Culture Bytes: Love Stories In Video Games

The love story is probably one of the oldest in existence. Mankind's everlasting legacy, we can hope, will be that of love. It's a simple story really; two people meet, they learn about each other and fall in love. It's told in a variety of mediums, in literature, theatre, movies and even music (especially music). But what about in our friend the video game? Is the love story as prevalent? I should perhaps preface this by saying that not all love stories are as simple as two people simply falling in love. Even action films might have an aspect of romance in them, such as Die Hard in which John McClain is reunited with his estranged wife. It is also important to point out that not all love stories have happy endings. The most famous of these is likely to be Romeo and Juliet, at the end of which the two star-crossed lovers commit suicide (a little extreme perhaps, but we were all angsty teenagers. Some of us even took it to the next level and became angst-ridden adults...) With this in mind, the love story might be easier to find than we think.

Okay, we all know it's coming so I'll get this out of the way first. I'd be doing the series a great disservice if I didn't talk about Final Fantasy. In pretty much every title of the series, there's a central love story. Speaking of love stories that didn't end well, Cloud and Aerith from Final Fantasy VII spring to mind. SPOILER ALERT for anyone who isn't a child of the nineties, but the entire first disc of the game (in the nineties the discs couldn't hold as much data, so it wasn't unusual for games to span across three or four discs) is essentially all about the burgeoning relationship between Cloud and Aerith, a love story with a lot of heart. Both characters are fully formed and the audience can't help but care about them and hope they make it. So when Sephiroth (the game's antagonist) kills Aerith, it's a genuinely sad moment. Reader, I cried then. It impacts on Cloud as much as the audience, driving him to redouble his efforts against Sephiroth. Some people might think, "It sounds like an excuse for a bad case of man-pain", but it's so much more than that! Aerith was an amazing step forward for women in video games. She was three dimensional, equal parts male and female in personality, fitting into neither masculine or feminine stereotypes while eschewing the tomboy archetype too. What's more, in terms of classic storytelling, there's a strong argument for Aerith being the hero. Although Cloud kills Sephiroth, it's Aerith's use of the White/Holy Materia that saves the world. But even then, Cloud and Aerith can't be together, with death as their barrier. What's perhaps even more upsetting is that even in the film sequel, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, in death Aerith appears to have been reunited with her old flame Zack, meaning that, even when Cloud shuffles off this mortal coil, they can't be together. Love stories don't get much deeper or depressing than that.

A similar theme is explored in Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 (I'm starting to wonder if Square Enix know what the meaning of 'final' is...), where Tidus and Yuna are separated by time periods (Tidus lives a thousand years before Yuna. It's a whole thing). Much of the sequel focuses on Yuna's longing to be reunited with Tidus and finding how that can be made to be. Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy IX have happy endings, however, their love stories again weaving through the entire plot. The overriding theme of Final Fantasy as a series is that of characters who act out of love. These aren't the most conventional of love stories, but maybe that's what makes them so special. The fantasy backdrop really raises the stakes and makes that love so much easier to lose; it's captivating stuff. Interestingly, Final Fantasy XII had no central love story and was not overly popular with fans of the series. It's very possible that this lack of love was the reason. Or it may have just been that Vaan was terrible. We'll never know.

On the face of it, you may be forgiven for thinking that Shadow of the Colossus is a game about killing big rock monsters. While that's part of the gameplay (it also involves some pretty intense problem solving and navigational skills) it's a pretty unfair dismissal. Ignoring the stunning visual (to my mind it's one of the most beautiful games of all time), it also has an astounding story, told very subtly. We have to ask ourselves, why does Wander embark on this epic quest? The answer is simple; for love. The woman Wander loves, Mono, is dead. He takes her to the Shrine of Worship in a forbidden land in the hope that she can be brought back to life. Once there, Wander makes a deal with Dormin, a god-like entity equal parts male and female, that Mono will be brought back to life if Wander slays the sixteen colossi. The colossi are not easy foe for Wander to beat, but he isn't deterred. This can be read in one of two ways. He clearly loves Mono and perhaps feels it is duty to bring her back from the dead. Or maybe it is that he never expects to survive the colossi, but, without Mono, his life simply isn't worth living anyway. The game ends in such a way that Wander is cursed and turned into an infant so, even now Mono has been brought back to life, they still cannot be together. Again, a sad love story told in a very unconventional way.

It's fair to say that it's unusual to find a video game that is sold as a love story. In fact, while I was researching for this article, I was really struggling to find one. Then I found an indie developed game made by Freebird Games called To the Moon. I hurriedly bought it and played it through in three sittings (it only takes about six hours). I have to say, it's wonderful. Again though, it's very unconventional - a love story told from the perspective of two outsiders of the relationship. You play as two doctors who specialise in giving dying patients their final wish, if only in the form of a constructed memory. It is through this work that they meet dying old man Johnny, who has only a few days to live. His wish, as the title suggests, is to go to the moon. It's not an easy wish for the doctors to manufacture, because Johnny doesn't know why he wants to go to the moon. The doctors are then tasked with jumping through Johnny's memories, trying to find a reason and, through these memories, we are witness to Johnny's relationship with his wife River. Needless to say, it's in this love where the wish truly lies and a fantastic love story, including the threat of lost love, unfolds. Certainly, to my mind, To the Moon has one of the most satisfying endings of any video game that I've played. personally, I think it's a must-play; a video game with love running all the way through it. There are also games that give the option of love stories. In The Sims we may decide to try to woo a certain sim because we, in some way, feel some measure of affection for them. We can write our own very simple love story. Even in certain RPGs, such as Persona 4, offer the option to fall in love with another character even though it doesn't really affect the main story.

So, it seems that video games are best at telling unconventional love stories; ones that may not have a happy ending or are told from outside the actual relationship, perhaps they are told against a backdrop of intrigue and epic peril. This could be due to originality in the writing, or it could be the constraints enforced by the element of gameplay. However, as unconventional as all of these love stories are, they're all very... heterosexual. I'm struggling to find or think of an example of a relationship on the LBGTQ spectrum, but nothing really comes to mind. Even in Persona 4, a game that is such a titan in terms of social identity, the option for the main character to fall in love with male characters is non-existent. The lack of  a choice in a homosexual relationship is especially surprising considering that a member of the main party is a gay man (he's also brilliantly well-rounded, like every character in the game). Kanji is just coming to terms with his attraction to men, but the game skips over the option for the hero to enter into a relationship with him. But, is this anything new? Even in romance films such as Love Actually, films all about love, all of the characters are heterosexual. Does this not suggest that the love story, as we know it in all mediums, is letting down an entire section of society? It's clear that something needs to change, in all industries. In conclusion, the love stories told in video games are unconventional and varied, yet, much like the film industry, it is letting down those on the LBGTQ spectrum. With the unique story telling devices video games afford us, surely this is the next step; the love story that encompasses all forms of love.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter,@CptSkyheart.

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