It’s February, and love is in the air. But so are airborne particles that transmit a global pandemic, so real-world romance isn’t an option for a lot of people. Fortunately, uh, online games still exist, at least? And where there’s a will to flirt with complete strangers, there’s a way. On this week’s episode of Kotaku’s Splitscreen podcast, we discuss sex and romance in games, with special guest, Cibele and We Met In May designer Nina Freeman.
To begin the episode, Michael Fahey and I stand aside as Ash Parrish’s dream finally comes true and she gets to discuss BioWare romances on the podcast. She delivers her hot take on Baldur’s Gate 2's only romance option for female player characters before delving into the tale of how she learned to install PC game mods entirely for the purpose of having sex with Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins. Then, in our second segment, we design the ultimate dating simulator, which—crucially—focuses on letting players see dicks, not just butts and boobs. Also, all the romance options are Sonic The Hedgehog OCs, but remixed by a procedural generation algorithm. If you think you can come up with a better dating sim, well, I don’t believe you.
We finish out the episode by bringing on Nina—whose game, Cibele, is based on her experiences with MMO romance as a teenager—to talk about those experiences alongside Fahey, who sure does have some Stories. Both contribute to an extremely interesting discussion that I wish could have lasted longer, but alas: time, like romance, is fleeting.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
Nathan: Nina and Fahey, when you first experienced romance in an online game, how did it begin? What was the initial step that led you to be like “Oh, this is maybe something more than a standard online interaction?”
Nina: For me, Cibele is based on not my first online relationship; I feel like I was sort of a teen veteran at that point. So Cibele is based on my experiences playing Final Fantasy XI, and I had been playing that game since I was 14. I didn’t really have a dating life as a kid in real life. All of my first experiences of romance were in FFXI. I had been involved with, like, multiple people. It wasn’t anything that intense until the events of Cibele happened—so around when I was 18. But I was, like, flirting with people online when I was really young. They were my age; some of them I met in person later in life, so I know they were my age.
It just was natural. I was a kid, so I wanted to find someone to flirt with. That’s a natural thing for someone that age. So of course, anywhere where that was available—whether it’s online or in real life—I was going for it.
Fahey: It was much the same in my situation. Well, not much the same; I was married at a young age, in my early 20s. My wife ended up leaving me for everybody—literally everyone in our friend circle. It was really weird. When she left, I got online. I was socially awkward. I mean, I did well in social situations, but I didn’t know where to seek them out. But online, I had total control of everything. I was a good writer. I could talk to everyone. Once voice chat came up, I had my radio voice, which was lovely. I just met so many people.
I think there are a lot of people online who spend all their time online and are looking for a connection. So one day I’m playing EverQuest, and I’m running through the woods with a guildmate, and I realize I’ve been playing with this guildmate every day for a month, and we’ve been talking about our personal stuff. I knew about her husband that she wasn’t into so much. She’d bring up the husband again and again in negative circumstances. I knew she had a kid, and I liked kids. Suddenly, the sun’s going down, and we’re sitting in a field after killing some lions, and there’s this warm feeling that comes up. It was like “Wow, this is something real happening here.”
Ash: Was that your first date?
Fahey: It was the first date with one of many people. This person ended up getting angry and lashing out at me after her husband found our chat logs.
Fahey: Nothing happened sexually. There was no cyber. But her husband found her logs of us being romantic and pursuing that online romance ideal. So she disappeared, just like that, which is a special thing in MMO romance. This person can be your everything, and the next minute, they’re gone.
Ash: They have transferred servers.
Fahey: So it came from loneliness and the convenience of online. It’s like Amazon for romance, only you can’t go by other people’s reviews? I don’t know.
I’m sorry, Nina. I speak inappropriately at all times.
Nina: Oh no, it’s a really interesting story. Especially for someone from my perspective, where I was so young for online relationships. I kinda stopped doing online game flirtations after the events that happened in Cibele, so I was 18 or 19. I feel like my adult experiences of romance are very different from that era of my life, so it’s very interesting to hear from someone who was doing that at a different age than I was—different life experience.
Fahey: As an older man, I got finagled a few times. Younger women are very passionate about finding people online, and if they latch onto you—I don’t want to say “latch onto you,” because it makes it sound like they’re doing something wrong. But they’re very impressionable, and they feel like it’s very real. You have to be very careful if you’re an older person online. Younger people are malleable in a way where you should not be involved. At all.
Nina: Yeah, I stream on Twitch all the time, and I have a hard rule for my channel where if you’re under 18, I just ban you outright, because I don’t want to create a space where those connections can even possibly happen. It’s obviously note safe. And as someone who was a kid in these situations, seeking out romance in an online game, these kids out there aren’t necessarily telling their parents what’s going on in their online lives. Especially at that age, you don’t want your parents involved. So as adults, it’s our responsibility to make sure that spaces are safe and we’re setting hard rules for our communities. Because at least at that time, it’s not like the game was doing anything to prevent it. So I agree, it’s an adult responsibility for sure.
Nathan: On one hand, it feels like the idea of romance in MMOs has become a little bit more normalized than it used to be, but on the other, I think you now hear a lot of stories about people making inappropriate comments toward women streamers or getting very obsessed with their favorite streamers regardless of gender—parasocial relationships and things like that. How do you think what came before in MMOs and games like that informs this current era of people seeking out what they feel are very powerful relationships online?
Nina: In our generations as people who kind of grew up online, we know the medium and the limitations of it. So actually, what I wanted to explore in Cibele is how online relationships have sort of a physical element even if you haven’t met the person. In online games, there’s a progression of, you know, you’re talking through text chat, which feels physical, but then if you get into voice chat, the physicality of people’s voices really changes the dynamic of a relationship and how you relate to each other. And then even talking on the phone, you have the phone pressed up against your face—there’s something physical about that. And then sending pictures of each other to one another—you’re showing your bodies to each other, whether it’s a nude or not. It’s a physical activity. So I think it’s a really interesting element of online romance: It isn’t just digital. Our bodies are still involved.
So maybe interesting from the streaming perspective is, with the parasocial relationship element, you see the streamer—not all streamers, there are VTubers and people who don’t use webcams—but as a streamer, I’m very aware that I’m physically visible to people. So I find it important to set boundaries and things like that. I think the streaming conversation is a different one, but it’s good to be aware in all these situations of our physicality in the medium. Because it is real, even if we’re on the computer. There’s still a real body there.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!