I’ve been playing the popular farming sim Stardew Valley for several years now, both in-game and in real life. I’ve mastered my farm, fixed the city’s community center, and built up my social status around town with everyone who lives there. However, despite all of this, and despite how much time I’ve spent cultivating my rural fortress, I still haven’t been able to choose who to marry. And frankly, the idea of choosing one, and alienating the rest of my suitors, terrifies me.
Why is this? What is it about choosing which set of pixels should move in with my own set of pixels? Why does this commitment, that has very little bearing on how the game will be played and very little narrative impact, paralyze me with indecision?
To be clear, my concern is about dating systems that do not have any bearing on gameplay outcomes. Though choosing a romantic partner in a video game is perhaps not as daunting as settling down with a romantic partner in real life, it still bears the weight of significance. You are making a steadfast virtual commitment, after all, in the fiction of your game. You may have spent over 100 hours playing Persona 5, so when it comes time to ask someone to be your girlfriend, the pressure is on.
I was worried that perhaps I was the only one who felt this anxiety when it comes time to put a virtual ring on it, so I conducted a survey with fellow gamers, asking their dating preferences in video games, and whether or not these preferences mirrored their dating habits in the real world. The results, which have been edited down for clarity and time, revealed a primary interest in people making their own criteria for choosing their virtual partners.
For some, the choice was simply a matter of a simple guiding identity. “Pink,” said one responder. “Gay,” responded another. One person said, “If the [player] character is more of a blank slate, I just pick the one with the coolest hair.” For these players, dating in a game is about finding the right vibe and following it with abandon.
On the topic of the person motivated by cool hair, other gamers had more specific aesthetic concerns guiding their love lives. Rebecca S. said “… it’s the same with how I pick my Pokémon teams. Whoever is the cutest lol. I’ve played [Harvest Moon] Back To Nature so many times. I’ve married Popuri a few times. She’s a cry baby (which I identify with).” Choosing a romantic partner based on ‘cuteness,’ and the comparison to choosing a team line-up in Pokémon is an astute comparison. A video game has a strong visual component, so choosing the visual make-up of your character and their true love will rely heavily on visual chemistry. Basically, can you picture yourself with them — literally, does the picture in your head of them together evoke joy?
For other gamers, the dating game isn’t just about looks. They’re looking for a deeper connection. They’re looking for character — not just in their romance options, but in themselves. You’re not picking out a significant other for yourself, you’re choosing one for your player character, and who are they? What does the character want in a partner?
Brianna B. says, “If there are multiple ladies available for romancing, I will pretty much universally play my character as kind of a bad dude and try to romance all of them. In both Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, I married my first wife after every gal in town was in love with me and had every intention to break things off and marry someone else pretty soon after.”
Similarly, Freddie P. said, “The more personality the protag has, the more I lean towards picking whoever I think is the best match for them based on the interactions and conversations they have with the romance options. For Persona 5, that was Makoto the first time around because I was like ‘aw they’re cute together.’”
The narrative outcome of the romance weighs heavily on a lot of players’ minds. Dating can’t just be cute or steamy, it has to be reasonably canonical. Romancing a side character in an action game might give you the warm fuzzies, but is it suitably heroic? Does it feel like the epic romance to match the epic adventure happening in the main plot? As Tess D. puts it, “For single romance combat games, I tend to prefer romancing “party” over “support” members. It adds extra meaning to the levels when Garrus [of Mass Effect] grabs me onto an escaping shuttle from an explosion or my character pushes Makoto out of the way of a falling pillar.”
This seems to be a common theme in people’s thoughts on dating. Who is the main character? What romance makes their story more interesting/rewarding? Romance may be, at its core, a side activity, but many players want their romantic choices to reflect the overall arc of the game up to that point. “For Mass Effect in particular, the choices were relevant to the entire trilogy so choosing a romance option that gives you that “”I remember that from two games ago”” feeling is great.” — says Treyvon J., regarding the importance of narratively relevant romances.
“I always try to pick the leader because I have ‘main character syndrome,’ so I like to pick another main character to make the narrative work,” says Brooke S, summing up the dilemma of action-style games with clear protagonists and a narrative slant toward certain love interests.
All of these notions of character agency and plot are a little harder to follow in simulator games with dating elements, like Stardew Valley or the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series. In these games, which don’t have much story beyond “you live on a farm now, get to farming”, character role-play is much more open-ended, meaning your farmer’s “personality,” and who they find romantically appealing, is completely up to you. Whereas this gives a player a lot of room for self-expression, there are often caveats, like the gender imbalance in many Harvest Moon games.
“… so I have played a good amount of Harvest Moon, which unfortunately been super hetero, so it depends on my avatar. If I played as a girl, I usually had a pretty easy time deciding because most of the guys in those games are scrubs… If my avatar was a guy, though, I had a hard time choosing because there were so many lovely girl options… Sometimes I chose the sweet, quiet, dedicated one, sometimes the nerdy nature-y girl, and sometimes the pretty wanderlust one.” — says Brandy B., regarding the often lopsided gender binary that separates romantic interests in games.
While Stardew Valley makes no distinction on who you can and can’t date based on gender, many games still do.Last year’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses has a plethora of heterosexual partners for your main character, but a severe dearth of queer ones (three for the female protagonist, and only one for the male — with two bait-and-switch “we’ll be bros forever” options).
The gender of the player character isn’t the only spectrum players may find themselves experimenting on. While human sexuality is of course its own complex galaxy of identities, video games tend to, by design, flatten the nuance out into more quantifiable “Which one are you/Which one are you interested in” flow-charts.
“If there’s not like a clear main character, I go for brooding boy/emo/daddy. I feel like they have a lot of depth, a mystery to unfold. If I’m going for a girl character, I like the artsy types, sensitive souls, creative types. Like Dorothea in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Why’d she leave the opera? Even if the game doesn’t actually answer it, I have fun getting invested,” says Brooke S. again, echoing the different parameters that go into dating characters of different genders.
Not every player is going to be very strict about their own immersion in role-playing, though, and for them the choice for romance usually comes out to more personal taste — inserting themselves and their own preferences into the narrative. “When I do find a character that I like, they’re typically a strong aspect of myself that I look for in someone else,” says Zach D.
“I made choices based on who was the meanest and most withholding initially. Something about getting the mean characters to come around was…very gratifying.” — says Courtney J.
“I usually go for the girl who is most challenging to win over! Hopefully that doesn’t say much about me in real life but it’s so satisfying in a game lol” — adds Kayla E., summarizing the way the gaming preferences can also reveal a player’s (perhaps unconscious) romantic interests.
That said, it does seem that most players do not necessarily look for traits they find attractive in real life. The act of playing a game and assuming any avatar of any kind seems to act as a buffer, providing players free rein to pursue anyone available, for any reason they can think of. Most people didn’t believe they intentionally pursued the same kind of partners in games that they do in real life, because, as Courtney J. points out: “It’s unrealistic. And it’s unrealistic in the most purposeful, dramatic way.” These games are of course meant as an act of fiction, and any means of choosing who you want to romance is equally valid. It’s your avatar, date who you want to date!
The reasons we feel compelled to choose any one character over another in a game is an ultimately irrelevant one, but because of this lack of relevance, it’s also a quintessentially personal choice. The only factors that matter are what the choice means to you. While the romantic aspect of these in-game romances is only pixel-deep, it does give players a chance to examine what personality types and what type of character dynamics are compelling to them, and makes a character feel more real.
None of which helps me choose who to court in Stardew Valley, but hey, at least now I know why I’m so stuck.
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