Thursday, 22 July 2010

Blood and Guts and Mills and Boon

Has it got to the stage where I can stop apologising for leaving more than a week between updates?


Well then, I am so sorry. In between bouts of tearful hero-worship, emotional trauma and overwork (ok, maybe not overwork) it's been yet another hardcore week over at Well-Rendered Towers and I have really had to fight the temptation to retreat under a duvet with some ice-cream and a Mills & Boon like the wilting flower that I occasionally revert to being when I am not kicking ass in Bayonetta.

The embarrassing frequency of such admissions from Well-Rendered Towers and my apparent inability to negotiate minor irregularities in the road that is completely normal life might cause you wonder what sort of idyllic utopia I habit when I do manage to produce Well-Rendered on a Thursday evening, but I don't want to make anyone jealous so let's just not go there.

Let's go back to Mills & Boon, because I have actually been thinking quite a lot about romance novels of late. I have (quite honestly) come to the conclusion that they have more in common with video games than any other kind of literature.

Quite simply (though we'll get into the glorious business of nit-picking in a minute), romance novels at their very purest provide an escape for the reader from the "real" world into a love affair. In the majority of romance novels, written by women and for women, the heroine is not so much a character but a conduit through which the reader can conduct an affair with the hero. As I have asserted before, video game heroes and heroines are (to varying degrees) the conduits through which players engage in a story set in another world. Of course there are huge variations in both video game stories and romance genres, but it's an interesting comparison that is a lot of fun to explore.

Let's start with Mills & Boon. Because I love the covers so much, let's have another one.

If you're not aware, Mills&Boon is a British publisher of romance novels. Its unique business model involves accepting submissions from the general public (providing they are of sufficient quality) and selling its books for a limited length of time, always at a very low price. The books have cracking titles like The Venetian's Moonlight Mistress and Taken by the Viking and the hero and the heroine always get together in the end.

It's actually extremely difficult to write a Mills & Boon novel because although they have to be inventive, exciting and emotional, they must always fulfil their primary objective, and that is to allow the reader to enjoy a relationship with the hero. As Tanya Gold points out in a bilious yet informative article for the Guardian, "Mills & Boon heroines are like madams in brothels. They essentially have to facilitate a sexual encounter between two other people – the reader, and the hero".

And it's true. Whilst Mills & Boon heroes tend to be strong characters whose every physical and behavioural characteristic is pored over in great detail, Mills & Boon heroines are universally inoffensive and bland. Naturally, what passes for inoffensive changes with the decades (modern Mills & Boon heroines are often career women who keep their jobs once they have ensnared the hero), but they must be "average" enough for the reader to be able to put herself in the heroine's place and engage in a relationship with the titular Viking.

Consequently, the video game character who has most in common with a Mills & Boon heroine is this handsome fellow:

Gordon Freeman, as you may well know, is the protagonist of the Half Life series. He might be a physicist in a post-apocalyptic future, but physically, he's just an average guy. Only his Hazardous Environment Suit protects him from the onslaughts of head crabs that he must battle if he is to save the human race. The entire Half Life series takes place through Freeman's eyes, meaning that he is an effective conduit for the player to enjoy an escapist fantasy.

Because Gordon Freeman never says a word, his personality is never imposed upon the player. He's like the heroine Shelby in the Mills & Boon classic The Passionate Lover, a pleasant yet transparent costume for the player/reader to don whilst he/she enjoys a romance with handsome millionaire lumberjack Kyle/gravity gun.

That Half Life also features a romantic subplot involving Well-Rendered favourite Alyx Vance makes for a misleading comparison because Half Life is not a love story. Although Alyx fulfils many of the requirements of the Mills & Boon hero (carefully written, attractive), her evident attraction towards Gordon is (at the time of writing) one-sided. Or at least Gordon never openly reciprocates her advances because Half Life wisely leaves his characterisation in the imagination of the player.

No, the true relationship in Half Life is between the player and the world. Just as Mills & Boon novels allow the reader to escape reality and immerse themselves in a relationship with an idealised hero, so Half Life allows the player to escape reality and immerse themselves in the story of Black Mesa and earth's colonisation by the Combine.

It also helps that the picture of Freeman on the game's cover makes him look so much like the people who are likely to be controlling him. Valve has always been aware that for better or worse, many of their players are white males aged 18 to 34 who are probably a bit pale, speccy and beardy as a result of spending lots of time indoors playing video games. Gordon Freeman is really just a slightly more dashing version of a sterotype which has a strong grounding in reality.

Like Gordon, Mills & Boon heroines are often fairly normal. It's not often that a heroine has tight bronzed thighs, because such thighs would make it difficult for the reader to identify with her, especially in Mills & Boon's native Britain where meteorological limitations mean that anything bronze generally has to come out of a bottle. The reader doesn't want a hero who can only be hypnotised by a super-vixen, they want a hero who finds redemption in the intangible charm of a girl with integrity. Consequently, although Mills & Boon heroines might fulfil any number of physical types, none of them rise to unobtainable standards of deity-like perfection.

Unlike Fabio.

It's difficult to determine quite what Fabio does for a living, but I think I have narrowed it down to male model. Although he has also appeared in Exorcist III and has designed a range of women's wear for Wal-Mart, he is perhaps best known as the improbably-chiselled hunk from countless romance novel covers. The above novel, Rogue may bear his name, but the inside flap reveals a credit for the mysterious "collaborator" Eugenia Riley. If you enjoyed Rogue, Fabio has also "written" several other novels, amongst them Pirate, Champion and (most enticingly) Viking.

In less enlightened times, Fabio was merely the cover model for romance novels that were written by other people (or at least had other people's names on the cover). Before his literary talent was unearthed, Fabio faced the crushing indignity of having to share book covers with people who kept standing in front of him.

If, as I have thus far asserted, romance novel heroes are analogous with video game universes, then it's hard to work out where Fabio fits into it all. He occupies a space between fantasy and real life that makes it quite difficult for me to work out what his video game universe equivalent is.

The thing is that Fabio doesn't actually appear within the novels, merely on the outside of them. Unlike Mills & Boon heroes, he doesn't have a character (at least as far as fiction goes). He provides the wrapping paper, not the gift.

Consequently, he has much in common with the Lara Croft who appeared on the covers of the early Tomb Raider games. Like Fabio, box-art Lara was a nice aesthetic to keep in the back of your mind whilst you devoured the rich worlds that formed the substance of the game.

Just as Fabio never had much to do with the content of the novels he adorned, so sneering box-art Lara was never quite aligned with the cerebral loneliness of the Tomb Raider games. Both, however, are objectified by the viewer/reader.

The feminist credentials of the romance genre are frequently brought into question. Do they subvert feminist ideals by presenting formulaic stories of women who need a man to be fulfilled and happy? Or are they champions of female independence, a genre written by women for women with women's ideals at the core? I'm not going to try answering that question because this is (lest we forget) a video game blog, but it is interesting to see Fabio so objectified on both of the covers reproduced here in the same way that Lara is on Tomb Raider box-art and merchandise.

Some might argue that objectifying a man in this way (stripping him naked, in thrall to a seductive woman) asserts feminine power. I really don't think gender politics have much to do with it (Fabio's just a fantasy figure), but the similarity of Fabio's place in fiction to Lara's place in gaming is interesting. In Tomb Raider, Lara may be a "strong" heroine in sensible shoes, but she's still designed to be pleasing to the male gaze. More interestingly, she is almost never outside the player's control.

Unlike Gordon, who the player becomes, Lara is watched. If you want to make Lara do endless handstands, parting her legs and stretching back her arms, you can. If you want to watch her writhe about underwater, you can. You can drown Gordon Freeman as well, but it's no fun to watch. You'll just see the screen flicker as Gordon's oxygen-deprived brain stops picking up signals from his eyes.

Although the characters in a romance novel have prescribed actions and words (as determined by the author), the power lies with the reader and their imagination. Vital parts of Fabio's anatomy remain concealed (just) on his book covers and although they may described within the novel, their physicality remains purely subjective, and exists only in the reader's fertile imagination. Thus they are completely within the reader's control.

Moving on.

Oh wait, that's actually much worse.

If you've been living in a cave for the last three years or so, you might have escaped the baffling onslaught of the Twilight saga, its drippy heroine and its confusing abstinence message. I know an inordinate amount about Twilight considering I have neither read the books nor seen the films. Probably because I spend a lot of time giggling over the silly merchandise that surrounds the franchise, both official and fan-made.

Basically, Twilight is a story about an archetypal personality-free romance novel heroine (see above), Bella, who is a human. She is torn between her love for Edward the vampire (to the left of the poster) and Jacob the werewolf (to the right). Rather than decide that at 16 that she probably doesn't need to make a life-altering commitment to either one and maybe she should just concentrate on her homework for now, Bella spends four agonisingly bad novels moping passively about whilst Edward and Jacob decide her future for her.

The astonishing thing about the Twilight saga is that even though most people know that Bella ends up with glittery (yup) vampire Edward, this hasn't stopped fans proclaiming their preference for one mythological monster over another in the most disturbing way possible.

I wish I could tell you that it was just teenagers doing this.

What's interesting here is the fact that fans would rather not just let the story unfold, but actively take part, like cheerleaders. This hasn't happened with other big-screen franchises like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Although my friends and I definitely fell into two camps regarding Lord of the Rings characters at age 14, which you preferred was simply a manner of which picture you stuck on your homework diary (Team Aragorn, since you ask). The reason we never really let our crushes dictate how we thought the novels should be plotted was because Lord of the Rings is not a romance.

Also, Frodo was blatantly Team Sam.


As I have said several times now, romance novels are all about the reader. Twilight is therefore the most successful kind of romance because the readers clearly feel they have the perogative to dictate which of Bella's suitors is the most, erm, suitable. Consequently, the already flimsy character of Bella is completely assimilated into the reader's gaze and her choice becomes theirs.

For their part, frowny Edward and stroppy Jacob are so objectified that Twilight's narrative ceases to matter. Which brings us (exhaustingly) to video games in which player is able to choose between two potential romantic liaisons for no particular reason.

Actually, when I say "no particular reason" I am not being entirely fair. When you sleep with a crew member in Mass Effect, you get an "achievement".

I love how it looks like a medal.

Bioware, developer of Mass Effect, Jade Empire and Dragonage generally include an optional romanitc subplot in which players can choose between two or more potential lovers and then bed them for no reason in particular.

Decisions between them are as arbitrary and aesthetic as the decision between Edward and Jacob seems to be for "Twihards". The only difference that I can determine is that Mass Effect characters don't have to marry each other before they do the horizontal space tango.

Ultimately however, both video games and romance novels have an element of wish-fulfilment about them. Even Jane Austen - whose occasionally bleak novels gave us some of the finest-crafted satire in the English language - made sure the heroine got her man in the end.  

Emma might manage to combine a deftly-plotted detective novel with some biting social commentary, but that doesn't man that Emma can't end up with the dashing Mr Knightley. And just because Portal introduced gamers to some of the most inventive gameplay of the decade doesn't mean that you don't get to pretend that you're actually a quick-witted test subject who manages to bring down an evil corporation from the inside. And Guitar Hero's innovative mechanics never get in the way of allowing you to pretend that you are actually Slash.

And in the end, isn't that what gaming is really about?

Finally, allow me to introduce you to Simon Finch's opus Pagan Voyager, which is probably the best romance novel ever written.

Pagan Voyager is the sequel to Golden Voyager and part two in the saga of the intriguingly-named Vesuvio. In Pagan Voyager, Vesuvio's beloved Miranda is captured and so he must follow a Maximus Decimus Meridus-like path into slavery. Except whilst Russell Crowe is repeatedly beaten up and made to fight lions, Vesuvio spends most of his time having his genitalia fondled by slave traders who are trying to figure out how much to sell him for.

When he wrote Pagan Voyager in 1979, Finch was actually an academic and lecturer on Classical studies, a concept that fills me with endless glee. Finch's professional understanding of ancient Rome seems to have lent him a unique perspective on all things procreational, and Pagan Voyager's "plot" consists of a series of encounters in which Vesuvio is nuzzled, caressed, petted and stroked into submission by various slave masters and mistresses.

I would dearly love to give Finch the benefit of the doubt and tell you that all the naughty bits in Pagan Voyager are there to give the novel a firm historical grounding, but the fact that without them the novel is about twelve pages long prevents me from doing so. I really have no choice but to brand Pagan Voyager pure escapism of the silliest kind. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In Finch's slightly sweaty hands, the reader is transported back to a time of classical debauchery, where blood and sand mingle into an arousing paste that sets the senses aflame.

Which is much the same effect that God of War has upon the testosteronally-inclined.

Like Pagan Voyager, God of War borrows an aesthetic from classical culture. Really though, it's all about the meat. God of War's hero Kratos may be more inclined towards butchery than Vesuvio, who is more concerned with anything else one might be tempted to do with meat, but both facilitate a juicy, manly escapism that you're just never going to find on the Cambridge Latin Course.

Alright, Kratos is Greek.

The point I am trying to use in order to justify my writing about Pagan Voyager is that escapism through literature and escapism through gaming are not a million miles away. In both these examples, the player/reader is transported into a simpler world where only base animal instincts matter and the flesh is all there is. There are some "puzzles" in God of War and there is (apparently) some "history" in Pagan Voyager but both sensibly concentrate on their heroes' sticky quest through hundreds of bodies. The fact that Kratos is ripping them apart and Vesuvio is doing other things to them doesn't really make much of a difference.

It's all pretty squelchy and sometimes, squelch is what you need. Had a tough day? Splat. Work sapping your soul? Thunk. No-one understands you? Understand this, peon.

Now I come to think of it, God of War does actually feature the other kind of squelch.

Kratos has to make friends with these ladies in exchange for power orbs.

And you know what? Sometimes you just want a transaction that is that simple. Real-life relationships are complicated. And sometimes people really upset you and you can't just rip their arms off. Sometimes (and this contradicts a lot of what I say about games) it's good to have a couple of hours where you don't think about complicated stuff and you just do something mindless and silly where the rewards (power orbs) are quantitative and no-one ever tells you you're not doing it right.

Sometimes, you want a cerebral challenge. Sometimes, you want a detailed plot. Sometimes you want to be emotionally moved. Games can do all of these things for you if you let them, but they can also provide you with some of the best escapism this side of Camden market, where side-effects of escapism include dilated pupils and hyperventilation. Games are safe (sort of), legal (mostly) and they won't show up on a urine test.

So if you've had a hard day and you just want to let out all your frustration, don't take it out on your buddies. Far better to whack on God of War and give Ares a good pummelling.

Or, you know, have a read of Pagan Voyager, and pummel something else instead.


  1. Having just read Pagan Voyager, I was tickled to find this post on the internets. That book is pure escapism and I loved it. Must find more skeevy man porn.

  2. Hi Karla,

    Thank you very much! The other day I was walking home (from the pub, probably) and I passed my local second-0hand bookshop, which gives away excess stock after 7pm each night. What should I see outside but Golden Voyager, the preceding volume of the Vesuvio Trilogy!

    It had a better plot (good) but less porn (definitely bad).

    Have you come across Smart Bitches, Trashy Books? Peerless reviews of girl-trash (as opposed to Pagan Voyager, definitely boy trash) such as the Mills and Boon classic Pregnesia.

    (Did you come via here through Glorious Trash by the way? That's a great blog)


  3. Ok, I just found your blog.

    Wow. Just wow.

    I love the art on romance novel covers, almost as much as I love 1970s/80s heavy metal covers. They're like two sides of the same aorbrushed coin, I think.