Super Mario and Zelda are always trying to rescue girls I'm certain they're trying to date. But as romantic as the game heroes of my early childhood are, I don't think I learned anything about marriage from them. It might be helpful if I did, because I'm getting married soon.
On Tuesday (April 24), I discovered a game that can teach me something about marriage, and what it seems to be teaching me is fear.
In August, Rod Humble — the head of the "Sims" development studio at EA — went on a weekend getaway with his wife to Carmel, California, and came out of it with a video game he programmed by himself. It's called "The Marriage," and it's got graphics that are less complicated than computer solitaire. It lacks sound. It's not meant to produce fun the way games usually do. So says Humble in a post on his Web site: " 'The Marriage' is intended to be art. No excuses or ducking. As such it's certainly meant to be enjoyable but not entertaining in the traditional sense most games are." (For more on how entertaining games should be, see "Multiplayer: Is 'God Of War II' Too Much Fun?")
So what is "The Marriage"? It's married life — or any other long-term romantic relationship — simulated in the abstract. A blue field appears on my computer desktop, with a pink square and navy blue square slowly approaching each other from opposite ends. That's romance! The encroaching glide of a green circle into the blue field is not. When I saw the circle, it troubled me the same way the sight of a Goomba in "Super Paper Mario" or a heavily armed gang leader does in "Crackdown." I wanted to stamp it out. Clicking on it with my mouse didn't work — that ended the game. Moving my mouse pointer over the green circle made it disappear but also made the pink square shrink. I assumed that was bad. I let the blue and pink squares touch — it was inevitable — and they gently bounced off each other, the pink one made bigger by the contact. I put the mouse over the pink square and it drew blue and pink together. Blue kept shrinking as they converged under my command.
"The game is my expression of how a marriage feels," Humble wrote on his site. "The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine [halves] of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going."
Having played the game, I was left assuming that Humble thought it was husbands who benefited from engaging in stuff (and people?) besides a wife, whereas the wife only benefited from contact with the husband. In an interview with the Web site Arthouse Games, Humble said that was not his desired message: "My intent when creating the central mechanic was to create such multiple interpretations, but the central point was the Marriage, that if both needs were not satisfied, the Marriage dies. In other words, love is satisfying different needs. For myself, I do need 'alone time' as well as 'together time,' but not one exclusively, and the games rules were a way of exploring that."
That may be his intent, but the game still distressed me. Why? Because despite having what I feel is quite a healthy relationship with my significant other, I can't beat Rod Humble's "Marriage" game. I can't strike a balance. I can't keep the squares equal. I've played the game a dozen times and each time either the husband or the wife shrinks the other one out of existence.
I've been in the midst of wedding planning with my girlfriend for several months. I've dealt with flower details and parental concerns. I've dwelled on music and invitation lists. I've listened to suggestions from all sorts of friends who warn about this or that pitfall. None of it has really stressed me out. But this game and my performance at it has injected a little bit of pessimism into the process.
My failure in "The Marriage" bothers me a little more than the failure of any marriage I ever caused in "The Sims 2" or "Fable." The difference might be that in those games there was some fun to be had in breaking up marriages. Also, those games didn't feature abstract squares — they featured complexly modeled video game characters. When I wrecked relationships in "The Sims 2" and in "Fable," I was doing it to characters who were quite clearly not me. But when marriage is reduced to a system of abstract squares and circles, it seems that I can't help putting a little bit of myself in there. I felt involved in the marriage in "The Marriage." I felt it was saying something about me or about what could happen to me and my relationship.
I'm not going to let a video game and my failure at playing it stand in the way of my big day. I'm still extremely optimistic. Marriage is hard, I've been told. It sure is. So is the game.
"Marriage" was released as a free computer game last month. To download the game and learn more about creator Rod Humble's intent, check out RodVik.com/RodGames.