In it for life?

February 14, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

Despite Valentines Day (and its patron St Valentine) being an entirely modern, entirely human invention, come February it’s plastered everywhere. Busy (or not so busy) husbands tear around trying to pick up the ingredients for a gourmet dinner and feverishly searching Smiths for a Jamie Oliver cookbook, all in the vain hope that they’ll convince the wife that they remembered this year.

Cute young couples plan epic, three-day adventures of love that turn out to be bowling and a trip to Nandos. New-found love sparks and sometimes sets a flame as office romances and sexual tensions come to their fated conclusions. Overall it’s a crazy tradition, but loved by some as much as Christmas and Easter.

Enough about real life. This is a gaming site and over the last few years our beloved games have given us ample opportunity to practise chat-up lines and married life in the safety and consequence-free environment of virtual worlds. The interesting thing is how wildly different romance is presented across the board, ranging from game-long relationships to five-minute marriage ceremonies.

So for those of you who prefer the simplicity of a digital relationship to the complexity of a real one, here’s a quick run down of your relatively wide range of options across the board. If you’re into RPGs that is…

NOTE: For the purpose of ease I’m going to speak from my own perspective; being a straight guy. All of these examples can be carried out by female characters too and in most cases work with same-sex relationships. Also, this is a frank and humorous piece and does not represent the views of myself or TIMJ regarding women and marriage, so take it with a pinch of salt.

Kiss me quick! We may die tomorrow! – Skyrim
The northern province of Skyrim is a dangerous place, as any self-respecting RPG fan will know from personal experience. If the bandits don’t get you, the ice trolls will and life is generally a bit of gamble up there. The people are brusque and cold, preferring combat and tales of woe to dinner dates and love stories. It’s odd, then, that Skyrim is by far the easiest place to get married. It’s actually more of a business arrangement than a joining of two hearts.

First you must find or buy an Amulet of Mara. Mara is the goddess of love and marriage and wearing her amulet is the Nord way of saying you’re available. Think of it as the Skyrim equivalent of a giant pin badge that says ‘SINGLE’ on it.

As you go about your business sporting the nifty trinket, you’ll notice some ladies are more receptive to you all of a sudden. Maybe their feelings for you have long been growing; each time you walked past their stall or they heard another tale of your greatness, they swooned and dreamed of the day they would be with you. Although considering most of the women you’ll meet in Skyrim are trying to kill you, it’s more likely that they’ve spotted the amulet and are shooting for an opportunity to marry a rich, famous adventurer. So they’re WAGS then.

You pop the question and get an immediate reply in the positive. This is likely partly due to the aforementioned rich/famous combo but is also part of ancient Nord tradition. As life was (and sort of still is) brutal and short in the snowy peaks, the Nords of old decided to do away with courting and wooing and cut straight to it, lest one of them fall victim to the many perils of the land before they are wed.

So, drag your new beau to the Temple of Mara in Riften and the friendly priest Maramal will marry you post-haste. Some of your old adventuring buddies might even show up, although it’s more likely some people you had one conversation will be the only ones able to make it, along with some random local folk with nothing better to do.

After the wedding, your spouse will head back to whichever house you like most and settle in for married life. That’s not all, though; she’ll even set up a little shop! Even though you never see said shop, it must exist because every so often she’ll give you your cut of the profits. She’ll also cook you a nice, nutritious (Read: Health and Stamina replenishing) meal. How nice!

Married life is even easier than getting married; just leave your wife to it and she’ll be fine. She’ll appreciate any visits you make, but feel free to gallivant on your adventures and never again return to the house you’ve cooped her up in.

Except to grab your loot and food of course…

You’re smart, funny… well, you’re funny. – Fable 2 and 3
The denizens of Albion don’t have it quite as easy as their Tamrielian counterparts. To get a lady here you’re going to have to put some work in. Their cushy, safe lives have made the people either obsessed with sex or obsessed with marriage! You can barely get a word in before the conversation turns to one or the other… although talking isn’t exactly what you’d call it. You see, it seems the people of Albion respond best to absurd physical gestures in public places. So, find yourself a girl that’s focused on marriage and get dancing!

Marrying in Fable 3 involves a lovely ceremony...

Once you’ve convinced someone you’re in love with them (or completely insane), pop to the local shop and buy an Engagement Ring. Give it to your bride to be and you’ll be married in a nice cardboard-cut-out cut-scene or a charming public ceremony, depending on the game. You’ll need a house to live in but don’t worry about keeping it in order; the wife will take care of that. However, the ladies of Albion won’t be quite so content with you sauntering off as their snowy counterparts. Occasionally you’ll get a message from your spouse requesting attention and ignoring enough of these will understandably vex her somewhat. Throw a child into the mix and you’ll have to make regular visits to avoid the cold issuing of divorce papers.

While most of these requests seem to consist of ‘Wants Sex’ or variations thereof, returning after a long time away will prompt declarations of love, gifts and maybe even a slightly creepy ‘Are you my Daddy?’ from a now-grown offspring. Giving your wife more money to live on and keeping her safe is usually enough to ensure you a companion for life. If she starts to become too much work, you can always sacrifice her to the Temple of Shadows; if you’re that way inclined and don’t mind your morality taking a hit!

Blood, Sweat and Tears – Dragon Age
A general is only as good as his troops and getting your followers to like you in Dragon Age is key to success. While you could simply give them gifts and play to their preferences in conversations, a bit of flirting goes a long way during the ever-miserable Blight.

Romance is never at the top of the agenda, however, and despite the imminent danger around every corner, none of your followers seem to be too hot on the idea of a one night stand. You’ll have to take them with you into every battle, listen to their stories at camp and even help them out with personal problems before they’ll see you as anything more than a valiant leader.

Your chosen quarry must trust you innately and develop a love for you over countless trials and tribulations. The more hardship you go through, the stronger your relationship becomes and before long you’ll be having that awkward conversation; do you like me too?

...while Dragon Age opts for the lusty tumble.

This tender, long-awaited romance culminates in… well, a one night stand! You see, despite all the effort put into developing a relationship, finding love and joining as kindred spirits, there’s really no time for getting married and living happily ever after with the Darkspawn on your heels. So it’s a quick tumble (or two) in a tent at camp and then back to the slaughter.

In terms of getting out what you put in, chasing one of your companions results in you receiving the shitty end of the deal. Although the passionate night together is nice, offering sex in exchange for hours of intimate conversation and bloody battle may seem a little cold and callous. Your friendship will be stronger after the act but this fact won’t really improve your chances of defeating the Archdemon and saving Ferelden.

If you’re looking for a quick fix to romance, it’s best to look elsewhere; but if the journey is more important than the destination there’s hours of touching, developing love to be found here.

So why do we do it?
The purpose of this article was to take a humorous look at the sometimes brutal and bizarre forms of romance that games offer us, but all joking aside, there must be a reason why so many games these days present complex (or not so complex) ways of forming romantic relationships with NPCs. Few games put these relationships at the forefront, and those that do often take the course of the relationship out of player control, preferring to allow the writer(s) to choose its ups and downs.

Great games almost always have one thing in spades; immersion. Immersion is achieved when the combination of fluid, intuitive control, lush, smooth graphics and animation, and an expertly crafted, believable world is pitched perfectly. Making the gamer feel the world, feel the emotions and motivations of the principle characters and truly believe they are part of the events unfolding in front of them is paramount and allowing the player to craft relationships within the game is one way to ensure this. While pre-determined romance, when done right, can make a game, there’s nothing quite like choosing a partner and forming your own bond with them.

I suppose the big question is; which is best? Pre-written relationships can be enchanting and beautiful without needing any player interaction, although much of the time they take the form of platonic love. Monkey and Trip from Enslaved form a wonderful brother-sister relationship over the course of the game but it never crosses the line into romantic territory. Most player-controlled relationships seem to be geared towards romance, forming ‘bromantic’ bonds with your fellow tough guys is just as essential in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect as getting friendly with your female companions.

Yet while chasing the affections of a random citizen or valued party member is always, and probably always will be, optional, it adds another layer to A.I. that is becoming more and more realistic as the years go by. We’ve come a long way from the awkward yet touching textual exchanges of Final Fantasy VII; these days it’s perfectly possible to actually become enamoured with a character and genuinely want your avatar to bond with them.

As games progress, character models and A.I. advance more and more and the worlds given to us become ever more real, romantic interaction is something I can only see getting deeper and deeper as time goes by. Whether that’s a good thing is up to you, but anything that enhances immersion and makes us feel more like we’re truly part of the game world is fine by me.

So whether you’re settling down with a loved one, testing the waters with a new flame or just having some ‘me’ time this February 14th, you can be confident in the knowledge that if it all gets a bit too real there are a plethora of games out there that can satisfy your romantic needs.

Maybe one day you’ll be able to have a digital partner, you who can turn on and off and… and I’ll stop there before it gets weird I think!