I've been thinking about this for a while. Not just because I always seem to spend more time on Facebook games when I've vowed to give them up, nor because I play them over console games, neither of which makes me particularly happy about my personal gaming habits. I've just been remembering fondly a scene from the very opening of Fable 3. Not the chicken scene, because that broke my heart - no, the scene with the character's brother.
At the beginning of the game, your brother, the king, makes you choose between the lives of three random strangers who were heading a riot to protest his tyrannical rule, and your boyfriend/girlfriend. Once you make your choice, your character says, "I'll never forgive you for this!" Your brother replies, "Good. Then you'll never forget it."
In Heavy Rain, Ethan's quest is determined by the value the player places on his son's life. Treat Shaun like rubbish, and he'll tell you he hates you. When he goes missing, would you really care? Personally, I would - I would want to make things right. But I treated him the way I would like to be treated in the first case, and instead, he told me he loved me. It shouldn't matter, since he's fictional, and all of my actions are meaningless, but the experience had meaning for me. The entire game has a high perceived value on my end, because of the way it made me feel.
This is something a lot of non-gamers don't agree with, but I'll get to that later. I'm more interested in the relationships that can arise between characters when they have a disparity of values. In Fable 3 (spoilers) it turns out your brother saw completely alienating you as a means to an end - an end that involves fighting a greater evil than you would have been aware of had he not pushed you out into the big scary world. You wouldn't have believed him if he'd just told you. The experience was necessary to your understanding and growth, and so he took the steps necessary to ensure it, even though it made you hate him. I think I fell in love with him then, just a little.
Of course, I made the decision to forgive him. Perhaps if you don't the feelings won't be nearly so warm and fuzzy. But to me, his actions - his selflessness - made him of worth. I won't say my own brother treated me similarly, nowhere near it. But it's a tragic line from manga everywhere to make the ones who love you hate you so they'll act in everyone else's best interests. It's a plot in Gentleman's Alliance Cross, and in pretty much every film with a Dark Mentor. Of course, it only matters if the character had a bond with the protagonist to begin with, and if their perceived betrayal hurt them in some way. A character who puts the hero through trials with no fellow-feeling cannot truly be a Mentor, in my opinion. To be a sympathetic character, it should hurt them more than it hurts the hero, otherwise where is their stake? If they have nothing to lose, why do they care?
I remember at this point Bastian, and the Childlike Empress. Despite the name he gives her being Moonchild - really? That was his mother's name? - he starts off as a passive observer who becomes so deeply entrenched in the story and the world that the destruction of Fantasia wounds him more than it does any other resident. Sure, they don't want to die, but in a way Bastian is the one who'll be worse off if they do. He's just lost his mother, and he needs something to hold on to. That he finds value in Fantasia moves him to act. Whether or not it makes him a better person is arguable, but that's also not the point.
Value differences are, at a surface level, what separates the hero from the villain, but if they're one and the same, we get a greater sense of sympathy. As it seems I keep on quoting, inevitability + irony = win, as far as endings go. How much greater then, the unexpected-but-inevitable? The king in Fable 3 would not have done what he did if he did not care - deeply - about the welfare of the kingdom. I would say he cares even more than the protagonist, who was uniting them in an attempt to usurp the throne. The king knew he could never unite all the tribes, so he put in motion the machine that would, at great personal cost. If that isn't love, I don't know what is. It's a very movie-worthy, dramatic kind of love, and it's selfless as history has shown us is rare, but it is love nonetheless.
Who does the hero love? If they are the player character, as they must be in a game, is it really anyone? Can I love a boy made of pixels so much that I will cry when he is rescued? What is gaming as a character - not as a silent protagonist - but a slow, aching, forever-unfulfilled kind of love? We place our own emotions on them, it's true, in the same way that Gordon Freeman is the coolest guy ever. But these games show us a part of ourselves that we hope exists and, in turn, allow us to feel good about ourselves, even if it's only strangers in Megaton increasing our load times to give us Nukacola.
What is the value of self-love? Maybe my perception of its value is higher than for others, but when games teach me about who I am, I don't think there is a price I can put on that. Those instances are few and far between, but they keep me playing. For many others, I hope that's also the case. I like to think our collective goal is not just escapism, but enlightenment. Does that make us the villains in our own game? That we act in Maslow's 5th hierarchy, in our own self-actualising interests?
Well, that's up to others to decide. In the meantime, I'm going to think about this some and work it into my Masters project.