The Revolution of Realistic Relationships in Games

Characters from FXIII-2.

You know when you write a blog post then forget to put it up until it’s well past its use-by date? Well, I never have that issue because I always discuss absolutely timeless topics.

This post was written months ago now when I was halfway playing through Final Fantasy XIII-2. I’ve since finished the game, but luckily my opinions have not changed between then and now. While the game is very different to its predecessor, and I did enjoy it more than I expected to, it still had a lot of flaws. And disappointingly for a Final Fantasy, more than a few of these flaws come from its story and characters.

The number one thing that really stood out awkwardly to me and broke the flow of immersion (in a game about time-travel, moogles that turn into bows, and the end of the world featuring three teenage idiots) was the portrayal of the relationship between two of the main characters. Before you read any further: beware spoilers for several games herein (particularly FFXIII-2 and FFXIII), although I will try and keep them to a minimum. With that being said, I’d like to use FFXIII-2 as a starting point to explore just why so many games in general have such a hard time depicting relationships.

This might seem like an obvious question. Relationships are sticky and confusing things in real life, so obviously it’s difficult to portray them accurately and realistically in any medium: and things are only harder for video gaming, which is a relatively youthful form of expression struggling to come to terms with the possibility of well-rounded characters and meaningful interaction. Let’s face it, stereotyping and pigeonholing is still rife in the development of game characters. When starting on such a shaky foundation as this, it’s not really a surprise things fall flat. There’s no possibility for evocative and genuine relationships when they’re between cardboard cut-outs.

But at the same time, I don’t really think this excuses games. We’re continually asking for more and more from this medium in terms of graphics and mechanics, so it makes no sense not to demand more in terms of plot or character design either. Gaming has come a long way since its early days, and if we push it, I believe it can go so much further. We see plenty of interesting and three-dimensional characters in games today, including FXIII-2. So why is it that, despite this, FXIII-2 and a multitude of other games have such difficulty with relationships?

A little back-story. In FXIII we see many intriguing and well-rounded relationships between many of the same characters that reappear in the sequel. Just to name a few, we have the loving and protective bond between siblings that causes fierce Lightning to go on a heroic journey to rescue her younger sister Serah; the desperation of Sazh as he battles to be reunited with his son; the unbreakable, affectionate friendship of Vanille and Fang; and young Hope’s vengeful fury towards cocky frontman Snow, which comes about from his grief at the untimely death of his mother. Pretty much every character has a unique relationship with every other character, and the game really shines in this area. While the storyline might wear thin, the characters keep you invested and interested in how their relationships will develop.

One of the major relationships in FFXIII is between Snow and Serah. Snow is a let-the-fists-do-the-talking, headstrong kind of guy. Serah is young and sweet and has recently been branded by a powerful deity so that she is required to do its bidding (in case you can’t tell – this isn’t a good thing). These two get engaged at the beginning of the game. Their relationship is fairly inoffensive, fairly saccharine. Snow wants desperately to protect Serah from a terrible fate and vows to stand by her no matter what. They hug and do adorable things together like watch fireworks from a flying motorcycle (this is Final Fantasy after all). Then for the rest of the game they are separated as that aforementioned terrible fate happens to Serah, she is turned into crystal, and Snow works to free her. She is only released during the game’s ending cinematic; she embraces Snow and the two go right back to planning their wedding after this brief setback. This is pretty much all we see of Serah and Snow’s relationship throughout the game, and there’s not too much to be annoyed by. It’s a fairly standard cutesy romance.

The relationship returns in FXIII-2. Two years after the end of FXIII, the couple have built a new, apparently happy life together – except they’re not married yet. It’s pretty complicated if you haven’t played the game, but suffice to say: Serah’s sister Lightning has mysteriously vanished in the time between the two games. Snow knows how much Lightning means to Serah, and refuses to get married without first finding Lightning and forcing her to be present at the ceremony. So Snow also disappears on a quest to who knows where to find Lightning, and at the start of FXIII-2 Serah hasn’t heard from him since.

So far so understandable, for a Final Fantasy plotline. But then Serah meets a strange time-traveller called Noel and decides to go adventuring through time and space with him to see if she can’t rescue Lightning herself. Along the way, and three hundred years in the future, they happen to meet up with Snow. It is revealed that he has been travelling through time himself on his journey to find Lightning.

Now, the real strangeness in all of this is Snow and Serah’s reaction upon seeing each other again for the first time in over a year. So here’s how it plays out: Snow is fighting some monsters and gets wounded. Serah holds the wounded Snow and says, “Is that really you? I can’t believe it!” Snow wonders if he’s dreaming. Suddenly a big boss monster is attacking, so Snow jumps to his feet, forgets about his wounds, and from now on seems to easily accept that he really has been reunited with Serah. When Noel offers to take on the monster by himself Snow scoffs, “With Serah watching? I don’t think so.”

One boss battle later, and the first thing Snow does is have an argument with Noel. They cool it down and Serah awkwardly introduces the two men to each other. She links her arm with Snow’s when telling Noel that they’re getting married. To which Snow replies, “It’s on hold for now,” unlinks himself from her grasp, and continues arguing with Noel. Then some exposition goes on. When the cutscene finally ends, you have one more chance to talk to Snow. He just gives you a map of the local area. Uh… that’s it? A map? Then you have to run around and find an artefact so you can open a new time gate and step into another area of time (stay with me here).

There is one small, quite nice moment between the Snow and Serah. Serah ruminates on being turned into crystal in FFXIII – she calls it the loneliest and scariest moment of her life. Snow sighs and says her name, trying to comfort her without knowing how. Serah brushes it off and, being brave, tells him it wasn’t so bad. But once this is over with, you return to the gate and step into it, leaving Snow and the timeline behind, without any more contact between the young lovers other than a brief moment when Serah takes Snow’s hands and tells him to keep out of trouble. Keep in mind that at this point neither knows when they’re going to see each other again.

I just found this… so staggeringly odd. These two reunite for the first time after years apart and barely say a word to one another. Where’s the hugging? The smiling, the joy? There’s no “Serah, I missed you so much!” or “Snow, I’m so glad you’re alright!” They hardly touch. Granted, they’ve both changed quite a lot, and Serah has become much stronger, mature and more independent. But frankly it’s weird how much their relationship has altered from the first game. It seemed like the writers either got really lazy or confused at this point, or decided to take Serah and Snow’s relationship in a totally new direction without any warning. As a result I found it really difficult, after this point, to imagine them in any sort of romantic relationship together. Even upon finishing the game, nothing caused me to alter this opinion.

I find that games often cause this sort of weirdness to occur, and strangely enough it often happens with romantic relationships. Maybe it’s because romantic relationships are often forced and unnecessary, like the token romance in a Hollywood blockbuster. Maybe it’s just that we’re sick of gaming exploring the same old relationships, typically those of romantic lovers or masculine comrades, so we’re more accepting of any other under-represented relationships, like platonic friendships between different genders or the maternal protection of a woman for a child she takes under her wing (incidentally, these are both found in FFXIII: between Vanille and Sazh and Lightning and Hope, respectively).

Why is it that games which generally have such strong relationships can stumble over one or two of them? Heavy Rain, a game full of interesting and dynamic relationships, also fell flat with the optional romantic relationship between two of the main characters, which felt underdeveloped and like it was crowbarred in for no good reason (this problem also befell its spiritual predecessor, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy). Skyrim isn’t praised for the relationships between its individual characters, but it’s still odd to have to have the option of a marriage pretty much devoid of emotion in order to fully complete your homestead.

Then again, some games really handle romantic relationships well. These relationships develop naturally, genuinely and believably. Often they can be ambiguous as well, as we are left to wonder if the final plunge will be taken to turn fledgling attraction into full-blown romance, or indeed if we have been reading things wrong all along. Arguably, games in this category can include Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the Uncharted series, Dragon Age: Origins, and Shadow of the Colossus. It tends to be that the best romantic relationships in games really are those which are sticky and confusing and ambiguous, just as real relationships are. And, surprise surprise, this tends to hold for the depiction of all relationships in gaming. If you aim for honesty and realism, it’s hard for a representation of a relationship to fail, no matter which medium it’s produced in.

There are also certain types of relationships which games don’t appear to have begun widespread exploration of yet. Here’s a few I can think up off the top of my head: the relationship between mother and daughter; the relationship of a dedicated couple who have been together for decades or more; and non-heterosexual romantic relationships.

For those games that do dare to break the mould and examine otherwise ignored sorts of relationships, there is plenty of praise to go around. Portal’s GLaDOS is absolutely groundbreaking, not just for her biting personality but also her dual loathing and pseudo-motherly care towards Chell, which is greatly expanded upon in Portal 2. The Halo games centre around one of the most captivating and intimate relationships in gaming – that of the Master Chief and the AI Cortana, who rely on and trust each other absolutely, and would go to any lengths to protect the other. The Mass Effect and Dragon Age series both won acclaim for including optional gay and lesbian romances.

So it appears that while some games can do particularly badly at portraying relationships between their characters, others do exceptionally well. I certainly have hope for the future. There’s so much unexplored ground for games in this territory that I can’t wait to see what they delve into next.

It’s long been said that the reason why games are so unrepresentative in many areas is due to the fact that they are mainly produced by a restricted bunch – overwhelmingly, by young white males (this holds for the Western market, at least). But as time goes by this is beginning to change, and as it does games are also starting to change in their scope and aspirations. I can certainly understand why a group of young men, when planning a video game, would find it easiest to explore relationships such as the camaraderie between male soldiers or the kind of romantic relationship they might have with a girlfriend or wife. But the creation of anything in any artistic medium not only involves that which you know: it also requires the use of your imagination to talk about that which you don’t. As more and more game studios gain the courage to include a wider variety of relationships in their games, I have no doubt that this trend of greater diversity will continue. Game makers should not be afraid of falling short in this respect, but should be confident that when they try hard at crafting a story and characters, authentic and chaotic relationships between these characters will be created along with it; and they must not be afraid to be true in depicting these relationships, no matter how unusual – or even revolutionary – they may seem.

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