Monday, June 18, 2012

General RPGs' Protagonist - NPC Romances

Ah, love. Love, the overpowering emotion we desire to give and receive, that permeates nearly every story told in modern times regardless of format, flooding our movies and books and shows and cartoons and video games and comics and songs, conditioning us to blindly want it and feel empty without it, yet cheapening our concept of it through relentless over saturation. No matter what work of fiction you're watching, playing, listening to, or reading, chances are good that a romantic angle is to be found in it, whether one was needed or not.

With all the romantic subplots going on in RPGs, whether or not they're well-written and/or relevant to the game's purpose,* it never fails to surprise me how unvaried they can be. The number of RPGs out there whose main romantic coupling can be described as "Protagonist x Girl With Healing Spells = OTP 4EVA" is a little high for my liking, and that sure isn't the only romance archetype that gets reused a lot. Even many of the good ones, and creative ones, in these games are just superior iterations of common themes of romance. Take Selan and Maxim from Lufia 2, one of the most unique RPG love stories I've encountered. The first part of their romance is a tough warrior chick coming to respect and trust the protagonist as an equal (a sexy equal, apparently) after he proves himself to be both a nice guy and pretty tough and capable in a couple dangerous situations. Not exactly award-winning creativity on that connection, even if they portray it well. What makes Maxim and Selan so unique is that the game actually hooks them up during its plot's progression, has them marry, and then shows their adventures as husband and wife, instead of just perpetuating a journey between Guy Who Likes Girl In A Non-Committal Way and Girl Who Likes Guy In Much The Same Way until hooking them up at the very end, like most RPGs would do it. But this (sadly much too) unique spin still does originate from a fairly standard romance subplot.

One kind of romance I'd like to see more of which has most certainly not been overused is the love subplot which pairs the game's protagonist with a character in the game who is NOT a member of the party. Now how often do you see that happen? It always just seems a given that if the story's hero or heroine is going to fall for someone, it's got to be one of the folks traveling with them on their quest. And sure, there's a substantial logic to this, that I do not deny. Strong feelings of companionship, be they romantic or platonic, are a natural result of spending large amounts of time with another person, particularly through dangerous and emotionally-charged events, all of which are intrinsic parts of most RPG quests. Nonetheless, the idea that one would have a loved one at home to fight to protect and come back to is also a believable (and in real-world practice, far more common) idea, as is the possibility of finding love in one of the many people that one might meet on one's world-saving journey, and these 2 options are uncommonly explored to any real degree in RPGs, and only very rarely with application to the game's protagonist.

Why is that, I wonder? Or I would, if I wasn't fairly sure that it's probably just because it's easier and more expected to have a romance in a game between major party members, and the thought of trying for something outside that box is frightening to some game writers, and utterly unrecognized by others. Nonetheless, there's really no acceptable reason for this trend against romances between protagonists and NPCs. It wouldn't have to impact a lot of games' plots negatively (since so many main romances of RPGs don't have strong relevance to the game's events overall (Final Fantasy 4 and Tales of the Abyss, for example)...and for that matter, some of the times that the plot IS importantly tied to the romance (Legend of Dragoon and La Pucelle Tactics, for example) would have been BETTER without the trite romance slapped on). There's room for creativity since it's done so infrequently. And I don't think there's significantly less potential for love and relationship depth with a Protagonist x NPC couple than there is with a Protagonist x Party Member one.

Regarding that last one, I do freely admit that almost all the really great romances I've seen in RPGs to date, as you can see if you refer back to the list I made of the best ones, have been between a protagonist and a majorly important party member (and the 1 of the list that wasn't was between a party member of minor significance and an NPC). I perceive this as a result of the number of protagonist x party member romances in RPGs so far outweighing the alternative, however, not as any real indicator that protagonist x NPC couples are inherently inferior. After all, few though they are, I have seen some really decent love stories between a protagonist and a character not actively on their journey or part of their team. The one in Arc the Lad 3, for example, between Alec and Kulara was honestly pretty sweet. They hit it off with that usual inexplicable quickness that RPGs are so fond of, yes, but the quiet mutual attraction they share and their small but sweet exchanges each time Alec returns to Kulara's orphanage on a mission seem very genuine and emotional. It's not an amazing tale of love or anything, but its gentle emotion grips the player a lot more than quite a few of the standard RPG love stories that try so hard to be epic and important.

As another example, what about Souji and Ai, from Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4? Souji has the opportunity to court every lady in his party in that game, but it's Ai, an NPC, whose romantic Social Link chain of events are by far the most touching, deep, and romantically rewarding. Granted, this is partially because nearly all the other romances in that game are honestly pretty lousy, usually seeming spontaneous and forced. But even if Ai had any real competition, her love story would still hold up well, as a story of Souji's devotion and companionship, his good influence, helping Ai to rediscover herself, and grow to care about her true self and about those around her for more than just their appearance. It's also convincing in that Souji rejects her at first, implied to know her and have strong enough insight into her character that he'd rather wait until she's truly ready for a relationship than just dive in at the first opportunity with no regard to her real needs. I really do like this small protagonist x NPC story, and it would probably make it to my Top Romance List if I extended it to cover 10 spots--it certainly would make a top 15, at the very least.

There aren't many examples of this rare coupling between an RPG's protagonist and a character not actively traveling with them, but there are just enough to tell me that the idea has some real potential, and I want to see more. Too often this idea is relegated down to party members of lesser importance, and even then given too little attention and development. Game developers need to give the healing mages of the RPG world a little breather, maybe a chance to get up off their backs for a moment, and start exploring other romantic options for their games' main leads.

* Protip: Way, way too many of them are not.


  1. Hum...Well even though totally I agree with this I can see why people do want party members to be love intrest. Mainly because people being dumb as they are will see the love intrest as the Load at best and Shirley at worst.
    Also the fact that character development in the party if there in the party and traveling together than being in the protagnist home town.

    Though I obviouly there are good ones like the ones you metion that works well

    As for other examples I can think of. I think Diadora of FE 4 couts even though she does join for 4/3 of a chapter.

    Also Snow and Serah in FFXIII even though Serah becomes the hero in the sequal

    And Pretty much any romance in a rune factory game

    Also a more hilarous example is Krom in FE Awakening in which its possible to have him marry a random viliage girl only if all the other love intrests are taken or dead.

    1. Oh yes I should have special mention of Cheria in tales of Graces who is basically there to be the designated love intrest for Asbel and to be made fun off (shes the most normal out of everyone and gets trolled by everyone pretty much)

      She's also have healing magic (for a very good reason)

  2. I've seen a handful of games (usually the older ones or if it's a single-person-party RPG obviously) but you are right in that more often than not it's two members of the party who fall for one another, though I think it usually makes more sense. a) you figure they've been going through these trials and tribulations together and b) the developers usually go to further lengths to give adequate back story to party members, so this character is someone you feel you know a bit better.

  3. Azure Dreams has the protagonist choose which girls to woo. Strangely, I think you can woo them all, I haven't played very far in the game, but none of them become your companion.

    Thousand Arms has the lead character going on dates with various NPCs, although I don't know if any of them can be considered serious love interests.

  4. I think special credit needs to go to Dragon Quest VIII's relationship between the Hero and Princess Medea, even if Medea's technically in the party. I'm not constantly reminded of it like some generic White Mage love interest, it's pretty much impossible to feel like it's obstructing the plot, and it's done with a silent protagonist. And really, it's kind of impossible to not like Medea from what little you're shown.

    And then there's Grandia 2, which made it a big part of the core story and used it to develop several characters, if not build them from scratch entirely. It really showed me that even within the basic framework of hot Warrior on Healer action, RPG romances have a lot of potential that's too often squandered on phoned-in writing.

    1. I suppose that the DQ8 one does work, yes. Hadn't really thought of it that way, but her being in the party is only sort of the case.

      Of course, the reason they don't go to huge lengths to show it might have more to do with how it might look if they really got into the romance between a dude and a woman who's a horse...

      And hey, don't get me wrong, I'm definitely not against in-party romances, and I think they can be awesome, as Grandia 2's was. I just think it'd be good to explore other avenues such as Protagonist - NPC ones.

  5. Yeah, most of the examples I can think of are games which have harem dating mechanics (like Personas 3, 4, and 5, recent Trails games, and Mass Effect 2 and 3). I'm not sure I can think up any other examples, besides the aforementioned Dragon Quest VIII. Xenosaga 3, I guess, but I believe Allen is briefly playable. There are action RPGs, like Kingdom Hearts, but I don't think it should count if the love interest is an NPC when you can only play as one character.

    1. Don't really have anything to add to this, but I just want to say thanks for reading all these rants lately and commenting on them; always neat to have a new reader.