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Gaming As an Aromantic: No Ships in These Ports

Gaming As an Aromantic: No Ships in These Ports

Valentine's Day is upon us yet again, filled with chocolates, flowers, and the generally romantic vibe so many people love. But did you know that this isn't the case in the land of a thousand lakes? In Finland, this day is to celebrate the platonic side of the emotion and is even dubbed Friendship Day (Ystävän päivä)! I’ve always been proud of this distinction, as I value friendship over the idea of romantic love. This stance, however, is more troublesome than one may think.

Before we get into it, some background. Aromanticism is defined as a “lack of romantic attraction to others; low or absent desire for romantic activity”, meaning people leaning toward it don’t really feel “love” as many forms of media would have us see it. I don't know if I’d classify myself as an aromantic, but I definitely have leanings towards it! Aside from never really having any crushes in videogames or other media, I also have a very hard time grasping the whole “shipping” thing, and I’m absolutely oblivious to any form of romantic interaction except on an intellectual level! Don’t get me wrong, I am married and happily so, and even those who identify as aromantic may feel the emotion on rare occasions, but the key word here is rare. Where a typical gamer may find themselves growing attached to characters in games, maybe even going as far as developing a crush, I never get that “far”. In my case, I usually end up hunting down strong friendships and seeing character interactions from that viewpoint. I also have no idea if I’m being flirted with and will react accordingly. I have no idea how I’m married, either.

Remember kids, be like Mordin. No time for smut, only science!

So, why is this all important? You’ve possibly played a game where your relationships with other characters are tracked, getting special cutscenes or interactions when you hit a certain level, often culminating in a declaration of love. If so, have you ever wondered what would happen if you didn’t pursue any character romantically or try your best to avoid it? The results of this are, more often than not, either missing out on content, getting treated like a loser, or simply being ignored altogether! Oftentimes, love feels downright mandatory in games, making someone who has little interest in the subject feel like a fish out of water. Let me give an example of three different cases:

In my quest to make friends and nothing but, one of the more confusing responses games have to romance avoidance is the forced love interest. One of my favourite examples of this is in the original Mass Effect. In the franchise, your interaction and relationship with your crew is pretty paramount, meaning a relationship between your Shepard and one of the crewmates is natural. However, if you decide to keep it professional, you may find yourself suddenly in bed with one of your two human teammates. When this happened to me, I was absolutely stunned and confused! I went as far as loading old saves, trying to figure out which flag I had tripped, but to no avail. It would seem my Shepard had, and would always, love Ashley. Should have left her on Virmire.

Keep it professional, everyone

Though not completely related, another fascinating decision in Mass Effect 2 is related to your romance options. When starting off the game, if you do not happen to have an exported save from the previous game, you are allowed to answer some basic questions to fill in the blanks of the previous title and its major decisions. One major decision that affects the story of the sequel is who your Commander Shepard romanced before the beginning of the game, with you being presented with a few options. This makes sense, as it would naturally affect any future interactions. What does not make as much sense is how this decision is handled further on.

Near the penultimate mission of the game, you have an intimate moment with your current paramour. As the last mission is implied to be one with little chance of return, this scene is meant to convey the desperation and sadness of the characters’ impending doom, solidifying their relationship. Through either an uninformed choice or a bug, my Shepard ended up having been in a relationship with Liara, a character not in your crew. So, instead of getting a heartfelt one-to-one with a character, a last night of passion, or even a casual pat on the back, I got a scene wherein the legendary space hero picked up a picture of Liara and stared at it a bit in silence. Classy.

One more example and then I promise I’ll move on. In Dragon’s Dogma (major spoilers ahead, skip this paragraph if you want to avoid it), the Dragon that steals your heart is up to much more than burning a few houses and lounging atop a mountain. After you reach a certain point in the game, the fiend will present you with a cruel choice: will you face him in combat and surely die, or will you sacrifice your one true love to him, ending his attack and saving your life? Who is this true love, you ask? Well, that's the fun part. The game uses an Affinity system, wherein interacting with any NPC will raise their affinity toward you. When you pass a certain point, the game will check who has the highest affinity and decide that is your true love. Some NPCs start off with a higher affinity and gain it much faster, so you’ll have these options more often than not, but it’s equally possible that the vendor you talked to one too many times is picked. Maybe the Dragon is as oblivious as I am?

Dragons: great at starting fires, horrible at giving romantic advice

So, being forced into a relationship so the plot can hit the notes it wants is not fun, but it is understandable; quite a few stories use love to set the tone and emotion of a scene, so I shouldn’t really complain. I still will, though. While romantic love is undeniably powerful, I would like to think familial or even platonic love is just as important! Thankfully, this way of thinking has seen some popularity in games, with titles such as God of War (2018), The Last of Us, The Last Guardian, and A Plague Tale focusing on the bonds between friends and family, though most aren't the cheeriest stories told. If Lord of the Rings taught me anything, it’s how a bond between friends can motivate you to do great things. However, many games attribute prioritising friendship or simply not having a significant other as very negative and unfavourable. A prime example of this is the Persona series.

If you are not familiar, the Persona games — at least from the third game onward — are a mix of dungeon crawling and visual novel. Although the games have a lot of action because you fight baddies in said dungeons through physical manifestations of your psyche, the way you make these Personae stronger is by strengthening the bonds between the playable character and your cohorts. This is where the visual novel aspect comes into play, as you can hang out and get to know them in order to slowly build your Social Link ranks with them, with each rank offering new skills and perks. The final rank, rank 10, is usually the culmination of your relationship, which in the case of a female teammate you’ve triggered the right flags with, is their declaration of love. This is all fine and dandy as you can easily just not display any romantic interest, and you can still attain the maximum rank. However, there is an uncomfortable side effect to this.

In Japanese culture, during Valentine's Day (topical, huh?), it is traditional for girls and women to give gifts to their prospective paramours, which is also the case in the Persona games. If you happen to have a sweetheart, you will receive a special cutscene with them; it’s all very wholesome. If you don’t have one, however, you end up spending your day with the other guys in your group. This could be a good chance to let their characters develop or have some introspection or just a nice night out with the boys, but alas, in these cases, it is played for laughs; “oh woe is me, I have not any chocolate gained, and so I do unto thee weep! Boo hoo, I say!” I may be exaggerating a bit. I value friendship a lot, so being told wanting to hang out with my friends always left me in a disappointed mood. But, to be fair, this may also be a cultural thing. With the ever-declining birth rates of Japan, I can understand the games wanting their fans to consider a relationship to be something to strive for! However, making the alternative feel like “losing” is a step too far.

The final example I’d like to share with you is what I have lovingly titled the Emblem issue. For the uninitiated, the Fire Emblem series consists of strategy games where you, a strategist, lead a band of warriors to victory against evil knights, dragons, and monsters. In the later titles, the series introduced a mechanic where warriors fighting next to each other increased their affinity, gaining bonuses and special cutscenes when thresholds were met. In theory, this sounds like a fine system and makes the creation of organic character relationships possible, and this it was for a while!

I still wonder if my friends made shipping spreadsheets

When I played, this seemed to be the case; I let the relationships form as they may and didn’t pay it much mind. I was, therefore, flabbergasted to learn all of my friends who played the games had a very specific vision of which characters should end up together, going out of their way to, for lack of a better word, min-max the relationships. Before you light that pitchfork on fire, I do not think this is a bad thing! To each their own, after all, and the way they described their reasoning made sense! One relationship just felt better than another, and they just simply enjoyed the shipping. This was more of an interesting difference in our points of view and a learning experience to boot! But, if I’m being honest, having such different experiences and goals while playing made discussing the game difficult and made me jealous of how much more they seemed to get out of the experience.

The awkward feeling of not being on the same page or wavelength with those important to you about something you’re passionate about can be discouraging. While you shouldn’t blindly follow the opinions of others or feel lesser for thinking differently, not being able to join in the fun, so to speak, does affect you. As romantic love is such a strong, and relatable, emotion, its use in videogames is pretty prevalent, and it is this prevalence which sometimes makes me feel like I’m “playing games wrong”; I don’t rush to save my fated love, but I’ll burn the world if it means helping a buddy out. Imagine, if you will, a game where your sole motivator is chocolate. Everyone likes chocolate, so you’ve been tasked with getting chocolate back from the evil brussel sprout dragon because, sure, you could not continue on without it! Except you kinda sorta don’t like chocolate? So… why bother?

Screenshot 2023 07 25 at 12.21.30 PM

Before I go to my closing thoughts on the matter, I’d like to iterate that using romantic love as a motivator is not a bad thing. There is a reason it’s such a ubiquitous theme in different media from before our time and probably will be long after. However, I do believe there's room for more platonic love in media, with relationships being formed for reasons outside of romantic or sexual love. As an avid gamer and a self-proclaimed critic, my inability to feel romantic love as most people do is sometimes an obstacle to face and an unwanted one at that. I dread playing games where love is a central mechanic, as I'm worried I’ll be oblivious to some romantic undertone or will simply not enjoy the experience; there's a reason I seldom touch visual novels. Having to force myself to pick a relationship to not miss out on content is always unsatisfying, and the lack of content for the romance-disinterested is saddening. Funnily enough, I have broken a game or two by pursuing this path, making the game sweat buckets when I don’t pick the option that would lead me to a “happily ever after”.

Regardless of my ramblings, I do not think romantic love is something that should just disappear from the media. Sure, I can’t really grasp it, and dating sims will never be up my alley, but I understand how this powerful feeling can motivate and mould our lives. I only wish the other facets of the emotion, such as platonic and familial, would receive a bit more time in the limelight. A tale of bonds forged in fire, of friends through thick and thin, and of ties thicker than water are, in my opinion, just as valuable as tales of love at first sight.

Martin Heath

Martin Heath

Staff Writer

Professional Bungler

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