Let me start by telling you a love story. It’s a love story that is ageless. It’s the story of Armisen and Lydia. Armisen was a Breton warrior who managed to escape execution and enter a life of questing across the wilderness. Upon one of Armisen’s many quests, he met a Nord named Lydia. It wasn’t love at first sight; in fact, it was quite the opposite. The first thing that Armisen did to Lydia, besides asking her to follow him, was offload a pile of dragon bones and scales to her.
Carrying Armisen’s burdens was something that Lydia was sworn to do. Armisen would rummage through her belongings, and Lydia would stand patiently, living in hope that one day he would be rummaging through their belongings. Lydia’s world revolved solely around Armisen and she was there to protect him. When the day did come that Armisen honoured her dedication to him with a ring and made Lydia his wife, well, she did the honourable thing and continued to carry his goods and make him a hot meal every day.
They moved in to a house they named Breezehome. They filled it with furniture and made it nice and cosy with a wood fire. Armisen and Lydia spent their days together questing through dungeons, across fields, and battling dragons. After conquering another dungeon, they escaped to the plains to battle a dragon. Unfortunately for Armisen and Lydia, their love was brought to a swift end when Lydia was unexpectedly slain by the dragon. Armisen conquered the foe that had slain the love of his life. Then he rifled through the belongings that were once theirs and took what was of value and left her body alongside the corpse of the dragon.
That right there is my version of the love story in Skyrim. What love story in Skyrim? Well, that’s precisely my point. Skyrim isn’t a world that’s known for love stories, in much the same way that video games as a whole are not known for having great love stories. However, it’s the stories that we the players create that makes the relationship all the more impactful. As a player, I never truly loved Lydia (well, that’s what I tell my wife – but there was one time I accidentally fus roh dah’d Lydia off the side of a cliff. I couldn’t reload my save quick enough). Yet, I believed that she could have a meaningful relationship with Armisen because of the time they spent trekking the countryside together.
Surely though, Andrew, there must be more than that great love story between Armisen and Lydia? Let’s go back when I was a kid, to one of gaming’s greatest romances – Mario and Princess Peach. Yes, I’m fully aware that Peach is having her way with Bowser behind Mario’s back, but I’m trying to stay positive here dammit, and leave those home-wrecking tales out of this article! When I first played Super Mario Bros., I was always in awe of this little red-capped man’s drive to run through such treacherous environments and risk his life for this princess… who always managed to evade him. I thought, she must be the most amazing person ever.
Then there was also Leisure Suit Larry, which is essentially The 40 Year Old Virgin, just with Steve Carrell as an 8-bit white-suited man looking to lose his virginity. As the first game ends – and provided Larry didn’t sleep with a prostitute and die from an STD – he has possibly found ‘the one’. The sequel showed that she wasn’t, and continued on with Larry’s quest for love (in several wrong places).
Around the same time, one of gaming’s greatest love stories was told – The Secret of Monkey Island. Guybrush Threepwood’s quest to conquer the great ghost pirate LeChuck also manages to wind in one of gaming’s longest romances between Threepwood and his eventual beau, Elaine Marley. Over the series, Threepwood tries to rescue Elaine from LeChuck – although she is quite a capable heroine herself – and through life and death, they eventually marry. Whilst the Monkey Island games are best known for insult sword fighting, it’s this romance that runs throughout the series that is one of the most enduring elements of the saga.
However, it’s in role-playing games that romance truly shines. Games like those in the Final Fantasy or Persona series’ have elements of romance in them, or from Western shores, romance can be found in the space opera Mass Effect, where players have the ability to romance any reciprocating being in the galaxy. Sure, you can live out your wild fantasies of being the man or woman who saves the galaxy and also gets to bed the hot blue alien chick, but let’s not go completely crazy, such as The Witcher series, which confuses the masochistic goal of “boning every broad you can” with proper romance. Let’s look at a game that is all about romance, To The Moon.
To the Moon follows two scientists who help manipulate a dying man’s memories so that he can meet his dead wife on the moon. As the game progresses through dying Johnny’s memories back to his childhood, you watch as his marriage struggles through illness and financial difficulties. What makes the love story in To the Moon so effective – even if the rest of the game isn’t – is that it shows a romance that covers a lifetime. By unravelling why Johnny wants to go to the moon, even if he himself has forgotten, the player gets to see a relationship blossom from a chance encounter on a cliff.
The two would-be lovers, Johnny and River, meet as kids at a carnival and when they realise that they share so much in common, they agree to meet a year later. Failing that, they promise that one day they will meet together on the moon. In one beautiful moment near the end of the game, the two meet as they are about to embark on the journey to the moon… and hold hands. It’s a sweet moment that helps focus on the positives of the relationship rather than the negatives.
To the Moon is one of the prime examples of romance in video games, even if it’s more of a visual book than a game. So why, then, is it so rare for video games to include a proper romantic storyline? Why are most romances either player-created romances like my narrative between Armisen and Lydia, or just non-stop sex, like that experienced by pinup model Geralt in The Witcher series?
Characters show greater depth in games than they used to, thanks to the ever-evolving art of performance capture. Without performance capture, the romance in Uncharted wouldn’t have held as much weight as it did. The Uncharted series shows a spark of romance between Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher, but it’s certainly not a player-propelled romance and it’s also not the most memorable aspect of the series.
Is it because players need to have greater control over their character’s plot progression to be involved in a romance with someone else? The Dragon Age series shows how a romance can naturally progress through gameplay. It’s an element that has been perfected throughout the series, reaching a pinnacle with Dragon Age: Inquisition. One of the great elements of Dragon Age: Inquisition is taking the time to romance a love interest, only to find that your love interest is simply not into you.
In games where players are able to have a spouse or partner, often all that is required is to simply give them a marriage ring or equivalent, and they are there to serve in whatever way is required. Basically, it’s digital prostitution. (I’m sorry Armisen and Lydia, your love and marriage was built on a house of lies.) To have your love interest simply not reciprocate your advances is a great step forward for romance in video games, and with all the talk of ‘next-gen developments’, it’s one I’m hoping to see be implemented in more games as time goes on.
Also worthwhile mentioning are the real world romances that games like World of Warcraft create. There have been stories of husbands leading second lives with women – or men – that they’ve met in their online universe of choice. Then there are stories of couples who had taken part in quests and guilds together for years, only to meet in real life and marry.
Then there’s the story of Sal 9000 from Tokyo, who married Nene Anegasaki. Sal 9000 is a 27-year-old man, while Nene is a character from the Nintendo DS game Love Plus – a dating simulation that was not released outside of Japan. Sure, the marriage isn’t legally binding, but hey, at least love can transcend platforms, right?
I’m hopeful for the future of video game romance. With games like the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series’, player-driven romance has been shown to work and is here to stay. With games like To the Moon, the possibility for great love stories is endless. I’m hopeful that we’re past the stage where all you need to do is equip a marriage ring to be married or have a relationship with another character. I might even reload to an earlier save in Skyrim to relive Armisen and Lydia in the prime of their relationship.