When my character in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim found the woman he was going to spend the rest of his digital life with, wooing her was as simple as going on a quest to retrieve her long-lost sword from a dangerous cave.
After presenting her with the sword, there was a short marriage ceremony, then she moved into my character's house, where she spends her days running a shop, cooking and generally just sitting around. The whole ordeal took about 15 minutes and was quickly forgotten. The only reason "I" have talked to her since the ceremony is to receive my cut of the profits from her shop, which amount to $100 a day.
The fact that my wife is nothing more than a sword-toting ATM machine is one of the few things that disappoint me in the painstakingly crafted world of Skyrim. But it's hard to fault developer Bethesda for shoehorning a pointless marriage system into its masterpiece unless I'm willing to fault almost every other modern game developer — which, it turns out, I am.
In this day and age, as video games become less childish distraction and more legitimate art form, it's disappointing to see so few video games attempt a meaningful love story.
Sure, there are a few well known but implied relationships to choose from. Mario and Princess Peach seem to be in some type of troubled, kidnapping-prone love triangle with Bowser. It's a similar deal with Link and Zelda. And there was definitely some type of relationship budding between Aeris and Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy VII, before Sephiroth killed Aeris in an infamously heartbreaking scene that drew a tear from even the manliest gamer.
However, even the supposed love between Aeris and Cloud, the poster children for in-game love stories, was never explicitly displayed. They never said, "I love you," kissed or even held hands as far as I can remember (although it has been more than a decade since I played Final Fantasy VII.)
I have several theories as to why romance is overlooked in most games, the most glaring of which is that gaming is a hobby dominated by men in their 20s and 30s. Sadly, we're typecast as testosterone-overloaded meatheads by game developers and advertisers, who think we don't want to play anything with a more nuanced plot than "musclebound dude blows stuff up."
Also, when a game developer takes time to create a believable love story, it is occasionally accompanied by love scenes (otherwise known as PR nightmares). Take the first game in the Mass Effect series, in which players could pursue a relationship with one of several non-playable characters. This culminated in a rather tame love scene — the type you might catch on prime-time, non-cable TV. Naturally, parents, lawmakers and national news organizations flipped their collective lid, going on about how the video game industry is tainting our youth.
To them, I say times are a-changin' and games aren't just a kids' hobby anymore. Gamers who grew up saving Princess Peach are getting older, and we want to be told a story that stimulates our brains as much as our trigger fingers.
This is why, just in time for Valentine's Day, I've compiled a list of five great games that aren't afraid to fall in love. May they serve as examples to game developers everywhere.
Braid (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC): This downloadable title's story is open to interpretation, but it centers on a middle manager type named Tim who time-travels to save a princess. As the dreamlike game plays out, more of Tim's failed relationship with the princess is revealed, leaving the player to question whether he is playing as the hero saving the princess or the villain who drove her away. A particularly compelling gameplay element sees you collecting puzzle pieces that, when combined, chronicle Tim's relationship with the princess, who is always just out of frame.
The Sims series (Mac and PC): What love story could you be more invested in than your own? The massively popular God-simulator lets you create characters from scratch and control every aspect of their lives. That includes meeting friends, getting to know one another, falling in love, getting married and making babies to carry on your legacy when your Sims pass away to the big microchip in the sky.
Uncharted series (PlayStation 3): This series is less about love than questing, shooting and turning history on its head, but each game features a fraction of main character Nathan Drake's love story with Elena Fisher. They meet in the first game, kiss in the second and seem to be married in the third. Drake is one of the most relatable and likable characters in the history of gaming, and I can't help but think that's partly because there's more to him than the womanizing bachelors in typical action games.
Catherine (Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3): This is the story of a man in a ho-hum relationship with a woman named Katherine and his tryst with a young blonde named Catherine. Gameplay is dull, but the plot centers on these relationships, and the game constantly waxes philosophical about contentment versus excitement. It is refreshingly original.
Lunar: Silver Star Story (Sega Saturn, PlayStation 1, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation Portable): The relationship between main character Alex and voice-of- reason Luna isn't really any more explicit than Mario or Final Fantasy VII. But as the first Japanese role-playing game I ever played, it will always have a soft spot in my heart. The game's myriad other characters have their own motivations for trying to save the world, but Alex's goal is simple: to save Luna from the clutches of evil. The hopeful, tear- jerker ending was just as moving as Aeris' death scene to anyone who gave this masterpiece a chance.