You can’t always get what you want.
I don’t know about you, but I’m super into video game romances, as popularized by BioWare RPGs and things of the like. They’re my (and, I think, a lot of people’s) secret shame. It’s probably not healthy to get so emotionally invested in watching piles of ones-and-zeroes making goo-goo eyes at each other, but here we are.
Traditionally, of course, video game romances, um, climax with characters locking lips and clipping through each other’s horrifying digital fleshforms in scenes too steamy for our corporeal reality. There is usually a progression, is what I’m saying. While recent games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 3 made things a bit more nuanced than “insert conversation until a triumphant sex scene falls out,” romances still tend to proceed along a pretty video-game-y line of logic: put in diligent and consistent effort, and eventually you will earn a thing. Maybe it’s sex, maybe it’s a complicated yet rewarding relationship, or maybe it’s a bittersweet tryst.
Recently, though, I played a couple games where I straight-up got shot down. And you know what? I appreciated it... after having some time to think it over. Yes, I might have quit The Witcher 3 for two months after learning of my inexorable romantic fate, but that’s beside the point. OK, not entirely beside. How about facing the point, but at a 45 degree angle? Is that good? Is everyone happy with that?
The games were Witcher 3 and Undertale. Both provided extremely different takes on the same core concept: I (as my character) wanted a relationship with somebody. Those somebodies had other ideas.
(Witcher 3 spoilers ahead.)
In The Witcher 3, I—Geralt of Rivia, slayer of countless mythical beasts and fucker of EVERYONE—did not get my typical power fantasy happy ending. The game doesn’t really shut any doors for you if you have tons of casual sexytime encounters (and believe me, there are plenty of opportunities, because The Witcher), but once you start stoking the flames with actual emotion, the stakes go way up.
The short version? I had Geralt tell his most recent ex, Triss, that he loved her. She was about to leave forever, and it was this whole big thing, and... yeah. It felt fitting at the time. Then she came back, and they made sweet witchy love in some random lighthouse, like ya do.
When I later tried to pursue a relationship with Geralt’s “true” one-and-only, Yennefer, it didn’t go the way I was expecting. Geralt didn’t get either girl. In a humorous bait-and-switch sex scene, they both turned him down.
At first I was upset, because the game had otherwise taught me that I could make a beeline from bedpost to bedpost without facing any real consequences. But this was, to be fair, different. Feelings were involved. Huge ones. This was some for-the-ages shit. I tried to have it all—as I normally would in a video game—and instead encountered video game characters who actually behaved like humans. I made very big promises to two different people, and they were not entirely pleased.
I felt guilty and a little embarrassed—not at all how I expected to feel at the conclusion of an epic like The Witcher 3. Granted, the comedy of the moment took a lot of the sting off it, but still: the game promised choice and consequence, and it delivered. There were consequences. I tried to have my cake and eat it too, and I got my just desserts. Lesson learned: when it comes to matters of the heart, don’t be a duplicitous asshole just because you can.
(Witcher 3 spoilers over. Undertale spoilers commencing.)
Undertale’s two main “romances” are, by and large, gags. In many ways they’re meant to poke fun at more traditional video games. They take place in a modified version of the game’s battle interface (SUBTEXT), and they’re over in a flash. In both cases, you get turned down—once by a hilariously incompetent skeleton, Papyrus, and again by an anime-loving reptile monster lady, Alphys.
However, the overarching message of both these “romantic” encounters is fantastic: you don’t have to date somebody to have a deep, lasting relationship with them. Papyrus, especially, exemplifies that. At the end of your date, he’s basically like, “HEY I THINK YOU’RE COOL AND ALL, BUT I JUST WANT TO BE FRIENDS.” That would be the point in many real-life romances where things get hella awkward and then people don’t talk to each other for a while—or perhaps ever again.
But with Papyrus, you can call him on the phone at any point in the game, and he’ll just tell you stuff. It’s usually weird or dumb, but it comes from the heart. (Or whatever he, a skeleton, has instead of a heart.) For me, it was like having a travel companion, even if he wasn’t always right next to me. Eventually, he helped me make friends with one of his best friends (and my former arch-nemesis), Undyne, and then I could talk to both of them whenever I wanted. I loved that dynamic so much: things didn’t work out between Papyrus and me, but we became super rad best friends anyway. Papyrus supported and helped me throughout the game, expecting nothing in return.
I feel like, in some ways, real life society kinda prods at us to date everyone we want to be close to—or to always be looking for The One if we want anything real with anybody. But that can lead to a pretty lonely lifestyle, not to mention an outlook that’s a little opportunistic and gross, even if you don’t mean for it to be. Always pursuing, always trying to curry favor and, eventually, lock something down. I’ve fallen into that trap over and over and over. Frankly, that’s been most of my twenties. A lot of games kinda subtly reinforce that mentality by treating romance as one of their ultimate goals. “Sure,” they say, “all these other characters are nice and all, but this one over here, they’re special. Focus on them the most.” It’s easy to lose sight of the here and now. It’s easy to feel like, if you’re not pushing to date somebody, what are you even doing with your time? With your social life?
More and more, I think I prefer Undertale’s approach: everyone gets to be special, even though you’re not dating or pursuing them. Nobody is a goal, a finish line. I’m not saying that’s how it should always be, but it was extremely refreshing to encounter a game like that. It gave me a lot to think about.
(Undertale spoilers over.)
Getting rejected—even in a video game—can be frustrating in the short term, but it doesn’t have to be a defeat or a personal failing. Sometimes things just aren’t meant to be. Other times, they are meant to be, but in a different form—a less fragile or volatile shape. I’m glad to see games exploring that. In some cases, it can be more interesting, or even more emotionally compelling, than a dime-a-dozen romance. Don’t get me wrong: I still want my over-the-top romance(s) for the ages, too. But, you know, a little variety never hurt anybody.