Tuesday, June 14, 2016

[AVW010] Doing Better – Psyche Loves Cupid

Previous [AVW009] Doing Better - Anat and Paghat

“I felt ashamed."

"But of what? Psyche, they hadn't stripped you naked or anything?"

"No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal -- of being a mortal."

-CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces

The story of Psyche and Cupid may perhaps be the ultimate story about the Anima (not least of all because their Latin names are Anima and Eros). It also comes to us from Apuleius' The Golden Ass, though modern readers may be more familiar with CS Lewis' epic reimagining of the myth in Till We Have Faces.

Although Psyche's Latin name may be Anima, her story is more about the Animus – about Psyche's journey to free her Animus from a dark, female Holdfast. It provides an excellent example of how to flip the script (female Heroine, male Prize) without resorting to the Men With Tits cliché.

The Story in a Nutshell

Of all of the Nutshelled Stories we'll look at, this one will be the most brutally summarized. The story of Psyche and Cupid is as wonderful as it is long, so if it sounds interesting I urge you to look into it further. At any rate, here's the extremely short version:

A Princess named Psyche is offered up as a human sacrifice to an invisible, marauding beast. There's all sorts of crying and wailing and whatnot, but Psyche is left chained to a rock for the beast to devour.

An invisible being comes, but it is not a beast. Instead of eating Psyche, he takes her to a wonderful castle and marries her. Psyche has full run of the castle, with only two rules: first, she is not to contact anyone outside the castle. Second, she is not to attempt to see her husband (even when he comes for his nightly visits.

Naturally, Psyche breaks the first rule and reaches out to her sisters. They convince her that her husband is indeed a horrible beast, and that she must break the second rule and uncover his invisibility. Psyche struggles between her love for her husband and her desire to know if he is a beast or man. Eventually, she succumbs to curiosity and uncovers him.

To her surprise, she finds that he is not a man or a beast, but the god of love himself, Cupid. Unfortunately, this also allows Cupid's mother, Venus, to see that he is consorting with a mortal. Cupid is whisked away by his mother, and Psyche is left alone and desolate.

This is where we get to the game part of the story. Psyche goes to Venus and begs for her husband back. Venus gives her a series of increasingly impossible tasks to complete, but Psyche passes them all (with the help of some animal friends). In the end, Psyche is made a goddess and lives happily ever after with the god of Love.

The Archetypes

The story of Psyche is long and complicated, and may not seem immediately suited for a videogame. However, Psyche's journey is one from passivity to activity, as she grows from a helpless sacrifice, to a semi-imprisoned damsel, to an active heroine on a quest to liberate her lost love. In many ways, this parallels the role of women in videogames – so if we can't make a good game out of this, we may as well go home.

But before we go into the specifics of the pitch, I want to point out a few important themes.

First, as we're said, Psyche starts out as a passive character, but grows into an active role. This gives her a genuine character arc, as opposed to starting her out as a kung-fu hacker assassin. Psyche grows and changes, as we all must in the process of coming to self-understanding (or as Jung would call it, the process of 'individuation').

Second, all of the antagonists in the story are women. Her sisters allow her to be sacrificed and then undermine her happiness. Venus, takes the role of the Dark Mother – the Bowser to her Mario. We might even tweak the original and have her mother, the Queen, be the one to offer her up as a sacrifice.

Third, in the original story, Psyche overcomes the challenges of Venus with the help of animal friends. While this is common enough in fairy tales and myths, it also somewhat undermines her agency. In our more female-positive version, we may want to emphasize Psyche's cleverness and let her work out solutions to her problems on her own.

With this in mind, I'm going to suggest a somewhat obscure genre for Psyche: the romantic puzzle game (think along the lines of Catherine or Huniepop). This allows us to enter the story at the point where Psyche's agency is on the rise and showcase her cleverness in overcoming impossible obstacles.

It would also be interesting in general to see a romantic puzzle game where the goal of the puzzles is not to win the affections of a target. In Hunniepop, the puzzles are presented as a form of seduction – of giving the women what they want in order to get into their pants. And while sex is not a direct reward in Catherine, it is a reward of the conversation mechanics (in which choosing Law rewards you with you Katherine and choosing Chaos rewards you with Catherine).

In our subversion, the affections of Cupid are already established. The goal is not to manipulate, but to liberate. Venus plays the role of Holdfast, the forces which keep the Animus in check. Each successfully completed level reduces Venus' hold on her son (instead of reducing Cupid's resistance to our seductions).

If we wanted to take a slightly different route, we could keep the traditional dating game convention of multiple romantic interests while discarding the framework of "manipulation = seduction." One of failings of dating game mechanics is that they encourage sociopathic play styles (saying 'the right thing' to maximize points) and mechanistic attitudes towards relationships (proper inputs = sex). If instead the puzzle mechanics represented breaking down external barriers to a relationship (such as bitchy sisters or overprotective mothers), the in-game relationships could perhaps be more convincing.

Relationships do take skill to navigate, but relationship mechanics built on insincerity and manipulation condition us for sociopathy. By taking the focus of the player's skill away from conversational min/maxing and towards external obstacles, we make a game more worthy of Psyche's example.

Next time, we'll be looking at another very different genre and another very different take on femininity – Semiramis, Builder of Walls.

[AVW011] Doing Better - Semiramis, Builder of Walls

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