January 18, 2008 12:01 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
I started with nothing but an empty lot, overrun with stones and weeds. And over the course of years, I labored from sunup to sundown, building my humble farm. The seasons marched on, sometimes singing my nape with blazing heat, at other times blanketing my fields in a mantle of snow. But I persevered.
Now, I am the proprietor of a successful dairy farm where ten cows earn me hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in cheese. Tiny sprites, masters of their craft, labor dutifully across my acres of seasonal crops. I own a private island, a vacation cottage, and a barn built entirely out of golden lumber. I’m a billionaire.
The only thing left for me, as master of this fruitful domain, is to find one special girl to make my wife.
There’s something indescribably unique about the Harvest Moon games. Though the gameplay never gets more elaborate than the maintenance of the daily chores involved in running a farm, it’s the periphery – the way the light turns gold in the afternoon, the way the mornings darken in winter, the way the blooms come out in spring – that make the games a unique experience for each player. Each town has its own special landmarks, seasonal rituals, and community holidays. There’s no set way one is required to spend one’s day. The mechanics exist to allow one to build one’s own story around them, even to build one’s own relationships with the townsfolk that go merrily about their daily business alongside you.
For example, in Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town, the surly woodcutter Gotz, who was prone to abandon his building duties unless he felt appreciated, could be found at certain times in a certain season atop the highest peak in the land, musing on the nature of life and death. He lost his wife and child in those wilds. I got in the habit of bringing him a hot pumpkin stew in the winter.
Sharing The Big Bed
In More Friends, the protagonist is a good sport of an overalls-clad female. I wrung every last drop of gameplay from that title; I think I empathized with the heroine, being also female myself. It took me some time to decide on a husband, and I rode laps on my loyal horse around my farmlands at sunset while I pondered. Eventually, though, I married (the blacksmith’s apprentice, Gray), had a baby girl, and ran out the natural course of my interest in the game. It was a carefully-considered decision – after all, this is the sprite who must greet me every morning and lie in my pricey Big Bed at night alongside me. But I felt Gray was an appropriate partner; once deciding, I didn’t hesitate.
In Harvest Moon DS, where the protagonist is a male, I’m having a much more difficult time. The game has some unfortunate glitches that make the two most difficult bachelorettes – the Harvest Goddess and the Witch Princess – literally impossible to wed, but other than those two, I’ve been on a campaign to woo every girl in the town until she’s absolutely red-faced with adoration. It’s not that I mean to toy with their hearts. I’m just keeping my options open.
When I played as a girl in More Friends, I eagerly settled down with a nice boy as soon as I’d established myself respectably. My new life with my new husband and, eventually, my child, I thought, would provide a fresh impetus to push the same button day after day in the fields and complete the game’s available goals. The repetition of Harvest Moon’s game mechanics is Zen-like, soothing. It’s these adjacent concepts, truthfully useless in mechanical terms, that personalize the experience. But in the DS version, where I’m male, I was constantly plagued by a sense of inadequacy.
I’ve earned more than sufficient funds to support a family (although having a family does not, in practical terms, actually cost you money in the game), and my farm is thriving, even ostentatious. I own multiple properties. My animals have won awards, and the townsfolk adore me. I’ve even rescued a goddess. And yet, I continue to maintain the attention of numerous females at the maximum numerical and color value the game allows, without proposing to a single one. One of my cows must win a gold medal first, I’m reasoning. Got to earn just a bit more money, have to grease the wheels around the farm just a little more.
I’ve got to complete the arduous process of achieving the full suite of blessed farm tools. There really is such a thing as a Blessed Hoe, but I’m the one whoring around town. The game’s characters are absolutely adorable, and every time I look at a blushing little face, day after day, only to ply her best friend with a gift of pizza right in front of her face, I feel a slight pang. I even dig 255 floors down into the mine, day after day – no mean feat – to daily woo a mute princess sleeping between the earth. She can’t say a word, but I want her anyway.
Why can’t I settle down? I wonder about this every time I pick the game up, which is periodically these days, to relax. I wonder if it’s not because I’m accustomed to writing and thinking critically about hentai games – wherein you sleep with and bond emotionally with some five, six different females, and then only after you’ve christened them all may you pick one to love forever. Of course, most of those games have a so-called “harem ending,” wherein you never have to decide. They all move in with you, and live out their days taking care of your every need while giggling in their underwear.
The Girl From The Sea
Admittedly, my own gender makes it impossible to know for sure whether this “harem” situation really is “the ultimate male fantasy.” But I’ve sure been told it is, fairly or not – could it be that my unconscious attitudes and socially-taught ideas about how males behave toward women are affecting the way I play as a male protagonist, when allowed to interact with female characters as I please?
Harvest Moon, of course, has no harem ending. Can’t have them all, so why not just pick one? I did, actually. I positively adored the semi-juvenile, vaguely temperamental mermaid who’d been living in the bathtub of a nerdy scientist. After receiving a letter in a bottle from her mother under the sea, she returned there, but I visited her once a week at midnight on the shoreline. It was so romantic, I bucked up and gave her the Blue Feather that signified a proposal.
But she’s a mermaid. She needs water. I found myself, after our wedding ceremony, with a very sweet little wife who lives, round the clock, in the duck pond outside my house. The very fact that, despite my marriage, I still had to sleep alone, prompted me to reset the game – which, of course, I’d saved before proposing. Just in case I changed my mind.
Even worse, after realizing the mermaid was exotic enough to capture my attention and yet too exotic to settle down with (I confess, I’ve heard real men describe some girls in similar terms), I turned my attention to the quiet, sweet and domestic little farm girl. Her health is frail, and she likes to stay home and cook delicious vegetables. I could picture her shuffling peacefully around my kitchen. I ought to be ashamed of myself.
Women are exposed to a lot of ideas about men, through tacky TV dramas and talk shows presumably targeted directly at us. Even some woman-oriented programs and properties masquerading as “feminist” seem to broadcast the message that we are helpless against the machinations of low-life, superficial and contradictory men who will treat dating like a game of blackjack, eager to swap us for a new card if they think they can do just a little bit better.
Certainly, I don’t believe such things are true, any more than I believe I belong in the kitchen or any other such divisive stereotypes. And yet, when given a chance to play as a man in pursuit of a wife, I’m playing the field. I’m two timing – hell, I’m five-timing. I’m in the prime of my wealth and success, and every day all I want is the right woman – and yet, I just can’t stop sowing the wild oats. If only Harvest Moon allowed you to actually grow oats, the symbolism would be just perfect.
What interests me is the fact that these subliminal social messages informed the way I play in an open world without my even realizing it. I always thought that the way we play, when given the freedom to create our own stories, is enormously telling about who we are as individuals, about our latent issues and secrets. But catching myself placating Flora while flirting with Muffy, going to hell and back for Keira while dreaming of Celia, I notice that what I’m doing is aping human social stereotypes that, when asked, I’d say directly I disagree with. It’s possible that the decisions we make in interactive media are reflections not of ourselves, but of our society -- the way it’s been taught to us through other media.
Then again, I’m into those harem hentai games. Maybe I’m just a man-whore, simple as that. Everyone knows some guy, somewhere, whose behavior makes all men look bad. Thanks to video games, that guy might be me. Sorry.
[Image credit for the blushing bachelorettes go to Ushi No Tane, possibly the best Harvest Moon informational resource on the web.]
[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer