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Mundus Vult Decipiti

The version of me who lives in Stardew Valley stood awkwardly in a corner as couples paired off for the springtime Flower Dance. I fidgeted and stared daggers at my crush's preferred dance partner. Clearly I needed to up my game.

In a life sim, building relationships becomes a mix of kindness coins and time management. I knew what I was signing up for if I wanted to start courting.

It's all part of the fantasy. Just like I can grow all the best crops, reel in the biggest fish and be the bravest adventurer in the land. I can have whatever I'm willing to work for, including friendship, love and sex (but almost always in that order).

I had my target. And target's a good word, painting game romance as strategic objective. It's difficult to avoid wanting something partly just because it's on a checklist of things I can do. My desires expand to include things the real me has zero interest in, like marriage and children. Like ridiculous spring dances based in fertility rituals. Games are excellent at selling me on what I want and then giving it to me.

Pixel people exist to satisfy my desires, including the most trivial, gamified wants. In more dialogue- or minigame-focused games, love interests feel like puzzle boxes to be pressed and flattered in just the right way to make them unlock. But here there's no great trick to it beyond persistence. It's a timetabling issue, pencilling in human interaction between watering crops, feeding animals, and whatever else I need to keep my bucolic fantasy running smoothly.

Alternatively, relationship building involves knowing a character's favourite presents. But however much I was willing to treat a simulated person like a collectable object, this was where I drew the line. Birthdays and special occasions are one thing, but constant gifts feel too much like buying someone's love. I didn't want to take such a transactional approach to flirting if I could avoid it. It does remind me of people who pay for dinner with the expectation of sex. Except here, as in most games, that behaviour is reliably rewarded.

Killer is Dead Gigolo Mode

Mondo Zappa is rubbish at romance.

Without presents, that left me with the slower, more persistent strategy. On the surface it seems reasonable. Get to know someone better by spending time with them and having conversations. Nothing wrong with that.

Visiting my hapless future husband became part of my daily routine. Which is completely normal, well-adjusted behaviour and not like stalking at all. Except it involved getting to know someone's schedule, hanging around outside their house and just happening to show up wherever they went. So, exactly like stalking actually.

On another level, I'm wilfully misunderstanding what's going on here. All games are limited in what they can flesh out, and even more so in a game created by a single developer. All I'm seeing are a few quick lines of dialogue that are the fuzzy edges of implied conversation. Any sense of romance relies on my ability to fill in the gaps and project my own ideas onto it. It's logical for that to include making plans, asking permission and reading body language. All the things that make the difference between regular meet-ups and harassment.

There came a point where I couldn't let myself off the hook though. One day I followed my sweetheart to a doctor's appointment, and discovered it was possible to go into the examination room and eavesdrop on the consultation. We weren't close enough yet to imagine a scenario where this was appropriate. But somehow no one seemed to mind the creepy farmer hanging around.

The scene at the doctor's shook me into a moment of self-awareness, and forced me to think about what I'm doing. What particularly threw me was realising why I'd glommed onto this specific character in the first place. It's because in some small ways he reminded me of someone I dated briefly.

Games are a common place to work through issues and relationships. I once made a house in The Sims where I lived surrounded entirely by ex-boyfriends and unrequited crushes. And then had to adapt in interesting ways when they inevitably fell for each other instead of me.

I'm never sure how healthy this kind of thing is. To this day I have a fifteen-year-old screenshot in my wallet of a tender moment between the Sims version of me and one of the loves of my life. Letting go isn't one of my strong points.

If I was going to obsess about someone the guy I'd projected onto Stardew Valley would be a prime candidate. He was a philosophy major with long, pale wispy hair and soft-spoken words. Everything was carefully crafted and presented. Life explained through constant literature references. Handwriting peppered with flourishes. Among the countless affectations he seemed like some rare creature or fallen demigod. He was everything I wanted, and while I never stalked him I did pursue him in a persistent and childish way. It was a hunt, though he wasn't someone I'd ever be able catch, not really.

Reality never had much chance to intrude on the fantasy. He maintained an aura of fiction and carefully scripted ideas right through to the end. The biggest lesson he had to teach was about the happiness that comes from remaining unfulfilled, a la the novel Figures of Earth. This was explicitly how things ended, and the only time a breakup captured my heart forever. I was, indeed, happy to be deceived. It was my perfect immature fantasy.

Stardew Valley and its like are the antithesis of what he left me with. A world where I can follow after my own thinking and my own desires, and get away with it. As in Figures of Earth, getting everything I want can be rather hollow. This pixelated man will never leave me waiting for hours in the rain, as happened in the real world. But I prefer that version of the story, however much it makes me sound like a sucker with horrid taste in lovers.

I've turned an unattainable dream into a cheap objective. Personally, that concerns me far more than the risk of being a simulated creep. But in the end none of this was enough to stop me. There wasn't even a moment of hesitation before continuing my quest. There can be something irresistible in even the most hopeless or destructive desires. I'll fall into that trap every time, practically throwing myself onto the spikes. In some sense, that's what life's all about.

Stardew Valley Spring Dance

Wow, I'm super out-of-place at this dance anyway.