Dear Space Diary, S. and I are preparing to embark on what will undoubtedly test not only our skills as pilots but the strength of our relationship itself. Though the Gumball Zero has been modified to accommodate four crew members, part of me feels it is better that it will be only the two of us aboard. It is likely that we will fail, and that failure may mean death, but, if nothing else, at least we will have each other.
Before I tell you about what Asteroid Base’s Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime (2015) is, I’m going to tell you a bit about who I played it with. The reason for this is because Lovers, more than almost any game I’ve played – even co-op focused ones – relies on the relationship between the two (or, after a recent update, three or four) people playing it. It is not a game to be endured solo, even if it is technically possible to play with an A.I. companion. The crux of the game, from its name to its themes of camaraderie and cooperation, revolves around working together with another human to get through what quickly becomes a shockingly difficult juggling act as the two of you hop between roles in an effort to keep your spaceship intact.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I would never have played Lovers if I hadn’t been assured that my girlfriend, S., would join me. S. is a twenty-one-year-old writing major attending the same college as me, and if it wasn’t for her tan brown skin and dark hair it is possible we’d be mistaken for the same person. S. loves games but only with the right company. Where I spent my childhood and teenage years thirsty for any kind of gaming partner, S. found eager companions but was made to feel inadequate for her lack of familiarity with games and how to play them well. She took refuge in Mario Kart but largely left games behind, resolving that they were just not for her and she would never be good enough to play them with other people.
I bring up all of this to say that playing Lovers with S. was more than just a chance to play together, it required trust. Trust that I would not make her feel bad if she wasn’t good enough. Trust that I actually wanted to play with her and wasn’t just looking for a chance to sit on the couch and avoid other responsibilities. As someone who has longed for a co-op partner as long as I’ve been playing games, this was my chance to help repair the frustration S. had experienced in the past and showcase a different side of games that were inviting and cute and that we could experience together.
Dear Space Diary,
The Space Bunnies have given way to Space Foxes and S. and I are stretched to our breaking point. These new ships help, but they can only do so much without a good crew. All that said, I wouldn’t change anything. S. has become incredibly good at using our shield not only to protect the hull but to take out more enemies than I could manage with even a proper weapon. As a result, I’ve taken up position behind the wheel and find I enjoy navigating far more than shooting. Perhaps it’s the pacifist in me, or maybe I just like watching S. behind those guns. She’s so attractive when she’s aggressive, I need to be careful to keep my eyes on where I’m going.
Lovers plays as a mix between the cave-diving of PixelJunk Shooter (2009) and the spaceship management of FTL (2012). Two players scurry around a ship moving between gun stations, navigation, and shield management in order to maneuver their ship through enemies and space junk to rescue cosmic bunnies and frogs. It is distressingly cute, but hidden beneath the neon colors and chipper soundtrack is a game which demands immense tactical coordination and planning. Any episode of Star Trek can attest to the fact that running a spaceship is hard enough with a full crew, let alone two people, and Lovers doesn’t use this as an excuse to go easy on you. Stop working together and you are toast. Furthermore, the game stops being any fun.
With a name like Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, it is evident that Asteroid Base wanted the game to be played with couples, or at least good friends. What I didn’t expect, however, was just how effectively it modeled the sort of challenges real people face when their relationship is strained by trying times. Few of us will likely ever be tasked with surviving in space with only our partner for support, but everyone has moments when they have to put their trust in someone else to get them through a difficult moment or need to work together to solve a larger task. This isn’t news to anyone who has been in a relationship of any kind, but rarely do games actually facilitate the sort of give and take that makes a relationship work. Which is why the person you play Lovers with is as important as the game itself.
I’m sure it is entirely possible to enjoy Lovers playing with just a casual gaming buddy, but there is a certain intimacy created while playing it that seems designed expressly with couples in mind. The ships are small and everyone has to play multiple roles to succeed, and while no character is better or worse than another I found that S. and I naturally settled into our preferred positions on the ship, which isn’t all that different from how I prefer to cook and she tends to do the laundry. Roles need to be filled and sometimes you have to play one that is less comfortable than you’d like, but at the end what’s important is that you are supporting each other. Lovers fosters this dynamic in a way that showcases how fulfilling it is when you allow someone else to support you, rather than try to pull yourself through all on your own. It asks you to let go because someone else will catch you, and when you open your eyes and they’re holding you the feeling is unlike anything else.
Dear Space Diary,
We have made it through the third galaxy but not without casualties. Our ship has suffered intense damage due to a poor call on my part. During a rescue mission, we happened upon a star preparing to go supernova. There were only seconds before it would explode, but despite S.’s pleading for us to leave I refused to listen and steered the ship towards the last two castaways. I couldn’t leave them behind, but before we were able to save them the star erupted and it was only through a last minute escape that we did not go with it. By ignoring S. I put not only us in danger but everyone we had worked so hard to save. It is never easy leaving people behind, but S. knew we couldn’t save everyone and was prepared to make that choice. I should have listened.
S. and I still haven’t managed to beat the final boss in Lovers, but it was never about finishing the game, at least not to me. We’ve tried other co-op games since retiring Lovers for a bit (the difficulty spike was too intense) but none have created the same feeling of closeness, or given me as much to think about in regard to how I interact with S. both inside and outside the game. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say Lovers is responsible for making our relationship stronger, but it holds a special position in my mind as something that could only exist with S.
Like Lovers, relationships are not merely the portions where you are drifting peacefully through space. They are the times when you are dodging supernovas; when it is 3AM and the bed feels too big because she isn’t in it with you and all you want is for her to pick up the phone so you can hear her voice again. Lovers forces you to cooperate and demonstrates that compromise doesn’t have to mean giving something up, but rather is about understanding and empathy. About caring enough about someone to surrender parts of yourself to them because you know they’re the ones who will get you both out alive.
The game is great, sure. It’s beautiful and clever and has cosmic bunny doctors. But it’s the experience that will stick with me. The close shaves as we hurried to rescue the last critter before jumping through the warp gates, or the times I neglected to listen to S.’s advice and we blew up. Lovers brought out a side of me that other games never even told me was there. It made me listen, to learn how to play together, not just at the same time, and it showed me how much more fun it is to do something with the person you love. Especially when that thing involves rescuing frogs from laser shooting space wasps.
Space wasps. I’m in love.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime was developed by Asteroid Base. It was played on PC and is also available on Xbox One and PS4.
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