In the world of video games, there are plenty of so-called dating simulators, a.k.a. "dating sims," in which players can craft a personality, meet potential partners and try to win them over. "Thirsty Suitors" is not that, and makes it clear what we've been missing in video games: the breakup simulator.
Despite a title that implies sexual shenanigans, "Thirsty Suitors" is a game about the emotional mess caused by relationships, as well as the power that can come from confronting our past mistakes. There are battles, but they are more bouts of barbed words than they are high-action sequences.
We as the character of Jala fling insults and harsh reminisces of the past, all while ducking basketballs, skateboards or giant pieces of cake by attempting to push a controller button in rhythm. The real pain, however, comes from the game's words. "I kept trying to change myself for you," one ex tells our protagonist, "but now I realize you didn't know what you wanted." It stings as much as any of the game's exaggerated fight moves, one of which involves calling Mom for help to squish a former lover with a sandal. Such humor helps the emotional warfare go down a little easier.
Each confrontation ends in some form of reconciliation, as the game aims to show the importance of forming healthy relationships with those we have become close to. "Thirsty Suitors" early on spells out its goals: "Friendship and emotional maturity." It's unclear if Jala, our hero, has the strength for it, but each encounter with an ex — some relationships more strained and traumatic than the others — helps her better articulate her emotions, her failings and how she came to villainize former partners. Fault, in "Thirsty Suitors," is assigned equally.
Developed by Seattle-based Outerloop and published by Los Angeles studio Annapurna, "Thirsty Suitors" was released last week for home computers and most consoles. I went in with trepidation. I feared it would be triggering, as I'm still in the midst of coming to terms with the dissolution of my last relationship.
Spending a dozen hours with a narrative-focused game reliving breakups didn't seem, to use an unfair video game term, fun. But what I found was something that felt rather comforting, its deep dives into multiple scorched-earth breakups showing the way miscommunication can lead to misunderstandings and unfair demonization. Even in a situation where reconciliation seems an impossibility, "Thirsty Suitors" places the emphasis on growing and healing through difficult conversations.
"Thirsty Suitors" isn't saying one should go out and have probing conversations with all of their exes. In some cases, experts say, that can be beneficial, but it's not always a recommended idea. There are questions to be asking first, says Dr. Gary Brown, a Los Angeles-based couples therapist. "When you think of reconciliation, is it something you would like? Is it something the other would like? If one or both of you wants to reconcile, what's your best-case scenario for what that could look like?"
In "Thirsty Suitors" Jala is a character in her 20s, born to an Indian mother and a Sri Lankan father. Her motivations are, admittedly, somewhat selfish. She's striving to become a better person, and seeking ways to stop repeating mistakes, be that in her personal or familial relationships — all of which is commendable.
But it's also done at the risk of potentially forcing those she cares about to relive past trauma. Her exes have various motivations of their own, be it a form of revenge or getting back together. If there's a commonality, Jala and her various exes come to realize their various hangups and unresolved personal issues often lead to a lack of open, honest communication.
A beauty of interactive entertainment, however, is that games feel like a dialogue between the developers and the player. Jala, in other words, is opening old wounds so we can heal from them.
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