Hello, and welcome to GodisaGeek.com Vault Valentine’s Day Special. Today, we shall celebrate love in all its forms the only way we know how, by casting into our apocalypse-proof box ten video game couples who warm the cockles of our hearts and underthings from the digital confines of their imaginary worlds.
Like any entries into the vault, great care is taken with their selection. Their inclusion depends on the power and believability of our heroes’ feelings for each other. Thus, no Mario and Peach, no Link and Zelda, no beautiful yet two-dimensional McGuffins locked away from the player to provide a nominal reward for completion of a quest. There must be interaction between the couple, which sadly disqualifies the wonderful Alyx Vance and her silent would-be paramour Gordon Freeman. Couples need not be lovers, and recognition is afforded to those whose relationship somehow contributes to gameplay.
Finally, the couple must be in a video game, not just in games, which sadly disqualifies our very own Saint & Greensie, who would be #1 were it not for the fact that they’re made out of flesh (and what flesh), not pixels.
A word of caution: by necessity, this list is not spoiler-free, nor is it entirely safe-for work. As ever, if you haven’t played a game and want to preserve the experience, probably best to skip the blurb.
10: Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010)
Motion-controlled serial killer yarn Heavy Rain made you intimately involved with the characters’ most basic activities, from cleaning their teeth to adjusting their push-up bras. This level of interactivity makes the physicality of Ethan and Madison’s relationship particularly memorable. From the moment Madison first applies burn ointment to Ethan after an unfortunate incident involving an industrial generator to their touching “Press X to fondle” love scene, Ethan and Madison make QTEs sexy.
Though they’re certainly not the first. God of War’s Kratos only ever seems to get his end away via the medium of the QTE, and is generally rewarded with power orbs.
9: Final Fantasy XIII (Sqaure Enix, 2010)
I’m going to don my flame-proof jacket and say that touching though the Cloud-Tifa-Aerith love triangle (team Tifa, by the way) in Final Fantasy VII is, it’s not a well-written or involving as Fang and Vanille’s ambiguous, century-spanning relationship.
Although the strength of Fang and Vanille’s feelings for each other is never in doubt, the precise nature of their relationship is never made entirely clear. They’re not obviously lovers, but then neither are they definitely just friends. It’s not often that video game characters have subtle, complex relationships with each other, and rarer still when we believe in them. When such a relationship occurs in a game about an inside-out planet governed by gods, you know it’s good.
8: Silent Hill 2 (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 2001)
Freudian nightmare Silent Hill 2 tells the story of emotional cripple James Sunderland and his adventures in zombie hell with Maria, a woman with the face of Cameron Diaz (good) and the body of a teenage Christina Aguilera (disturbing, if not wholly bad). Maria’s a stripper (though goodness knows who for, the only other inhabitants of Silent Hill being a six year old girl, a disturbed teenager, a traumatised woman in a dirty jumper and a collection of increasingly phallic monsters) with an uncanny resemblance to James’ late wife Mary. This resemblance gives James the willies, but he can’t help following Maria around because he’s received a letter from his dead wife, and wonders if she can help him figure out why.
James and Maria’s is not a relationship that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, and you never quite root for them to get together. Instead, you end up enthralled by them, desperate to unravel the slippery ties that bind them together. Is Maria’s resemblance to Mary a co-incidence? Is her overtly sexual behaviour towards James simply in her nature? Does it conceal a fragile soul? Or is it a hint of something much darker altogether?
7: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Ubisoft Montreal, 2003)
It sounds like a setup for a high-budget porn film: exotic princess in foxy red two-piece is captued by a gang of beefy Babylonians, chained up and presented to a neighbouring Sultan as a plaything. Things may well have continued in that vein, was the Sultan’s palace not overcome by the sands of time, turning everyone except the aforementioned princess, her father’s pantomime villain the Vizir, and the hunky son of her enemy into mindless zombies.
As it happens, Princess Farah finds herself teaming up with the titular (hee hee, “tit”) Prince in order to reverse the calamity. Though their partnership first arises out of necessity, their perfectly-pitched bank-holiday movie banter sees the sexual tension between them grow to a point where a routine zombie-killing mission to the Sultan’s bath house ends a little more steamily than either of them intended.
Because the prince’s father and his army were responsible for capturing Farah and turning Azad into a city of the undead, the two never entirely trust each other; Farah is convinced that the Prince is just out for number one, while he is certain she seeks revenge. Consequently, whenever the Prince has a moment to himself, brain and trousers begin to wrestle, resulting in the funniest monologues in the game. Best of these is the one where he convinces himself that he’ll have to marry the feisty princess in order to tame her impetuous nature.
6: Mass Effect 2 (Bioware, 2010)
To date, Commander Shepard of the Normandy has, in one of his or her various incarnations, partaken in 9-achievement-winning liasons. We’ve had Kaiden and Ashley the soldiers, Thane the terminally-ill lizard and Jack the tattooed biotic prodigy. All of these relationships have their own narrative merit, but there’s one who stands out.
Asari scientist Liara T’soni is the only person we’ve yet met who’s open to making it with both a male and a female Shepard (for shame, foxy space babe Miranda!) and the only one whose affair with the Commander continues across both games to date. That her significance in the second game is limited to DLC is unfortunate, but her character development is still perfectly pitched to mirror Shepard’s own. As Liara graduates from nervous ingénue to powerful Information Broker, so Shepard is promoted from Spectre to undead galactic badass. As such, beautiful, intelligent Liara is the only one of Shepard’s many love interests who ever really feels like his (or her) equal.
5: Ico (Team Ico, 2001)
Ico and Yorda are child sacrifices forsaken by the adult world. Alone in a desolate castle to face an uncertain future, the two have only each other. As Ico, the player must lead the mute Yorda through the bleak landscape by the hand, pulling her back from the brink as faceless shadows attempt to drag her away. The pitch-perfect hand-holding animation turns a frustrating, eight-hour escort mission into a hypnotic, desperately moving story about two lost children bound together by strange, terrifying circumstance.
4: Deadly Premonition (Access Games, 2010)
Francis “York” Morgan’s relationship with Naomi Watts look-alike Emily Wyatt is actually a three-way. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the third party in this coffee-and-doughnut flavoured love triangle is York’s invisible friend Zach, possibly the best meta-fictional device in gaming since Desmond Miles first lay down in the Animus.
You see, Zach is you, the player, someone York talks to frequently, often when there other other people around. While other characters are either unsettled by this behaviour or ignore it completely, Emily politely asks York about his friendship with Zach as they swap growing-up anecdotes over beer. An adorable tomboy and ex-rocker, Emily is one of the most appealing love interests in gaming, so it’s good to see her in a story that deserves her. As he grows more attracted to her, York will frequently ask Zach whether he’s interested in Emily too, promising to stand aside if he is. Although York and Emily make such a good couple it seems a shame to stand in their way, you kind of want Zach to step in, just to see what would happen. The denouement is bitter-sweet (like a donut dunked in black coffee), and you’ll never see it coming.
3: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Ninja Theory, 2010)
Any relationship therapist will tell you that co-dependence is a bad thing. Clearly, no-one told Trip, who enslaves grumpy beefcake Monkey with a headband, thus forcing him to obey her commands lest it send a wave of debilitating pain through his cranium. Oh, and if Trip’s heart stops beating, it will kill him.
Cute, sunburned redhead Trip makes the decision to enslave Monkey when it becomes apparent that she’ll never survive the lurid wasteland of post-apocalyptic America without him. There are some who cannot forgive Trip’s reprehensible decision to enslave another human being, and that’s certainly an understandable viewpoint (one that Monkey would probably share). But the imbalance of their relationship at the outset makes every subsequent development both fascinating and touching.
Naturally, their uncomfortable companionship provides the opportunity for some nice puzzles, but its greatest achievement is the way its questions - Will Monkey escape? Will she free him? What else is the headband doing to him? – drive the story.
2: Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar San Diego, Rockstar North, 2010)
I mentioned wilting princesses in the introduction, and include Abigail Marston as a clever subversion of that tired gaming trope. For the first 20 hours of Red Dead Redemption, you’d be forgiven for thinking that absent Abigail was just a wild-west version of Princess Peach, an impotent entity plonked at the end of a quest to give the hero (in this case, pizza-faced John Marston) a motivation to complete the various tasks he is given.
And indeed, after a dramatic showdown which has all the hallmarks of a final boss, it seems as though John’s reunion with his wife will signal the endgame, just as Mario is rewarded by Princess Peach and her…cake. But it’s not to be, and the hours that follow show us something we rarely see in a video game, that is, domesticity in all its messy, troublesome glory. Abigail’s fear for her husband’s safety manifests itself in anger, which is slowly replaced with tenderness as he wins her trust back by herding cows and generally rebuilding their small farm. The contrast between these activities and the high-octane bloody action of the previous missions is striking, and tells us as much about our expectations of gameplay as it does about the relationship between John and Abigail.
1: Uncharted: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, 2011)
Most of the entrants on this list enrich their game’s stories, and plenty enhance the gameplay itself. But the top spot is held by a couple you just want to see kiss over the ending credits. That couple is of course gaming’s first male pin-up (gosh, that took a long time, didn’t it?) Nathan Drake and his pretty, practically-attired, on-again-off again girlfriend Elena Fisher.
Crowning Nathan and Elena a pivotal video game couple is as potentially controversial as naming Uncharted a pivotal video game story. Just as the game’s story is brilliant, but heavily influenced by film narratives, so Nathan and Elena’s relationship is unarguably touching, but not as strongly tied to gameplay and many of those on this list. Although there are a few co-operative moments, it’s a relationship mainly played out in cutscenes and dialogue, rather than mechanics, and it supports the (brilliant) action rather than driving it.
Yet just as the plot, for all its filmic characteristics, could only take place in a game, so the relationship could only be played out over a series of three ten-hour episodes. The inconsequential back-and-forth conversations between the two as they navigate treacherous puzzles and exhilarating shoot-outs are what really build the relationship, just as real relationships grow through shared experiences rather than five-minute bursts of activity (well, unless you mean…never mind). There would be no time for those in a film.
Nathan and Elena are special because of how much they get us to care about them, and how vital it is for the success of the Uncharted series that we do. Love interests in games are so often an afterthought, but without these two, Uncharted simply wouldn’t work. I hope to see more like them soon.