No. 1 | Allow Us To Explain
Ahh, do you feel it? Love is in the air today! Love, and gunpowder, and mana residue, and the metallic tang of medically improbable amounts of blood. Yes, we’ve entered the world of video games, where love is weird and sex is awkward. There are few topics more likely to bring friends to blows than this one, so rather than give you a “best of” list, I’m here to share my favorites. Six couples that have stuck with me over the years, each representing a different sort of love. If I leave out your favorite (as I undoubtedly will), by all means, let your ship sail in the comments.
No. 2 | Johnny and River, To The Moon
I’ll cut right to the chase: To The Moon is a game about a married couple — one neurotypical, one autistic — and their respective struggles to understand each other. Granted, the game’s about death and regret and acceptance, too, but Johnny and River’s romance is the brilliant, heartrending core of it. You might not expect this of a small indie title with old school graphics, but To The Moon is bold enough to tell the story that so many others are afraid of touching: Love is blind, but marriage is work, and even the person who cares for you most may never fully understand you.
But take heart. River is not a woman to be pitied, nor is Johnny her savior. They’re just two people with differently wired brains, utterly devoted to one another. Best of all, the player experiences their relationship from childhood to old age, with all the ups and downs in between. Despite the obstacles between them, Johnny and River are an inspiring duo, one of the most genuine, sympathetic couples in video games today. If you haven’t played this game, I suggest you remedy that.
No. 3 | Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart (and Aerith Gainsborough), Final Fantasy VII
Are they, or aren’t they? It’s the eternal question, and FFVII fans will probably never stop clawing each other’s eyes out over it. The canon is vexingly noncommittal on whether Cloud’s heart belongs to Tifa or Aerith, and even the game’s creators are content letting fans hash it out for themselves. If you want my two cents, though — I don’t think a definitive answer is necessary. Different people fill different emotional niches, and the people you love don’t always fit into neat, prescribed categories. Tifa and Aerith mean separate things to Cloud, and I think that’s fine as is. To say that Cloud has to choose one over the other implies that he hasn’t got enough room in his heart for both (who knows, maybe polyamory is socially accepted on Gaia). But while I’m cool with the possibility of Cloud being in super mushy love with Aerith, she’s dead by the end of the game. Like, slow-motion, sword-through-the-heart dead. The question is a little moot at this point. With all due respect to Aerith fans, I’m more interested in the two who are still breathing by the end credits.
The ambiguity of Cloud and Tifa’s relationship is precisely what I like about it. Are Cloud and Tifa romantically involved? I have no idea. In some ways, I find it more interesting if they’re not. But regardless of whether or not they loooooove each other, they love each other. Romantically, platonically, somewhere in between, whatever. They know what they are to each other and don’t feel the need to explain it to anyone else — even the audience — and it doesn’t override Cloud’s feelings (whatever they might be) toward Aerith. To me, that implies a level of commitment more complex than the standard idea of a romance. If that’s not worthy of a valentine, I don’t know what is.
No. 4 | The Heavy and His Gun, Team Fortress 2
No, listen, okay. This is a love for the ages.
The Heavy speaks to something primal in me. I try, in most things, to be a nice person. I don’t like confrontation. I value compromise, and diplomacy, and leaving toes un-stepped on. But sometimes, sometimes it’s a Sunday morning, and it’s been a long week, and I’ve got pajamas and a plate of pancakes, and there is nothing I want more in the whole world than to wreck some shit.
The Heavy understands this. The Heavy is a creature of simple pleasures — sandwiches, victory, and mass destruction. Hulking brute of a man though he is, he knows these goals are unattainable without that which makes him whole. His gun, as he explains, weighs one hundred and fifty kilograms and fires two hundred dollar custom cartridges at ten thousand rounds per minute. He knows his gun. He knows her needs (yes, her — he’ll fight you on this). But the Heavy’s gun is no mere possession. She is his counterpart. Together, they tear through battlefields and basements, sending Scouts and Engineers skittering backward at the first sight of them. They are a single entity, each lost without the other. And when he stands triumphant, surrounded by limbs and smoking wreckage, he is compelled by a force unknown (a player pressing the taunt button, perhaps) to make his feelings known to her. He cradles her in his arms, unable to restrain his passion. “Kiss me,” he begs, nuzzling his stubbled jaw against her overheating barrel.
Before we contemplate that potential euphemism any further, let’s move on!
No. 5 | Caithe and Faolain, Guild Wars 2
What’s epic fantasy without a pair of star-crossed lovers? The tale of two pining souls trapped on opposite sides of the battle between good and evil is as old as the hills... but when was the last time you saw it play out between two women? How about two major female characters in an MMORPG? Whose eventual confrontation has an entire instance centered around it?
They’re also plants. Really badass plants.
Caithe and Faolain were among the first of their kind to leave the safety of the Pale Tree in search of adventure. As these things go, Faolain fell to the dark side, choosing to abandon the Tree in favor of the Nightmare Court (the bad guys, obviously). Both of them are now respective leaders of their people, prodigiously powerful, diametrically opposed, and still smitten kitten with each other. Not that they’re healthy about it. Faolain plays nasty head games to try to get Caithe back. Poke around Caithe’s house, and you’ll find a book called “Long Distance Relationships: 10 Ways to Make It Work.” Neither seems willing to give the other up, even though there is no way this is ever going to end well. It’s the stuff soap operas are made of, and I heartily approve (as do many — check out this gorgeous entry in the European Cosplay Gathering finals last year).
What I like best about their relationship — aside from the melodrama, because who doesn’t like that — is how casually it’s included in the surrounding lore. Their relationship is just a relationship in this world, no different than any of the others you encounter. It’s not the only thing that gives Guild Wars 2 such an inclusive vibe, but it certainly adds to it.
No. 6 | Atrus and Catherine, the Myst series
Like many tweens, I spent my prepubescent years enamored with the idea of romantic tragedy. I kept myself on a fixed diet of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, hormone-fueled fanfic, and Sailor Moon bootlegs. Love, as I understood it, was an experience that belonged to the young. It was fast, furious, and self-destructive. If you’d asked me what my definition of romance was, I would’ve quoted the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility: “Love is to burn, to be on fire! To die for love? What could be more glorious?”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was another love story I was becoming just as attached to, one that was doing a much better job of preparing me for who I would become.
When I first played Myst, Atrus felt like a dad — a father figure whose approval mattered deeply to me (is there anything worse than screwing up the ending and finding Atrus disappointed in you?). A few years later, in Riven, I met his beloved wife, Catherine. When she walked on screen with a confident stride and a rich red dress, I was struck. She was poised, intelligent, wholly present in herself. Immersed as I was in the game, I easily imagined myself — gangly, bumbling, middle-school me — standing in the presence of such a woman. I wanted to be her, or someone very like her. In every Myst game after, whenever those two showed up, greeting me warmly and asking for my help, I swelled with pride. They had my respect, and I would not let them down.
Atrus and Catherine’s relationship presented me with an idea that my other stories never touched on — a love that would mellow, mature, and settle down. Those two had their troubles, yes, but most of the time, they hung out in their beautiful home, writing worlds and admiring each other’s brains. A pair of equals who regarded each other with quiet, unwavering devotion. Atrus and Catherine slowly but surely taught me that love didn’t need to be a burning, all-consuming thing. It could be subtle and sustainable, too. As I got older, that ideal is the one I retained loyalty toward. I have these two, in small part, to thank for that.
No. 7 | Commander Shepard and whoever you fancy, the Mass Effect trilogy
Few games get as personal as Mass Effect. Encountering someone else’s version of the story — a differing opinion on the Virmire conundrum, for example, or on whether to reprogram the heretic Geth — feels like walking through the looking glass. It’s just wrong! It’s not how the story goes! You spent 120 hours agonizing over who to save and who to kill and who to have dialogue-tree sex with. How dare someone else question your judgment?
That fierce allegiance is what’s lovely about the romances in Mass Effect. They are (within given parameters) whatever the player wants them to be. Ask Mass Effect fans about who Shepard ends up with, and their explanations are wonderfully varied (not to mention detailed). Everybody has their own understanding of the good Commander, and more often than not, it’s a reflection of something within themselves. That’s certainly true in my case. FemShep and Liara are, for me, rock-solid, iron-clad canon. Elaborating fully on why I'm so taken with them is an essay in itself, so let me leave it at this: For five years, their story supported the things I was dealing with out in the real world with charm, wit, and uncanny relevance. They are, unquestionably, the two video game characters I am most attached to. I can’t watch the game played with any other pairing. It throws me for a loop.
For those who have played, your experience is almost certainly different. You’re probably just as weirded out by that picture I put up there as I would be with a picture of Garrus or Kaidan or Sam Traynor. And that, when you get right down to it, is what I love so much about Mass Effect — and really, about games in general. The stories we love most are the ones that become our companions, the ones that give us a new lens to view ourselves through. I know I’m not the only person who found a bit of herself aboard the Normandy.
An Entirely Subjective List of My Favorite Video Game Romances