Virtual Valentines: The Emptiness of Videogame Romance

Games Features

It’s Valentine’s Day, otherwise known as the one day per year when it’s socially acceptable to complain about the loneliness of human existence. Single-player narrative games seem like the perfect counter-part to that loneliness; they cannot assuage it, but they do distract from it. Now if only videogames had love interests that could actually inspire an inkling of interest from me.

That’s not to say I’m immune to harboring feelings for fictional characters—I’ve been known to sing the praises of everyone from Wolverine to Mass Effect’s Garrus. I’m also not here to debate whether videogame characters have ever been well-rendered enough to be considered physically attractive. Let’s talk personality and compatibility: has there ever been a character who you couldn’t help but love? Even if you wouldn’t date them in “real life” (whatever that would entail)?

I think for me the sad answer is “no.” I have always managed to find someone to date from the options available to me in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and I’ve played a handful of dating sims with the same results, but it’s always felt like making the choice took a lot of effort on my part. Forgive me, fellow Bioware fans, but I often feel like the love interests in these games don’t do much to draw me in. I have to do all the work: asking the questions, pursuing, interviewing, and selecting the smoothest replies. No one ever follows me back down the hall for a quick, unexpected compliment. There is no cat-and-mouse—merely structured conversational set-pieces that I initiate and end as I choose. I walk from room to room, selecting which flirtation to pursue, until I make my final calculation. Significant Other Unlocked.

Perhaps the most depressing variant of this for me occurred in Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story. You play as “yourself,” more or less, and there is only one love interest in the game—a mysterious girl that you meet online. The game’s plot hinges upon you falling in love with this girl, which is hardly a spoiler given the game’s title; its narrative trappings and rom-com flavors throughout also point to “fall in love, fall in love, fall in love.” I could tell that’s what I was supposed to do, so I acted out the role I knew I should play—but I didn’t feel it. It’s not that the writing was bad (it’s great), nor that the pacing was off (it’s fantastic), nor that the game itself isn’t one of my favorites (it is) … It’s just that I didn’t fall in love with the love interest.

This isn’t just an issue of my being a femme person who is pretty much only attracted to masculine people, either—I think falling in love with a fictional character can cross those boundaries (often I’m already pretending to be somebody with a different gender presentation and personality than I “really” have, anyway). Bioware has attempted to solve this problem by having enough options for “everybody” to have at least one option for who they might fall in love with, but for me, that only solves half the problem. For example, the bevy of Wolverine-esque, stubbly-faced men on offer in Mass Effect and Dragon Age games should theoretically appeal to a Maddy Myers sensibility—but most of the time, I end up liking the personality of one of the other characters far more, and that character might end up being an alien or a dwarf or a completely unromanceable option.

That’s more realistic, though, right? You fall in love with whoever, regardless of your expectations, and maybe they’re not interested—or maybe they don’t necessarily fit into the mold of “your type.” That’s exactly the type of surprise that you’d think would satisfy me in a videogame—in real life, crushes are unexpected, not predetermined by a list of candidates in a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, videogames are built on spreadsheets, and it shows.

For example, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, you can flirt with and be rebuffed by certain characters, sometimes in heartbreaking ways—but only if that situation has been written into the game, obviously. I went through Dragon Age: Inquisition wanting to flirt with Varric—but he’s not an option on any level. I had plenty of other people who I could flirt with in the game, but there weren’t even dialog options available for me to get a shot at the only guy I liked. Talk about clamming up around a crush.

I don’t actually think the solution to that problem is to provide even more options, though. Even if Varric had been available, I’m not sure I would have fallen for him, because his love story with me would’ve been constructed in the exact same way as all the other romances in the game. The entire structure of dating sims seems to be what’s turning me off, and since I seem to be one of the only people I know who feels this way, I’ll try to hash out why: I feel like these characters don’t exist until I talk to them.

The same problem happened in Digital: A Love Story, even though that game isn’t a dating sim—it’s more of a romance sim that uses the same constructs. There are the usual reasons for why this love story lacks urgency and surprise: I can wait as long as I want to respond with no real time-sensitive pressure, if I screw up I can reload a previous save, and if I don’t know what to do next I can look up a walk-through and ensure I’ll get the romantic ending I want. Am I saying that I want virtual flirting to be more like a twitch shooter? Not really—okay, maybe—but more importantly, I want to feel like my love interest has a life of their own.

The best and worst thing about these virtual love interests is that they’re always waiting around for you, the hero, to come over and talk to them. Sometimes there are narrative reasons why they are “busy” and not available to chat or flirt, but generally speaking, your videogames crushes wait on you. Usually, in Bioware games, their trust towards you is built upon them asking you to do them a big favor (rescuing a dangerous artifact, saving their hometown, blah blah)—this is not only a transactional approach to relationships, but also, a theatrical and unrealistic way to expect people to interact.

What about a character who already has all of their shit figured out before you even show up, and doesn’t really need or want your help? What about a character who shows up at random, never calls, never writes, always interrupts you before you can finish your clever one-liner, yet never fails to make you laugh until you cry? What about a character who keeps on existing even when you aren’t around, so maybe they even start dating somebody else, and there’s not really anything you can do about it? What if you only really had three minutes to talk to one person, and then they were too busy, and you waited around for them to come back and they never did?

I realize that part of the appeal of dating sims for other people is the control: you get to call all the shots about who you talk to, who you date, and how every interaction begins and ends. The randomness of real life social interactions can be terrifying, so having ultimate control in a dating environment can assuage anxiety and provide a blissful sense of power to the player. I’m sure many of my friends would agree that’s the appeal for them … and in some ways, I agree.

In practice, though, I feel like I’m going through the motions with my love interests. Even the best-written ones don’t make me feel much, deep down, and maybe it’s because I know I have all the control. On the surface, I think Bioware games are well-written, their characters seem human, and I bond with friends over who we all chose to date—but I don’t think I can ever become that invested in a character whose entire existence revolves around whether or not I talk to them. I think I’d rather see what it’s like to have virtual friends whose lives don’t revolve around me, the all-powerful hero. It would be a lot lonelier, at times, but then I’d feel all the more lucky if one of them ever did flirt back.

Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.

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