1. dating games, part i: why i love saints row iv, or how to dismantle a heteronormative romance culture

    the saints row series started as a grand theft auto derivative — an ‘open world’ game where yr dropped in a city and given missions and tools to accomplish them with, which usually involves stealing cars and shooting everyone. but by the third game the series took a parodic turn; by the fourth, you’re fighting aliens inside a matrix-like simulation of earth in which they have superpowers. oh, and you’re the president of the united states.

    and the writing is actually good. it’s good! the game is genuinely funny in a way that videogames rarely are — its humour is based on undermining game tropes rather than mindlessly invoking them. it makes fun of a lot of established conventions in contemporary games but it also doesn’t need you to have played the last five years of big budget bullshit to engage with it.

    i like saints row IV a lot. and one of the reasons i like it is that it does some of the same work around romance narratives that queers do.

    a thing about queers is that some of us are engaged in this project of deprivileging romantic relationships and elevating friend relationships, trying to treat everyone we’re close to in our life with the same respect and tenderness that heterosexual culture tells us to reserve for our One True Love. and sometimes that means someone asks you out on a date and then you don’t know whether they meant like, a friend-date or a date-date and then you spend a while flipping out about what that distinction actually means and whether you’re terrible at reading signals and what you should wear. but also! sometimes it means that you go out on a date with a friend and everyone has a really good time – all the fun of dating without much of the anxiety.

    as a part of its attack on the conventions of contemporary mainstream games, saints row IV includes “romance” mechanics. for me, these are pretty strongly associated with bioware roleplaying games, in which the model is usually like this: player chooses a nonplayer character object of interest early on, player chooses a series of obvious correct dialogue choices to ingratiate themselves with that character over the course of the game, player sleeps with that character at the game’s climax in an awkward softcore porn sequence, player gets an achievement for completing a relationship quest. these games have been praised for their human interactions and inclusion of queer characters but they portray romantic and sexual relationships in really instrumental ways. sex is the goal, and you get there by telling someone everything they want to hear. gross.

    in saints row IV, you hang out with your friends on a big spaceship in between fighting aliens. you can walk around the ship and approach any of them at any time, and when you do, you’re given two options. one key is labeled “speak with ____” and another is labeled “romance ____.” when you press the romance button, you get a little cutscene between the two characters in which they decide to fuck, the screen fades to black, and then it’s over. but nothing’s changed – you can do this with anyone you want and nobody gets upset at you.

    it’s a simple move but it so effectively shifts sex to being an everyday, normal, maybe even kind of boring thing that isn’t the ultimate goal of your character but is maybe just a part of their daily life. later in the game you might get in a car and sing along to the radio with a character you fucked earlier, or fight hordes or aliens alongside them, and it’s still all about your friendships. none of your relationships are elevated to partner status regardless of how many times you fuck and nobody is jealous or anything and maybe in this respect it’s kind of unrealistic but if so it’s at least a kind of aspirational unrealism, a model of sexuality that seems so much healthier and more radical than that depicted in games like mass effect.

    so yeah, everyone always seems surprised when i talk about how much i love saints row probably since it scans on first glance as a big budget Videogame about bros shooting and punching aliens but for this reason alone it rules. and so maybe it’s fitting that the one time i played saints row IV with another person over the internet was a date with a friend.

    N keeps showing up on my friends list, online and logged in to SRIV. eventually one of us brings up the idea of playing together, and pretty soon we’re running around the simulated city together, hopping across rooftops and tossing aliens through the air. we don’t have voice chat working so we just have to type in the little chat window. but even without the ability to speak verbally, just being in the same virtual space together feels like a kind of communication.

    one of the first things we do is start playing around with vehicles, which become obsolete really quick in the main game because when you can run forever way faster than any car you don’t really need to drive anymore. but! the game is built so that you can have multiple characters in a car or on a motorcycle, so it seems like this fun thing we can do together. she hops on a motorcycle and i jump on the back.

    as she starts speeding down the road i pull out the dubstep gun, which is a weapon that fires explosive neon beats and forces everyone within range to begin dancing uncontrollably. we are rocketing down a tunnel, swerving between traffic, as swirling bolts of energy lance outwards, exploding everything they come into contact with.

    it’s pretty cool.

    we don’t really have any goals; we play through a couple of short missions together, but what sticks with me is this sort of weird, nondirected play.

    at one point i start driving a truck and she jumps up and does a handstand on it then totally falls off when i start accelerating.

    this kind of aimless fucking around is one reason why these sorts of games are demonized: they’re all about unproductive violence, meaningless rampages, pointless destruction. but driving around on a motorcycle in shutter shades while blowing things up with weaponized dubstep was a totally different thing with a friend. it was the equivalent of just hanging out and being gross together in physical space. i think that’s probably the reason why i like twitter so much, too.

    in the time since we played SRIV together, N’s become kind of a big sister figure to me. i’ve lost track of the number of times i’ve been stressing out on twitter about some bullshit about games or gender or whatever and she’s come in and been like well what about this, and i’m like oh wow i can’t believe i didn’t think about that. i’m constantly amazed by her patience and wisdom and sense of humour and inventiveness. and maybe more than anything i value the time we get spend together whenever we’re in the same city, just fucking around and hanging out and sharing space.

    there’s this quote that i think is probably from michael warner but that i can’t find a source for, about how rad it still is to look around at a gathering of queer folks and try to trace the myriad connections between people, ties that go beyond the blood and marriage connections that organize so much of straight life. i’ve got a complicated relationship to the word ‘queer’ lately and i’m well aware of the ways that relationship diversity and complexity can conceal hurt and complications but on some level it’s still a really cool thing to think about these weird alternative networks of friends, lovers, and families:

    we can go on dates with our friends and we can have sisters we didn’t grow up with in a literal sense but whose work and presence have always been in our lives even if we didn’t realize it and we can honor and value all kinds of relationships that don’t have legal or societal validation and we can proliferate new and weird and powerful ways of relating to one another and we can resist the privatization of social life and care and we can create queer counterpublics we can fuck our comrades on a spaceship and then get in a car with them and sing along to paula abdul and fight robots with them.

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    I love that this person loves Saints Row IV for very specific reasons that would never have occurred to me because I’m...
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