When Dating Is Literally a Game You Just Can't Win
When I first encountered the video game "Escape From Fuck Zone," I thought, Aha! A romantic world that might satisfactorily be gamed.
Woody Fu and Christein Moracho, creators of Escape From Fuck Zone. Illustrations: Woody Fu
Not long ago, I received a text from a friend, who had been confiding in me about a roller coaster she was on with a guy she liked. She explained the latest episode and then asked: "What do you think my best move is to regain the upper hand?"
The medium of the message, an affectless blue dialogue box on my phone, underscored the poignant futility of the question. If you're plotting with your friends about power coups, let's be real: it's probably because you like the other person more and not even the grandest Machiavellian scheme can win you the kingdom.
I told her the truth, that the only way I knew of to regain the upper hand was to actually get over it and allow years to elapse, and that even then, any dominance would always be shaky and predicated on never wanting to try your luck again.
Then I offered some more specific, time-sensitive tactics, which we discussed in detail for 20 minutes. Just because reversal may not be possible doesn't mean it's not fun to try.
So imagine my excitement when I heard about Escape From Fuck Zone, an online text adventure game about one girl's struggle to get a guy. Aha! I thought. A romantic world that not only could be satisfactorily gamed, but existed for that very purpose. A world where the other person's feelings were as rationally crackable as a security code, where there really was a right way to regain the upper hand. Maybe.
You're in a game, but you have no game
The game, created by Woody Fu and Cristina Moracho, follows one girl in her 20s ("you") as she attempts to date three meh men: Hipster Guy, Average Guy, and Way Older Guy. She meets all three at the same party and her future with each of them depends on the moves she makes there and thereafter.
It mixes gamer input with fated outcomes, like an old-school text adventure. You're given a scenario and you get to choose what to do. In some cases, as when the game begins and you get a text from your best friend inviting you to a party, you have three options: go, stay home, go online and check out the dudes on your dating app instead. In others, as when you're getting dressed for the party, you have only one choice: to "put on your favorite outfit while listening to self-empowering music" (few will strongly protest the notion that this is a universal pre-party state).
As I soon discovered, I had less control over the fate of my avatar than I had wished. Even though I was usually given three choices, some things about the character were consistent. She's prone to nerves; she has low self-esteem; she's kind-hearted, straight-forward, and over-dressed. And she has awful taste in men. In short,
I spoke to a male player who lost the game almost immediately. When faced with giving his number to a clearly indifferent Hipster Guy, making out with an onion-y Average Guy, or going to a speakeasy with Way Older Guy, he ended up alone at home with a vibrator. "The guys there were terrible," he said. "A girl's got to have some pride."
I stayed in the game for much longer, buoyed by the faith that it was possible for me, no matter how inept my manifestation, to somehow nail the right combination to win the respect of the losers I was pursuing. (Seriously, there should be some better options. Where is "Fun Guy with No Direction"? How about "Perfect on Paper"? Where's "Random Dude with Sexy Accent"?)
It is precisely the game's darkness, its built-in sense of despair, I thought, that might be just the the thing for my heartsick friend
I led my character through some dodgy nights, hoping that if she had sex with a gigolo she met on a dating app, it would give her the confidence not to just sit by the phone waiting for Hipster Guy to text.
But, as it turns out, she was as incorrigibly irrational as a real person. She wanted Hipster Guy even if I didn't. All I could do was sit there with her by the phone. When he finally texted back, the game made it one of the occasions where I only had one choice: to text him back immediately, ensuring another night of waiting.
"We tried to capture the emotional experience of dating in your 20s," said Moracho, of the gameplay.
"It's Kafkaesque," said Fu. "You're a person in a grotesque world. Shit happens to you."
The two creators are friends from college who used a lot of their own dating mishaps to inform the game (they have not dated each other).
Fu, who created a similar game with a male protagonist, called Escape From Friend Zone, drew all of the images. Moracho, who is the author of a young adult novel called Althea and Oliver, was more responsible for the narrative. (Her novel is also, as it turns out, about a relationship.) They have no plans to monetize the app. "We just want as many people as possible to be able to play it," says Fu.
They described a scene of watching a friend of theirs playing the game and muttering to herself, "It's just like real life. It's just like real life."
The two think of the project as a comic book as much as a video game. "It's a heightened, cartoonized version of dating," said Moracho. "The cartoonish aspect to her expressions and behavior are externalized representations of the emotions you feel."
Still, not everyone will identify with the game, they concede. "If you were married at 23, you might not get it. You might be like, 'why isn't this a more satisfying experience for the protagonist?'"
In my opinion, everyone will ask that. Dating, in one's 20s and at any age, has disastrous lows, but it also has redemptive, exhilarating highs, and buried within both is the hope of finally winning.
But it is precisely the game's darkness, its built-in sense of despair, I thought, that might be just the the thing for my heartsick friend. Because no matter what degradation you might be feeling in real life, no matter how fruitlessly you scheme for the upper hand, you've got a soul sister in the girl climbing up the walls to escape the fuck zone.
"You should play this game with a friend," Fu says, "and use it as a jumping off point to tell stories about dating."
But the game's creators were adamant about one thing: "Do not play this on Valentine's Day," Moracho said.
"Do not," added Fu.
"And if you have to play it on Valentine's Day," said Moracho, "Don't play it alone on Valentine's Day."
Lucy Teitler's play, "Engagements," which is also about people lost in Fuck Zone, will premiere at Barrington Stage Company on August 19th.
This story is part of Motherboard's Sex Ed Week, a series of sex-focused science and technology stories. Check out more stories here.