If there’s one thing popular Western RPGs are good at, it’s providing a wide variety of options so each player can pursue their own outlandish power fantasy. I’ve seen some folks boosting their strength to the point of liquifying robots with one punch, while others work on their speechcraft and talk (most) major enemies out of fighting them at all. Hell, someone must get something out of encumbrance mechanics, hauling hundreds of pounds worth of canned peaches across an unforgiving desert, and more power to them! It’s true that I enjoy outwitting strangers in these games, but what keeps me coming back happens to be more nebulous and complicated than a simple stat check: it’s the chance to bond with interesting, virtual strangers, maybe even taking them out for a date or two.
I’m far from the only one who finds value in these digital companions. Whenever some new RPG makes an impact, it doesn’t take much digging to find social media posts crushing on favorite party members, extolling their favorite ships, even going as far as uploading lovingly crafted fan art. Folks have a lot of love for their favorite characters, and it’s fair to say that they’ve become just as valued as the shooting, crafting and choices that make up the rest of each game.
While communities have slowly built up around finding and celebrating these digital crushes, the actual relationship mechanics in these games have unfortunately stagnated (or in some cases, regressed). Modern RPG companion designs are often “playersexual,” built to fall in love with your avatar, regardless of how you’ve designed them. This method has thankfully led to a proliferation of same-sex pairings: it’s not just common, but expected that your female avatar can date another woman (though there seem to be fewer m/m pairings), and that’s a refreshing change of pace compared to where we were even a decade ago. But when over half the cast is explicitly predestined to fall in love with you, it’s unsettlingly easy to see them as options instead of individuals. Choosing someone to love like you’re filling in an exam’s bubbles is certainly functional, and much of the time, it gets us where we want to go, but it also feels…icky.
Months before The Outer Worlds was set to release, Obsidian made the surprising announcement that none of your party members would be dateable. At the time, this revelation soured my enthusiasm: years of playing BioWare RPGs like Mass Effect had resulted in the habit of focusing on the one crew member I liked the most, then playing to their interests until the two of us were inseparable. Even knowing next to nothing about the cast or the game itself, I knew Obsidian were capable of writing endearing, even lovable characters. I worried that removing dating from the equation, thus disrupting the way I had played these RPGs for a good decade plus, would result in a cast that felt distant, isolated from me.
When the game finally launched a few weeks ago, I got to spend some quality time helping out Parvati. Through her, I realized that my own expectations for ideal relationships in RPGs were only scratching the surface.
Hailing from a nightmarish company town some miles away from where my escape pod crashed in the first ten minutes, Parvati is an engineer who, up till now, spent her life in the service of corporations. Her father died working to his last breath for Spacer’s Choice, and there’s this real sense that if I hadn’t dropped by and intervened, she would’ve ended up the same way: she’s far too nice to speak up for herself, and doesn’t know much about the world around her. Of course, as soon as she had an opportunity to ditch town and serve on my newly-acquired spaceship (named The Unreliable, which radiates ragtag energy), she took it in earnest.
Naturally, I brought her on board, and she took to her new life with unmatched gusto. It wasn’t long before she expressed a desire to improve her engineering skills (you can only learn so much about space exploration while stuck in a canning factory, after all), and asked if I’d help introduce her to Chief Engineer Junlei, managing an important docking bay that we already needed to visit. I helped push along an awkward meeting between the two, as Parvati struggled to ask for written correspondence, and Junlei was cheerfully letting her take her time. It was a scene that radiated chemistry for me, but it wouldn’t be until I got back on our Unreliable that she mentioned this engineer had just sent her poetry. As it turns out, what had appeared to be some light-hearted flirting was more serious than either of us had expected.
As Parvati grappled with the appropriate reaction to her crush sending her poetry, she begged me to take her to a bar when we landed at the same port. I relented, monitoring the number of drinks she downed as she explained why Junlei’s interest in her was such a frightening prospect. Aside from receiving a vaguely worded message that mentioned another woman, Parvati bared her soul and revealed that she didn’t like physical intimacy all that much. Her asexuality led her other partners to see her as cold, and her past relationships fell apart because it was a dealbreaker for them.
When a prompt appeared, giving me an opportunity to tell her she was the warmest person I knew, my heart swelled with joy. Here was something I didn’t even know I lacked in most other Western RPGs: I was helping a companion without any good/evil alignment incentive, nor did I expect her to return the favor. I was here because I wanted to be Parvati’s friend, cheering her on as she chased after the woman of her dreams. I was here to prop her up and help her chase her dreams, knowing full well that they didn’t involve me.
Shortly after our bar adventure, I swung by the engineering bay to check in on Parvati. Thankfully, she had recovered swiftly, and she even had an update on her crush! The woman mentioned in the worrisome message turned out to be the chief engineer’s ex: Parvati wouldn’t be intruding on anyone by giving Junlei a chance. Now that the two lovebirds were aware of each other’s boundaries, they were clearly determined to make things work, even if it needed to be a long-distance relationship for a while. The moment wasn’t a tidal wave of emotion, like kissing my Mass Effect crush for the first time, but I still got to witness this lovable, socially anxious woman connect with someone else. That was more than enough for me.
Selflessness in games typically involves returning money you find on the ground, or saving someone else as their life is threatened by a monster. In The Outer Worlds, it involved being a wing woman for a quirky, queer engineer, then grabbing her some water so she could sober up. It’s a perspective that these sorts of RPGs sorely lack, and I hope they catch on soon: instead of judging in-game relationships by how players can “win” them, it’s nice to roleplay as the designated driver for the group, giving them enough room and encouragement to excel on their own terms.