For the past several weeks Kelly has been playing a dating sim that I recommended to her, Ace in Space. It’s a dating sim with 8 endings, wherein you play as Enby, known at the start of the game as Adrian. Enby is non-binary, asexual, and has cancer. One day a cute robot named Zipper comes to retrieve them from Earth, to give Enby a chance to thrive in a society without hegemonic disadvantages that Earth burdens them with. Enby goes with them and becomes a genuine ace in space, meeting a number of unique characters a long the way. Along with their doctor Zipper, there’s also Sero, Fern, Forge, and Pierre. The game takes it’s time lavishing the reader with details about the planet and life on Neo Terra. It took Kelly about 2 hours to reach her first date with a character, Fern, and only a short while longer for the game to end with Enby’s death. After this development, in this past week’s episode of The Lunch Zone, Kelly returned to the start of the game only to find that all the other ending she tried resulted in Adrian’s death, the only real change being the obituary posted on their blog afterwards. Fern and Forge’s ending result in heartfelt messages and the Neutral-Sad ending result in a more formal and official notice.
I found this interesting and weird and felt bad because Kelly cried about the game I suggested, so shortly after finishing the latest stream I set out on a journey to figure out all the ending through some careful googling. I eventually wound up on the developers’ website, cadavercarnivalstudios.com, where I found the achievement list. On that achievement list only two ending are listed as good. The similarity between these two endings, the Zipper-Good and Neutral-Good endings, was that Enby went to therapy and treatment, meaning she was in good enough shape physically and mentally to make it through. In contrast, when completing the other endings Enby doesn’t really have much time to go to these things and meet up with the characters so they don’t get rejected. This puts an interesting spin on Enby’s romantic endeavors in the game, almost framing them as being prioritized over Enby’s health when pursued. This isn’t something I’m drawing directly from Kelly’s play-throughs, instead it’s what I’m finding when I look over the list of possible endings. A full three-quarters of the ending include Enby’s death, and only one of the one’s where Enby lives seems to include any romance at all (Zipper-Good).
This puts an emphasis on the notion that people have to chose to get better, going to therapy and treatment. Something that really struck me was something a thing that Fern said while Enby was on a date with him. Fern is terminally ill, and they are discussing each other’s health. When Fern asks Enby how they’re doing, Enby replies that they aren’t feeling much better. Fern is concerned and say they should tell Zipper before stating, “I know I have accepted that I may pass soon, but that’s because there truly is nothing further anyone can do for me. I hope you haven’t given up because you think the same.” Cast in this light, Enby’s decision not to pursue treatment and help comes off as lost hope.
Despite this, the core of the game seems to come across in Enby’s blog post where they discuss their worsened health and that they will soon die. They implore their followers to remember that their lives have inherent value, even when they don’t make it into history books. Enby notes that the people they’ve known in life will remember them and carry them with them forever. This is further emphasized when the eulogy is posted. In the neutral-sad ending it is followed up by a loving message from a friend, communicating that even though this ending resulted in a more impersonal eulogy, the world is still a sadder place without Enby in it and the people who loved them still remember and cherish their memories of them. In the Forge ending, Forge and Enby stay very close friends and he writes their eulogy. This is followed up by a shot of everyone Enby met on Neo Terra at memorial for them, watching a horror movie like Forge and Enby did before Enby’s death. The meaning could not be clearer.
Something that complicates this reading is the genre conventions this game is working with and against. As Kelly noted several times while playing, Ace in Space is something of an oddity of a dating sim. It takes hours for dates to be possible and those dates resist the manipulative/win-oriented edge so often present in other dating sims. Let me elaborate. While, I will admit, my experience with dating sims is limited, I’ve experienced a couple thoroughly enough to understand the gist. Let’s use another queer dating sim as our example. In Dream Daddy the player character is a single father who has moved to a neighborhood with a bunch of other dads ready to be dated. To succeed in seducing them and getting a good ending for their chosen love interest’s character path they must chose answer designed to appeal to that dad and beat a mini game. The relationships are based on the players ability to manipulate the other dad into seeing them in the most positive light possible and the mini game emphasizes the love interests as a prize to be literally won.
Ace in Space has a vastly different energy regarding relationships. The game doesn’t really give the option to choose dialogue to maximize player appeal, but instead puts value on the players choice. If a player goes on a date with Fern it will go well, you can’t fail that experience. While the player will certainly be romantically rejected by Forge, they will hang out and become close friends. While there are limited options that can sour a path, mostly not spending time with the given character, largely the point of the game is to make choices that make them happy, rather than try to finesse a relationship with tailored lies (I don’t have anything against dating sims, the truth is just the truth). Despite this these genre conventions are also what makes it so easy for a play to decide to skip therapy and treatment for romance. Despite the fact that those are healthy choices they don’t lend towards the dating sim narrative, causing the player to devalue those choices.
While I do feel like this is a textually supported reading, I don’t know if I really agree with it. For the majority of the game it feels like the most wholesome happy game, where people respect each other and work to make each other comfortable. I’m not sure how I feel about burying that in a heavy reading about death and choosing life over romance, nor how I feel about suggesting that what the creators were going for. If I can say anything with absolute certainty, it’s that this game does put a lot of value of self-care and personal growth. And also, that it’s a great game.