In fandom, the rules of fiction don’t matter, or at least matter a lot less. This is what allows shipping to exist, where fans write fanfiction, draw fanart, and get enthusiastic by a couple that may never happen in the game’s canon. Fandoms for video games this year were enthusiastic and loud, and sometimes cropped up in unexpected places.
All it took was a winning smile. From the moment most players saw Breath of the Wild’s Prince Sidon, they were charmed by him. He’s a really nice, genuine friend to Link, who cheers him on through your boss fight with Divine Beast Vah Ruta. It also doesn’t help that he’s like eight feet tall, perpetually shirtless, and has an eight pack. But more than just being horny for the character, Sidon fans also really wanted to see him get together with Link.
To say that Link has chemistry with anyone is a stretch. Although the game shows other characters like Mipha and Zelda expressing interest in Link, he’s got the emotional range of a block of wood. He’s deliberately built to be a cypher that allows players to think of their adventures in Hyrule as their own. So when players say that they ship Link and Sidon, what they really mean is that they, themselves, want to kiss the handsome fish prince.
Nintendo’s first big release of the year was a sign of the times for the company. While their games are normally quite chaste, players this year noticed a new, kinda horny streak in them. Twintelle from Arms garner a cartoon wolf-esque reaction among fighting game fans. Pauline, the damsel in distress from Donkey Kong, returned for Super Mario Odyssey as a pant-suited, jazz singing mayor, and people started shipping her with Princess Peach. Trying to understand where it comes from is like a chicken or egg situation. Is Nintendo trying to court a fandom with their new characters, or has better character design naturally led to a feverish, fandom-y response? In either case, it means we get a lot of cool fanart, and I’m all for it.
As a dating sim, Dream Daddy wasn’t groundbreaking. Although fatherhood was emphasized in its plot, it still hits most of the fun, if predictable, tropes from the game genre I love. It’s perhaps because of its by-the-numbers nature that so many players new to the genre warmed to Dream Daddy where they might usually scoff.
In part that’s because of the warm and open writing. When you pursue your dad of choice, there’s no judgement or tongue-in-cheek humor. You genuinely learn about the struggles of raising a kid on your own and get to know someone who can relate to you. This is emphasized by the game making you create a “Dadsona,” someone who might look goofy or look just like you, and who can be gay, straight or bi, and also cis or trans. The best part of dating sims is falling in love with a fictional love interest, and while many games have you play as a nameless but distinct protagonist, Dream Daddy wants you to play the game authentically as you. It’s approachable enough that people playing it ironically might find themselves getting attached to someone.
The game ended up being controversial for some content that was data mined by players eager to learn more about Joseph, the wholesome christian dad. According to some players, they found unused assets in the game indicating he might be part of some evil, human sacrificing cult. Queer players who are eager to find representation in video games were disappointed that one of Dream Daddy’s canonically bisexual characters may be less than perfect. Still, this ending isn’t in a version of the game that anyone has played, as no one has been able to trigger it. Until they do, Dream Daddy is still a nice, pleasant game, where people unfamiliar with fandom and shipping can dip their toes into that culture.
When my coworkers got their hands on Persona 5, they all told me that I’d love Yusuke, and they were right. He’s got panache—he’s a flamboyant and talented artist with a keen eye for aesthetics, and he’s a little bit of an asshole. He’s pretty similar to most of my actual, in real life friends. My coworkers always warned me that Yusuke could be infuriating. Despite his experiences of loneliness and desire for self expression lining up with my experiences as a queer person, Persona 5 never made the implicit explicit regarding Yusuke’s sexuality. It did get on my nerves a little, but after twenty eight years of being alive on god’s green earth I now know I can just read fanfiction.
When games like Persona 5 vaguely gesture at themes of queerness but don’t take the plunge into including queer characters, fans have always taken it upon themselves to write materials that supplement the text. Persona in particular has made some overtures towards characters being queer but not gone all the way. In Persona 4, the rebellious Kanji struggles with his sexuality but the game doesn’t explicitly fall one way or the other, even if it’s strongly hinted that he’s gay. In the same game the character Yosuke had a particularly close relationship to the protagonist, and after fans found some unused voice lines that were overtly romantic, they speculated that he may have been a cut romantic option. When these games fall short, fans come together to bridge the gap. Fandom as we know it has its roots in women watching Star Trek and thinking Kirk and Spock are in love and writing zines about it and mailing them to each other. Tumblr is just that, without the involvement of the United States Postal Service.
In the case of this game, players see queerness all over the subtext. On fanfiction website Archive Of Our Own, fics in the Persona 5 fandom are about equally matched between the protagonist and Goro Akechi, the protagonist and Ryuji Sakamoto, and yeah, the protagonist and Yusuke. They all have different kind of relationships to the protagonist—one playful and adversarial, another a bond between bros that’s surprisingly tender, and the last based around a love of art that allows these two people to learn about each other. Each of these kinds of relationships are something queer fans can see themselves in, so they make stories that speak to their own experiences. Hell, as I told Luke Plunkett, my own attraction to the sexy doctor in the game has everything to do with her looking like the women I crushed on before I knew I was bisexual. I love being able to date her at all, but I’d be even happier if I could date her as a woman. That’s what fanfiction is for.
The Mass Effect series is usually a haven for people who want to have sex with aliens and write fanfiction about it, but Andromeda had a rocky launch. Even disregarding the graphical glitches that people could not stop talking about, players were frustrated by the romantic options, especially which genders of protagonist could date which character.
In general, players felt that the same sex romances were lacking. Many women were expecting to be able to romance the brusque Cora, only to find that she was straight. Men who played were hoping to have more options for dating men, and found that there were only two gay male romance options in the game. To some this was disappointing, especially because Mass Effect and Bioware games in general have made an effort to be inclusive of different sexual orientations in their romances.
In June, the game would be patched to include another male romance—the Angaran Jaal. Before this, the Andromeda protagonist didn’t have a male romance that was a squadmate, and Angaran’s have a fluid approach to gender, so adding him as an option made sense. While players love Jaal in general, making him more available for wooing did not help the reception for this game.
“Hang the Fool,” a McHanzo fic that is by far the games’ most popular, garnering over 300,000 hits of Archive of Our Own, got its own fanzine this year. While McHanzo reigns supreme, the popularity of femmeslash in Overwatch fandom is still strong. Just based on fics alone, McHanzo and Reaper76 are still the two most popular pairings by a wide margin, but Pharmercy and Widowtracer have around a thousand fics each. In other fandoms, pairings between women are much rarer, but then again, Overwatch has a lot more female characters than most television shows, movies and video games.
While the Overwatch fandom has grown over this year, they haven’t developed any particular new hit ships. While the novelty of Moira and Mercy, two doctors with screamingly different approaches to ethics, tickled people’s fancy it didn’t quite catch on. As in a lot of big fandoms that have reached a consensus on what the big pairings are, smaller, situation trends started to crop up, especially based around skins. For a brief moment, the fandom was all about Zenyatta’s Lunar New Year skin. For another, it was Symmetra’s dragon skin. Now, they’re shipping specific character skins together.
When Sombra got an ice themed skin in the recent winter event, fans started making fire and ice themed fan art of the her and Symmetra together right away. Sombra and Symmetra had some supporters before this, but seeing the characters in thematically opposed skins just set something off among fandom. It just looks good, and who am I deny that attraction is in part based on looks? It’s not the strangest pairing I’ve ever seen—I’ve read a fic where Harry Potter fucks the giant squid. And you know what, there’s no shame in being superficial. Those skins look good together. Ship it.
Sometimes you get attached to a character and want to read fanfiction about them, only to find that there’s almost none. A fandom just didn’t spring up around that piece of media for whatever reason. Even if you think that the pieces are all there for a thriving community of writers and artists, it just didn’t happen. Maybe there wasn’t that one good pairing that got people excited. Maybe it’s alienating to young women, who make up the bulk of fandom. No matter the reason, you get lost, adrift, wondering if it’s worth it just to write your own fic, knowing few people will read it. I’m always curious about these fandom vacuums. You know what, I’ll just be honest—this is about Destiny 2, and the lack of Cayde-6 fic.
Destiny 2 has a lot of the right pieces to have a big fandom. Like Overwatch, its lore is vague enough for people to be able to run wild in it, defined enough that the world seems like a good place to spend time in, and, to one up Overwatch, it also has Nathan Fillion. Despite all this, there aren’t any huge ships in Destiny . Most fics on AO3 are general fiction about people’s adventures with their guardians. When they do ship a guardian with another character, it’s usually another guardian original character. Despite Cayde-6's flirtatious nature and charismatic voice acting, there isn’t a huge Cayde-6 fandom. There is some romantic fic about Cayde—trust me, I’ve read them—but for the most part when people write about him, they want to go on adventures and not kiss.
This isn’t about Cayde being a robot. People ship characters that aren’t strictly human all the time. Just look at Mass Effect. It isn’t even about Cayde not fucking, because he has a son and has canonically fucked at least once. There are other robot characters in Destiny lore that have had romantic relationships with other people, so we know it can happen. It’s just that the Destiny community is not as interested in fixing the gaps in this lore as they are in shooting aliens in the head. That’s not really a criticism—I also love when you shoot a Fallen in the head and you see its soul leave its body—but it’s a different way of interacting with something as a fan than fandom is. Still, I’m disappointed. Cayde fucks, goddammit, and I want some fucking fic about it.