Romantic Subplots

Personally, a game with romantic subplots isn’t a selling point for me.  However, I do find the presence of romantic subplots or romantic subtext to be fascinating in games.  I think you can break down many of these romantic subplots into a couple of categories.  One would be “sexy” games which are frequently a JRPG and a dating sim combined.  Another would be games with canon pairings.  A final would be games with romantic subtext.

A “sexy” game is one where you tend to have a harem of girls that you can date, and the game tends to be packed with innuendo.  A good example of this is Ar Tonelico. This game plays around with some of the common elements in a dating game, and is advertised in ways that focus on the sexualized aspects of the game.  In the first game in the series, the plot specifically plays around with conventions.  For example, a common dating game plot is a man entering a room to find a girl wearing only a towel.  In the case of Ar Tonelico, a girl in a towel handcuffs the main character to a bed and says that she has to imprison him to keep him in her life.  The scene may have “sexy” imagery, but it’s intended (and is) creepy in the game.  At another point in the game, a cutscene involves a crystal being inserted into a female character with dialogue that makes the metaphor obvious.

Ar Tonelico II's Luca is uncomfortably young. Note the amount of exposed skin and impractical clothing chosen for her.

Many “sexy” games tend to be budget titles, which hope to sell on the basis of showing as much as they can.  This means that they tend to be poorly translated (due to budgetary issues,) and often poorly programmed.  Frequently, the games have problematic elements.  While Ar Tonelico says that the world is cruel place for enslaving female singers, the game still chooses to have the hero have a harem of female singers with him.  Singers have the ability to basically cast magic (due to a genetic ability to use an AI system,) and the game also chooses to have them only be women.  While characters complain that an outfit is very revealing, the game is still choosing to offer the outfit as something to wear.   The dating sim parts of the game are described as helping your singer’s deal with horrible emotional issues.  However, each one ends with your character marrying his chosen singer.  While you can say that the game isn’t pure porn, the game is providing fanservice.

My main problem with this kind of “sexy” game is that it tends to be aimed at guys, and often has the same problem as porn.  Women exist to fall in love with your hero, and tend to have personalities clearly aimed for various fetishes (the irritated girl that argues but loves the hero, the innocent girl with low self esteem, etc. etc.)  The plot tends to have self indulgent material added to just provide more innuendo, and the buggy gameplay tends to mean that the game is a pain to play.

If you read the manual about how to deal with encountering an inhabited planet, you gain relation points with Sophia in Star Ocean 3. She's not anywhere nearby.

Some games have a canon romance as part of the game.  In the Star Ocean games, your character’s actions help select friendly and romantic pairings for each character.  Often, the games have characters that are more likely to like certain characters.  For example, if you are being a careful and mature character at the start of Star Ocean 3, Sophia is likely to like your hero.  Breath of Fire games almost always have a Nina who is in love with the hero.  Final Fantasy VIII has Squall falling in love with Rinoa.  NPC romance, in my opinion, can be filed under this same category.  This would include, say, the newly married couple in a town, or characters that pair up over the time period of the game.

Breath of Fire II's Nina is a fragile mage. She is an interesting character, however, since she is the foretold destruction of her people's kingdom.

Most of the time, canon romances aren’t particularly interesting.  While they tend to resemble romance novel plots, they also tend to be very cliche.  There are not a lot of GLBT canon romances in JRPGs.  Usually, the guy character is a typical square jawed hero, and the girl character is a conveniently rescued fragile mage or healer.  Some games play around with these cliches, but usually games are willing to take risks with the main character.  On the other hand, consider that a romance novel is typically aimed for a female audience.  While it may not be subversive or amazing, the fact that there is a convention of typically female orientated plotline is notable.

Valis is an old Telenet / Wolfteam series that has a heavy theme of friendship. Here, a dying Reiko thanks Yuko for showing her what true friendship is like.

The final sort of thing I’m thinking of is more technically subtextual.  This may be deliberate, or it may be an unintended reading of the character interactions.  Some people read Squall and Seifer’s rivalry in Final Fantasy VIII as a gay romance.  It’s quite likely that this was not what the designers intended.  In the Valis series, Reiko died fighting Yuko.  She explains that she did not understand love or friendship, and thanks Yuko for letting her finally understand.  In later games in the series, she returns as an avenging spirit to protect Yuko.  She says she will be always by her side.  You could read this as a lesbian romance.  It’s quite likely that designers were aiming for two women to show in short skirts, and were not thinking about the story about the power of two women’s affections.

Romantic subtext in a game is interesting because it provides the option of reading subversive relationships into a game.  Obviously a game with open GLBT romances (or characters) are more inclusive and offer a less heteronormative world.   A game with only subtext is still more inclusive than a game that offers nothing of the sort.  Subtext is easy to add to a game, and has a chance of catching more of an audience.  It’s also easy to add unintentionally.  While you can’t argue that a game with subtext is perfectly inclusive, you can argue, in the conservative and staid medium of JRPGs, it is worthy of note.

All in all, I find that the tendency to add romance to JRPGs is interesting.  It’s opening the idea that the audience may not be purely 13 – 18 year old men.  While many games are purely following typical romance novel cliches, other games offer much more interesting ideas about how a romance should be told.  Romantic subtexts, intentional or no, add the possibility for non-heteronormative pairings.  Of course, JRPGs don’t universally handle romance well.  Translations and bad writing slaughters dialogue.  Sexist stereotypes leave female love interests as interesting as oatmeal and dressed in ridiculous ways.  Most romantic pairings in JRPGs are heteronormative.  For all these downsides,  there’s still the occasional game (or part of a game,) that gets it right.

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