Derek Nevine is the star. Best player on the basketball team, hottest guy on campus, and even has the coolest theme music! We all know someone like Derek, that guy who effortlessly has the world revolve around him and gets what he wants. Even though he was just event triggers and art on my screen, I still felt a little intimidated by him. I was skeptical when he resorted to flattery so quickly and asked me out. Or asked the protagonist, Merui; it’s difficult to guess whose emotions are really involved in the romantic parts of visual novels. However, there is one thing that is clear from the design of the game:
You’re supposed to hate him.
He’s supposed to awaken those awkward feelings of inferiority and ineptitude gamers feel from those socially successful in high school, or any environment we’re forced to be social in. Merui’s other potential lovers sneer at him and his reputation, warning you of his false appearances and playboy attitude. Gaining his affection reinforces the stereotype of hyperbolized femininity: you must buy Merui the sexy outfits at the store, ignore her studies in favor of watching TV and going to the mall, and make Merui play hard to get to retain his interest. The real sting comes at the end when you find out he’s Alistair, a jerk who trolls Merui in the MMO all the characters play. He’s the title character, and the only reason there’s a story to play. He gets to be a gamer AND the popular guy at school? Something doesn’t feel right!
While it’s unsettling to see someone like him is a gamer too, it makes sense that he’s representative of the kind of people we don’t like online. I wasn’t surprised when the bonus scene revealed he was the least liked datable character in fan polls. If the player didn’t get Merui’s stats just right and played a perfect game to get Derek’s special ending, he reveals his trick and dumps them. This is unlike the other characters who have been looking out for Merui, trying to protect her the entire game and will date her indefinitely. She is punished for pursing the popular guy and ignoring the advances of her fellow nerds.
Confession time: Derek was my favorite.
Yes, yes, he’s a total ass and I should have known better, but that’s what I like about his character. He felt the most human because he was the most complicated. Unlike the other characters, he doesn’t force Merui to drudge through his baggage or suffer through insults until he sees the light and falls in love. What the player might not catch when romancing Derek is how he actually listens to Merui: when Merui wants to pay for her own ice cream, she damn well does. She tells him to stop acting like the white knight, because she can walk on her own feet, thanks. There is an equity that is missing in the other relationships. My experience with Derek made me feel that is was okay to indulge in stereotypically feminine activities, that splurging my lunch money on a hot dress doesn’t make me a bad person, and it doesn’t make him a bad person either.
While I found the process of attaining his affections extremely problematic, they also existed in lesser degrees for the other boys. All the guys preferred you to wear certain clothes, Derek just happened to like the typical expensive and sexy ones. On a game design level, all of your love interests are rather similar, and this informs our interpretation of Merui’s romantic situation. After making the right choices, you find out that Derek uses games as an escape as well. His problems seem trite to the underdog characters, but so real to him that he needs games to vent. Just like everyone else. Merui’s predicament with attracting these guys reflects women gamers’ tightrope act of managing their presence in the gaming community. Women who appear to spend too much time on their appearance and stereotypically feminine activities are shamed unless they are doing it in a geek-appropriate manner. Dress as nice as you are smart. Act as a defenseless damsel as much as you shoot zombies.
What interests me the most is how easy it is to miss this. It’s doesn’t feel good at all to win Derek’s affection, especially when you know he’s Alistair. The gamer in me to see all the possible endings defied what felt right by going through Derek’s romance, but his “perfect” ending really tied things into perspective. Besides the gag-worthy amount of sap inherent to visual novels, these simulated relationships teach us something about ourselves. Dating sim games for men far outnumber the ones for women, offering rare glimpses of our side of the affair. Even rarer is the honesty from an experience of a woman gamer, and Re: Alistair++ provides a starting point for that conversation.