Ever since Jumpman scaled a construction site to save his girlfriend Pauline from a giant ape, romances have been an integral part of video game narratives. And while Jumpman may have since changed his name to Mario and left his woman for a perpetually-in-peril princess, many gaming relationships have been far more enduring.
For this week’s Sunday Sound-Off, we asked our writers to come up with – and defend – what they felt were the greatest love stories to ever grace the digital world. The result was a compilation of the romances, bromances, and friends-with-benefits that have touched us individually in their own special way.
Hit the break and feel the love.
I want you, game developer, to know that I’m not superficial. I enjoy long walks on the beach and slaughtering aliens as much as the next girl. And I know it’s futile to comment about the “reality” of relationships in a genre where realism isn’t necessarily a huge concern, but I have a hard time committing to the fictional relationship between my character and your pixel creations when it is clear that these two have nothing in common, no basis of trust and understanding from which to build a stable relationship, and no chance of a future together.
Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan/The Queen of Blades, however, make sense. Does that sound odd? It should. He’s a space cowboy, she’s a former assassin-turned-winged-scaly-insectoid-Zerg Boss. I envision a shared lifetime of rearing scaly winged babies and making war on each other.
But oftentimes, the greatest romances are the unfulfilled ones. Perhaps great romances, by their very nature, can only be unfulfilled. And you understand that. During the heady days on Antiga Prime amidst the revolution, when they were still both human, Raynor and Kerrigan formed a real connection – or maybe only a vestigial, underdeveloped one. They’ll never know. She is then stranded, left for dead, and infected by the zerg, and soon devotes herself to the full-time job of being power-hungry, evil, and mad. Raynor’s destiny ensures that he’ll spend the rest of his life in mortal conflict with her, all the while taunted by what she was and what she has become. Is the Queen of Blades even the same woman that he once loved?
Theirs is the tale of two people who love each other, yet are doomed to destroy each other. They don’t have a future together and that’s the whole point. It isn’t any more realistic than the “I saved you from the castle, now kiss me!” variety of relationship, but this time, game developer, you have succeeded in activating my emotional feelers. Maybe it’s the tragic element that endows the story with a semblance of depth, or maybe it’s how I hope against hope that it all works out somehow, but you have made me believe the unbelievable. Now take it to the next level. Go on, I dare you. Sweep me off my feet.
The other day, I stumbled on my old Lisa Frank diary and decided to peruse a few of the pages. There was a long, embarrassing section dedicated to my Final Fantasy X experience and the trials and tribulations of 15-year-old me trying to survive both high school and the most romantic game I had ever encountered. The love story of Tidus and Yuna was absolutely captivating, and although I’m not going to share any of my fawning, saccharine diary entries, I would like to state that no other videogame romance has felt nearly as poignant ever since.
The major appeal of Tidus to Yuna is really that “foreign exchange student” factor. He’s mysterious, a little ethnically befuddling, and his intro song rocked Spira like nobody’s business. He was searching for himself, always enthusiastic, and readily available (read: human and of the appropriate age range).
Yuna had her own allure. She was dignified, brave, and she could freakin’ walk on water. Heterochromia iridium is an auto 100+ bonus to the sexy stat, and her naive longing to protect everyone despite knowing that she herself would perish in the process garnered more than just sympathy.
15-year-old me wanted so badly for these characters to survive, to endure the hardships together and demonstrate to the rest of the videogame industry how to develop a proper romance. I shamefully admit to watching the infamous spring scene multiple times. The music, the colors, the costumes, the story… everything about FFX still lingers in my mind as one of the most romantic and bittersweet games ever designed.
Well, I do have one short diary entry from the end of the game.
Just beat FFX. Tidus faded away and Yuna cried on the floor. I feel the same way. Stupid Square.
Johanna Armstrong – The Romance System in Harvest Moon 64
If there’s one game that nostalgia goggles will never distort because it’s an amazingly simple and sweet game no matter when you play it, it’s Harvest Moon 64. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the game that makes it so addictive and, in a sense, beautiful. It should, really, be boring and trite: it’s a farm simulator, for god’s sake. But, for its time (1999), it has a very interesting and meaningful romance system. So this isn’t about a specific couple, but the way in which the game handles the system of coupling between the main character and his options.
With most modern romance systems, you get a set of dialogues and actions that you perform to “woo” your love interest, and it doesn’t really take a lot of guess work to figure out how to hook up with someone. But in Harvest Moon 64, it’s a lot like a much simpler, calmer version of real life – sort of 1950’s TV show you could live in, like Pleasantville. You meet the people in your town, and as you get to know them, you can watch the young kids grow up and the older ones pass away. Talking to them daily and giving them gifts opens you up to learning more about them. You meet girls, and if you talk to them every day, maybe take note of when their birthday is, they come to like you.
As you begin to learn more about them, you have memorable times together: playing with sparklers, or accidentally getting trapped in the wine cellar, or going to see a bunny in the mountains. Some of the girls are shy, some are outgoing; some are perky and some are emotionally struggling; some enjoy books and some enjoy the outdoors. They are more than just “romance options.” As a player, you are truly compelled to see them as your neighbors, as people to get to know, to empathize with and spend time with them.
In this way, I think Harvest Moon 64, a game from 1999, has a much better romance system than games like Skyrim, where you just flash a pendant and show up to a ceremony. It’s very sweet, and it’s very simple. It’s not sexy, it’s not hot, it’s not risqué, it is, purely, for the sake of love.
Think about it. Wander endures some serious punishment for his “true love” while she just sleeps all day. But who’s actually there by his side through it all? That’s right, Agro.
Agro’s love for Wander needs no explanation. He hauls the forsaken duo all the way to the Forbidden Land, traverses mountains and deserts at his master’s will, and shows up at his side within seconds every time he’s called. To top it off, Agro asks for nothing in return.
On an emotional level, the player has little connection with Mono, Wander’s storied love interest. She appears one time in a dream where she wakes up and moves a bit. Now compare that to Agro’s heroic acts of selflessness, all done in the name of love. I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a tear during the broken bridge cutscene. In the end, nothing could break the bond between Wander and his steed.
So there you have it, one of the greatest man on horse romances in gaming. Er, wait…
Emma Atlas – Link and Marin (The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening)
Logic should hold that in a series titled The Legend of Zelda featuring a male protagonist named Link saving the titular damsel in distress, the ultimate romance in the series would be exclusively between Link and Zelda. Real fans know this isn’t strictly true, as Link has made flirty asides with a Zora princess, a Twilight princess, several cowgirls, and his Kokiri neighbor, not to mention a sandy romp with a well-endowed Gerudo at the age of ten. By far the greatest love affair of them all, however, was with Marin of The Legend of Zelda:
A little background for the uninitiated: Marin discovers Link after he washes up on the shores of her home, Koholint Island. He wakes up in her bed (me-ow) and, at first, confuses her with Zelda (me-ouch). Over the course of the game Link discovers that Koholint Island is only a dream on the lid of the eye of the Wind Fish, a giant sentient whale whose mind is being controlled by the Nightmare. If he manages to wake the Wind Fish, it is said that the island and everyone on it, including Marin, will vanish.
Armed with the knowledge that all potential witnesses and blackmailers are now easily disposed of, Link sets off to pursue Marin with no fear of the news ever getting home to Hyrule. He finds her on a beach, and pretends to listen to her ramble about seagulls and coconuts so he can ask her to come with him to wake up a walrus, naturally. However, his real intentions are apparent in the narration.
“You got Marin! Is this your big chance?” it asks, as Link holds Marin up over his head in a non-compromising way. Unfortunately, after the peep-show it’s all downhill for Link. Marin makes him look like a scrub at a crane game, spends too much time talking to rabbits, and nearly snaps his back in half when they fall down a well together. In the end, Link decides to just find his way out of the awful situation by actually bringing her to the walrus and scaring it into the ocean with her presumably terrible singing.
Luckily for Link, at the end of the adventure wakes up the Wind Fish and destroys all evidence by wiping out the island and everyone on it. Because if Link can’t have her, she and her entire family must die am I right?
It is certainly fun to engage in relationships in video games, but most of the time they’re without any real meaning or impact. That is until Dragon Age: Origins came out.
While the game allows you to pursue many different relationships, the relationship between Saeara, my female lead, and Alistair felt incredibly powerful. If you think about what they have gone through up until the declaration of love, it’s easy to see that this is prime material for a great romance.
Two mortals who, although by choice, must accept that they will die young in defense of the country they love and who are unable to have children with others due to the Grey Warden ritual of ingesting Dark Spawn Blood. Saeara, a noble whose mother and father were murdered in a power struggle and Alistair, a bastard son who, despite constant mockery from his peers, has to face his destiny of becoming king.
Add to this the fact that they are the only Grey Wardens left on Ferelden. They really have nothing to live for beyond the knowledge that they are the only ones who stand between the obliteration of their homeland. All of these add up and you get one of gaming’s greatest romances as Saeara and Alistair only have each other to get through the dark times.
Matt Wells – Cloud and Aeris (Final Fantasy 7)
My absolute favorite bit of romance comes from Cloud Strife’s and Aeris Gainsborough’s doomed relationship Final Fantasy VII. It revolved around the concept of Cloud, the loaner mercenary finally opening up and believing in someone other than himself as well as the chipper and often-naive Aeris learning how the world isn’t always sunshine and flowers. Through the time they spent around each other, they grew closer and created something incredibly heart-warming and innocent. To this day, I can still think of the date at the Golden Saucer with fondness in my heart.
It was the kind of relationship that was corny, but still left you with a feeling that it would last and they would be able to pull through it all. That is… until Aeris was killed. However, it was this death that enhanced both characters. Aeris knew that she had to die in order to save the world, which added to her courageous spirit while Cloud finally found the motivation and purpose in his life that he needed in order to save the ones he cared about. While I’ll never admit to tearing up when Aeris fell to the floor (and there are now witnesses to say the contrary), it was certainly one of the biggest events of my young gaming life.
What really solidifies this as one of the all-time greats is the fact that more than a decade after Final Fantasy VII was released, people were still attempting to bring Aeris back from the dead. I believe true love will be tested by tragedy and that’s what makes this romance so unforgettable. The fact that discuss it years after the release shows that the right decision was made when Aeris’ fate was being discussed. While the hardcore fans may say that Aeris was meant for Zach and Cloud was meant for Tifa, you still can’t deny that for the short time they were together, Cloud and Aeris just felt…right.
Dan Tallarico – Rocky and Pocky (Pocky and Rocky)
Who said that love can only exist between a man and a woman? Or a man and a mushroom? Or a ninja and their blade? No, love transcends humanity, and Pocky & Rocky exemplifies the love a young lady and a raccoon can share.
Like a raccoon rocketing through a trash-filled alley, Pocky & Rocky burst onto the scene fueled by their passion for throwing deadly leaves and wandering through haunted forests. Pocky, a young adventurous girl, fell for Rocky, a raccoon thing. They joined forces to battle the Nopino Goblins, but their journey made Pocky realize that Rocky wasn’t like most talking raccoons. They tore through hordess of demons fighting back-to-back, never letting the goblins get in-between their beating hearts.
Unfortunately, in Pocky & Rocky 2, Rocky was pushed to the side so Pocky could explore other, uh, “sidekicks.” While a fling with a raccoon satisfied Pocky for a short time, it wasn’t enough for her young and rabid heart. Pocky questioned whether their love was a mere side-effect of the battle they fought together. When the flames of war were extinguished, so was their love. It’s a shame that the two couldn’t work something out, but love blooms, and perishes, on the battlefield.
Chris Ullery – Rosa and Cecil (Final Fantasy IV)
In my mind, there is no romance purer than that between a priestess and a paladin. The tale of Cecil Harvey’s quest for redemption stands as one of the earliest attempts at character-based storytelling in a roleplaying game, and its legacy is reinforced by the unshakable love shared between him and the white mage Rosa Farrell.
The bond between the two is established almost immediately, with Rosa encouraging a conflicted Cecil – who has begun to question the morality of his service to his king – to follow what he knows to be true. The encouragement of his lover plays a major part in his decision to cast aside the blood-stained mantle of the dark knight and seek his own redemption, in order that the two might stand side-by-side on the path of righteousness against the evil plaguing the land.
Adding to the power of the relationship is the dragoon Kain. The jealousy he hides for the romance budding between his two life-long friends allows him to be manipulated by the sinister Golbez, which drives much of the plot forward. And, similar to Cecil, Kain is able to find his own redemption by eventually coming to terms with the fact that his own love of Rosa is destined to remain unrequited.
Sure, by modern standards, Final Fantasy IV’s story isn’t terribly deep, and its characters are somewhat laughably one-dimensional. But to a young boy fascinated with the immersive worlds of video games, this simple romance was enough to start a lifelong fascination with the romantic ideals of knighthood, chivalry, and courtly love. And, of course, I will insist that Rosa and Cecil’s “Theme of Love” be played at my wedding.