Tof Eklund reviews Lovestruck, a free-to-play treasure trove of romantic queer gaming content.
Voltage’s Lovestruck does not, at first glance, look particularly queer-inclusive. Created in 2017 to unify four otome (‘women’s romance’) mobile games, this game hub now houses at least a dozen fictional worlds (depending on how you count them) and an advertised ’50+ love interests’. Most of those love interests are the sensitive, hunky, wounded guys you see on the covers of popular romance novels, but a few are women. Actually, more than a few: 15 women at this point and, more surprisingly, two nonbinary (‘enby’) characters.
I’m always looking for transgender and non-binary representation in games, and I usually find it in punky, defiant passion projects like Genderwrecked, Heaven is Mine, and With Those We Love Alive. Those games are scrappy, sharp, hook-fanged little works of resistance and survival: the kind of story where the enby character can tank like a brick wall because they’ve learned how to take a hit over years of being beaten up at school. Lovestruck is, thankfully, absolutely nothing like that.
Lovestruck is cosy and cute, and often cliched. The settings of its stories are comfortably familiar, be they the space opera of Starship Promise, the Sopranos-inflected mob family drama of Gangsters in Love, or Havenfall is for Lovers, which just screams Twilight, right down to the protagonist bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kristen Stewart. It’s familiar, banal, and safe. But what’s remarkable is the way these safe, banal worlds include enby hellspawn JD; tall, dark and dangerous Nova; and gay moms doing crimes.
The writing in Lovestruck adheres broadly to the conventions of romance writing, which means that the focus is on characters, feelings, and the conflicts (internal and external) that get in the way of – but cannot stop – love. Nitty-gritty details about FTL travel, the laws of magic, siege warfare, and so on are not important. The protagonist of a romance does not have to possess tactical genius, superhuman reflexes, or an iron nerve: that person just has to be persistent in love.
This runs counter to the heroic assumptions of most video games, full of heroes fighting alone. While none of Lovestruck’s protagonists are helpless, neither do they stand on their own. The same is true for all of the game’s love interests: they may be powerful, capable figures (or magical pastry chefs) but they need your support. Conversely, the only characters in Lovestruck who are ‘self-sufficient’ are selfish, callous villains whose ultimate punishment will be loneliness. Smug, smirking characters aren’t cool, they’re pitiable.
In fairy tales and the movies, romances end with consummation, be that a first night together, a wedding, or a dramatically-framed kiss. Prose romance writers, on the other hand, have developed the art of love after the honeymoon, not just the happy end but the happy epilogue. If you don’t read ‘chick lit’ or crossover authors like Lois McMaster Bujold, you are seriously missing out on stories about rekindling love after childbirth, as an ’empty nester’, and after widowhood.
Literary fiction includes a lot of stories of divorce, estrangement, and sometimes bittersweet reunion, but hot domesticity is almost exclusively the purview of romance writing. Most of the plots in Lovestruck, including the queer ones, lead eventually to marriage, and often thereafter to children.
My beloved razor-tongued genderpunk games rarely include marriage or parenting. Partially, that’s because the folks creating these games are critical of middle-class morality, gender roles, monogamy, and the pretense that everything will be okay when it won’t. But it’s also because that same demographic has a hard time seeing a future that includes them, let alone gives them a legacy (like children) that will continue on after them.
Speaking as a queer parent, we can’t leave parenting to the straights, and we must support future generations in their ambition to do us one better and maybe even save the world. Whether it’s by conception, adoption, surrogacy/sperm donation, or ‘science babies’, the queer families in Lovestruck wind up being revolutionary, and their existence has consequences beyond mere acceptance.
One of the stories in Lovestruck, Three Tattoos exemplifies this. In it you are a redheaded and freckled university student going to get inked with your bestie, Stella. The thing is, Stella is black, her moms are white and Hispanic, she talks about helping her little sister adapt after adoption, and, just like her moms, Stella has a strong sense of ethics and justice… but no regard for the law as such. You go girl.
It’s not just Stella. In Three Tattoos, there’s no developed romance as such, but the player is invited to crush on any of four rebellious hotties in the tattoo parlor: Rahim the tattoo artist, whose dark skin is covered in Arabic tats; Hikari the half-demon bad girl; Robin the grunge 2.0 enby; and Stella. All of these characters are children of, or otherwise connected to, existing Lovestruck characters; Stella’s the only one with two moms. This ‘next generation’ of characters is super gay, inverting the ‘one in four’ ratio of queer to straight romances from early Lovestruck games to a single straight, cis dude (who is probably an immortal Djinni) and three queer crushes.
The preponderance of hetero content in Lovestruck isn’t incidental to this – there are a lot of games out their that contain elements of ‘lesbian chic’ targeted at straight men. All of the shirtless guys in Lovestruck make it a safe space for women, as conservatively 101% of misogynists are also homophobes, the kind repelled by strong men with sensitive expressions as surely as vampires are repelled by garlic.
But because Lovestruck is safe for straight women, it’s also safe for women who might not be straight but aren’t ready for the local dyke bar. User comments on the woman-woman romance with Rory in Gangsters include things like “I’m not into other women but…” and “Aurora made me realize that I was [queerer than a three dollar bill].”
There’s nothing keeping men from playing Lovestruck, just as there is nothing keeping men from reading regency romance novels (and quite a few do), but your average misogynist isn’t going to give the game a second look, and any transphobe who stumbled in would quickly realise that neither the game nor its community shares their prejudice.
It surprised me that I’d never heard of Lovestruck before I stumbled across the app. I’ll allow that it’s not going to be indie or raw enough for some, and that games targeted to women get a lot less coverage, but there is another factor I have to bring up: Lovestruck is free-to-play. It’s far from the most onerous or tedium FTP system, but I know that’s a full-stop dealbreaker for many.
So here’s the grift: Lovestruck wants to sell you bundles of Tickets and Hearts. A Ticket allows you to play a chapter of a story, and hearts are used to unlock additional scenes with your digital heartthrobs. With a little patience, buying Tickets is completely unnecessary, as you get a new one every two hours, up to a maximum of two. If you’re not a compulsive binge-watcher, you should have more than enough Tickets. Even if you only play once a day, you can finish a ‘season’ (complete story arc) in about a week.
Lovestruck is far from perfect. The game is racially diverse but sharply limited in the body types it depicts: everyone has a thin, athletic frame, with some of the men more muscular than others but only in the range from Peter Parker to Fabio, with most falling squarely at Steve Rogers. Women vary greatly in height and cup size but not in girth, and all of the nonbinary characters fall within a narrow range of androgyny: think K.D. Lang circa Drag.
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Even in terms of LGBTQ representation, the ‘G’ is missing. Iseul the Elf is bisexual and a couple of the other guys have queer markers, but I’ve yet to see so much as a gay BFF. As every story’s protagonist is female, every romance involves at least one woman. Gendering the protagonist allows each character to be written with a defined sexual orientation, but precludes gay (male) stories and Lovestruck doesn’t so much as mention polyamory, perhaps for the sake of its most conservative readers.
A more pedestrian flaw is that while some of the art is extremely cute, there are moments that are unintentionally ridiculous, including a few of the older costume designs and the absolute proscription against bare breasts. Bras are worn even when bathing and, except in the most recent series, men don’t have nipples. I blame Tim Cook.
In particular, Helena’s story from Love Legends is worthy a note, as it deals with abuse and domestic violence in queer relationships. That part of the story is really well researched and written (much more so than the sword and sorcery stuff) and is upbeat even as it deals with the lasting effects of trauma, but it really should have come with a trigger warning.
Lovestruck is not going to win honours at the Indie Games Fest, or take away the Booker Prize, but it’s a treasure-trove of light, happy queer (and straight) content, and it deals with some serious relationship issues more deftly than one might expect, given its candy-shell exterior.
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