Love stories are always hard to write. No matter the medium, capturing an emotion that is entirely dependent on the individual is difficult. For every groundbreaking love story in the video game canon, players could point to a wave of games that set the medium’s storytelling capabilities backwards. In recent years, video games have made a real effort to emancipate themselves from traditional tropes, particularly as a response to the growing representation of the LGBTQ community in games. As a result, game developers are becoming more effective and inclusive in their representations of relationships, love, and heartbreak. For Valentine’s Day, OnlySP has decided to get a little mushy and celebrate seven games that get love right.
To The Moon
On the surface, the plot for To The Moon does not reveal itself as a love story. The beginning of the game tasks the player with sending Johnny, an elderly man nearing death, on a mission to the moon. As the player learns more about Johnny, they unearth details about his troubled relationship with his deceased wife, River. The game provides snapshots of Johnny and River’s relationship, most of which are difficult to understand from an outsider’s perspective. The player learns that River had a disorder that made communication difficult, putting a strain on her and Johnny’s relationship, yet this disorder is what allowed their relationship to become special. As the player dives into Johnny’s memories, they find examples of the couple attempting to express their love through non-verbal means. River creates some origami rabbits for Johnny for no explicable reason, Johnny writes and sings a song for River even though she will not respond, etcetera. To The Moon illustrates that assuming communication is not a prerequisite for love is not lunacy, for love is often found in actions, not words.
The Last of Us: Left Behind
The Last of Us was a watershed moment for storytelling. The Last of Us remains as one of the most influential games of the decade, but its DLC—The Last of Us: ‘Left Behind’—does not get enough recognition for its narrative and thematic risks. ‘Left Behind’, which released a year after the original game, eclipses some of the main title’s narrative themes, particularly those pertaining to relationships and sexuality. The prequel tells the story of Ellie and her best friend, Riley, as they embark on an adventure through the remnants of society in The Last of Us. Their rebelliousness is a phase that attracts almost all teenagers, even those living in a world full of zombies. The conclusion of Riley and Ellie’s story is already told in the main game, yet Naughty Dog manages to play with the player’s expectations by imbuing their relationship with unexpected depth. ‘Left Behind’ manages to concisely illustrate not only a convincing and budding relationship between friends, but also the process by which young adults realise their own sexualities. Naughty Dog excelled in their writing to portray a convincing homosexual coming-of-age relationship in a setting so entrenched with the grittiness of survival.
Final Fantasy IX
When people talk about Final Fantasy relationships, they tend to immediately think of Final Fantasy VII. As iconic as the couples in other Final Fantasy games are, none of them reach the same level of easiness and natural development as Zidane and Garnet from Final Fantasy IX. Zidane and Garnet’s relationship never feels forced, whereas the relationships of Cloud and Aerith, Squall and Rinoa in Final Fantasy VIII, et al, always have some degree of awkwardness to them. Final Fantasy IX is a classic tale of a loveable rogue falling for a smart-mouthed member of royalty, yet it never allows the traditional structure of its story to damage the portrayal of its characters. The dialogue between the couple is always filled with insults, quips, and double entendres; Zidane and Garnet’s relationship essentially reads as the perfect primer for how late teenage relationships develop. Above all, commendations should be given to the writing in Final Fantasy IX for managing to adopt JRPG and fantastical romantic cliches without falling into contrivance.
Gone Home remains a polarising piece of storytelling, with a substantial subset of gamers tentative to even title it as a video game. The player assumes the role of Katie as she returns home from overseas, only to find her family home is abandoned. Exploration of the empty home in rural Oregon is couple with the need to interact with various objects to piece together the events that took place there. The player uncovers written and audio transcriptions detailing the history of Katie’s sister, Sam, and her relationship with another woman, Lonnie. Whatever individuals may think of Gone Home’s gameplay design, the risks and evolutions Fullbright took with its narrative deserves recognition. Gone Home threatens to be heavy-handed with its depiction of Lonnie and Sam’s relationship, but the patient pacing ensures the revelations of its story remain nuanced. Whatever journey the player takes throughout the haunting corridors of Gone Home, they will have lifted the lid on a relationship and domestic scene that did not develop smoothly, ensuring the game’s conclusion remains satisfying and believable. Gone Home is a reminder that love is not always like it is in fairy tales, and that is fine.
The point-and-click masterclass Grim Fandango, originally released in 1998 and then re-released in 2015, has amassed a huge cult following. The game is brimming with colour and personality, yet the most effervescent aspect remains the relationship between the protagonist, Manny, and Meche. The couple ooze a huge degree of compatible charm, with their conversations and actions contrasting like the best couples do. Other games in this list have warranted their place with their minimalist approach to relationships; Grim Fandango achieves success due to its commitment to maximalism. Manny and Meche’s banter and communication is dialled up to such an entertaining degree that disliking anything about their relationship is impossible. Grim Fandango depicts love how it is in Tarantino movies—sincere, vibrant, fun, weird, and, above all, cool.
Jackie and Jenny’s relationship can be summed up by one scene that occurs near the start of The Darkness. Jackie decides to visit Jenny’s apartment. The couple sits on the couch to watch To Kill A Mockingbird, idly chatting away as the film plays. After Jenny falls asleep, the player can decide when to leave or choose to watch the entire film. Every now and then a new animation will occur—Jenny will snuggle more into Jackie, Jackie will yawn, etcetera—as the film progresses to its conclusion. Jackie, much like the player, forgets his problems, for a little while. The respite Jenny brings to Jackie in this moment follows the player throughout the game, even though the act of watching a film appears to be dwarfed by Jackie’s tribulations later. The inclusivity of player agency is a stroke of narrative genius as it heavily invests the user in their relationship, yet it also trusts them to derive as much meaning from the scene as they wish. In just one scene, The Darkness solidifies the relationship, contextualises it, and immerses the player in its undertones. The effectiveness of Jackie and Jenny’s love comes from its implicit nature. The effect of this scene is a small pocket of solace in an incredibly dark game. The pairing is proof that the calming respite of love can come in the smallest of ways and cast the longest shadow. By just sitting on the couch and hanging out, Jackie and Jenny remain memorable for how naturally their love appears.
Ico thrives in its simplicity. Team Ico’s beloved debut landed on the Playstation 2 back in 2001 with a deceptively simple story. Ico, an exile, meets Yorda, the daughter of the castle’s queen, and they plot to escape the fortress and the machinations of their lives together. Ico remains as a hallmark for the potential of video games as an artform, as it did not re-invent traditional video game habits, but mastered them. Instead of completely doing away with the traditional damsel in distress, Ico runs with it in a way that completely inverts all the negative connotations of that narrative device. Ico re-invented the potentialities video game tropes had and, therefore, allowed for the representation of more varied and striking video games that followed. Ico served as a pathfinder for many of the critically-acclaimed stories that came out of video games in the following decade because it subverted the expectations of everyone who played it. Above all, what makes Ico the greatest video game love story is the fact that many of the relationship’s best moments occur through gameplay alone, completely unreliant on any other form. Ico is a love story told through the lens of gameplay and nothing else.