February is known as the month of corporate love and pancakes. Even though St Valentine was also the patron saint of epileptics and beekeepers, and some countries don’t limit themselves to only having pancakes one day a year. I’ve never understood what a “Shrove” is and “Fat Tuesday” sounds way more fun.
In the case of corporate love day, maybe it’s the lockdown madness or pandemic insanity, but it definitely feels like there’s been a lot more thirst recently for video game heroes and heroines. Whether it’s the Final Fantasy VII remake reigniting the old debate of “Clifa” verses “Claerith”, horror fans getting bizarrely obsessed with the height of a vampire lady, and a whole lot of people getting horny over Hades.
We’ve all had a few weird crushes in our collective lifetimes, and video game characters have certainly become more regular as objects of affection as time has gone by. This is also helped in no small way by some games offering a bit more interactivity and the ability to flirt your way through various RPGs.
Now I’m not the most romantic person by nature. Period dramas don’t really do it for me, unless they feature a distinctly soggy Colin Firth, and I’ve always favoured guns and explosions over flowers and emotions. However, stick a great big heart icon in a dialogue tree and I will absolutely spam that prompt with gay abandon.
Romantic subplots or side missions in video games lure me in every single time. Some people might rally against any “mushy” stuff invading in their gamer time, but I’d argue that there’s always been a little glimmer of amorous activity in those precious pixels. We could look back as far as our favourite Italian plumber and the love that dare not speak its name. Mario knows the princess is in another castle Toad, he just wants to be with you!
More recently there have also been more progressive examples of love and relationships. Dontnod’s “Tell Me Why” portrays an absolutely honest and heart-warming gay relationship featuring a trans-man. Also the frankly weird as hell food-based, body-horror game BugSnax features some brutally deep writing and character development, along with some quite real relationships and the use of non-binary pronouns.
Role-playing and romancing has certainly come a long way.
My first, and favourite introduction to the joys of simulated smooching was in the much-beloved, and now being remastered, galaxy-gallivanting space opera Mass Effect. It’s fair to say that when presented with the option to schmooze and flooze my way across the vastness of space, my Commander Shepard was less “Hero of the Skyllian Blitz” and more a walking HR disaster.
In the early days of Mass Effect, your romantical options were very much limited. Male-Shep was as straight as they came, so you had either cross-eyed, space-racist Ashley or the adorably awkward Liara T’Soni. Fem-Shep however was more “open” to close encounters of a sexy kind and would either pair up with the lovely Liara or the equally luscious Lieutenant Kaiden Alenko.
Because I don’t like to miss out on any opportunities as a space-faring sex pest, my Fem-Shep romanced anything with a pulse. Mass Effect however, is very clear that your flirting has consequences and you must either enter into a monogamous relationship or be captain lonely in your bunk. This meant, for me at least, a Mass Effect multi-verse where my paragon Fem-Shep is happily hooked up with Liara and my Renegade Fem-Shep has coupled up with Kaiden.
Ashley always dies, this is the way.
By Mass Effect 2, BioWare had taken some advice from Zapp Brannigan and realised that for so many of us all we wanted to do was to make it with a hot alien babe. This meant that romance with returning favourites Garrus Vakarian and Tali’Zorah vas Neema was also on the cards. Unfortunately for the LGBTQ+ community, Male-Shep was still only interested in the ladies and the increasing number of same-sex options for Fem-Shep was starting to feel like fetishizing lesbian relationships.
So began my long and beautiful relationship with my best alien boyfriend Garrus. Because I know I was technically dead, and then I wasn’t dead because my remaining DNA was implanted into a frog… or something…? and I know I’m working for the shady Cerberus Network now, and I know I could have called sooner, but there’s some weird abducting-murder-hornet shit going on AND YOU BROKE MY HEART KAIDEN!!!
Finally, by Mass Effect 3, Male-Shep had the revelation that his other space-bros were also down to party. Kaiden was a possible male paramour provided he outlived Ashley (and why wouldn’t he?) along with new addition to the crew Alliance pilot Steve Cortez.
It has always seemed strange to me however, that BioWare’s other big-hitting RPG franchise Dragon Age, was seemingly more open to greater relationship options from the start. DA Origins, like ME:1 had a limited number of options, with only 4 eligible candidates, but this felt more evenly split with one male-only and one female-only romance options, and two bisexual characters.
Dragon Age 2 had a roster of 4 suitors, all of which were happy to pair up with either Fem-Hawke or Male-Hawke alike. It was only “The Exiled Prince” DLC that brought exclusively straight character Sebastian Vael into the mix. Dragon Age: Inquisition in 2014, was perhaps the most “progressive” with exclusively straight, gay and bisexual romance-able options, and an openly trans character Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi, one of Iron Bull’s mercenary company.
Because of this, BioWare had built up something of a reputation around creating epic single-player, character-centric stories with lovey-dovey side-quests. Then Anthem happened, and it shook many of us to the core when we discovered there was no flirtatious fun to be had in the fortified settlement of Fort Tarsis.
However, Bioware have also come under scrutiny for portraying less than realistic versions of straight and LGBTQ+ relationships, and I would agree. The relationships you have in these games are anything but real and should not by any means be held up as an ideal standard or basis for a healthy partnership. My main squeeze Anders in DA:2 has been known to say that “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe.” If anyone said that to me IRL I’d probably be googling black-market pepper-spray and researching how much panic rooms cost.
For those of you who want more carefully considered, and less sensationalised relationships then you can’t go too wrong with Dontnod. I’ve already mentioned the beautiful “Tell Me Why”, and their other big relationship drama Life Is Strange is one of my favourites. Yes it’s a bit emo-teenage-melodrama, but despite the twisty time powers, there’s a bit more grounding in reality.
The tentative love story between former childhood friends Max Caulfield and Chloe Price is for me both uplifting and heart-breaking, especially because I played LIS: Before the Storm first. After walking in Chloe’s shoes for 3 episodes and witnessing the devastating alternate future if you decide to dabble with the past as Max, there was only one way I was going to go by the time I hit Episode 5: Polarized. Bae over Bay. Every single time.
Another notable mention goes to the unfairly maligned Days Gone from Bend Studio. Yes, the rose-tinted memories that protagonist Deacon St. John has of his wife Sarah are a little cliché, but Sam Witwer plays it with such charm that even I develop a few feels for my biker boy. Towards the end of the game when **SPOILER WARNING LOOK AWAY NOW!!!** you find out that Sarah didn’t die in an ill-fated survivor camp and you eventually end up working discretely for her on science missions to reverse engineer a cure. The way this reunion is handled is brilliant, in that they don’t immediately rip each other’s clothes off and pick up where they left off.
These are people who have been separated for two years and believed each other to be dead. Not to mention that a zombie-filled post-apocalyptic world would probably have a bit of an impact on your character. I loved the doubt and tension the reunion brought, the growth that Sarah had in being more independent from Deacon and their faintly awkward coming back together.
My final favourite romantic interlude is an odd one.
When you take a deep breath and finally decide to plunge into the misery and never-ending death loop of Dark Souls, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is getting jiggy with it. Well bear with me, because in the desolate murk of Lordran there is a precious cinnamon roll who is mainly looking for a big flaming ball of his own, but he is also open to cooperation of the jolly variety.
You might think that the divinely optimistic Solaire of Astora is not the most obvious choice for wooing, but if you take part in his questline there are a few choice moments to cherish. Provided you talk to him every chance you get, and why wouldn’t you, you’ll be rewarded with such fine moments as, “You really are fond of chatting with me, aren’t you? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had feelings for me! Ha ha ha!”.
I bloody love you Solaire! and it breaks my heart every time I save you from the Sunlight Maggot and you get all despondent, but it’s for your own good you know! This way you don’t go mad, I don’t have to kill you, and we can murder Gwyn, Lord of Cinder together… who according to some theorists might be your dad… but let’s not think about that right now you gloriously incandescent marvel!
So there you have it, my favourite moments of love, now let’s talk about pancakes!
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