So yes, as I was saying, it’s very rare to see a romantic relationship in a game depicted the way it is in Catherine. That is, already underway at the start, still underway at the end, and taking a central role in the plot. And I think it should be applauded for that, even while being abused and kicked in the stomach for everything else.
For the most part video games occupy a similar position on romance as action movies – either there’s a token representative of the opposite sex tagging along who may eventually earn the privilege of getting dribbled on by the hero, or there’s an existing wife, girlfriend or other relation who gets kidnapped or murdered so they can stop selfishly hogging the hero’s life and make room for some wild adventures. There have been many games that get overexcited and kidnap/murder the love interest before they’ve even properly established themselves as the love interest, perhaps on the reasonable basis that the only girl on the cast can safely be considered the love interest pre-emptively.
But the important part of character is motivation, and in what way does victimizing a completely bland and token love interest motivate the hero? How, exactly, is Mario personally affected when Bowser nabs the princess for another long weekend? See, I’ve never gotten a romantic vibe from the Mario-Princess relationship. She’s never thanked him with anything more passionate than a peck on the nose or cake (an actual one), and he’s never responded to her kidnappings with any reaction more passionate than one of many pseudo-Italian squawks. Personally, I interpret Mario’s actions as being those of a servant, like a personal bodyguard with a fervent respect for the superiority of royal blood. Dispassionately going about his rescues purely as an assigned duty and remaining wilfully blind to the fact that the Princess doesn’t seem to be all there in the head department. As relationships go it’s not a particularly intimate or healthy one.
From the other end of the spectrum let’s consider the relationship between Dom and the missing Mrs. Dom from the Gears of War series. Let’s assume extremely generously that we give the slightest shit about this particular subplot. Is it because we care about Mrs. Dom as a character? No. All we see of her for the longest time is a photo, so all we have to go on is that Dom likes her and she evidently isn’t a bearded lady. If we do care, it’s because we care about Dom and his motivations. In Gears of War 2, when Mrs. Dom (spoiler alert) dies, Dom puts on that boggle-eyed tight-mouthed expression macho fucktards in games wear when they’re really cross, and announces his intention to murder all the aliens. Think carefully now: do you think this is a course of action Mrs. Dom would have approved of? Him turning into a similar mindless, thoughtless engine of death to the one that claimed her?
Well, as I said we know shit-all about her, so who can say. Here’s a better example: do you think Mrs. Kratos would be pleased with what her hubby became, and all the destruction he wrought, in the name of avenging her? Avenging the death that he himself caused, incidentally, but that’s not the point. No, she wouldn’t. And I really don’t think Mrs. Dom would either. Therefore, the “heroes” taking these courses of action are not in the least bit motivated out of love for their stricken spouses. They are seeking to counter a slight made against them personally, the destruction of one of their treasured possessions. It’s an ugly macho white-knight justification for committing appalling acts of violence. Wouldn’t it be funny if Kratos ran into a warrior seeking revenge against him for the death of the warrior’s wife, who was one of the faceless panicking civvies Kratos cut down for the health orbs? I wonder if that’d give the pasty bugger pause for thought before he pulled the guy’s kidneys out through his nose.
The point is, none of this is romance. There are the games that depict the commencement of a relationship, but this is rarely shown as anything other than an appropriate “reward” for the hero’s actions, which is just objectifying the love interest again. Rarely is time given to the compatibility of feelings between the two or to explore the feasibility of a partnership in the long term. Hunted: The Demon’s Forge featured two lead characters, a man and a woman, who were business partners rather than lovers, because the man was brooding over his dead family (of course he fucking was) and the lady had to appear free-spirited and attainable to make the nerds wet. But just hypothetically, wouldn’t it have added a lot to the characters to make them a married couple? It would’ve made their permanent bond and mutual protectiveness a little better explained and their frequent catty remarks and put-downs to each other would’ve come across as rather sweet. But no. Apparently all anyone wants to see is a relationship thoughtlessly starting or violently ending.
Perhaps this is why I enjoyed my romance with Anders in Dragon Age 2 so much: it depicted a loving couple, neither of whom considered the other to be a prize to be won or a shackle to tie them to commitment, for some time after the initial bumming. Both of them went out together during the day and kicked as much arse as was required, then they could go home in the evening and one of them could make a nice risotto and they’d eat it around whatever the local equivalent of a TV was.
But now I come to think about it, videogaming’s fear of relationships doesn’t just apply to protagonists. I’m thinking back and I can recall very few NPCs, villains or other major, effectual character to the plot who is in a relationship with another. It’s always unrelated colleagues or siblings, like that twin sister boss fight in Ocarina of Time. The only exception I can think of is how Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2 was implied to be banging Fortune, but only because Vamp was implied to be banging absolutely fucking everyone, including you as you read this (try to hold still). Is this fear of emotional attachment related to the imagined fear of emotional attachment that the (increasingly less) predominantly male user base of video games possesses? Because I want it on record that we don’t. Possess it, I mean. Not in my case, at least. And I would certainly not be completely turned off if it was revealed that one of the catsuit-wearing Nazi female assassins from Wolfenstein had a live-in boyfriend back home, dutifully making her packed lunches in the morning and passive-aggressively resenting her desire for a career.
Fuck, I need to get laid.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.