Let’s be honest: If you want to experience top-notch romantic storytelling, videogames may not be the best place to look. Historically they’re quite good at coupling romantic relationships with death and miscellaneous tragedy for the sake of moving a story forward. Healthy relationships featured prominently that don’t exist just to be manipulated for motivation or character development are still few and far between.
But thankfully it appears that games are getting a lot better at addressing this age old issue. Here are a few recent videogame romances that prove it.
The reason Cassandra’s romance with the player character in Dragon Age: Inquisition is so strong is largely because of Cassandra herself. It would have been very easy for her to be altogether dismissive of tenderness and romance, because dozens of characters like her across many different types of media are. She’s a bold, strong, no-nonsense person… who also happens to have a serious penchant for pulp novels and the wine-and-poetry approach to seduction.
If Cassandra were one of only a few female characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition, maybe the way her romance (and her personality in general) is handled would be a problem. But as one among many women prominently featured in the game’s story, the burden of representation is well spread out. There’s room for her to have a soft spot for sappy stuff without that implying that all women have a soft spot for sappy stuff, and that matters.
A princess is tasked with hauling her father’s sarcophagus (and his rather picky spirit) to a suitable resting place. If you only play Chariot’s single-player mode, that’s all you’ll really see. Pick up your controller with a friend doing the same nearby and a slightly different story emerges, with the princess accompanied by her husband-to-be. He’s there to help and support her on her dangerous journey, and certain puzzles and parts of the map will only be accessible when the pair are cooperating. It’s not the most involved romantic narrative ever, but it’s still pretty darn heartwarming.
I still get a little anxious when I think about where Gone Home leaves Sam and Lonnie’s story, because the idea of two teenagers running off together with a fist-full of money and no support net in place isn’t quite what I would call a happy ending. However, being able to follow their relationship as it developed over time gave it the kind of weight that romances in videogames rarely get. Because there is so much else going on, these stories aren’t often given the time and detail they need to demonstrate the natural evolution of a bond between characters. In this way Gone Home’s thoughtful and meticulous approach served their story well.
Saints Row IV’s “romance options” were clearly intended to make fun of the paths provided in games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. In those games, relationships are a slow build leading to a brief bedroom scene delivered as you near the story’s end. The eventual sex scene can be seen as a reward for successfully navigating the conversations and personal quests that came before it. Saints Row IV’s twist on this was to deliver that reward the instant you asked for it. At any point you could proposition members of your team, and they would enthusiastically agree.
So why does it have a place on this list? As much as love and sex do need to be taken seriously in games, they don’t always need to be treated with intense gravity either. Everyone respects the Boss, the Boss respects everyone back, and given that the earth is blown up at the start of Saints Row IV there are definitely worse things than a few casual hook-ups between friends.
The feeling of keeping a secret from your loved ones isn’t pleasant. You desperately want to be honest with them, but you’re terrified that the truth will only drive you apart. It’s easy to say that healthy relationships shouldn’t have any secrets, but in reality they often do. These secrets aren’t always salacious either, and one of the best interpretations I’ve read of Octodad: Dadliest Catch presents it as an analogy for invisible illnesses and disabilities. Scarlet has her suspicions about her husband throughout the whole game but ultimately she just wants to be there for him, and he wants to be there for her. Things don’t get much sweeter than that.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.