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“You can’t always get what you want,” The Rolling Stones once sang. But they left out the all-important corollary: “And you shouldn’t, either, because it’ll make you all kinds of demanding and weird.”
Video games love giving players all the things that they want. Power-ups, extra lives, their pick of bright and shiny dopamine rewards—the vast majority of games are elaborate, thinly hidden systems for the withholding, and then presentation, of any manner of stimulating treasures, ensuring players keep coming back for the next level or match or fight. (I’m playing through Doom Eternal right now, and I don’t know that there’s ever been a game more eager to reward people, in eight different kinds of upgrade cash; it’s like a blood-soaked puppy trailing along behind you.) This eagerness to please is all well and good when we’re talking about being given new skins or cheat codes or other mechanical baubles. But it gets a lot dicier when we factor video gaming’s ongoing efforts to simulate romantic relationships into the mix. Because video games really, really don’t want to tell players “N-O,” pretty much ever. And what’s love, without those two most important of letters?
Admittedly, video gaming romance is one of those topics that I think about a lot, the same way you might think about, say, a dog that just won’t stop trying to wear a pair of shoes: It’s impressive, in a perverse sort of way, but ultimately a very odd use of resources. In the past, I’ve written about the incongruous fit between romance and nuclear war; I’ve written about games that force players to perform real, actual sacrifices of time and energy to show their “devotion” to their (sorry, unpleasant word incoming!) “waifus.” (Ugh.) But while gaming has gotten pretty good at faking the beats of a romance—filling in false starts, distractions, bursts of passions, etc. to match the rhythms of actual human emotion—it still doesn’t have a good grasp on how or when to turn a player down flat and tell them to try selling whatever they’re peddling somewhere else. And that’s a shame, because a world in which you can get everything—and everyone—that you want (provided you make the right choices and perform the right moves, anyway), isn’t a world where love, or even a decent simulation thereof, can exist. It’s just a slot machine where the wheels have all been rigged, and where players are encouraged to do some rigging of their own when they’re not.
Let’s take, as an instructive example of the mindset we’re examining here, Cyberpunk 2077, a game that’s actually notable for how restrictive many of its sex and romance options are. (That is, all the romanceable companions in the game are heavily gated by your character, V’s, gender presentation, the game’s treatment of which is a whole other, extremely complicated topic outside the bounds of this current column.) In Cyberpunk, the preferences of the game’s potential lovers exist and are firmly set: Plucky hacker Judy Alvarez, for instance, will only be attracted to, and thus romantically available for, a version of V who has what the game classifies as a female body and voice. This was unwelcome news for a number of players who—when they weren’t busy rigging up pantomime Keanu Reeves sex scenes—were quick to begin exploring options to mod Judy in as a love option for male-presenting Vs. (The discovery in the game’s code of voice lines for the romance, recorded by Cyberpunk’s male V voice actor—a precaution designed as a failsafe to avoid bugs—didn’t help.) That is, when told that Judy just wasn’t all that into them, the response from a vocal subset of players was a disturbing “Oh, well, we can fix that,” simultaneously treating the character as a “person” they could project feelings onto and a toy to be manipulated so that they could achieve their desired outcome.
And who can blame them? Romance-minded games—ranging from role-playing games to outright dating sims—have been giving players their pick of the buffet for years, to the point that it’s notable when a character isn’t available to the player in a romantic sense. (In Atlus’ Persona games, for instance, a female character had better be a blood relative, elderly, or a talking cat if they want to stay out of the romantic vortex.) For as much critique as it deserves for its overly accommodating treatment of these issues in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, BioWare at least gets credit for a few straight-up “no thank you”s across the decades: Seth Green’s Joker will (reluctantly) turn down a pass from Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3, while Dragon Age 2’s Aveline will outright ignore player character Hawke’s attempts to press their suit. But it feels notable that I had to cherry-pick those examples pretty aggressively from a wide host of games, and that most of the other ones that come to mind come only from situations with incompatible orientations in play, rather than lack of attraction to the apparently irresistible player. After 30 years of attempts at a convincing video game romance, you can still count the number of outright incidents of “Sorry, it doesn’t matter how many Charisma points you have, it’s just not going to happen between us” on maybe two hands.
All video game romances are, by definition, fake. (This is obvious, right? Please tell me that this is extremely obvious.) They’re simulations, designed to evoke certain feelings, and to play on the intimacy of a medium that has a player interact, often as themselves, in supposedly meaningful ways with a fictional world. In a film, it would be bizarre for a character to look a viewer in the eyes and say, “I love you,” but in games—especially modern games—it happens all the time. (Looking at you, Final Fantasy VII Remake.) That false connection is powerful, off-putting, and maybe even a little dangerous. Using it to teach players, subconsciously or not, that achieving romance with another person is a factor of correct choices—that the right inputs can always be relied upon to produce the desired outputs—is an ugly side effect of a genre that traffics in some of the most intense emotions we have collective access to. Learning how to take the L in love can be painful and sad, but it’s a form of acceptance that’s absolutely necessary for proper social and emotional functioning. So I ask you, games, please: Break our hearts. (Or at least, blunt our crushes.) For once in your life, tell your players no. It’s for our, and everybody else’s, good.