Valentines Day can be rough. The jewelry commercials, the overpriced flower shops and a whole lot of unrealistic expectations for a fairytale evening can create a week of agony for couples leading up to V-day.
But it’s not only advertisers, videogames often portray unhealthy notions of love and romance. Virtual relationships have become so skewed that Rus McLaughlin recently proclaimed that romance is dead in the virtual world. And rightly so. McLaughlin examines the love interests of Mass Effect and their boy/girlfriend experience and concludes they are incomplete, merely sexual conquests that end any meaningful connection with the character once you’ve slept together: ”Developers clearly want players to invest in these relationships, but then they go all commitment-phobe on us . . . . Because, laughable as the lead-up might be, what happens after you make a love connection breaks the entire experience.”
Instead of a fully fleshed out relationship, we’re left with a sexual checklist. I remember spending the first 20 hours of Mass Effect, slowly building a connection with my female teammate Liara. From casual friends to flirty crushes, I was enjoying the growing relationship between us, until just before the game ends and I have the chance to sleep with her. After that? Nothing. No new dialogue, no new conflict, it’s just wham bam, thank you ma’am.
This is why McLauhlin is justified in his examination of videogame romance. Sex was never meant to be the finish line for a relationship, it’s only one facet, and games need to start building convincing relationships based on companionship and commitment as well. Don’t get me wrong, sexual tension is great, but a lover is someone you actually want to hang out with. It’s just too bad games rarely have the chutzpa to portray a committed relationship, as McLaughlin says, “The moment you consummate your relationship, whomever it’s with, you’re done.”
And to prove it, here are some famous videogame couples that would never make it outside of the game canon. Save for maybe one.
5. Zelda and Link
Much like the long distance relationship between Mario and Peach, Link and Zelda spend a lot of time apart in Ocarina of Time, even though their romance has often been a underpinning to Link’s quest. It was always a shallow motivator, as Link spends hours bonding with dozens of members of the opposite sex, creating a childhood bond with Sarai, learning to ride Epona with Malon or the strange romance with Princess Ruto. While Link and Zelda bonded over magical triangles, eventually they can’t help but grow apart over the course of the game, shaped by their radically different experiences, Like the time your grade school sweetheart moved away and returned in high school, strange feelings of nostalgia remain, but you’ve both long since found new love.
4. Mario and Peach
Like a royal union forged from duty to country or a marriage of convenience, Mario and Peach have long lost the distant spark that once started a franchise. Even then it was not Peach, but the thought of fame, chivalry and the allure of royalty that drew the portly plumber from his pipes to save the damsel. Mario is a good guy, but the end of the day, he’s a plumber, not a prince.
3. Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance
The sexual tension is heavy, thick each time the two heroes part ways, knowing it may be the last time they see each other. But that hushed protagonist can never, ever reciprocate those feelings. Because of a stubborn design choice in Half-Life 2, Freeman wordlessly strings poor Alyx along. Relationships are two way streets where communication is important. Yet how many words has Gordon uttered to the swooning Vance? Besides, G-man no doubt sees Freeman as his successor, and that kind of inter-dimensional lifestyle is not good for romance.
2. Cloud and Aeris
Sephiroth’s sword didn’t end our romantic inclinations towards Aeris, but instead inflamed them by leaving us wondering, “what if”? What if Aeris has lived, what kind of romance would’ve blossomed (though the internet fan fiction sites are eager to extrapolate.)
As Leigh Alexander writes in the Final Fantasy VII letters, “Tifa really is the heroine of the story, isn’t she? She’s the one who was there since the beginning, the one who knew Cloud forever, and the one who saved him.” While Aeris is a tease, leaving Cloud abruptly throughout the game, it’s Tifa who stays by his side. She has no motivation other than to love him. “With all that,” Alexander asks, “why did fans seem to take her for granted in favor of the tragic priestess? Why was there ever any question about whom Cloud ought to be with? Why was this something fans even had to argue about?”
She even suggests that on multiple playthroughs, the nature of Tifa’s faithfulness becomes more obvious, calling her a companion for the grown-up player, “one who’s learned that pretty girls are a dime a dozen and “mysterious” girls usually haven’t got all that much going on.”
1. Nathan and Chloe
One word why Nathan and Chloe wouldn’t work out: Elena.
Which brings me to the one relationship that would work.
For the first quarter, I admit, I thought Uncharted 2 had pulled a James Bond and made the “upgrade model for sequel” with Chloe.
She is everything Elena is not, the saucy woman ready to get her hands dirty for some treasure (no innuendos there). Even the color palette for Chloe is fire engine red, jet black hair with a silky seductive voice to boot, a sharp contrast to Elena’s muted flesh tones and girl-next-door attitude. Yet Elena is so much more than a quickie between gunfights or mere eye candy serving to seduce Nathan. It’s not all hot and cold and their relationship doesn’t culminate in the final consummation of the sexual conquest.
There’s a moment in Uncharted 2, during a daring escape that Drake and Fisher have a quiet moment together, one that reveals the uniqueness of their relationship. And it’s not the thrill of sexual tension, but the comfort of being understood. Chloe has just double-crossed the group but also taken away by the enemy. Elena is understandably at odds with Drake’s plan to save her. But in this moment Elena sees his heart, his honour among thieves. It’s this moment when Elena says, “It’s good to know somethings never change,” and joins Drake in his mission to save Chloe, that we realize Elena has just compromised for their relationship. She still cares deeply for his safety, and naturally distrusts Chloe, but she knows she can’t change Drake, yet she loves him anyways.
That’s companionship and commitment. That is love.
And it is more meaningful than defeating Bowser or having matching Triforce tattoos. It will carry a romance much further than fate, and that’s the kind of relationships videogames need to portray.