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Love & Rockets: A Quick Look at Romance in Video Games


Hey! Listen! There's some Knights of the Old Republic spoilers up in here. Proceed with caution, yo.

No one else wanted to even touch the castle's plumbing system. If the bulbous plants with shark teeth weren't enough for you to tell the Princess exactly where she could shove that cake of hers, the scurrying Goombas intent on tripping up anyone who even came close to them would have done it. The other plumbers decided that Mario was probably strapped for cash when he accepted the job (or at the very least touched in the head) and never expected to see him again. The truth was that after sharing a bunk bed with his brother, Mario needed to see a woman bad enough that he'd do anything for just a glance from behind her pink parasol. When he arrived, the toad at the door was just about to ask how exactly he intended on fixing a pipe without at least a wrench, when a sharp scream sounded from inside the castle. Mario pushed the toad aside and ran in to see a giant mass of fur and primal rage holding Princess Peach over his shoulder as he began to climb up a series of ladders and slanted beams. Maybe the plumber wasn't very bright, maybe he wasn't fully aware that this would be his destiny for decades to come, but that didn't keep him from chasing that giant ape. Even if he'd only get a small peck from the Princess.

And, unless you count the three-way between the two panels and ball in Pong, this was our first big video game romance. It was simplistic, chivalrous and perhaps even a little dated, but it made perfect sense to the caveman in all of us. Pretty lady stolen by giant ape. Giant Ape needs to be smacked on the head a couple times to get pretty lady back. Despite the scenario described above, we all know saving the Princess wasn't anything but a simple reason to get Mario chasing that monkey. Everyone who played the game understood what was going on the second they saw Donkey Kong pick Peach up and carry her away as she kicked and screamed for help. The curious thing is that the relationship between Mario and Peach hasn't really changed after all this time. Yes, she has become a little more independent, but she's still being captured by monsters and then saved by Mario. The formula hasn't changed because it doesn't have to.

Link and Zelda might come to mind as something along the same vein, but despite the headway Zelda has made just for putting on some pants, there's not much romance to speak of between the two. It's almost as if they've both accepted their roles in the universe and simply work to help each other out because of their connection through fate and the Triforce. You see a minimal amount of 'flirting' in games like Wind Waker, but they're still children. And, frankly, it's not that different from the interactions between Link and the other girls he comes across.

The reason for this is pretty simple. These are kids games. Kids aren't interested in dwelling on some mature romance when they're in the middle of the Great Cootie War. But, what happens when we grow up a little? What happens when adult relationships seem like a good idea to add to a serious game? Is that what we want, or are we stuck with an immature and incomplete idea of what romance should be?

Before we take that leap, let's talk about Harvest Moon's take on courtship and marriage. I know many people in this community claim that the indie game Passage holds one of the best game commentaries on marriage, but Harvest Moon did it first and did it better. No matter which version you played (unless it was that puzzle one), you found yourself entrusted with a farm, but you were also expected to grow up. Part of growing up was finding someone you wanted to marry and have a family with. So, you wandered around town looking for an ideal mate. Personally, I played the Game Cube version and ended up being charmed by the hippy musician in town. I courted him with flowers and food, and in return he played me songs on his guitar and chatted with me. The more serious it got, the more I figured he'd be a perfect father who would stay home with the kid and take care of the house while I worked my ass off in the farm.

I was wrong. I was really wrong. Sure, we ended up having this romantic courtship and we eventually had a kid, but he was a terrible father. He'd leave the house without taking our baby and then complain when he got home about dinner. I ended up hating his guts while I was juggling being a fulltime mother and tending to our farm. Even our kid lost an interest in music and the older he got, the more he wanted to spend time in the garden with me.

The funny thing is that I should have known better. My husband told me all through our younger years that he couldn't stay in one place too long. Didn't want to be tied down to anything. I ignored it in the same way a lot of people ignore important things like that when it comes to marriage and suddenly I was carrying around dead weight.

On the other side of the spectrum, when my little brother played the first Harvest Moon, he married the mechanic girl because he hoped they could build stuff together at his farm. When they married, he felt guilty because she had to give up being a mechanic to take care of their kid. Then, one night he saw her sneak out to their shed to secretly repair and fix their tools. Overjoyed, he insisted on turning the shed into her own little work station and they lived happily ever after.

Harvest Moon tackles the relationship between romance and marriage in a way other games can't master. The system for courtship is basic, but it's based on what the player wants to pursue and how capable they are at it. Not every courtship works out and even if they do, you don't always get what you expected. For a kid's game, it's pretty mature in the options and realities it offers the player.

But, we play video games to escape the norm most of the time. In most games of today, if there's a romance thread, it's woven through a bigger plot. A good example of this is Knights of the Old Republic. The game won't force you into worrying about romance and it's very easy to identify and stop it from happening if you want to. It's also placed in a world of fantasy that is notorious for epic romances that either turn out pretty good, really terribly, or it's like kissing your sister. I only played the game through as woman since I have an strange, inherit hate for Bastila and the idea of the game even attempting to pair me up with her would make me go Sith in a heartbeat. And, if I went Sith, I'd have to kill Carth.

Carth is sort of a tricky subject with gamers. I personally enjoyed the verbal sparring that continued through almost the entire game and his tricky past is something you can grow to understand and relate to. But, he also complained a lot, bitched about your actions and was always Mr. High Road. If you have the patience and curiosity to get it out of him, you learn that his wife died in the last war and his kid ran off with the Sith. That's enough reason to understand why he acts the way he does, but that doesn't change much of who he is. You as a player have to like him as a character for the romance to work.

And, as much as I did end up liking Carth's character, I found the romance between Revan and himself forced. He finds out about two thirds of the way into the adventure that she ordered for his planet to be razed and while he's initially pretty shaken up about it, he learns how to not only forgive but love her if she stays on the path of light. I might have been a Jedi on the main quests, but I have a hard time believing Carth thought I really changed everywhere else.

See, I played the game as a Jedi, but a pretty middle of the road one. On one hand I was running around collecting Star Maps and defeating Sith, while on the other I was blowing shit up and getting into trouble with who should have been an alternative romance plot, Canderous Ordo. Okay, yeah, I've always had a thing for Mandalorians, but by the end of the game he was just as dedicated to me as Carth was. He understood and respected who I was before the Jedi mindfucked me and I helped him come to terms with his past. In the sequel, you find out that Revan actually gave him the mask of Mandalore and told him to go revive his race, overcoming their differences from the war to work together. Carth had fought and hated Mandalorians, wouldn't he be a little suspicious if his girlfriend was out having fun killing things with one of their strongest? Maybe it's too much to ask of a game to go over a romance plot with a fine tooth comb, but one of the best things about the game was the relationships you got to have with a wide variety of characters.

And, while games like Mass Effect have achieved in leaps and bounds what KotOR was working towards, most of the romance in these games simply add up to jumping through hoops to see who and what you can sleep with. That's all the gaming media has to talk about, anyway. You didn't hear how important the relationships between characters were in Mass Effect, you just heard about the sex scene.

Though I do see the challenge of trying to get into someone's pants, I don't think that romance in a game should be treated like a mini game or rushing a castle to save/protect/sex up a princess. It might be my love for old Noir films, but why not center a romance around a relationship like the one in Dark Passage or The Big Sleep? There is still room for action, but the tension between the two characters evolves from cautious hostility to making out in the back of a car. Oooh yeaah.
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About Bat Countryone of us since 3:05 AM on 09.08.2009