I want to tell you about my wife, a kayak, and how a video game space marine prevented us from having a terrible fight on our honeymoon. First, though, I need to give you a little background.
I have lots of good stories to tell about my time with video games. There was the time I put machismo aside and walked away from a fight so that I’d be there for family instead of in a shallow grave in the New Mexican desert. There was the time I tried very hard indeed to rehabilitate a murderer and meth cooker, by getting him some new clothes, lots of exercise, and some new hobbies. There was the time I cried when I accidentally shot a tiger.
None of these stories are the official canonical "stories" crafted by the writers and designers of the games I was playing. That’s because there are two kinds of stories in games: There’s the scripted narrative that’s meant to drive the action, and then there’s the story that you, the player, tell about your experience playing the game. The latter is the one you’re more likely to hear about around the water cooler.
Games are different from other forms of storytelling because they have the potential to be incredibly personal. I would argue that’s actually the best thing about them. The personal stories that come from games are also stories about you, because they come from how you choose to play. The best way I’ve found to talk about the specialness of games is to tell these kinds of stories. So I’m going to start by telling you about my honeymoon.
I’m not going to say that video games saved my marriage. My wife and I have been madly in love for more than a decade and we’ve been through so much that I feel confidant asserting we’re rock solid. Kayaks, however, are made by the devil himself. Because of kayaks, I’m very grateful that my wife and I played "Halo" together.
Weddings are stressful. We got through ours okay, but the quiet and romantic honeymoon was a very necessary thing for our relationship. Then came the kayak.
During our entire two-week vacation, the only time we became short with each other was when we were adrift on a body of water in a yellow plastic kayak that refused to go forward. I’ll cop to a few snide remarks. She’ll cop to the same. Other couples on the kayak adventure might say it was more than a little snide. There might have been some splashing.
I learned later that kayaks like the one we were trying to row to a romantic waterfall on Kauai are colloquially known as "divorce boats." The trick to making a kayak go forward is coordinating your rowing — this is a lot like saying "the trick to juggling is to keep all the chainsaws in the air." There’s some skill involved. There’s cooperation. There’s rhythm. And there’s anticipating when and what your partner is going to do next.
These are all things two married people should be able to do, thinks everyone ever — especially eternally-optimistic love-conquers-all-newlyweds. So when you try to do those things in an infernal plastic skiff that is in fact now going backwards down the river, the natural assumption is that your marriage is doomed from the get-go.
Maybe you get frustrated. Maybe you row a little too hard. Maybe that splashes her. Maybe she thinks you did it on purpose. Maybe she splashes back. Maybe the dark one laughs on his burning throne.
My wife and I play video games together. We’ve done it since college. We play fighting games. We play mystery games. We play classic run-jump-dodge-oh-damn-that-
We also play first-person shooters. According to the talking heads, that’s the genre which motivates the mentally ill to do all the horrible things Marilyn Manson didn’t already tell them to do. But my wife and I actually quite like playing shooters together. Through college and into our first apartment, our favorite shooters were the "Halo" games.
"Halo" is Microsoft’s flagship gaming franchise. It is beloved for its easy and fluid multiplayer, which lets friends and strangers alike battle online or in their own living rooms for hours on end. It looks like mayhem at first, but once you realize that fundamentally it’s just a game of tag being played with the laser pistols you always imagined you were holding while tear-assing around a playground, it starts to make some sense.
"Halo" also has a "campaign" mode, where the story the writers penned plays out. In it, humans are losing a war to an alliance of alien races driven by a fanatical religion to realize their manifest destiny and conquer the universe. You play as one of the last surviving experimental super-soldiers initially just trying to save your shipwrecked human friends, but some pretty heady stuff goes down in this James Cameron-directed "Star Wars" setup. This includes meditations on what makes us human, the dark side of theocracies, alien racism, plus a "Her"-like love between a person and some software. It’s consequently a pretty rewarding narrative to play through.
And the best part of "Halo," if you ask us, is that two people can play through this story mode together. This is why my wife and I played so much "Halo" at the beginning of our relationship. We both got to play at the same time.
If you’re unfamiliar with the "Halo" games, the other thing you need to know is that you can only carry two weapons at a time — one in your hands and one on your back. Some are long-range and some are better for up-close fighting. The games usually have a number of pitched battles where it’s you against the legions. If one of you dies but the other stays on their feet (on our difficulty level), that person gets to come back and keep fighting. If you both die, you have to start that whole battle over.
In our early days, my wife and I died a lot in a couple of these fights. She is an aggressive little redhead who does not take crap from anyone; she prefers to run right in, guns blazing, and maybe steal the tank that has been so rudely shelling our hillside. Short-range weapons are her bag. Her favorites are shotguns and pistols that fire a million exploding needles.
For a long time I ran in there with her (also with my short-range weapons) because I like knowing I can defend myself if we get overrun. This is how we died many, many times. We got better when we realized we both couldn’t do the same thing. We were stepping on each other’s toes. We had to be tactical and actually communicate. "Okay, Red, if you’re going to Han Solo this bunch, I’ll stay up here and cover you with the sniper rifle." This is how we win Halo, now. I carry the rocket launchers and sniper rifles, and she’s our angry berserker. She never lets them get close enough to me, and I watch her back and pick off the threats she misses. If they get her, I’m somewhere safe where she can respawn and we keep fighting. Teamwork.
So there we were, married all of a week and with tempers flaring. All the other couples were just cruising up the river and the guide was shouting unhelpful advice like "you have to work together!" I think we were both debating just flipping the canoe and drowning each other to be done with it. But I remember having the thought, "oh, this is just ‘Halo,’ isn’t it?"
We were trying to do the same thing at the same time and stepping on each other’s toes. We weren’t allowing for the fact we rowed with different strength and had different skills. We each had a role on this little yellow hellboat, and it was only pride keeping us from the waterfall. As with Halo, so with kayaks. Coordination. Communication. Teamwork.
We got there. In fact, we got there ahead of one other couple who then squabbled in French during most of the hiking part of the adventure. I debated leaning over and suggesting, "Jouez-vous Xbox?"
Video games didn’t save our marriage that day, but they did get us up the river. If we both played soccer or ultimate frisbee or pinochle, we might have learned the same lesson. I won’t make the mistake some gaming advocates make of breathlessly shouting that games solve all the world’s problems right out of the box. I’m not even saying that you’re going to have the same kind of experience in every game I tell you about.
It’s a lot like travel, actually. Our exact honeymoon itinerary would generate an entirely different set of experiences and stories if you were to follow it. That’s okay. Like any travel writer, though, I hope to convey the flavor of the experience. What I’m saying, maybe, is that kayaks are the worst and that video games are just that: they’re games. What you get out of them is entirely up to you. Happy travels.