Whoever said “Love isn’t selfish” had clearly never played through a love story in a modern video game. Whether it’s BioWare’s customary buffet of easily seduceable party members, or the voice-in-your-ear flirtation of Halo’s Cortana, video game love has always been about giving players what they want, at no cost or sacrifice to themselves. By the nature of the medium, it’s a one-way street: fresh emotions and the thrill of safe romance, served up with no effort from players outside the occasional dialogue choice.
Canadian writer Christine Love is one of the few designers actively interested in exploring the absurdity inherent in this idea of romantic feelings between a flesh-and-blood human and an animated pile of dialogue and code. Playing through games like Digital: A Love Story or Don’t Take It Personally Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, you won’t find “companion affection” meters in desperate need of careful management. You won’t find many ways to interact with non-player characters at all. Instead, Love offers a series of questions and tests, a determined interrogation of what it means for a player to be “in love” with a digital being.
That questioning reached its apex in her visual novel Hate Plus, a sequel to the sci-fi detective tale Analogue: A Hate Story. Placed in the role of a futuristic historian, the two games task the player with investigating what went wrong on a derelict colony ship found abandoned in the middle of space. You go about this by making nice with the ship’s two AIs, *Hyun-ae and *Mute, and convincing one of them to help you analyze the ghost ship’s logs. In a clever twist, a “translation problem” stops the player from speaking directly to the two anime-styled computer women. Instead, the AIs are forced to offer simple dialogue choices from which you choose your responses. This puts the player and their character in the exact same position, using dialogue trees to interact with virtual women and the convoluted computer system in which they live.
As you while away the hours unraveling what went wrong on the Mugunghwa—a tragic story about a society that systematically reduced female agency and turned its women into little more than chattel—*Hyun-ae or *Mute will periodically break in for conversation. Inevitably, these chats can turn to flirtation—a prospect made simpler when your only way of communicating with them is through the dialogue choices they create. Video game romance is so often about picking the right line and telling the other party what they want to hear. When they’re writing your words for you, it’s even easier to manipulate. Security AI *Mute is more reserved about the emotional entanglement, but virtual teenager *Hyun-ae will throw herself into the relationship, despite the fact that, from her point of view, you’re little more than a series of canned responses being chosen by an unseen hand.
If pursued, the relationship will continue into Hate Plus, where the adult nature of the new logs that get uncovered leads the conversation into talk of sex. Meanwhile, a subplot about purchasing *Hyun-ae a robot body—with “artificial tear ducts” as one of the brochure’s more disturbing selling points—makes it clear that the discussion is more than academic. But before you can return to Earth for sexy robot bliss, *Hyun-ae potentially stops your courtship cold by doing something unprecedented, not just for Hate Plus, but for video game love in general: She asks you to make her a cake.
Not in some virtual kitchen. Not your character in the game. She asks you, the actual person sitting at the keyboard, to go to your kitchen and make her a cake. It’s okay if you don’t have a recipe; she has two on hand. It’s okay if you don’t have all the ingredients; she’ll wait. If you try to click through her request and lie, confident that you have all the power as a flesh-and-blood human being, she’ll become understandably confused. That wasn’t enough time to bake a cake, she notes, not even for the easy five-minute recipe she just gave you. Then she lays into you, for treating your relationship like a “tacky ero visual novel.” “Are you trying to tell me,” she asks, “that after all the time we’ve spent together, I don’t deserve just a little bit of effort?”
And that’s the crux of it: Does she deserve that extra effort? Because have no doubt, Christine Love really does want you to get up and bake a cake. (Or buy one, if need be.) You can even get an extra Steam achievement for sending the developer a picture of yourself, the cake, and *Hyun-ae. You can’t finish Hate Plus with this relationship intact if you don’t at least wait the five minutes it would take for the confection to cook. If you try to weasel out of it, she passive-aggressively uses her control over your dialogue choices against you, forcing you to repeatedly tell her, “You don’t deserve to be happy,” in order to opt out.
According to Steam, the cake achievement is the least-completed one in the entire game (outside of a literally impossible one Love added just to mess with completionists). Part of that low completion rate—5.5 percent of players—is probably due to the inconvenience of actually taking the photo and emailing it off. But it also speaks to the truth Love is trying to express about the selfish way we “love” our fictional partners.
Like so many video game power fantasies, virtual love has its roots in the illusion of control. Whether it’s a player flirting with Liara in Mass Effect or a man who considers himself married to his favorite My Little Pony, these digital love affairs mine romantic feelings from a situation in which the other party will never ask for anything back. In Hate Plus, Christine Love is asking, “Is your virtual relationship worth the bare minimum of effort from your actual, physical self?” Provided you’ve got the ingredients on hand, it takes hardly any time at all to make a simple mug cake. If the feelings you get from romancing the cartoon woman on your monitor are real, aren’t they worth a little bit of sweat?
“Make me a cake” might feel like an unreasonable demand. It’s inconvenient. It’s annoying. It gets in the way of doing what you actually want to do. But in the moment she asks for it, that cake—and the effort it represents—is exactly what *Hyun-ae needs from her partner. Part of real-world love is learning when to put the other person’s needs ahead of your own wants. It’s the hollow space sitting at the heart of so many video game romances, where your “partner” is always ready to bow to the player’s every whim. If virtual love wants to catch up to the real thing, it needs to capture those moments of compromise and sacrifice, rather than letting players simply have their cake and eat it, too.