The various cinematic adaptations of Austen’s novels across film, TV, and more recently YouTube as well as transmedia projects involving social media have already been subjects of wide discussion. Educators are considering the impact that contemporary adaptations and fan-produced content have as many students’ initial exposure to literary texts. Yet, no notice to date has been paid to game adaptations, even though the video game market is one of the most rapidly growing branches of the global entertainment industry. It is important to consider the previously unexplored wealth of rhetorical potential that game adaptations possess due to their participatory nature as well as the variety of messages that they can convey. Matches and Matrimony: A Pride and Prejudice Tale is a video game project that adapts several Austen novels around a dating simulation mechanic and explores different reading angles enabled by interactivity. Contrary to the origins of both the marriage plot and the “dating sim” in prescriptive patriarchal models of femininity, the unified movement of Austen adaptations towards twenty-first-century values can have decidedly positive outcomes. In fact, gaming adaptations of Austen have the potential to model female empowerment through individual choice involved in both marriage partner selection and personal betterment. Although already present in the novels, these issues can reach the modern audience more directly as the game transforms subtext into acts of participation.
A conversation about Austen on video games necessarily relies on the excellent work done across other types of popular media. Scholars have identified a common trend in Austen adaptations of the past decade to update, alter, or outright displace nineteenth-century values, regardless of the time period in which the adapted work is set. Modern Austen adaptations are most often accused of textual and thematic infidelity to the source material. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield in their analysis of Emma’s recent cinematic versions argue that the otherwise diverse films inevitably focus on “values of the twenty-first century, sometimes satirized, and sometimes celebrated,” noting how the contemporary call for character self-actualization has taken center stage over Austen’s “social good.” Furthermore, Stephanie Russo observes that the value shift involved as adaptations such as Emma Approved openly commodify and monetize Austen’s life and work through integrated product placement can affect audiences directly by bringing material possessions out of the subtextual realm into their immediate attention (514). Analyzing a less mainstream adaptation, Sarah Walton makes a similar point on how the primarily textual Project Persuasion forces thematic interruptions caused by replacing marriage with dating in updated adaptations.
Adapting a text by transmediating it, however, invites a greater degree of interactivity and reader participation. Walton points out transmedia adaptations’ potential shortcomings, but at the same time she praises their unique “ability to erode the gap between author and reader (and text and reader),” noting that the interactive form “allows the storytellers to evoke, highlight, or expand on concepts present in Austen’s novel,” making the story “experiential” and thus more “real.” Similarly, Amanda Gilroy argues that writing fanfiction and speculating about the hidden potential of a story can empower the reader to engage with it anew as well as claim the text as theirs, enabling a subtle yet effective method of breaching the dissonance in values between the author and the reader. Such methods become even more important given that, as Andrea Coldwell says, the most prolific types of adaptations are those geared towards teenagers, created by Austen fans attempting to appeal to a younger audience that might not be receptive to the original novels “as is.” Recasting the stories into video games can thus play a double role in popularizing Austen among new audiences. Not only are contemporary young people inherently more trusting of exclusively digital genres compared to previous generations, but a “casual” video game can be marketed as a pastime demanding less of a monetary or time investment than a novel, even while most of the gameplay consists of old-fashioned reading.
As the contemporary audience’s desire for participatory, immersive storytelling becomes more evident, the transmediated Austen marriage narrative lends itself naturally to the “dating sim” video game genre.1 Such games present an escapist fantasy of marrying for love that can both reflect and subvert existing feminist dissatisfactions with the marriage plot. In her defense of the literary device, Laura White argues that marriage plots themselves “are games played within the context of the unstable self and are fueled by that energy which desires integration, union, closure” (77). Thus, video games such as Matches and Matrimony can be seen as forms of literary adaptation that attempt to enhance the reader’s experience with interactive elements that can affect both the original texts and the contemporary readers’ perception of them.
In its quest to innovate well-known material, Matches and Matrimony attempts to appeal to a wider audience yet attracts most attention from niche fans. Developed in 2011 by Reflexive Entertainment, a small indie studio currently inactive, the game is available for digital download through Big Fish Games and Amazon. Because of its format, method of distribution, and low system requirements, Matches falls under the category commonly referred to as “casual games”—games that are usually made on a lower budget than AAA titles, require little time investment or skill to play, and are aimed at relieving stress.2 A common marketing tactic allows the curious player to download the game for a free one-hour trial; in the case of Matches the player can reach at least one ending without paying for the full experience, making the game widely accessible. The gameplay style imitates several popular Japanese “women’s games.”3 However, as there are few titles in the same genre developed by major Western studios, the more “casual” versions of such games are more likely to be overlooked by genre-savvy players. Thus, the intended audience of Matches and Matrimony lies in the intersection of Austen fans and casual gaming enthusiasts who may be yet unexposed to “dating sim” genre conventions.
To demonstrate the implications of the marriage plot seen through the video game lens, I will break down the analysis into several parts. The first section of this essay establishes the mechanics that mandate the game’s methods of storytelling. It then discusses how the game unintentionally weighs in on the nineteenth-century debate about the selection of a sexual partner. The concluding section assesses the contribution that the game’s “spinster endings” make to contemporary interpretations of choice and refusal in Austen’s works and biography.
Accomplishments and virtues and the issue of performativity
Gameplay mechanics in Matches and Matrimony imply the modern viewpoint that self-development made possible through everyday actions is a desirable goal. In the game, the player’s task is to influence actions and choices of a female protagonist in order to have her meet and marry one of the six potential suitors from across Austen’s body of work. The setting and plot loosely follow those of Pride and Prejudice, with additional characters and situations lifted from Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. The first action the player is prompted to make is naming the protagonist, with Elizabeth Bennet set as the default option. The protagonist then addresses the players directly to introduce them to the gameplay and suggests their first actions. I will refer to this initial character-building, non-story-specific section of the game as the “procedural stage”—after Ian Bogost’s definition of procedural rhetoric of video games as the “practice of authoring arguments through processes” (125)—and to the game’s protagonist as “Elizabeth.”
While the procedural stage of the game is subjected to the storyline and has little entertainment or narrative value taken out of context, it does provide the grounds for the protagonist’s gradual character development. Repeated multiple times throughout the story, this stage illustrates the passage of time within the narrative, highlights the mundane nature of everyday life in the English countryside, and establishes the heroine’s identity by making her acquire traits based on player actions. The procedural stage is separate from and yet crucial to the plot stage that allows the player to make choices directly affecting the storyline. The player is responsible for assigning daily activities that Elizabeth performs throughout the week, choosing from the options to Study the Arts, Read a Book, Go Visiting, Go Outside, Do Needlework, or Rest. Each possible pastime may contribute to or detract from several statistics representing various desired virtues. Elizabeth may choose to improve in her Willpower, Wit, Talent, Kindness, Propriety, or Sensibility—all (except possibly Wit) traditionally desirable feminine traits. The heroine starts out as a clean slate, ready to attain accomplishments that would allow her to pursue a suitor.
The game’s protagonist becomes a composite character depending on which romantic partner the player pursues, partly justifying the heroine’s initial blank slate from the gameplay standpoint. Certain developments are logical. For example, choosing to Study the Arts gives the heroine an opportunity to practice her piano skills, which can later impress both Mr. Darcy and Colonel Brandon. In this case, daily practice leads directly to gradual improvement, but the immediate effects of other actions are more questionable. Propriety is a trait that can be increased by Visiting or Doing Needlework but decreased by Going Outside. Propriety is the only trait that can decrease through a successfully performed activity; however, this change implies that the character’s habit of going out on regular walks can reduce her Propriety enough for her to stand up for herself in social situations, such as speaking her mind against Lady Catherine. Even presuming that walking as a physical activity represents willfulness of spirit, the regularity of such exercise and proper upper-class behavior are not mutually exclusive. The game’s choice to present Austen women as longing to be outside and together with nature, away from confinements of the house reflects a more modern perspective, likely stemming from the image of an idealized, helpless, and leisurely Victorian lady of the later era, to which there is still more stereotype than truth (Parratt 141–42). Although most in-game actions are worth some scrutiny, they are only tools towards achieving storytelling goals and can be excused given some degree of suspension of disbelief.
The procedural stage as a whole, however, makes several broader arguments concerning performativity. Through involving daily routine in the gameplay as a procedural rhetoric tool, Matches and Matrimony makes a statement about which actions exercised by a young woman should be rewarded by marriage. These “stylized repetition[s] of acts” (Butler 519) quite evidently form the heroine’s identity. The power to evolve through taking action awards Elizabeth a degree of autonomy as she can will herself into becoming, for example, kinder or more headstrong. At the same time, this mechanism highlights the limited impact the heroine’s actions carry within the narrative. Using Butler’s theory of performativity, one can see that, even though the game attempts to show an empowered female protagonist through linking her personality directly to her behavior, the heroine remains constrained within the limits of her period-appropriate gender role, sending a mixed message to the player.
On the other hand, by allowing the player to influence Elizabeth’s major skills and character traits, the game is in danger of straying from Austen’s requirement that the heroine be flawed. A danger inherent in any game is the possibility of creating a perfect character possessing all possible accomplishments, thus eliminating not only perceived weaknesses but also the gameplay challenges that constitute the enjoyment of video games. The game ends before the heroine can gain all possible levels of achievement, but continuous repetition of her acts of improvement implies endless growth as the admirable though unsustainable goal. If we believe that Austen responds with “annoyance and spite rather than emulation” to perceived “perfection” in her own characters (Fergus 5), then perfecting the game heroine violates the adaptation’s authenticity and integrity. In Matches and Matrimony, while it is possible to “max out” most of the heroine’s characteristics, doing so does not give the player any additional benefits with the suitors who only value certain characteristics in the protagonist, such as excessive Sensibility for Colonel Brandon or a complete lack of Willpower for Mr. Collins.
While the accomplishments suggested by the rather simple game mechanic ally with what was prescribed for young English ladies during the Regency, they also highlight modern perceptions of nineteenth-century gendered lifestyles. Austen’s narrator mockingly suggests that despite the fact that most daughters of upper-class families considered themselves accomplished, the minimum requirements to deserve the title would be, in Miss Bingley’s words, “‘a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages’” (PP 43). Such artistry may have been typical for girls from upper-class families, but the Bennet sisters notably lacked a “traditional” education, relying instead on their natural inclinations. The wealthier could definitely afford to be, in Edward Ferrars’s words, “‘properly idle’” (SS 119), but the option virtual Elizabeth has to Rest is closer in nature to Lady Bertram’s voluntary stupor since it occupies the entire day and bars other activities. In other words, modern audiences are to read idleness negatively, if not for what it represents ideologically then for standing in the way of the player’s quest of chasing more virtual accomplishments. This conflict between our contemporary attitudes to learned skills, as reflected in Matches and Matrimony, and attitudes contemporary to Austen begs another issue: the importance of inborn character traits, talents, and looks in the courtship game.
Being over becoming
Matches and Matrimony presents the player with a dynamic that both reflects and subverts Austen’s notions of a successful marriage: here, inborn traits and characteristics that predetermine attractiveness dominate over acquired ones. Looks doubtless play a huge part in initial partner selection in Austen’s work. High social standing, however, calls for a high degree of prudence, which is reflected in almost every marriageable Austen character’s coming into the narrative with a fixed number: annual income for men, dowry for women. A profile of, say, Mr. Darcy would be incomplete without his ten thousand pounds a year or reference to the Pemberley estate.
The game, however, presents character profiles in a separate menu with a different set of numbers that shifts the tone away from first impressions in a Regency ballroom to a carefully curated entry on a modern dating website. There are profile pages for all characters whose relationship with Elizabeth may influence the plot in the game’s menu. These pages consist of the character’s picture, a biographical description, a bar reflecting the character’s current level of attachment, and five physical attributes: Age, Height, Weight, Eyes, Hair. This profile is sharply contrasted to that of the protagonist, which reflects her moral virtues rather than her beauty or wealth. A player not closely familiar with Austen’s writing may have to rely on these profiles to make judgments on the game suitors, eventually pushing Elizabeth towards choosing a marriage partner based on superficial data.
In choosing to present potential husbands through their looks, the game attempts to appeal to values foreign to its setting. Austen was writing precisely when the concept of marrying for love became more widespread, but her characters keep reminding the reader that “‘after all that romancers may say, there is no doing without money’” (NA 148). The game then suggests a return to selecting a marriage partner based on sexual attraction rather than calculated matchmaking, a deviation from nineteenth-century attitudes. Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man argues that women’s choices in civilized nations are “largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men” as well as their “intellectual powers and energy” (356), as opposed to those of savages, who rely purely on sexual impulses. Hazel Jones points out that in Austen’s novels matches “based on physical attraction alone” were “doomed to failure” (4). Instead, as Peter Graham suggests, marriages that Austen describes were meant to serve as inspirations for ideological unions based on “self-completion, personal fulfillment, and community-building” (112). These aspirations are as prevalent now as ever, yet marrying with a prospect of socioeconomic advancement has become less of a drive for modern audiences, who expect both partners to be able to earn an income. This shift may help justify the game’s dating-site-profile approach that resorts to selection based on sexual attraction.
Nevertheless, the game adds a modern inflection to even objective physical traits. In Pride and Prejudice, the narrator makes several mentions of Mr. Darcy’s “tall person” (10), but Matches and Matrimony chooses to quantify this description at 6’1”—clearly above what Johnson and Nicholas estimate as an average for nineteenth-century army recruits at around 5’7” (475). Similarly, if losing weight made a young girl like Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility appear less attractive, in-game Jane Bennet’s stated model-skinny 116 lbs. would not have fit Regency beauty standards. The game puts forward modern standards of attractiveness and marriage, while at the same time de-emphasizing socioeconomic factors that also make a marriage.
Although it is hard to balance out modern against nineteenth-century attitudes to marriage, in both Matches and Matrimony and Austen’s novels neither hereditary attractiveness nor class or wealth could be changed to a significant degree. The instances in which a character’s looks improve, like Anne Elliot’s during her second bloom, or a woman suddenly moves up the socioeconomic ladder before marriage, like Pride and Prejudice’s Miss King, remain exceptions. In-game, the aforementioned trainable accomplishments as well as certain behaviors can change Elizabeth’s fate but only within the framework of her choice between a man and spinsterhood. Matches and Matrimony thus highlights both the limited nature of choice and the importance of having the choice in the first place.
The power of “no”
It would be unfair to Austen’s observational genius to imply that the solemn realities of economics, class, politics, religion, and health do not exist in her novels. Most turning points in her novels, however, come down to the choices that individual characters make, based largely on their values or whims. The game character so carefully built during the procedural stage should therefore flourish when prompted to make a choice as part of the storyline. Yet, any choice in Matches and Matrimony that has an immediate effect on the plot tends towards the binary. As many branching storylines are mutually exclusive and the heroine cannot pursue two suitors at once, the final choice results not in choosing between suitor A and suitor B, but in choosing to accept or reject a single one. Since rejecting a proposal would be imprudent for the game’s protagonist, even this much choice could appear arbitrary or non-existent. In the words of Tom Bertram: “‘It raises my spleen more than any thing, to have the pretense of being asked, of being given a choice, and at the same time addressed in such a way as to oblige one to do the very thing, whatever it be!’” (MP 141).
This unforgiving choice between marriage and spinsterhood may appear limiting and even degrading, yet there is considerable power in the simple fact that it exists. Other writers of speculative Austen fiction may treat the choice to remain single as a mistake and a failure, as Emma Campbell Webster does in her 2007 Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure interactive novel. Unless Webster’s reader succeeds in marrying Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy by choosing answers leading to a single “good” ending, she is treated to a bleak or snarky description of the aftermath, concluding with phrases like “You have FAILED” (156) and “You are a LOSER” (213). Meanwhile, in Matches and Matrimony, any choice leads to an equally legitimate, if undesirable, ending. Although the two approaches vary drastically in tone, both achieve something absent from Austen’s novels and yet a defining factor in her biography. These adaptations imply that spinsterhood could arise not from inaction but from conscious, deliberate choice. The game thus takes a critical stance on the marriage plot from a feminist perspective, but the ambiguity offered by the game’s multiple endings can also defend the marriage plot by giving both outcomes equal legitimacy.
There are several ways of getting the two versions of the “Miss Bennet” old maid ending in Matches and Matrimony, making spinsterhood in the game a nuanced state rather than a blanket statement. The first is the easiest to achieve and has a double purpose: it replaces a “game over” scenario representing Elizabeth’s inability to find or keep a suitor as well as the result of her deliberate choice to remain single. The game’s decision to avoid a “game over” altogether and provide a full-fledged ending slide and story is a rather powerful way to show that the “spinster ending” is not synonymous with failure. Even more, the description found on the ending slide may make this ending desirable as it implies that the heroine takes up the mantle of Jane Austen, the novelist, herself. Here Elizabeth second-guesses some of the decisions of her youth, regretting being dependent on her family, but occupies her time writing books about people and the impact of their choices. The ending is uplifting: “Over time, my stories carried the realities and the possibilities of life across the generations,” the heroine states. This ending becomes a feminist narrative of success outside of marriage, mirroring current attitudes to Jane Austen’s own life story, exemplified in the work of biographers such as Claire Tomalin. While implicit, this strong argument for the game justifies the failure to live a “traditional” family life, especially given that in reality as well as fiction, “romantic love commonly failed to remake the institutions of marriage, property, or female dependence to match the expectations of its own ideology” (White 75).
A pseudo-feminist and overtly positive take on rejecting courtship remains possible. The second “Miss Bennet” ending is harder to achieve because it requires the player to pursue the Mr. Darcy scenario almost to its completion. At the very end, when Mr. Darcy proposes marriage for the second time, Elizabeth has a final option to refuse him permanently. This decision leads to her pondering the freedom from having to conform to anyone’s expectations, leading to a statement that she would try not to be anyone else, or do anything else, other than what she desires. It is unclear if the choice empowers Elizabeth, as she states that while she feels no regret refusing Mr. Darcy, she is planning to marry eventually and has no doubt of loving again once she has found a man who will make her truly happy. This ending shows Elizabeth in much higher spirits than the previous “Miss Bennet” ending, without the grey hair or the solemn look. At the same time, it fails to provide a similar level of closure: while this Elizabeth fills her life with “art and literature, friends and family,” she keeps hoping for “blessed matrimony in time.” The difficulty of obtaining this ending implies that from the game’s point of view, this version of temporary spinsterhood is superior to never marrying. The problem is that such resolution leaves the heroine’s fate forever suspended. With no fortune and having just denied an almost ideal candidate, she would face the bleakest possible fate. Still, as even among Austen’s contemporaries the age at which one would reach the dreaded “old maid” stage was never precisely defined, and although some did marry well into their twilight years (Hayley 5), this ending retains a cheerful, optimistic tone—however naïve given socio-historical context.
As evidenced in the spinster endings, making a deliberate choice is not only a mechanism the entire game is built upon but also a major theme in reading Pride and Prejudice as a visual novel. An early and relatively unchallenging option for matrimony presents itself when Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth for the first time, and, unlike a passive reader, the player can decide to accept the proposal. Such a decision should go against Elizabeth’s personality and values but can be justified by the character building done in the procedural stage to allow her to enter a loveless marriage. The consequences illustrate the importance of character development in Austen’s work by showing how accepting Mr. Darcy before he redeems his prideful nature would not lead to an ideal romantic ending. The heroine compromises her ideals by admitting that marrying Mr. Darcy is a prudent choice that would greatly increase her “consequence in society.” In exchange, while he is kind and loving to his wife in private, he appears to be ashamed of her in public, his pride never contested. This ending retains the cheerfulness of the spinster options, with Elizabeth hoping to rekindle her husband’s heart and live happily ever after, but the story remains bittersweet.
Since the game makes saying “yes” to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal possible, the choice to refuse him, no longer default, acquires more power and meaning. The inequality between the freedoms that men and women enjoy is a theme throughout Austen’s entire body of work, establishing that in matrimony “‘man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal’” (NA 74). While it is easy, to see this difference as oppressive to the woman, the reader is simultaneously reminded that matrimony is also “‘an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each.’” (NA 74). Female refusal can thus be beneficial to both parties and is no less powerful than non-binary male “choice.”
Much as each individual player of the game has the power to make this or her own choices, scholars can choose to accept or reject a novel form of adaptation as successful or meaningful. While I have pointed out several limitations of the modern video game adaptation format, I remain strongly in favor of it. Encouraging studies of adaptations in all their varieties, Jodi Wyatt urges us to consider whether an adaptation “illuminates or obscures” the meaning of the original. Here I have argued that in the case of Matches and Matrimony, giving the reader/player agency and the power of choice highlights specific strengths in Austen’s actual texts. Translating Austen into a genre that demands from its reader active participation and attention to detail, not to mention prudent choices, has educational as well as entertainment value. And doubtless, few stories provide as much closure as do those that make the reader or player work for their happy ending, an ending that explicitly repays the audience for the time and commitment invested.
The screenshots used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the copyright law in Title 17 of the United States Code.
1Emily Taylor defines the “visual novel” and “dating sim” game genres popular among Japanese young people battling loneliness, while Hyeshin Kim analyzes the changes these genres undergo when targeting a female audience. For the purposes of my analysis, I use the term “dating sim” to refer broadly to the various games in which both storyline and gameplay mechanics revolve around romantic relationships.