I recently got a copy of the Mass Effect trilogy. And playing through it, I've been thinking a lot lately about relationships in video games. Not just romances; but yes, the romances. Not too long ago Mattie Brice wrote a piece on romance in roleplaying games, which also fuels this whole train of thought.
My deep desire is to see games take relationships seriously.
Taking relationships seriously means taking queer relationships seriously. And I don't mean having that token same-sex option which falls into all the same tropes as the hetero options. And yet some games can't even work themselves up to this barest nodding glance in the vague direction of where queer relationships might lie (ME2 I'm side-eyeing you). I always play the same-sex options. Because I want to, sure, but in truth because they're typically less painful than the alternatives. And though I'm disappointed every time, I still secretly nourish that yearning hope that maybe this time they might actually be, even if only in faint moments, queer.
Taking queer relationships seriously means taking sexuality seriously. Means acknowledging that not everyone falls squarely under labels like "lesbian", "bi", or "straight". Where are those who fall between? The heteroflexible people who can't treat their non-straight relationships with the same committed seriousness, can't treat them as "real"? Where are the protagonists who fall for those cads only to get their hearts broken? Where are the people who "know" they're straight or gay, but nevertheless find themselves falling for someone outside those narrow confines? The straight men suddenly unabashed to throw his heart before another man, when he's the right man? The dykes suddenly questioning entire lives, worrying about loosing cred with the circle of friends they've built lives up with? And where is the closet? Where are the queers too scared to express themselves, hiding behind heteronormative masques? Where are the lovers able to see through their façades, lovers safe enough or dangerous enough to break down the walls of silence? Heroes who open closet doors to expose a whole new life free from that secret fear? Villains who expose the lie, who beckon and seduce but leave vulnerable in the streets? And where are the queers who live in open closets, the kind who live mostly-straight lives but don't talk about what goes on beneath the sheets, the kind who will only flirt in solitary spaces and only then once they've discerned both your proclivities and your discretion?
The call for queer relationships is not a call for moar gayseks. Relationships are queer. The call for queer relationships is the call for real relationships. The kind of relationships that change you. People must learn to bend before they can learn to embrace. And sometimes bending, means breaking. Queerness is not about sex; queerness is about certain complexities in what it is to be human, complexities that emerge once we become willing to take human lives and their stories seriously. Where do we find these stories of growth and loss and adaptation? We're willing to tell them and see them in books and in movies. The fact that they are so suspiciously lacking in games tells us we don't take games seriously. Games aren't a medium for telling stories. Games can't make us cry and scream, can't make us feel joy or loss. Games can't expose us to truth, can't change the ways we see the world, can't make us question long-held beliefs. Games can't break open our hearts and minds, can't be carried around within us, can't get under our skin, worm their way into thoughts, leaving painful burrows begging to be filled, by a way of living, by a faith, by more stories. Games can't, because we won't let them.
Taking relationships seriously means taking human lives seriously. Relationships are not built by accumulating points. It's not a matter of giving enough gifts, or the right gifts, or parroting the right lines at regular intervals. Connections are not made between people who agree entirely in all things. Connections are made through conflict: through shared suffering at the hands of external conflict, and through the delicate interpersonal conflict of establishing and relinquishing personal boundaries. Conflict exposes vulnerability, and when that exposure is intentional, when that vulnerability is respected and reciprocated, emotional connections are formed. Which is why we so often hate those who see us break down. Which is why the wrong gaffe or an unintentional insult can destroy a relationship. Which is why miscommunications matter so much.
Which is why human relationships are never binary. Jealousy is not a problem for couples, there is always a third, an intrusive third whose feet disrupt the lines we spent so long to draw. There can be no lingering looks nor wandering eyes without someone, something, to be held in those eyes. We love and hate those who remind us of who we've loved, of who we've been. Serial monogamy is not monogamous. Every lover we've ever taken is still within us; without them we would not be who we have become. Our new relationships are formed as much around the scars of past relationships as they are around the current participants. Who we allow ourselves to love depends as much on who we allow society to see us love as it does on whom we actually cherish. To elide the community within which a relationship forms is to elide the content and significance of that relationship. To say nothing of our elision of the plurality of relationships. Even in our monogamist culture we admit that romances exist alongside other intimacies: deep friendships formed around a shared survival of violence, abuse, or loss; familial bonds in cultures where family still means something; camaraderie in work or revolution. But the stories our games our allowed to tell elide these other intimacies as surely as they elide the possibility of being in faithful committed sexual/romantic relationships with more than one partner.
Taking relationships seriously means seeing them as a state of being, not as a destination. Game romances are (almost1) invariably fixated on consummation— either having sex for the first time, just before the last mission; or giving birth after having gotten married. This focus on consummation is profoundly sexist. It reiterates the fuck-'em-and-leave-'em ideology which prevents women and forbids men from forming healthy lasting relationships. It reinscribes the toxic ideology that intimacy can only mean sex, and that the only purpose of sex is procreation. Not only is this focus on consummation sexist, it does a profound disservice to the characters involved. The sexism not only objectifies real-world humans, denying them a rich inner life in which relationships can actually bear meaning, it also objectifies the characters, rendering them into caricatures, denying them the possibility of being well-rounded well-textured images capable of signifying the rich complexity of real-world relationships.
Imagine. In ME3 when Shepard starts having nightmares, imagine if rather than sitting on the edge of the bed trying to comfort herself in a dark and empty room, imagine if instead her lover were there to comfort her in those moments. Imagine how much more meaningful it would be to see the impact of those nightmares on their relationship, to see how those moments of intimacy help Shepard keep it together. Or if she doesn't have a lover at that point, then imagine how much more meaning there would be in that dark and empty room, in the isolation of being a hero, in the hollow silences of all the dead she's left behind. From a programming and scriptwriting perspective, adding the lover into these scenes would be trivial; and yet, this moment for enriching the story is overlooked because relationships are only about consummation, not about shared lives.
This is not simply a call for a less sexist society and for healthy attitudes towards relationships, this is a call for game-writers to stand up and embrace games as a valid literary medium. Just think of all the stories games deny themselves by refusing to address the full spectrum of sexual identities, by refusing to address relationships that change the participants, by refusing to address the many different forms of intimacy or the plurality of our relationships, by refusing to consider the communities in which these relationships are formed, by refusing to explore everything that happens after the first time they have sex. Even in our sexist society we already tell these stories in other media, so why not in games?