REVIEW: Cheat(er) Code is a Queer Answer to Scott Pilgrim

Cover of Cheat(er) Code

When Anthony Oliviera recommended Cheat(er) Code, a new erotic graphic novel by writer S. A. Foxe and artist Daz, on Twitter last November, the endorsement could not have come at a better time. He described it as “exactly the kind of cheerfully horny gay smut we need right now.” In the post-DST bleakness of pandemic winter, I didn’t have to be told twice. Confined to my home, desperate to be doing anything else, I welcomed a distraction—an escape from the dark days ahead.

Cheat(er) Code

Daz (artist), S. A. Foxe (writer), Harry Otterman (letterer)
Limerence Press
September 22, 2020

Cover of Cheat(er) Code - Protagonist Ken is seated holding a video game controller, surrounded by characters from his games all smiling at him
Which is, in fact, where Cheat(er) Code starts: the darkest day of someone’s life. More accurately, it opens with two well-built hotties trading raunchy lines and screwing on a kitchen countertop. But that scene is quickly cut short when an unwelcome third party walks in mid-coitus. It’s our protagonist, Ken, who has just discovered his boyfriend Seth in flagrante with another guy.

Ken barely has time for the betrayal to sink in before Seth declares their relationship over. Seth even offers some half-hearted justification—“You put more effort into your video games than ever going out in real life”—but come on. That’s a pretty low blow from a guy who cares so little about “real life” that he doesn’t bother to use protection when he cheats. Ken reacts more or less how you’d expect, with tears and recrimination and eventually despair. By the time Ken announces his post-breakup plan to “masturbate, cry about it, and play video games till I pass out,” I was cheering him on (although part of me wondered when the comic’s promised cheerfulness would kick in).

What does a geeky, gay, newly single young adult do in the wake of infidelity and a breakup? Try to escape the devastation in any way possible. For Ken, that means a failed attempt to score on a hookup app, followed by sadsturbation. This last turns out to be a more effective form of escape than Ken anticipated because his self-gratification sesh coincides with a lightning storm and, one deus ex machina later, he wakes up mostly naked, dick in hand, smack-dab in the world of his video games.

The rest of Cheat(er) Code follows Ken’s journey through video game-landia in search of a portal back home. Each “level” (or chapter of the book) shows Ken in a different popular title, starting with a riff on the Silent Hill games and progressing to parodies of Skyrim, Mass Effect, and more. Also, did we mention everyone is incredibly horny all the time? It’s like a video game vacation: Ken meets (and fucks) his favorite protags and NPCs, travels through a mash-up of virtual worlds, and along the way tries to work through his shit.

A series of panels depicting a lightning storm and a splash of cum landing on a video game console with a word bubble saying "Sh--it!"

A young man facing a romantic trial must inhabit a video game metaphor-made-literal to overcome adversaries and his own flaws. If the premise sounds familiar, it should: in many ways, Cheat(er) Code feels like a queer answer to Scott Pilgrim. The same trappings are there, but the core of the story is decidedly different. What if, instead of toxic heterosexual masculinity, our protagonist’s real enemy was the epidemic of gay loneliness? This book dives right into that hypothetical, exploring how the vocabulary of video games might map onto Ken’s heartbreak—and how they could go hand in hand with his recovery. (Oh, and there’s a lot of sex. We’ll get to that in a bit.)

Contrary to Scott, Cheat(er) Code’s Ken is not a total fuckboy, but rather a victim of fuckboy behavior. Much to my relief, I never had to cringe through antics like the main character being shitty to his fake high school girlfriend. Though his background is broadly sketched—we don’t know much about his life outside of his apartment, where framed photos hint at happier days with Seth—Ken’s present state is all too familiar if you’ve spent any time in a collapsing relationship, being a huge nerd, or both. The sympathy you feel at experiencing his heartache secondhand makes Ken easy to root for, especially when the book turns to the emotional battle that awaits him IRL.

Ken confronts a character from the knockoff Silent Hill, tearing his hair and yelling "Are you telling me I just fucked a self-aware video game character?"

Cheat(er) Code’s plot isn’t just a straightforward, point-A-to-point-B progression across the map. It’s also about Ken’s struggle to cope—and not with just his bizarre transportation, which he at first dismisses as a dream following “30 hours with no sleep after the most depressing day of my life.” He also has to deal with the reality of his breakup. As Ken wrestles with feeling undesirable, helpless, and rejected—not to mention the fear and rage produced by Seth’s infidelity—his quest through the video game world is psychic as much as it is ludic.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of friendly characters to help with this quest, from the gruff daddy battling psychic demons to the much-beloved, oddly sexy catboy with a Sonic-like personality. Once Ken shakes off the denial, the absurdity of his situation sets in and he starts to embrace his allies, literally and figuratively. (It’s hard to stay depressed when your childhood mascot does a physics-defying leap over a medieval gate while carrying you piggyback.) Ken’s bemused, sarcastic commentary, the colorful cast, and the creative team’s obvious love of the games they’re drawn from keep the tone upbeat. Conversely, the underlying emotional conflict lends poignancy and depth to what could otherwise be a goofy excuse for porn without plot.

A series of panels admiring the physique of a leopard catboy, who then grabs Ken and tosses him over his shoulder, saying "Think of this as a childhood fantasy come true"

Scott Pilgrim leaves behind his Precious Little Life and Gets It Together over the course of six ample volumes. In Cheat(er) Code’s self-contained story, Ken’s character development is fast-tracked. At times, the emotional processing feels almost pat, with little nuggets of self-aware dialogue dropped into the scene like notes from a therapy worksheet. It’s not distractingly obvious, but it isn’t subtle. Ken even seems to know the significance of his preferred form of escapism: “Nothing from the past 24 hours has been under my control,” he says, right before initiating a brawl with an aggro NPC. (Get it? Playing video games helps you feel in control.)

Since Cheat(er) Code is such a short work, though, these moments do the heavy lifting necessary to get across the main idea, which is that this bizarro adventure is just what Ken needs to work through what he’s dealing with.

But lest we forget that this is an erotic graphic novel, almost all of the emotional breakthroughs are precipitated by sex scenes. And fortunately, the processing never gets in the way of all-out horny fun.

A close-up on the panting sex-face of an orc NPC with green skin and tusks

This comic has everything: anal, oral, toys, topping, bottoming, silver foxes, spit-roasts, self-insert sex—even a “cosmic orgasm” courtesy of a futuristic masturbation sleeve. Given the fantastic setting, the sex itself is portrayed more realistically than you’d expect. It may be porn, but it leaves in the un-sexier elements that porn usually elides, from Ken having to prep himself for bottoming in advance to frank discussion of STIs. Then there’s the delightful array of bodies on exhibit. Far from just twinks and gym bunnies, we get to see a whole range of physiques, all of which are fair game for sex shenanigans without shame or judgment. It proves that you don’t have to sacrifice realistic portrayals of intimacy in the name of wish fulfillment.

If I have one complaint, it’s that Ken’s orgy-smorgasbord seems to center exclusively on cisgender men. It would have been cool to see some variation on all the dick. But if you’re into dick, feast your eyes, because there’s a lot of it. Every sex scene is lavish with detail, arranged with a pornographer’s eye to include as much full-body action as the panel will allow and leaving nothing to the imagination. The vibe is somewhat choreographed; it’s more like watching a programmed cutscene than, for example, a coy montage of tastefully framed body parts (with intercourse itself being merely inferred). Whether that’s to your taste or not, the muscular lineart, coloring, and framing lends these scenes real substance.

That substance doesn’t stop at the erotica, either. When they’re not naked, the characters in Cheat(er) Code still grab your attention, thanks to Daz’s art style, which is cartoonish without crossing over into caricature. Ken’s new friends have to be distinct and recognizable from their game of origin, so a lot of information is conveyed by their appearance. Bold, solid color palettes, confident lines and deft design help render this visually—think the character portraits from a dating sim like Dream Daddy, where you can immediately grasp the personality of who you’re about to romance.

A battle sene showing many of the characters Ken has met, plus additional familiar parodies, in an all-out fight at wide angle

Equal care is given to expressions, which cover everything from doubt to rage to O-face without skipping a beat. The eloquent close-ups often help convey the changes in Ken’s mood throughout the story. You can read his emotions on his face, even more complex ones (such as when he’s trying not to let some overly porny dialogue spoil the mood before he gets down and dirty with two NPCs). Strong reactions like shock, dismay, and disbelief deform his features into goofy mugs straight out of Nichijou.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone is easy on the eyes. It’s a world full of hunks! Out of all the aesthetic choices Daz makes with the art, the most satisfying aspect is its—for lack of a better word—squishiness. From faces to full-frontal, the bodies in this book feel so corporeal you kinda want to reach out and grab them. I can’t think of a better quality in a comic that blends moments of real emotion with constant, unabashed horniness.

On its face, Cheat(er) Code is a love letter by and for people who love games, from the affectionate parodies to more subtle Easter eggs (like Ken’s name, presumably inspired by Resident Evil’s Leon Kennedy). Its final chapter—featuring a double-page sex montage spread with off-brand cameos from Metal Gear Solid, BioShock, Halo, Minecraft, and even (eek) Five Nights At Freddy’s—reaches a peak of silly, good-natured fun. But at the heart of the book is an unspoken question about the value of gaming as a whole.

Ken wipes his eyes, saying he wishes he could stay but he doesn't think it's possible, plus a panel showing his hypothetical body skeletonized on the couch with a video game controller next to it

Level by level, chapter by chapter, Ken acquires much-needed clarity and self-awareness, rediscovers his own desirability, and meets a whole crew of supportive friends. All of these function as an emotional weapon inventory that helps him gather enough courage to face the final boss (who else? His ex). The structure of the book is so similar to your standard gaming progression that it suggests a bigger picture to the premise, which is that playing a video game isn’t so far off from getting over a breakup. (Or vice versa.)

Like a novice booting up a brand new game, Ken starts out disoriented and at a loss, unsure what it will take to get out the other side. He finds his footing, takes risks, sees them backfire, and grows as a result. By the time Ken reaches a possible portal back to Real Life, ready to confront the trauma waiting for him there, he’s living proof of gameplay’s underrated ability to help you process IRL problems—not just through escapism, but by being a safe place to practice feeling empowered and in control.

The video game progression analogy works well for a breakup, but I think it’s also a good way of looking at any kind of traumatic, life-uprooting event. Like, I don’t know… a global pandemic, for example.

Stylized video game text says BOSS FIGHT above an image of Ken facing his ex, who looks like Sephiroth from the Final Fantasy games and is holding a giant penis-katana

I might be reading too much into it—after all, I did pick up this book looking for a balm in a tough time. Cheat(er) Code was recommended as a form of escape, and boy, does it ever deliver. But when I was done, I felt as if I had experienced a larger scale version of Ken’s lesson: sometimes all you want is an entertaining diversion that tells you it’ll be okay. Sometimes, even hearing that message can be enough to get you there. Maybe it’s not the smut that I needed (although it was exactly as cheerful and horny as promised) but the suggestion that, no matter how bad it feels right now, this suffering can be overcome. We can and will get through it. And when we do? Achievement motherfucking unlocked.

Like a breakup or a Dark Souls boss fight, this pandemic has been an agonizingly long ride. Would that we all had a lightning storm to transport us into an alternate reality where dealing with it is as easy as sitting through a cutscene. Short of that, I’ll take messages of comfort wherever I find them, whether it be via video games, comics, therapy, or Cheat(er) Code’s optimistic union of all three.