Well, once again we have a list I made quite a bit of time ago that, by now, is more or less inadequate. A Top 5 Romances List is all well and good for a time, but once a guy’s played over 200 RPGs, even considering how strangely uncommon it is to see a particularly good love story in an RPG, 5 spots just isn’t gonna cover it. So here’s an updated list of 10 for you. Enjoy. Or roll your eyes and move along to something else. Whichever strikes your fancy.
Y'know, when I went about deciding which couples would make it to this list, I found something out that greatly surprised me: there really weren't many strong contenders. For a genre that throws at least one major love story, or at least a romantic interest, into the strong majority of its games, there's not many RPG romances that are worthy of note. Most of them are either pointless and silly/inexplicable, or just rather generic and/or under-developed. I mean, where in the world does La Pucelle Tactics's Eclair and Homard's side romance come from? Do the romantic hints between Breath of Fire 3's Ryu and Nina serve any plot- or character-related purpose at all? Are we really meant to care about Tales of Phantasia's Cless and Mint's attraction when it's so bland and unconvincing? And how is it that, going back to La Pucelle Tactics, Prier and Croix so perfectly manage to combine all the problems above and have a love story that is pointless, silly, inexplicable, generic, AND under-developed all at once?
Still, there are definitely some good ones out there, too, and that includes several that didn't quite make it to this list. It just surprised me that the number was comparatively small to how many were available to choose from. Here, though, are the ones that I think are sweet and emotional enough to soften the heart of even the grumpiest of haters.
Spoilers, naturally, as love stories in RPGs are usually pretty heavily tied into the general plots.
10. Maxim and Selan (Lufia 2)
Two people being together. It is, apparently, one of the most terrifying possibilities imaginable to a game writer, a scenario that frightens even the most hardened and stalwart creators of entertainment of all kinds: portraying a happy, reasonably stable couple. I mean, think about it--how often do you ever see what happens AFTER the main characters in an RPG (or practically anything else, for that matter) have hooked up? Yeah, not too often. The whole game’s spent building up to it one way or another, and then they only actually get together near or at the very end (if even then!), leaving no time for the audience to actually see the relationship they’ve been waiting for. And that’s nice, and all, but, y’know, there’s MORE to love relationships than JUST its build-up. There’s also the actual relationship.
That’s what Maxim and Selan show us, and I think that they do it very well. While the actual act of them getting together is a bit generic, and a little rushed in some ways, the latter 2/3rds of Lufia 2 portrays them as husband and wife, reinforcing their devotion to each other and their son as they go, showing their affection in a way that generally denotes the kind of confidence and trust they have in one another and one another’s affection.
And in another refreshing take on this idea, once they’re together, all the forces of the universe that the writers can summon up don’t immediately start conspiring to tear them apart. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when folks get together before the story of a game or movie or show or comic or whatever concludes, it’s almost inevitable that some contrived, overblown drama is going to force them apart again, because as I said, writers are terrified of having a couple be a couple.
But again, Maxim and Selan buck this trend. They stand firm in their love for one another, and the writers don’t dump a load of stupid, unrealistic emotional bullshit on them to change that. But they’re also not static--the relationship has its hurdle to overcome, making it still enjoyably dynamic. It’s just that the hurdle is a TEST of their love, not an obstacle meant to by the writers to weaken it. Maxim and Selan are touching, realistic, and very competently refreshing.
9. Carmina and Duchess Catherine (Embric of Wulfhammer's Castle)
If this romance had started off better (to put it bluntly, Carmina is horny and forces herself upon Catherine in a shared dream, with Catherine's willingness being questionable at best, even if it's all glossed over later and made out to be something Catherine enjoyed to some degree), it would have been considerably higher up on this list, because it is frankly just absolutely beautiful once it's properly gotten started. The love story of Catherine and Carmina’s got it all. They share their histories and personalities with one another, they share a touching chemistry, they’re each willing to give absolutely everything up for the other (Catherine’s willing to make herself the enemy of the most powerful adventuring group in the world for Carmina and to use every resource she has to protect her, and/or go with her to the lands of the Dark Elves (the Drow, essentially, which any Dungeons and Dragons player knows is not a pleasant prospect for a human), Carmina’s willing to restrain her natural inclinations of evil for Catherine’s sake and give up on returning to her home in order to be with Catherine, etc), there’s a very touching aspect of Catherine’s taking a leap of faith in trusting her love to Carmina, and generally I’d just have to say that everything about Carmina’s and Catherine’s romance is emotional, moving, authentic, and natural.
8. Ai and Yu (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4)
You know, given how bland, rushed, and utterly unconvincing the rest of Yu’s romantic interests in SMTP4 are, it’s rather amazing how well they did with Ai. It’s also surprising that it can work so well when one of the individuals concerned is mostly a Silent Protagonist (characters who don’t actually engage in dialogue with other characters don’t tend to be terrific at interpersonal relations). But Ai and Yu's romance is a sweet one that's nonetheless worldly and realistic, which I like, and she's the one romantic option in the whole game for whom the love aspect of her Social Link actually seems to make a difference.
What I mean by that is, unlike the rest of the love interests in SMTP4, whose Social Links stay the exact same until the very end when the option to romantically engage with the person is shoehorned into the second-to-last scene, the course of her Social Link events changes depending on Yu's approach to the idea of romancing Ai. For a true romance with her, Yu must care enough about her as a person, and understand who she really is enough, not to hastily dive into a relationship before she’s ready. When Ai first proposes the idea of entering into a romantic relationship, Yu actually turns her down, not because he’s not interested (assuming here that we’re talking about a player who wants him to successfully romance her, I mean), but because she’s not ready for it, still too caught up with the superficial to know who she really is and what she really wants. He’d rather wait until she knows him well enough and understands herself well enough to KNOW that he’s who she wants to be with. It thus becomes so much sweeter, so much more right, when, after Yu has helped her to rediscover who she is and understand the importance of being true to oneself, she finally asks him again, not as a girl still obsessed with appearances but rather someone more in touch with herself, if he wants to be with her, and he can say yes. You don’t get many instances in RPGs (possibly ANY, I’d have to think about it for a while) where a romance isn’t just approached directly all the way. If there’s any hesitation between RPG characters on whether they love each other, it usually comes in the form of trite denial of their own feelings, not a case where one person cares enough about and understands well enough the other to know they’re not emotionally ready for such a thing. And Ai really sells it at the end of the game, too--while the other romantic options in the game generally tell Yu, on his last day before leaving the town, “It’s been fun, Homeslice, maybe we can do this “being in love” thing again some day long from now when it happens to be convenient,” Ai makes it clear that she’s not willing to give Yu up just because he’s going away for a while, telling him that she’s very ready to pursue a long-distance relationship with him. I also think her Christmas date with him is very sweet, too.
Overall, the romance between Ai and Yu shows surprising depth and realism for an RPG love story, and it really seems set to last.
7. Shepard and Tali (Mass Effect 2 and 3)
I hate to do a cop-out here, but honestly, I feel like I got most of this right the first time I mentioned it in an Annual Summary rant, so I’m just gonna say what I did there. Tali is adorable, sweet, and caring, and the chemistry between her and a Paragon Shepard is excellent. I like the fact that they've known each other for a fair amount of time before hooking up in Mass Effect 2 (she’s a non-romanceable crew member in ME1), too, giving the impression that this isn't some whimsical attraction that will fade, but rather a strong connection formed from a great understanding of each other. What I really love about this romance, besides just how strong a chemistry and realism their connection has, is that there's a strong element of sacrifice involved with it...basically, a member of Tali's species is put at mortal risk when he or she removes his or her environmental suit due to their extremely weak and finicky immune system, meaning that such activities as sex (in the traditional sense, at least) are dangerous. Shepard knows all about Tali's species thanks to Tali's time in his crew in ME1, so for him to pursue a relationship with her, he's knowingly choosing a partner that he can't regularly make love to in any normal sense, so, as he more or less says himself, he’s choosing to be with her because he feels that on an emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual level, she's worth giving that up for. And of course, Tali takes a huge risk by deciding to make her and Shepard's first time natural, with her removing her suit--she does what she can to lessen the danger, but she's still endangering her life to show how much she loves Shepard. Stupid? Well, yes...but romantically stupid.
6. Beast and Belle (Kingdom Hearts 1, 2, and Chain of Memories)
Okay, yeah, I know Beast and Belle weren't made up for an RPG, but they're still in 3...and more importantly, they're really shown quite well in the Kingdom Hearts series. KH had the foundations for this couple, obviously, but I feel that the games really worked with the material and gave us a better product than the original--Kingdom Hearts 1 impresses you with just how devoted Beast is to Belle, how she is, when everything comes right down to it, the most important thing in the world to him. Kingdom Hearts 2 expands on that by putting both of them back into their normal environment, where their situation is a little less extreme than it was in KH1, and takes the time to deepen their relationship realistically--which, I must say, is more than I feel the actual movie about them adequately did.* And then there's KH: Chain of Memories, which I think really went into some neat depth on these two, showing just how deeply involved with and devoted to one another they were. This couple is good to start with, made great by the games' short but very poignant development of their relationship, and and the fact that SquareEnix really worked at giving you strong, emotional material for them that wasn't just a rehash of the movie (while still, of course, keeping a strong tie to and respect for the movie's work). They could've just done a rerun of the movie and had a fine enough story, but the company instead put some effort into giving us a quality product--and it paid off beautifully.
5. Bhaalspawn and Viconia (Baldur’s Gate 2)
This assumes a protagonist who is good and honorable. You can court Viconia while being an evil guy, and she’ll actually be far more enthusiastic about the idea, but it’s not very interesting or satisfying to do so.
While Baldur’s Gate 2 goes to good lengths to create an in-depth and touching romance for all 4 of the love interests of its protagonist the Bhaalspawn, Viconia’s love story is the one that’s truly touching and compelling, one that really gives her great character development in the process. It’s basically a tale of love’s redeeming power, with Viconia’s growing respect and affection for the main character creating an internal struggle within her as her harsh and evil philosophies wage war with the ever growing emotional connection she has with the Bhaalspawn. She at first shrinks back in fear and revulsion from her growing feelings, trying to force them and the protagonist away from her with her typical venom and finding that she can't destroy her emotions so easily. It's good stuff, and when the romance picks up again during the Throne of Bhaal expansion campaign, it only gets better. With acceptance of her love for the protagonist comes the opportunity for Viconia to better explore her own conflicting inner nature, all culminating in the protagonist helping Viconia to change herself for the better, to change her philosophy of life from Evil to Neutral. It’s a massive personal achievement for her and, if my limited knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons is correct, a significant achievement by the rules of that world. All in all, it’s a very touching and quite impressive love story, both touchingly romantic and inspiring in its portrayal of love’s ability to improve those it touches.
4. Bastila and Revan (Knights of the Old Republic 1)
It's kind of surprising how well this works, honestly, because Bastila often kind of annoys me (as does any typical blind follower of flawed Jedi philosophy). However, she and Revan (male, Light Side Revan, I mean--regardless of how players want to play the game and interpret things, that's what's cannon) have a romance that develops itself at a relaxed, but steady pace, where you can actually see and understand the growing attraction instead of just having it thrust at you for a few seconds here and there, as is often the case in RPGs. What really sells it, though, is later on, when the love they've built is tested and endures--as Revan talks a corrupted Bastila back to her senses, and she slowly returns, you really get convinced of how strongly they feel about one another. Not because TEH POWAH OF LOVE ALONE CONQUERS ALL, mind, but rather because it's love that lets Revan know Bastila so well to be able to convince her back. He doesn't just say some stupid crap like most RPGs would that amounts to "Hey baby I know you're all into this ultimate power destroying the universe thing, and that's cool and everything, but you and I had a crush on each other once and THAT'S MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT." Revan talks to her and reminds her of what she used to want, who she used to be, and shows her the strength of the things she held important before--and also, as PART of that instead of its entirety, says that he wants her to come back to him because he loves her. It's like he loves HER instead of loving being in love with her, I guess, which is what I usually see with these games. And when the scene is over, and Bastila's soul has been saved and she admits that she loves Revan as well, a love that's had to persevere against the code of both the Sith AND the Jedi, you genuinely feel, wow, they really, truly do love each other.
3. Aigis and Minato (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Q)
Another strange couple to make it onto the list, for a couple reasons. The first is that in SMTP3FES, there are several girls for the main character, Minato, to get together with, and his relationship with Aigis isn't technically acknowledged as one of these romances. The second is that Minato is a silent protagonist, who are not exactly known for their stirring speeches of undying love...or anything else. And the third, of course, is that Aigis is a battle robot, which, despite what Xenosaga players may fervently wish, is just not an ideal mate for a living being.
But this relationship really is very touching, far more so than the other, "real" romances of the game (although I did like Mitsuru's, I'll admit). Aigis, who is a fantastic character as a whole, seeks to make sense of her existence and come to understand and embrace her limited humanity, and Minato helps her in her search for herself. She's already absolutely devoted to him, and from that devotion and the time she spends finding herself with his aid, you can see her love for him grow in proportion to her self-discovery. In a sense, her identity as a human being instead of just a machine is directly linked to her immense love for him, and as she comes to be more and more an individual who can feel, so too does she become more and more an individual who can love. Of all the final romantic Social Link scenes that you see in the game, in which the girl involved invites Minato to her room, gives him a gift, tells her how much he's changed her life for the better, makes her love for him known as best she can, and then spends a long while alone with him (this last part is where you're left free to interpret, although I admit by now that it's most likely meant to imply love-making), it's hers which is the most spiritually touching--she does the same as the other girls, and reaffirms her love for him (which she confesses earlier, and earliest of all the other romantic interests), and then has him take out her main memory chip doohickey, the tiny piece of her circuitry that makes her who she is. In this way, by leaving his fingerprints on this piece of her, she's asking him to forever leave a mark of himself on her very soul.
I admit that Minato's side of things in this romance isn't especially noteworthy (although done well, considering the no-talking limitations and the fact that he seems like a pretty mellow guy to begin with), but Aigis is so convincing in her affections for him and her character development, which I mentioned is closely tied for her love for Minato, is so great, that it makes this whole thing one of the most beautiful love stories I've seen in the genre.
2. Tidus and Yuna (Final Fantasy 10)
It was a hard decision, to put this couple in second place rather than first, and not one I'd expected when I put this list together originally (I always seem to manage to surprise myself with these list rants). Because these two really have something special in their game. The way each shows his or her love for the other is beautiful, and also a believable, real aspect of love that other RPGs rarely get at all into. No, not just the little glances and words and bland FMV water-smooch scene; that obvious stuff is what you'd expect. No, what really sells this love to the player is how Tidus and Yuna are so intimately touched by the other, so deeply moved by love, that they take on aspects of the one they love, becoming, as truly heartfelt lovers often do, akin to a single entity, entering into an union of emotion and spirit. Yuna's incredible devotion to the people of her world, so great that she was fully willing to become a sacrifice to give them a few years' peace and, more importantly, continued hope, never diminishes, but by Tidus's influence, she also comes to question the world as he does, to defy tradition that is wrong or makes no sense, which leads to her deciding to stand against her world's people in order to save them. At the same time, Tidus, while never losing his characteristic disregard for dogma and tradition when they oppose what's reasonable and right, becomes able to understand the kind of devotion Yuna has, the strength it takes to willingly die so that others can live better lives, and becomes, himself, a sacrifice to save her and the world she loves. While staying true to themselves, they become alike to each other, complimenting one another in love. It's really pretty damn cool, and very touching.
1. Dagger and Zidane (Final Fantasy 9)
As wonderful as I think Tidus and Yuna's love is, they still suffer from that unfortunately common problem in RPG romances--Convenient Love. The how and why of their relationship's origins are just not really there. They just spend some time together, seem kinda attracted, and this magically culminates in a fit of making out underwater. Much as I think of the love that they have and how it affects them, the actual journey to it is less than impressive.
Dagger and Zidane, though...well, I have a habit of topping these rant lists with an example that's not so much original in its founding idea as it is a fantastic execution of a supposedly tired cliche (Grandia 2 being the best RPG, Ryudo being the best hero, and so on). And that's the case here. Dagger and Zidane's romance is not something you haven't heard of--it's a story of a lovable rogue winning the affections of an upper-class, proper woman (almost always a princess). It's usually good for a nice, lighter love story with some laughs (who doesn't love Han Solo and Leia's bickering in the original Star Wars trilogy, I ask?), but it's not usually something really stirring and deep.
Well, these two make it that way. They start out about the way you might expect--Zidane's feelings for Dagger don't really extend much past the "Oooh, pretty" stage, while Dagger usually has enough sense not to take him seriously. But where most stories would just have them trade witty dialogue to simulate attraction, or possibly not even do that much, Dagger and Zidane's relationship grows throughout the entire game. As he comforts her when she's hurt and lost, stands by her, protects her, and helps her in whatever ways he can, and shows himself over and over to be a pure, noble man who helps people and innately understands what's right with almost childlike simplicity, Dagger comes to appreciate Zidane for his excellent quality as a human being, taking him more seriously as he proves that he is serious in his affections for her, and falling in love with him slowly, carefully, but completely. And Dagger also wins Zidane's love just as well (unusual in itself; you usually get a more one-sided showing of romantic interests). What starts off as a mild attraction that probably doesn't exceed anything he feels for any random pretty lady crossing his path becomes a devoted, full-blown love for Dagger as he spends time with her, listens to her, comes to know her and understand her more and more. His interest in other women dwindles as he becomes fascinated with better knowing the one in front of him, and his appeals for her affection become less playful flirting and more genuine wooing as time goes on. Theirs is a love of labor, a romance realistically developed slowly and in detail, an attraction that draws them almost reluctantly into a deep, intimate connection of souls. These two are truly self-made soul mates, and well deserve to be at the top of this list.
Honorable Mention: Alice and Yuri (Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 (Mostly 2))
I like to put in these Honorable/Dishonorable Mention picks just to find a different perspective on the list's subject. It's fun. The one I'd originally planned to be here was the relationship of Aika, Fina, and Vyse in Skies of Arcadia/SoA Legends, in that it's the first and only time in an RPG where I've seen a romantic triangle that seems connected and equal on all sides--and like it wouldn't even be right without all three. I know polygamy's not usually something we associate with true, deep, real love, but these three are a great indicator that it can be.
However, SoA/SoAL's little equal 3-way romance is nice, but not really deep and moving. So instead, we have Alice and Yuri. Specifically, from Shadow Hearts 2.
Now, SH1's portrayal of Alice and Yuri's love is nice enough. I can believe it and it'll make you feel as warm and fuzzy as any other decent RPG romance. But it's SH2 that really portrays just how incredibly in love with Alice Yuri was. The funny thing is, though, that Alice isn't in SH2--she's dead. Yuri's love is seen in his mourning her. We see his utter inability to find a place in his world without her, and realize that she, as the love of his life, gave his life meaning. Although he can appreciate and fight for morality and friends, in the end, he feels empty, protecting a world because his beloved Alice loved it, yet has now left it behind. He can't even conceive loving another person no matter how earnestly they may feel for him, he can't find a reason to keep doing what he does, and he would much sooner die than live without the memories of her. There are some scenes in SH2 regarding Yuri's love for Alice, and how much she loved him, that are some of the most touching, heart-wrenching moments in the entire RPG genre.
Shadow Hearts 2 shows through Alice and Yuri an incredibly moving story of romantic love, after its end, and it deserves a mention here.
* Look, it's a fine romance and I have nothing particular against how it's done, but going from confused and awkward acquaintances to terrific friend-crushes in the space of a single musical number just doesn't give this relationship the development time it needs.