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.