Video games and love have a long and often awkward history. There’s the classic quarter-century courtship of Mario and Peach, and games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have (generally) well-written romances. But then there are couples that make you cringe just thinking about their relationship, whether it’s Tidus and Yuna from Final Fantasy X bonding by braying in each other’s faces like angry sheep, or Sonic the Hedgehog falling for a human princess twice his height and zero times his species in the Game That Shall Not Be Named. It’s hard to condense complex emotions and years spent together into a 30 hour game, so let’s be generous and say that these next 7 titles… struggled.
7. Harvest Moon
Manual labor simulator Harvest Moon and its various spinoffs are ridiculously charming. They’re one of those games where the worlds feel real, like there’s somewhere on Earth where you could actually live in this quaint, rustic, small town that also happens to be populated by magical elves life.
In addition to growing your farm from scratch, you can expand your humble home, befriend the townsfolk and, of course, woo a mate. You get your pick of the eligible guys or girls, and then you can help the town’s other singles partner up, in the process inevitably leaving an odd one out to spend their lives alone and unloved.
How do you romance the humble librarian, tomboyish innkeep or borderline alcoholic supermarket employee? You go on a few dates, but for the most part it comes down to giving them the exact same gift every day for about a year. Go to their residence or workplace, wordlessly hand them an item they like, and vanish into the night. This is only slightly creepy if it’s a simple, romantic item (a flower), gets weird if it’s a favorite food (“I brought you an omelette at 10:30 pm for the 88th consecutive day! Do you love me yet?”), and reaches downright ludicrous levels if their tastes are expensive (“Here’s your daily diamond!”).
While the bachelors and bachelorettes all have distinct personalities and backstories, romancing them feels like a grind. It’s just one more chore on your daily checklist, right in between feeding the chickens and shopping for seeds. And don’t expect married life to make any more sense – in most games you’ll sleep in separate beds, and pregnancy is treated as a time-delayed illness. So go on, give that cute guy or girl you’ve got your eye on a gift. Then give them the exact same gift every day, and let us know how that turns out.
6. Double Dragon
Double Dragon is the timeless story of a martial artist named Billy Lee beating up half a city to get his girlfriend Marian back. Played as a single player game, it’s your typical “rescue the princess” story. Played as a co-op game featuring Billy’s twin brother Jimmy, it descends into Greek tragedy and bizarre sexual fetishism.
Games from the Double Dragon era were light on exposition, so for most of the co-op campaign you’re assuming that Jimmy is fighting alongside Billy because he’s a good brother, like a gritty, urban Luigi. But when the final boss takes his final punch, it’s revealed that Billy has the hots for Marian too, she’s into both of them, and the brothers immediately need to duke it out to see who wins her hand.
Everyone in this scenario comes across as awful. Jimmy is probably the worst, but Billy is awfully quick to turn on the brother he just spent several grueling hours fighting alongside. And Marian doesn’t exactly speak up to stop the nonsense, although she is quick to make out with the winner while the loser presumably dies from severe internal hemorrhaging. “I’ll happily go home with either of you as long as you murder your brother so I don’t have to buy two birthday presents every year. I mean, you look the same, so who cares?” It isn’t the most romantic of messages.
The Fable series itself is like a bad relationship. Every time it promises the world, and every time it breaks our hearts. Then, just when we thought we’d moved on, it comes back to us with new promises. We want to resist, but we can’t help but admit that, yes, there were some good times amidst the pain. So we follow our hearts, not our heads, and for our troubles we only find them broken once again.
The Fable games technically delivered what they promised on sex and relationships, but when 99% of the world’s population shares half a dozen voice actors and personality types it’s difficult to take any of those relationships seriously. When any man or woman can be turned from a total stranger into a ready and willing sexual companion with the timeless courtship ritual of “Compliment, loud fart, bad dance” it cheapens the accomplishment of getting laid in a video game.
To be fair, it probably is easier when you’re a renowned hero or even the King himself, although in the latter case you can’t help but wonder if some of your subjects feel pressured. “Oh yes, your Majesty, that truly was a mighty and erotic display of flatulence. I too am uncontrollably aroused. Please don’t kill me.” Regardless, it’s all silly and harmless enough until you decide to seal the deal with the old “20 second lute solo, gift, naughty joke, marriage proposal” combo.
You can approach pretty much any random citizen of Albion and change their attitude from “Who are you?” to “I do!” in five minutes. Then you escort them to your nearest property and tell them to shack up while get right back on the adventuring road. Preventing them from growing unhappy in their isolated domesticity boils down to allowing them a modest stipend, not being threatening or rude to them, and occasionally dropping in for an afternoon of gift giving and sex. That ridiculous portrayal of marriage, combined with the fact that you and your spouse share about 10% of an actual personality, makes what’s supposed to be a big decision at the end of Fable II – do you sacrifice your loved ones for the greater good? – a laughable no brainer. You can always get remarried to a nearly identical twin in less time than it takes to make a snack.
4. The Sims
The Sims has some of the same flaws as Fable, in that a couple of wacky dances and the Simlish equivalent of “nice shoes, wanna screw?” is generally enough to get you in bed with the Sim of your choice. But many of the hookups in Sims games are casual affairs born from wild parties and mutual crushes, so it’s really not that far off. Legitimate love, relationships and marriage are simplified, but married Sims work together to maintain a household and potentially raise children. It’s about as realistic a portrayal as one could reasonably expect from The Sims. No, this franchise is unromantic because people are making their friends and crushes bone.
Search your heart, you know it to be true. The Sims has sold millions of copies, and at least some of those copies have gone to people who want to make their friends woo-hoo. Most Sim players have based at least a few Sims on friends and family, both because friendships make for good creative fuel and because it’s funny to see how your virtual friends use their exaggerated traits to interact with each other. And, well, when you get a few single Sims together, sparks are going to fly.
Unless you’re organizing Sim orgies, that’s harmless fun that most of your friends would probably see the humor in. But when the players make Sims based on themselves that get involved, well, things can get creepy. Just try to tell me this conversation hasn’t happened at least once.
Jane: Hey, Jack, what’s up?
Jack: Not much, just playing The Sims.
Jane: Aw, is that one you? I can see the resemblance!
Jack: Yeah, I thought it would be funny if I made Sims based on all my friends.
Jane: Ha, that is funny. Where am I?
Jane: Oh, there I am. In, uh, your bedroom.
Jack: I guess you just wandered in there…
Jane: Wait, it says we’re in the same family.
Jane: And now our Sims are making out!
Jane: For the last time, Jack, I’m not interested!
Jack: Please love me!
It’s ruined at least one creepy person’s friendship. I’d bet my life on it. And that’s not even counting the players who seduce Sim versions of their co-workers, or celebrities, or the cute stranger they saw on the bus. Maybe someone’s even gotten off to a Sim version of you. Isn’t that romantic?
3. Any Game Where the Hero Is Mute
Even as a child I wondered why every girl Link encountered in Ocarina of Time developed a crush on him. Is it because there are only, like, eight eligible boys across all of Hyrule? Because you’d have to be pretty desperate to fall for a mute who communicates in grunts and stabs.
Before anyone misinterprets that as me saying that mute people can’t find love, the point is that Link uses no sign language, no written notes, nothing. He walks up to these girls and stares blankly at them while they monologue their life story. Maybe, if he’s feeling generous, he nods or blinks rapidly. Then he runs off to do whatever they bid him do. If I were a hack stand-up comedian there’d be a joke about how that’s the perfect man, but that’s not the basis of a serious relationship.
Is it because of the apocalyptic conditions that loom over Hyrule? The childhood years can be explained away as crushes, while Link must look hot saving the world from endless darkness as a young adult. But what’s that relationship going to look like when life gets back to normal? “Link, could you please pass the salt?” “…” “Honey, would you like to go for a walk tonight? “…” “Link, would you please acknowledge me?!” “…”
Crono and Marle, Mario and Peach, Gordon and Alyx (technically not official, but come on)… would any of those ladies be interested in their awkward mute boy if they weren’t busy saving the world? Lots of video games have had weird romances, but none are stranger than when girls fall for a walking weapon.
Ignoring the fact that there’s apparently only one man in the entire province of Skyrim who can arrange marriages, thus dooming helpless farmers living hundreds of miles and frost trolls away from him to forever live in sin, marriage between the Dragonborn and whatever random civilian catches their eye is even more informal and impersonal than Fable’s form of matrimony. You build yourself up in the eyes of potential spouses by doing favours for them. These can run the gamut from fetching everyday items they’re too lazy to gather themselves, to clearing an ancient dungeon of ravenous hordes of the undead to retrieve a priceless artifact. That’s right, Skyrim is a haven for the dreaded Nice Guy. Just do enough good deeds for the person of your dreams, and one day they’ll suddenly desire your genitals!
They can get a pretty nasty punishment for enabling that kind of bad behavior, though; depending on how you behave towards your new lover you can easily doom them to a lonely life. You’re away from home killing dragons six days out of the week, so they’re probably going to feel a little neglected at the best of times, but at least you can live with them in a bustling metropolis where they can work and make friends. However, if you’re feeling less generous, you can move them into one of the isolated homes you can build out in the wilderness.
And there they’ll stay forever, a clipped bird in a gilded cage. They’ll rattle around, wait for you to come home and have a perfunctory conversation, and regret their life decisions all the while. Unlike in Fable, neglect won’t lead to divorce – the only way out of a bad marriage is death. If you really want to be a jerk about it you can even turn your spouse into a vampire, extending your dysfunctional relationship for centuries. And Mara help them if they ever make you mad enough to shout at them.
1. Fire Emblem: Awakening
One of the selling points of the Fire Emblem series is that every single soldier in your fantasy army, from the mightiest hero to the humblest peasant, is given a fair bit of character development. Even if you only learn a few details about a soldier, it’s enough to give you pause when sending them into a dangerous fray. This character development usually culminates in marriage, or at least the implication of marriage in the future. Almost all of the male characters can end up with almost all of the female characters, leading you to play both tactician and matchmaker.
Most of the romances, while not deep, are sweet and believable. But every now and then your ability to decide everyone’s romantic fates go awry. I’m going to talk about one of the love stories from Awakening, because it’s the most recent in the series, it’s one of the best, and it’s the only one I remember well offhand, thus saving me the hassle of research. How’s that for honesty in game journalism?
First, meet Nowi.
She looks like the eight year old star of a very different kind of Japanese video game, but she’s actually over 1000 years old and one of the last surviving members of an ancient race that can shapeshift into fearsome dragons. Despite this, she tends to act more like the eight year-old girl she resembles, for reasons that we won’t get into because they’re dumb. Now meet Ricken:
He looks like a 13 year-old boy, and he is. His exact age isn’t mentioned, but it’s hard to believe he’s anything more than 15. Naturally, he can fall in love with a 1000 year old dragon-girl who looks and acts prepubescent.
Now let’s get to the creepy part! Because the game’s plot involves time travel, the teenage children the first generation of heroes will eventually have travel back to fight alongside their parents. Ricken and Nowi have a daughter named Nah, because they’re bad at naming children, and one of the first things she says to her dad is, “I have no idea what you see in her… Unless…you rushed into marriage for some reason? Like you got her-”
Ricken cuts her off, but she isn’t convinced. The whole affair is weird and makes you feel like a sex trafficker, only you can’t even figure out which party is the victim. And that’s a heavy premise for a series where other couples hook up because they like pranking each other.
Previously by Mark Hill: