But video games have been covering ‘romance’ since the golden days of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Whether used to move the plot further, to immerse players in the story, or simply to pass the time between action scenes and give gamers a bit of eye candy, relationships have played key roles in games for as long as I can remember (About twenty years, give or take). Good, bad, or ugly, romance is not leaving the gaming world any time soon, so grab a heart container of chocolates, and join me.
Spoilers may lurk yonder, ye be warned.
When I played Super Mario Bros. for the first time, I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing. ”Move forward, jump over the hole! There’s a shufflin’ potato thing, let’s stomp on it! Coins!” I didn’t really need a ‘goal’ in all of this. It was simple fun. I was also four. Never the less, Nintendo did provide our gutsy Italian plumber with some motivation, which developed a bit along with the franchise.
One of the first renditions of romance in video games was simple: you’re the hero, save the princess. With games such as Mario, which involved little story to begin with, the lack of real motivation was permissible. In a side scrolling adventure where you’re main purpose is to mash bricks and shoot fire pellets at koopas, how concerned were we really with Mario’s underlying purpose? More over, the ‘damsel in distress’ had been a staple in movies, books, and fairy tales for a very long time. There was no need for there to be a budding romance between the characters; no need for any development of character, or bond of common interests, even in more story driven franchises such as The Legend of Zelda. The hero saves the princess, the princess responds in kind to her ‘prince charming’, as dictated by the mediums that came before.
As the industry developed, and more could be done with the technology at hand, games evolved. Gone were the days where most games were simply a matter of maps strung together with a common mechanic. The player-base began to demand more from it’s entertainment, and thus gaming began to grow more sophisticated. With growing story lines, came more intricate tales of romance, love, loss, and betrayal.
Final Fantasy VII is what many gamers will remember always as the pinnacle of story telling. Released on the Playstation console in 1997, it was my first experience with a ‘role playing game’. Up until this point, games had been a straight forward affair. Much like Mario, I was used to the simple idea of platforming. Crash Bandicoot and Sonic had been my life to this point, with a bit of Gunstar Heroes mixed in for good measure.
Then this game came along and changed everything. I laughed, I cried like a baby, but it wasn’t for a long time before I understood.
This game did’t really feature its ‘main’ romance nearly as well as it seemed to when I was nine.
In the seventh rendition of the Final Fantasy series, as I’m sure you all know, you play as Cloud Strife, an ex-SOLDIER who finds himself caught up with a rag tag group of rebel terrorists known as AVALANCHE as they seek to protect the world they live in from the ShinRa corporation, and it’s destructive ways. Along the way, you meet a flower girl by the name of Aeris (or Aerith if you want to get technical). After a few shennanigans involving cross dressing and pimps, Aeris is kidnapped (here we go again) and through rescuing her you learn that she is an Ancient, a race of deeply spiritual nomadic aliens (hush, they were) in search of their “Promised Land”.
The rest of the story revolves firmly around saving the planet from the combination of ShinRa’s draining it of its energy, and Sephiroth’s (the Big Bad) attempt at becoming ’one’ with the it (which would seem to almost destroy it entirely). All the while, we get to know our characters, their pasts, and their connections both known, unknown, and hidden, to each other. All except one.
Aeris, the love interest of the main character, dies about a third of the way through the game. There is hardly enough time for any real love to build between her and Cloud, and the only instance they really have alone (An instance which in and of itself is optional depending on how you speak to the character in question) comes off as forced and awkward. In fact, the main motivation Aeris has for her connection with Cloud is that he reminded her of an old boyfriend. Ladies: when is that ever a good idea?
Personally? I felt the relationship between Cloud and his childhood friend Tifa as much more developed, if never fully realized. Here is a woman that has stood by Cloud, despite conflicting memories of past events, for most of his life. She supported his decision to join SOLDIER when they were young teens, stayed relentlessly by his side when Cloud was diagnosed with mako poisoning and in a vegetative state, and literally pieced the man’s past back together in the correct order after they were both sucked into the Lifestream together. And what does she get for her efforts? Friend Zone’d. Ouch.
After beating Final Fantasy VII, I delved wholly into RPGs, starting with its forerunners (FF6) and new comers into the game. After a while, the portrayal of romance in these games began to bore me, and all seemed to fall into the same purposes. Relationships served to give the main character motivation to move forward, like it did in Kingdom Hearts, when Kairi goes missing for most of the game and starts the whole adventure. It could also be used to spawn development (usually animosity) between other characters in the game (Such as Seymour’s engagement and eventual marriage of Yuna in Final Fantasy X). Rarely, though, did a game convince me of the believably of the relationship, or do much beyond the standard fare to develop it. Even games based almost solely around developing said relationships, such as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 were little more than figuring out a character archetype, and appealing to it with the right selection of statements.
I mentioned before about how Catherine spoke to me, and to the demographic of its player base. Here was a game that not only featured believable characters, but that was based around the idea of a romantic relationship, rather than using it as a device in some larger plot. The plot served the romance, not the other way around.
In Catherine, you follow Vincent, a man well on his way through adulthood, but barely entertaining any facet of actual maturity. His girlfriend at the time, Katherine, is seen pressuring him into a life that he is frankly not ready for. Katherine wants to get married. It’s understandable, really. They’ve been together for a while, and the emotionally and financially stable Katherine is looking for more out of her relationship. She’s ready to move to the next level.
After a night of drinks and laments, Vincent meets a lovely, young, and free spirited girl by the name of Catherine, and over the course of the next week starts in a torrid affair which he tries desperately to keep Katherine from finding out about.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Atlus game without a curse, and a trip through your own nightmares. Did I mention that the “Rules” apply? If you die in the dream you die in real life. Every night Vincent is haunted by visages from that day’s torment as he climbs a seemingly endless staircase of death and misery. Katherine appears to him as a monster in a wedding dress. A bloody infant rears its face to represent a pregnancy scare, and so on.
Catherine decided to take a situation familiar to everyone at some point of their life or another and turn it into a timed puzzle game; presenting the player with questions of fidelity, responsibility, and maturity. Ultimately, the player must ask himself: Settle down and live a stable life responsibly with Katherine, or continue a life without obligation with Catherine at your side..until one of you or the other gets bored. Curses, nightmares, or not, I’m sure the battle between stability, and whim plays on in the minds of just about everyone.
And just in case you were wondering: I chose the middle ground, because I felt that Vincent was too ‘derptastical’ to deserve any happiness whatsoever. Mwuahahahaha!
There are, of course, games that appear right out of nowhere and surprise you with their complexity. Braid, an indie game released on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, is like Mario, in that it’s a platformer (albeit with a time reversal mechanic), but adds none of Mario’s simplicity of story, at least, not beneath its surface.
The story starts out deceptively one dimensional. Tim must find his princess. All we know is that she’s been abducted by a terrible monster, and Tim made some sort of mistake that he has to rectify or erase, with the power he has to rewind time. Through the game you are accosted with bits and pieces of story, alluding to something more lurking just beneath the surface. Themes of regret and caution run rampant, until you reach the very last level.
Tim and his princess must work together to escape a knight. This would be all well and good, except, oddly enough, Tim is the only one moving forward, and everyone else is in reverse. This goes on until you reach what can only be the house Tim and his princess share. You are locked out. Time reverses, and suddenly everything appears in its ‘proper’ order. You are the monster. Your princess is running from you and into the arms of her knight.
Tim’s mistake, whatever it was, was one that not even the reversal of time could fix. He chased the past, quite literally, and learned that he could not change it. What then, are his options?
To move forward, I would think…
All tales told, my experience with video game romance has been rather lacking (save some stellar exceptions), when compared to the intricacy that can be expressed in mediums that take a comparable amount of time to complete (such as a long novel). Consider this a call to arms for writers: Don’t limit yourself to what’s simple, or easy for most people to understand, or ‘main stream’. Give us something new; give us something believable.