“I don’t hate love in game stories; I just hate reducing love to shallow, masturbatory fantasy indulgences.”
-Josh Sawyer (Obsidian Entertainment)
When I was 14, I played my first RPG: I never married during my time with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The prospect of metamorphosing a non-player character into a broken record player that loitered in my house never seemed appealing to me. In Skyrim, there is a noticeable lack of chase or build-up of intimacy between the Dragonborn and other marriageable characters.
So I spent my adventuring days as a wandering bachelor who traveled from hold to hold, never concerning myself with the burdens of married life. This game also failed to spark any interest in me towards the prospect of watching a bundle of front-end code wrapped in polygons quickly fall in love with me as it’s programmed to do.
The first problem that I faced during this time was that Skyrim is more of a dungeon crawler than an actual role-playing experience. The second was that I came out of this game wondering “who exactly is this feature tailored towards?” Skyrim’s romance system doesn’t add the dating simulator demographic to its Steam charts, and the prospect of taking a wife does not propagate the life of the combat-heavy game for its die-hard fans. It would take me many years to formulate an answer as to why it has become such a necessity to let players become intimate with their favorite characters.
I eventually moved on to another RPG series, Fire Emblem. The first game in that franchise that I gave a real shot to was Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright. In Birthright, you are given the option to romance a character of the opposite sex to produce a child which was pivotal to the game as it allowed you to have new additions to your army that were more personalized. This is even more important given that if any character dies in Fire Emblem they are dead forever.
I really didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought that if I watched enough cut scenes of blushing anime characters I would get new troops and that was that. Early in the game, you meet a strong independent type of character named Rinkah, I maxed out the relationship between her and Corrin to S rank first. I was really captivated by Rinkah for a lot of reasons. Rinkah grows by realizing that she can let go and talk about her feelings instead of keeping things bottled up which is a powerful message for any teenager that grew up as a boy. And to me, it made me a little closer to Rinkah than the other cast members.
I don’t think that at any point I felt a believable romance was forming, but it was clear that she and Corrin were becoming good friends. I was about three-quarters of my way through the brilliant story of Fire Emblem Fates when it was time to fight Camilla. I was making my way very easily through her royal retinue when I finally caught up to the dragon-riding seductress. She greeted me with one of her usual jeers and caught me off guard by taking Corrin down to critical health.
Corrin knelt in front of her ready for her to kill him and send him back to the start of the level; she’d won the match because of my mistake. Except that’s not what happened. Camilla turned to Rinkah and a dialog window opened as she says “Is this who you’ve been spending so much time with?” With a wicked smile, Camilla brought her ax down, taking the remainder of Rinkahs health and killing her.
My remaining units made sure that Camilla didn’t stand a chance as I won the battle, the computer knowingly gave up the win condition to kill Rinkah. Suddenly, my mistake held gravity. I couldn’t really bring myself to finish the rest of the game after that, I'm just not the revenge type, what can I say. Even though I never finished Fire Emblem Fates, I respect the game for giving me what at the time was one of the most human moments that I have ever had playing a video game.
The Outer Worlds by Obsidian Entertainment is a game that features no romance whatsoever between its main characters. The game has you play as the captain of a freelancing ship named The Unreliable and you are allowed to pick up characters on your travels to become part of your crew. If you want to, you can head out on each crew member's personal errands to become maybe friends rather than just business partners.
The first friendly face you see in the musty settlement of Edgewater is Parvati, voiced by the talented Ashly Burch. When you meet Parvati she is sweet and shy, talking very sweetly about her relationship with her father and begging everyone around to do what’s right. With her character's excellent writing and voice acting it was very safe to say that I was beyond excited to start her companion quest and put the main story on hold to see what it had in store.
After meeting Junlei on the Groundbreaker you can talk to Parvati to discover that the two have traded numbers and have been talking romantically. Parvati will then ask you to accompany her to the bar to talk out her apprehensions about asking Junlei to go out with her. I was kind of bummed that this game didn’t have romance options because my original perception of video game character writing was that the only way that a character could express their full inner motivational development was by falling in love with the main character. This next scene of Parvati and the captain in the bar changed my perception of this completely.
Something about going to the bar with a close friend to help them through a tough time is deeply relatable and adds just as much substance and intimacy to the game as if it really did have relationship paths. The night sees you help Parvati work through some confusing mixed messages that Junlei is sending her, maybe hinting that Junlei might still have feelings for her previous partner. You hear her out and give heartfelt advice then encourage her to end the night with a glass of water and calm down. Or if you’re me, you tell the bartender you need 2 rounds of shots and then drag your stumbling friend back to the ship for a good night's rest (I’m a bad influence but a good friend, just a character flaw).
Unfortunately, the rest of the game lacks moments like this but to be fair it is not often that a video game can connect the player with a character like the way it does with Parvati.
I don’t think I’m quite the shut-in nerd that you might assume I would be after finding out how many video games line my bookshelves. That being said, sometimes talking and joking about kinks, romantic interests, or sex in general can feel a bit taboo, even for me. But then, like a group of delinquent hell demons busting the bathroom door down at a high school house party, Monster Prom crashed into my life.
The idea is simple, a dating sim meant to be enjoyed as a party game. The only thing is, how would I wrangle together the right group to enjoy such revelry? I didn’t know if I was ready to lay it all out in front of my friends, or if I would begrudgingly refuse to admit why I was trying to get close to a Yaoi-loving vampire. What anybody I played Monster Prom with quickly understood about the game is that it is two things; a comedy, and a feel-good sex-positive expression of stupid high school romance.
The loose nature of the game brings out this goofiness that has allowed many people to openly admit the exact reasons why they are attracted to the money-loving gorgon ice queen. It’s a typical high school romp with your traditional stereotypes, but the twist that they are all monsters in their twenties gives the game enough whimsy to allow its human players to let go a little bit. Unlike the other games described here, this game gives the exact opposite of the tender and crushing moments of other games that feature romance. Unfortunately, I don’t have any personal stories about Monster Prom that aren’t completely incriminating for all parties involved, but for a game to spur such a unique conversation out of its players is really something special for a party game to achieve.
At a crossroads in my life I met Persona 4 Golden in the velvet room. The old fortune teller inside then told me the score; I would get the escape of living for one year in a slice-of-life anime, but if I failed to catch a dream-hopping murderer I got to pack up and go home early. There is something innately intoxicating about the rural life of Inaba. While everybody in the game complains about how boring life is out in the sticks, you can’t help but feel a little at home there. But maybe that’s just me.
A big component of Persona 4 Golden is your active goal to get a girlfriend by the end of the year. It’s a kind of strange goal, strange in that the reward is a scene that panders toward the crowd that wants to see blushing anime girls and some unique events on holidays. Note that unlike Persona 3 you can get all of the mechanical bonuses from this task without becoming romantically involved. So if the romantic reward for completing this is not the best thing since June, why do it? When I could just do exactly what I did in Skyrim and roam the halls of high school as the mysterious transfer student.
The answer is pretty simple: it's all set dressing. The backdrop of quiet high school life is absolutely nothing without innocent flirting and naive romance. Sure we go to school together and fight shadow entities in another realm together, but do you think she likes me? Just like a kid straight out of puberty those thoughts shoot through your brain every second for 75 hours as you live your life in Inaba. So I’ll go on to save the world but not before I receive the direct dopamine injection of having my high school crush confess her feelings to me. It walks side by side with performing in school and going to the club to give the player the best simulation of the slice-of-life experience in existence. Although even in a masterpiece like Persona 4, I didn’t do it for the romance. I did it for the high school drama that rounds out the titular dungeon crawler.
So going back to the initial question, why do I and so many others crave the thrill of romance in video games if not to get the pulp content that fans of dedicated dating sims get time and time again? The answer lies in these moments of human connection between the player and the game.
When someone experiences the perfect mix of writing and acting in an emotionally charged scene they can forget that the events happening are a simulation. The whole video game doesn’t have to be so robust to give you that feeling throughout the entire title, but just one moment can deepen the life that the main cast exudes.
Good character development is often written in vulnerable moments and told through the lens of romantic or intimate moments. While I don’t think that an interaction has to be romantic in nature to be impactful, the hereditary effect of using an amorous interaction to cause a character to reveal their major growth works every time. So it doesn’t matter if you actually fall in love this time, but I think that there is something human in all of us that keeps wanting to see if we can.
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