headband that compels him to follow orders or else. First order of business: he must help her find her way back to her family’s village 300 miles away. If he strays too far away from her side, the headband will deliver a crippling shock. Trip has also programmed Monkey’s headband with a security failsafe: If she dies, he dies.

The kicker here is obvious: Monkey has just successfully escaped one kind of slavery only to land squarely in the grip of another. But even though you can sense from the earliest bouts of quibbling that these two will eventually grow to care for each other, Alex Garland’s script makes the emotional journey affecting and believable, far more so than any flimsy marriage the Fable series offers up. Marriage is about close collaboration, solving problems, not merely popping home once every three or four quests to see if your Pet Rock of a bride has sprouted any personality. If a game aspires to say anything meaningful on the subject of marriage, it must have a co-operative element.

Behind the sci-fi trappings of Enslaved’s spaceships, cyborgs, hover surfing (oh my god the hover surfing!) and innumerable other token futurisms lies a meditation on the profoundly joyful captivity we sign up for when we swap marriage vows.

While the bull horns poking out of Ico’s scalp got their point across in the most literal way possible, Enslaved’s character designers convey Monkey’s animal signifiers figuratively. A thick strip of fabric hangs down from the back of his belt like a chimpanzee tail. His standing position has a pronounced gorilla hunch to it. The guy is Tarzan’s long-lost brother, just waiting for his chance to make Nathan Drake his bitch in a jungle-stage climb-off. All of these traits explicitly reinforce the cultural notion of man as untamed, primal and free. Modeling your leading man after an ape isn’t exactly a subtle way of communicating to your audience the fact his relationship skills may prove slightly under-evolved.

We still discuss marriage in these terms, don’t we? Its civilizing influence on the man. I remember being shocked to learn that my older brother’s wife had successfully trained him to sit down when he took a piss so that he didn’t splash toilet water all over the bathroom. Monkey is the opposite of domesticated. He's bounced around the post-apocalyptic wastes for years, never planting himself in any one place very long. He’s learned to be noncommital as a defense mechanism (oh shit, a psychological mech!). Simply put, this is the least likely candidate to ever fall in love and settle down.

Think about it: Trip enslaves Monkey with a circular headband that he is unable to pry off. The headband reminded me of another sort of circular band we exchange to symbolize a binding commitment. The obligation is initially one-sided, however there’s a pivotal moment later in the story where she powers down the headband and gives Monkey permission to go. Instead of jumping at the open door, he grits his teeth and tells her to reactivate it. No lengthy explanation or florid romantic declaration, just turn the damn thing back on.

Trip may leave the fighting and climbing to Monkey, but she’s a far cry from Yorda staring vapidly off into space awaiting Ico’s next command. There are a number of priceless moments in which Trip excitedly rattles off a lengthy, scientific explanation for how to solve this or that technological dilemma while Monkey is all but left cross-eyed and scratching his balls with ineptitude. You never sense that Trip is deadweight that Monkey must drag behind him by the hair like some cave woman in a Far Side strip. They complement each other. They need each other. And we press through the game to see if maybe they could, in fact, one day love each other.

The lives married couples navigate feel just as treacherous and puzzle-riddled as the castle holding Ico and Yorda. Just because people rent fancy clothes, exchange jewelry and smear a playful dab of cake icing on one another’s noses, doesn’t mean they’ll stay stuck together. Sometimes, a few years down the road, people see the open door and they take it. Sometimes the crown that Trip wedges around Monkey’s scalp feels like it's wreathed in barbs. The stone couch on which Ico and Yorda lounge contentedly together during Ico's game saves may feel less than plush. But my wife and I do our best to keep faith. Because it’s never long until the chains binding you to your partner cease to feel like slave shackles, and feel instead like the chain between your boat and the anchor keeping you from drifting on choppy water.

My wife Summer is more than an anchor. She is the lighthouse beacon fire.

If she ever flickers out, I am well and truly lost.


  1. Bravo and beautifully written, Jason. Here's hoping for a hasty reunion.

  2. Excellent post, Jason. Hope your wife comes back soon!

    One thing about Enslaved -- As much as I liked it, I got the distinct impression that Monkey had the hots for Trip, but I never really bought that she liked him as anything more than a friend. The "reactivate it" scene is moving while it's happening, but in hindsight I can't help but wonder what'll happen when Trip finds a b/f. I'd imagine Monkey would get rather bitter and it would not end well.

    Maybe I'm looking at it too cynically. I really wanted to believe Trip loved him, yet I found I had to force it. Monkey's development from hating to crushing on Trip was better realized, imo.

  3. Dude, this is one of the most honest, heartfelt analysis of video games and life all in one. Well done bro. Gonna' get others to read it.

  4. Hi Jason,

    awesome post, really. Reminded me a bit of this talk about humanity and culture, and I think speaks to the possible direction that future games might begin to emphasize.

    Apologies if you're not big on TED talks, though.



  5. Its a nice blog and given the best informetion thanks for the given info..