a review of Duel Love
a videogame developed by bandai-namco
and published by namco-bandai
for the nintendo DS
text by Brendan Lee
I once had a lengthy conversation with Seiko Ito. I liked him.
He’s a real-life famous person here in Japan, no fooling . . . a genuine self-made Renaissance-type. He’s a comedian, and a social activist, and a hip-hop producer – – you name it, and he’s probably stuck his big toe in at some point. He was telling me how the great artistic innovations always come from Very Dark Places; these personal, cordoned-off storehouses of emotional pain. Somewhere, wedged between the hurt and the catharsis, there’s an opportunity to give birth, in a sense – – to craft something truly wonderful, relieve an audience of some small measure of their human difficulty, and gently inspire them towards something greater than themselves.
I asked him what projects he’d been working on. Ito told me that he was heading up the Japanese premiere of The Love Guru, and was in the midst of arranging a geisha-pulled rickshaw for some American VIPs*.
Come to think of it, the man did look awfully cheerful.
Rickshaws aside, I think Ito was onto something. Look at – – I don’t know – – look at In Cold Blood, and try and divorce the real-life murders from the visceral impact of that writing. You can’t – – and even if you tried, the book would still be able to wring a full dose of respect from you, if for no other reason than that people had to actually die to make that book exist. I rarely find myself in black hysterics over the printed page, but In Cold Blood nearly did me in. Uh, lit-style. Here: I’ll even work up a bullshit equation: Personal Tragedy Plus Innovation Equals Real Genius.
It would follow, then, that the folks at Bandai-Namco must be the Happiest Goddamn Motherfuckers on this planet.
Oh, they’ve got brains over there, don’t get me wrong. I think you’d be hard-pressed to name a game publisher with half as much sense about what people will actually buy – – or, at the very least, in the non-Madden category. Someone has to keep the lights on in their Shinagawa Seaside nerf-pyramid, and while that someone may not exactly be YOU, Bandai-Namco was never really aiming for YOU in the first place . . . what I think they aim for, by and large, is people who really love video games.
Again, I’m not talking about YOU exactly, here. Anyone with even the most passing of familiarity with the editorial COUGH direction of the A B . N hails at least indirectly from the Land of the Broken Toys, where children hurl their Teddy Ruxpins off cliffs for not moving their mouths in proper time to their Metallica cassettes. They hate that bear for saying that he is Real, and then for being only Almost Real. The opposite of love is indifference, anyway; anyone scrolling this far loves these video-games at least enough to make that love flip back around to hate again. Most people never drive love far enough to reach that point, though. Real Love driven past the point of reason is certainly blind; so too is it stupid. Love sees the chip of glass in the dirt and marvels at how close it came to being a diamond. Love cries during elementary-school performances of Guys and Dolls, and whispers to her husband that the orthodontics were really quite a good value for the money. (They weren’t.)
So. The creators of Duel Love must love games very very much, in the sense that they must start smiling broadly at the just the merest whisper of plastic against their fingers, but not actually enough to develop a critical eye. There are many, many of these people in the world; loving enough to emulate, but not enough to attempt improvement. These are people that bought the extending/telescoping stylus for the DS; these are people that waited until they got home before turning the plastic figure of Suzumiya Haruhi upside-down to “have a glance” because they wanted the moment to have a sense of occasion. These are not bad people, in the same way that the regulars at Cheers were not bad people. They’re just the regulars.
Okay, the game! Duel Love takes place at Keiyo High – – the kind of generic Japanese high school that they sell in five-gallon jars at Costco. You are the mysterious transfer student, and you’re immediately assigned a friend named Saki who immediately sets about coloring in the banal lines of the game’s glitter-and-elbow-macaroni premise:
Keiyo is MORE than a school – – it’s a GRIM CABAL of SECRETS. Deep within the musty confines of its crumbling old school building, a mysterious battle rages. The fighters? The students themselves! After school . . . their adventure . . . begins!!!
Actually, that would be kind of an okay premise (or at least what they call Good Enough) except that they don’t actually need you, the player, to do any of the fighting because You’re Just A Girl So Too Bad. No, what they need you to do is the rubbing. None of the dudes in this tournament possess particulary Grecian physiques (some of them are a bit Tysonesque, but far more Grocer’s Freezer than Mike), and none of them are capable of winning a match without getting a good number of superficial bruises that need to be gently tended by the gentle hands of the fairer sex. You can use the DS stylus, but anyone worth their Therapeutic Sponge will use whichever saliva-coated index finger smells less of Funyuns.
Rubbing these guys, icing them down, watching them shower, sponging them off – – it would all be as boring as hell, if the rest of the game weren’t actually moreso. From the squeak-toy voice acting to the gratingly self-referential non-story (they do the YOU’RE PLAYING AN EROTIC GAME ABOUT BOYS joke in the first 4 minutes), the game is orders of magnitude (NOTE TO SELF: “The Loyal Order of Magnitude” could be a legendary World of Warcraft guild! Or Icelandic dwarf-rock band!) worse than the kind of stuff you get on burned CDRs at the Comic Market. In comparison to the rest of the game, tending to these guyses’ physical failings is actually something of a joy. In comparison, mind you. It’s kind of like that time in Social Studies where the fat kid farted, and it was just so mind-bendingly hilarious that it actually warped time and space.
And then you . . . smelled . . . it. Look, I ain’t even gonna lie to you, here: this kind of bullshit dating sim? It was exactly one hundred percent this kind of thing that made me move to this country. Touching the boys game, huh? Gots to get to Japan. To be honest, I very much like the idea of this sort of thing existing, and God knows that if you got rid of all of the DS games that aren’t based around the concept of gouging the screen to hell to fuck the Star Wheel or whatever, you wouldn’t have all that big of a library left. I even tried to think of some kind of high-quality alternate version of Duel Love; a game that would satisfy all of the requirements of the checklist: soft-focus romance, touching boys with some legitimate excuse, innovative use of the DS hardware . . .
Maybe something with, like, Florence Nightingale! She could use the triage system to save as many of Our Boys as possible, help them stave off gangrene, and warm them with the gentle hand of comfort just before they slide off the mortal coil . . . the ones that survive could try and win her heart with thrilling acts of chivalry and valor, and she’d struggle to temper her feelings of matronly affection with the sense of duty she’d feel to her country and . . . you know, the war effort, and . . . and . . .
Heh. There I go, thinking of books again.
Or at least HBO.
* “No, not Mike Myers – – he too big celebrity!”