Happy New Year, all! I've finally gotten around to this. Before we begin though, quick question. Reader and buddy Ecclesiastes tells me that the Patreon button over to the right there doesn't show up for him. Now, I would not be particularly shocked if I never get a single Patron pledge, given that this blog has less widespread exposure than the majority of first grade art assignments, but it would be defeating the purpose of having a Patreon to begin with if I didn't just check: can the rest of you see the hopping little Patreon moogle there? If he's not showing up for any of you, let me know, and I'll see about fixing it. Of course, considering that my technical knowledge rivals that of a squirrel's, who knows whether that'll help.
Anyway! On to the first rant of 2017. Time to set the bar low for the rest of the year's rants!
Have you ever noticed that the RPG genre is really, consistently, very inordinately fond of romantic relationships between adopted brothers and sisters? I mean, to the point that it’s basically a storytelling cliche for the genre. Seriously, if your protagonist and his/her sister/brother have been raised together in the same household by the same parents for most/all of their lives, but are not, in fact, blood-related, then it is RPG law that one or both of them want to bone the other. It is really, really weird. And common. So uncomfortably common, that I have been using a term for a while now to describe it: Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome.
Before we get into any proper detail about this phenomenon, I should note that, unlike my other Syndrome terms for RPG storytelling diseases, I have appropriated this term from someone else. “Since We’re Not Related, It’ll Be Okay” is the song title for a wildly amusing and uncomfortable fan-created song from the wildly amusing and uncomfortable My Little Pony: Friendship is Witchcraft abridged series. It makes, in fact, a great video prop for this rant, so before we continue, how about you click the link below and we’ll be pretty much on the same page for what this rant’s all about:
Since We’re Not Related, It’ll Be Okay
I do so love Friendship is Witchcraft. It truly is the perfect blend of subtle humor, blatant humor, referential humor, abstract humor, and glorious, glorious uncomfortable humor.
Anyway, we’re on the same page now, yes? Adopted sibling romance is one of those things that’s technically not wrong, but just so damn squicky. To be a brother or sister is not just a physical, hereditary fact, it’s also a mindset. Family is a connection of emotion and spirit as much as, perhaps even more than, blood relations. Like it or not, logical or not, the simple fact is that when you spend most or all of your childhood being raised in the same home, by the same parents, equally as those parents’ children, you are siblings, regardless of whose vaginas you happened to fall out of. And that makes the fact that every damn JRPG protagonist who’s got an adopted sister or brother desires, or is desired by, them really fucking weird.
What is accomplished by this plot device, exactly? Think about, say, Lunar 1, the RPG in which I first began to notice this trend. What is accomplished by having Luna be Alex’s adopted sister? Well, it gives her mysterious origins, first of all, which is an absolute must for the plot-central magical damsel-in-distress schtick. And it establishes a long shared history between both Luna and Alex, which makes it convenient for the writers, since this way their horribly inferior talents at creating and maintaining a romance between the 2 can lean on their vague, offscreen lifetime together rather than have to actually show some concrete examples of chemistry between Alex and Luna, or what draws them together, or what they like about each other, or even just 1 single real, honest conversation between them that isn’t entirely 1-sided.
Okay, so this does accomplish a few things, narratively, for Alex and Luna. So let me rephrase: what is accomplished by having Luna be Alex’s adopted sister, which couldn’t have been easily accomplished otherwise? Mysterious origins for your plot-centric magical girl ain’t exactly a hard thing to accomplish. Magical mystery girls fall out of the sky--and I do mean that both figuratively and literally, just look at Breath of Fire 5--all the damn time in RPGs. Hell, Lufia from Lufia 1 actually just fucking walks onscreen as a kid, and that’s all there was to it!* Deadbeat Master Dyne could have just as easily delivered baby Luna to be adopted by the folks nextdoor, and her origins would have been no less unknown and mysterious. And you don’t even have to sacrifice the lazy convenience of shared history that way--childhood friends is a common element in RPG romances.
So yeah, this approach to character relationships generally doesn’t actually accomplish anything that couldn’t be exactly as easily accomplished in other ways. It doesn’t even do anything unique if a personal conflict about sibling love vs. romantic love is what you want to show! And that’s for 2 reasons. First, you can accomplish the angle of conflicting feelings of sibling love and romantic love without even a situation where the obvious answer should be sibling love. Take The Legend of Dragoon, for example. Dart and Shana are childhood friends, and Shana is in love with Dart. For a while in the game, though, Dart isn’t going for it, because he sees her as a sister, not a love interest. They were NOT adopted siblings, but it’s still fully believable that a lifelong friendship would have evoked familial feelings in Dart, even if it led to romantic feelings in Shana. And both of those results are understandable and believable! Whereas if they’d been raised in the same household, specifically as siblings, then Shana’s interest in Dart would have been much less believable, not to mention pretty off-putting.
...Well, more off-putting than Shana’s clingy chattering stupidity is already, I mean. Jesus, I can’t believe I just used her and Dart’s relationship as a positive example. See what you make me do, Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome!?
The second reason that this strange narrative decision doesn’t do anything unique for the possibility of a sibling love vs. romantic love conflict is that THEY NEVER USE IT FOR THIS! And that’s actually the first of my real, major problems with this cliche: it’s just thrown in so casually that it’s like it’s not even there. It seems like the writers’ reflex, unquestioned and unconscious. Like having the protagonist be a sword-user. Of the many RPGs that employ love interests who are also adopted siblings, almost none of them even acknowledge this connection! No one, least of all Alex or Luna themselves, gives even a passing mention to the fact that he and she were raised by the same mother and father in the same household all their lives. Asahi and Nanashi in Shin Megami Tensei 4-2** are both orphans, taken in and raised by the same man, and while he seems to have a more parental relationship with Asahi, it’s clear that the guy acts as and sees himself as parental guardian to both of the kids. Asahi and Nanashi are non-related siblings, beyond debate, yet not even the slightest acknowledgement of this is made in any regard connecting to Asahi’s clear, demonstrable romantic love for Nanashi. Nothing is made of this connection, so why have it in the first place? If making the love interest an adopted sibling does not accomplish anything that an equally simple alternative could, and if you’re not going to use it for anything anyway, then why bother with it over and over again in RPGs?
Of course, slightly hypocritically, my other major problem with this cliche is, well, when it DOES amount to something in the plot, and that something makes things really, really uncomfortable. You take Legend of Heroes 6-1, for example. The fact that Estelle and Joshua were raised as brother and sister since Joshua was mysteriously adopted (there is no such thing as a non-mysterious adoption in RPGs) when they were 11 actually IS brought up in regards to their unspoken romantic interest in each other, and IS present and utilized, unlike pretty much every other example I can think of. And given that they have only lived together as family for 5 years rather than all 16 years of their lives, you’d think this would be an example of adopted sibling love that I wouldn’t have a problem with, right?
Except that unlike the norm for this story decision, Estelle and Joshua actually act like siblings. The way they interact with one another, understand each other, share memories of home life, view their father and household dynamics...they are a perfect example of a sibling relationship. And that’s actually pretty rare for an RPG, I should note--on the off-chance that major story-important siblings aren’t long-lost and battling one another as hero and villain, siblings in RPGs rarely have a compelling, believable family dynamic. It usually winds up being a case of the game constantly telling you they’re siblings, than convincingly showing it to you. But Estelle and Joshua really create a genuine brother-sister dynamic like you rarely see in the genre! Which is why it’s extremely uncomfortable to have Estelle begin feeling and getting emotionally constipated over an inexplicable and honestly completely phony-feeling attraction to Joshua. Uncomfortable, and so damn frustrating, because an authentic, interesting, engaging relationship of siblinghood, so annoyingly uncommon in RPGs (and honestly, most other forms of media), is being forced out in favor of an unwelcome, inferior romantic relationship. I hope that when I play Legend of Heroes 6-2 and return to Estelle and Joshua, things’ll get a little more convincing, but taken at face value from LoH6-1, I am not not impressed.
Other moments where the already vaguely uncomfortable Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome gets way worse: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2, again. See, Nanashi is the reincarnation of a plot-important guy named Akira. And supposedly (I haven’t found conclusive evidence of this, but I’ve been told by multiple hardcore SMT fans), a part of the official art book for SMT4-2 that was not translated for the English release indicates that Asahi is a reincarnation of...Akira’s sister. Thanks, Atlus. Asahi wanting a VIP pass to inside her adopted brother’s pants wasn’t off-putting enough. You had to multiply the factors of Almost Incest by a power of Reincarnation.*** And the other moment: Fire Emblem 14, having Corrin hook up with any of her/his Hoshidan siblings. As I noted in a previous rant, unless you yourself have outside knowledge of the game’s lore, you go into an S Rank conversation--that’s synonymous with a confession of love, in the FE series--believing that Corrin is actually, legitimately related to her/his Hoshidan family. Corrin only finds out that the brother/sister that she/he is hot for isn’t her/his family by blood during the same conversation. The Hoshidan royalty romantic options in FE14 are Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay...And Damn Is That Ever A Lucky Coincidence Syndrome.
Now, before we finish up with this rant, I do want to make something very clear: I am not automatically against the concept of adopted siblings falling in love. I’m open-minded enough that if a love story actually does really work, I’ll totally be on board for it, and this has happened with considerably more questionable pairings than this (for example, if you recall, I have mentioned that the Xenogears romance between Bart and Margie, while not especially interesting, is nonetheless better than any others in the game (definitely including the main romantic drivel between Fei and Elly), and Margie is Bart’s underage cousin). In that Fire Emblem 14 rant I mentioned earlier, I said unambiguously that I think the best romance, out of the over 300 possible ones in the game, is between Camilla and Corrin, who are adopted siblings. Camilla just really sells the audience on her complete and total adoration of Corrin, and Corrin’s return of affections is quite genuine, as well. And it’s pretty much the exact opposite of the problems I’ve spoken of so far with this plot device: Corrin’s being the adopted sister/brother of both the Nohrian and Hoshidan royal families is a vital part of the story of FE14 in that she has important ties to both sides of the conflict, and it affects her/his personality and characterization, so her position as Camilla’s non-blood-related sister provides important parts to both her character and the plot that couldn’t have been achieved through a simple alternative. The connection isn’t inexplicably ignored; Corrin’s sisterhood/brotherhood to all the game’s royals is a constantly relevant relationship (and with none more so than Camilla, for that matter). And the awkward parts of this romantic interest are put forth in the S Rank conversation, and maturely addressed in a way that makes it a lot easier to accept, namely when Camilla points out that since they’ve apparently both always loved one another in ways that go beyond familial, their union now should be looked at more as childhood sweethearts who have finally grown old enough to be together. Camilla and Corrin’s love for one another is executed well, and while I can’t deny that there’re parts of it that are weird and even perhaps a little unhealthy, that’s more related to the characters themselves (Camilla’s adoration is genuine and even heartwarming, but it is also, let’s face it, really obsessive) than the situation they’re in.
Sadly, though, Camilla and Corrin are the exception to how Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome works. Ultimately, these adopted brother-sister romance situations generally could be accomplished just as well (if not better!) without the non-blood family connection, they usually don’t even address the situation to start with, and on the off-chance that they do, it turns out to be detrimental and uncomfortable if it's not handled skilfully enough.
And even if every single 1 of these cases were as compelling, true, and acceptably executed as Camilla and Corrin, it would still be really weird and a bit distressing that this theme is just so damn common. Out of over 300 RPGs I’ve played, I can only immediately think of 2 examples in which a protagonist and his/her non-biological sibling have no romantic interest in each other: the protagonist and Duncan in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and Kairu and Aurora from the exceptionally obscure Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled. Besides those 2 examples, it’s just some sort of unspoken understanding in RPGs that there’s going to be some sort of romantic connection between a protagonist and his/her adopted sibling...and that’s a really weird and uncomfortable norm to set.
* Although I’m not sure I should be bringing Lufia up here as an alternative example, because I think, when you consider her to any great degree, that she’s actually another example of Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome, herself. I mean, let’s consider it: the only adult figure in her life seems to be the innkeeper she meets on the day she just wanders the hell onscreen, and the innkeeper’s familiarity with Lufia later implies, I believe, that he became her parental figure. But when you consider the protagonist of the game, who Neverland Company very frustratingly went out of their way to keep unnamed...well, to my recollection, neither his father Jeros nor his mother Nameless Faceless Female are ever seen or heard from. In their absence, the only other adult who appears to have any guiding influence on the guy is...the innkeeper. So there we go. Another example.
Correct me if I’m wrong, by the way. It has been, happily, over a decade since I played that crappy game, so even my memory might not be reliable. But I’m pretty sure that what I’ve said is true.
** Proof, by the way, that it’s not just bad and/or obscure RPGs in which this cliche happens. Even genuinely excellent, huge RPG series apparently cannot escape.
*** Just in case that wasn’t weird enough for you, Asahi’s outfit coloring is designed to reference Pascal from the first Shin Megami Tensei (and this connection is further hinted at by the fact that Pascal is 1 of the hunter names Asahi considers taking on as her own). For those not in the know, SMT1’s Pascal was the protagonist’s pet dog. So Nanashi’s primary love interest is his adopted sister, the reincarnation of his past life’s outright biological sister, AND the spiritual semi-reincarnation of Megaten Dogmeat.
Still a more psychologically balanced romantic choice than Toki, though. Which in itself might just add to its disturbing factor.