That night was my turn to host. We hiked all over, taking in the island’s natural beauty and snacking on peaches. We visited Lucky’s house, chatting with my doggy neighbour and rolling around in his log bed. We even managed to get into a K.K. Slider show, for which I’d bought us matching Able Sisters-brand lolita dresses. After a couple of acoustic deep cuts by the canine nudist, we headed for my place. If I was going to say it, it would have to be here, outside my home on the dulcet shores of Bussy Beach.
I typed “I love you, Yuri” into the NookLink chat window and hit “send.”
Gaming was among my earliest passions, but somehow it never intersected with my social life (let alone who I date) until this past year. Having grown up playing platformers, RPGs, and fighting games with sisters and cousins, I suppose that makes sense. I had little interest in MMOs like World of Warcraft, or online shooters like Call of Duty. I was far more interested in wearing out my cousin’s copy of Drakengard. My experience with games was largely a solitary one.
For years my games hobby and social circle existed as two separate entities. While I could easily bond with romantic partners over interests like music, TV, or leather, I worried games were a bit too niche to interest the majority of women I pursued. That was fine, though; I could set aside a night to romance a lady without rambling about my favourite Yakuza 0 side-quests.
The only partner I ever lived with, while a lovely person, actually hated video games so much they refused to be in the same room when I played, forcing me to choose between sharing space with the person I loved, and one of the few things that lowered my stress and helped me sort out my life. I felt embarrassed to be a grown woman so passionate about something others thought so silly.
Now, some years later, I’ve worked to grow out of that shame and better integrate my geeky passions into my personal life. Watching me play through Red Dead Redemption 2 prompted one girlfriend to borrow her roommate’s Xbox and play through it herself, and a casual partner and I now have a tradition of playing Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest every time I visit.
But my romance with Yuri was fundamentally different from everything else I’d known. I tend to fall for women I look up to and admire over women I can relate to, but for once I went all-in on the latter. Yuri, you see, was at least as big of a gamer as myself.
Frequent health problems in our youths kept us both from being very active (asthma for me, heart issues for her) but our relationships to games and queerness couldn’t have differed more. She was an introvert who’d only come out semi-recently, coming up in a small town and building community through all the MMOs and FPSs I never got into. On the other hand, I’d been out since middle school and became an extroverted adult very active in my local queer scene, playing anime fighters solo to unwind from social overload.
The way we met was complicated by design. I’d come over to hook up with her partner, and Troi (named by her parents for exactly who you’re thinking) casually mentioned that her girlfriend was in the other room, and might come out at some point. I had not been informed of this prior. Having been non-monogamous for the entirety of my adult life, I feel comfortable assuring you that it’s generally considered a common courtesy of polyamory to let someone know if your live-in partner will be home while the two of you are boning. Suffice it to say, I was nervous.
After Troi and I played a couple rounds of Smash and made out between her repeated insistence that “we could have had Doom Guy” instead of Fire Emblem’s Byleth, Yuri walked in. I already knew what she looked like and thought she was cute from Troi’s Twitter, but upon seeing her in person desire promptly sledgehammered me. She was wearing a black suspender dress, her hair obviously cut and coloured to resemble Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. She was one gorgeous weeb, and I was instantly smitten.
Her vibes were flirty and at the same time standoffish. I wasn’t sure how she felt about me. I later learned she had predisposed herself to disliking me before we had even met for personal reasons, but warmed up to me despite herself when I expressed interest in the then-upcoming Animal Crossing game.
As we played Mario Kart they sat on either side of me — my new instantaneous crush and the person I was there to have sex with. Desire is funny, able to suddenly make you feel as though someone’s knocked the wind out of you. Her soft arm brushed up against mine as she turned a corner, and I swerved Iggy right off the Koopa City road. It was the Joy-Con drift, I lied.
Love in the Time of New Horizons
Over the next couple days we started messaging late into the night. We talked about games we were excited for, our favourite anime, what interested us about each other, and how generally terrifying it is to be seen by another person. We also bonded over our deep love of JRPGs and anything with a good character creator — she told me Yuri was originally the name of her Skyrim character, and she liked it so much she adopted it herself.
Soon we started catching feelings and making plans to see each other every few days. We’d spend most of our time together lying around, playing completely different games side by side. I’d play Dragon Quest XI while she played Breath of the Wild, alternating between whose Switch would go on the big screen. Despite not understanding a bit of the gameplay, I found so much joy in just watching her don her cat-ear headphones and ready her pink light-up keyboard to play Valorant.
When I try to think about why my feelings for her were unbridled in a way they’ve rarely, if ever, been, I reckon it’s because those emotions fundamentally changed how I saw myself for the better. I’d started to resent how, for lack of a clearer word, nerdy my interests were, yet that was the same thing I loved in her. I was jealous of how open and uncaring she was in her love of all things dweeby. It’s one thing for someone to adore something you hate about yourself, but another to find yourself loving that same trait in someone else. It puts things in perspective.
When COVID hit we struggled to adjust. Whereas before we spent most of our time together laying down next to each other and staring at screens, we now had to make do without each other’s warmth and company. What started as a bond-building shared interest had quickly become the lifeline by which we sustained our connection.
When Animal Crossing New Horizons came out we would visit each other’s islands every other day, making dates of it and sending gifts via Dodo Airlines. That’s when I told her I loved her. She didn’t say it back that night, half-thinking I was joking, but the next morning I opened my in-game mailbox to find a letter with a gift attached. “I love you too~ ♡”, it said, and the present was a simple yet rare gold nugget.
I placed the nugget on a squid tank in the corner of my living room. Over the course of all my renovations and redecorating, it was the one piece of decor I never moved, fearing that I could end up accidentally putting it in storage or pocketing it. Grouping it with my other gold nuggets risked turning it into meaningless, indistinguishable data.
Being so close yet far apart was hard. Weeks and then months went by, and the longer our interactions stayed purely digital, the more strained communications became. When we first got involved, I could definitely see her romantic situation at home was complicated, but I didn’t expect it to affect us so heavily.
The Viera Incident
We fell into an unfortunate holding pattern. I’d do something that made her mad, and rather than communicate that frustration, she’d ignore me for a week without telling me why. Then she’d break the silence, saying she missed me again. After the second such cycle we had a major fight. I told her that I felt disposable and like she loved me more for the attention I gave her (that her partner didn’t) than for who I was. She avoided responding directly.
The day after the fight she sent me an image with no caption. It was a render of a green-haired woman with rabbit ears made in Final Fantasy XIV’s character creator, and was obviously supposed to be me. But it wasn’t. This post-argument non sequitur was clearly meant as a gesture showing she was thinking of me, but one key detail gave it the exact opposite effect.
I sent it to the friend group chat who’d been talking me through my relationship issues. “OK but why’d she make your skin look like that?” one immediately responded, echoing my frustrations. The avatar she’d sent me was essentially white with a slight tan. But I’m a brown person.
When I asked her why she’d made my skin so light, she claimed that was the darkest tone available. I found this odd, remembering Fran from Final Fantasy XII, a dark-skinned woman of that same rabbit race, the Viera. I once again consulted my friends on what she had told me and one of them, wise in the many ways of Final Fantasy XIV, immediately called bullshit.
For those unfamiliar, FF14’s character-creation system gives you a choice of eight fantasy races, with each race divided into two clans. The only discernible difference between any two clans is minor stat differences, lore, and aesthetic quirks, primarily skin tone. The default clan for Viera are known as the Rava and are noted for their “umber skin” as the game calls it. The second clan option is the Veena, whose skin is described in official text as being “as fair as the snowcapped mountain”. She’d picked the snow-white clan.
This somehow made it worse: If she’d been given a single colour palette that would’ve been one thing. I wouldn’t even have minded if she’d given me an inhuman fantasy skin colour like lavender or teal. But she made me with the only in-game race defined by two very different realistic skin-tone palettes, and she had made me as white as she possibly could.
I wasn’t mad, but this hurt. I had told her how much importance my heritage, and by extension my skin, held for me. She knew how I felt but more importantly, she also knew how I look. What to her seemed a thoughtful gesture meant to show her affection ended up a dealbreaker that left me wounded. While I found no fault in the addition of bunny ears and bigger knockers, having a supposedly idealised version of me be further held to white beauty standards was not among my fantasies. She couldn’t accurately capture me because she couldn’t see or understand the totality of me.
We kept chatting and flirting a bit after that, but the feelings of adoration that once overwhelmed me had flickered out, because despite shared passions I now felt sure she couldn’t see me for who I was. Eventually, one issue lead to another and we stopped talking altogether.
After a long break, I returned to New Horizons this past month for its wedding season event. When I went to place my new pastel-pink church paraphernalia in my living room I spied the nugget sitting above that digital cephalopod. All the infatuation and warm feelings came rushing back, and hurt something awful. Paging through the many DIY Recipes in my NookPhone, I tried to think of something meaningful I could transform the gold into. But I still couldn’t bring myself to move it. Even with all the pain, confusion, and anxiety that love affair brought into my life, it still meant something very special, and changed the way I see myself for the better.
Funnily enough, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIV lately: my first MMO. It’s probably the weebiest one out there and a mostly singular experience, but that’s part of why I’ve really been enjoying it. At first I created four different characters, levelling them all up concurrently. But eventually dropped them all to play as a Viera, one that better reflects how I see myself. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little vindicated in playing a bunny gal with my actual skin tone, but at the end of day, again, I’m not actually angry. It’s just nice to recognise myself on the screen, and to love what I see.
Chingy Nea is a writer, comedian, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Oakland and Los Angeles.
This article has been updated in celebration of International Women’s Day. Kotaku wouldn’t be what it is today without the contributions of our wonderful and talented women writers.