It’s February! The most romantic of months, if you are invested in holidays and not a stone-cold cynic like I am. I’m kidding, I love romance and mush, especially when it’s in games and therefore not forced upon me by greeting card companies and Target’s candy aisle.
Here at Sidequest, some of us love the mushy, lovey-dovey stuff, some of us don’t, and some of us want to talk about boats. Naturally, this month’s topic of discussion is shipping, so let’s get into it!
What’s one of your favorite ships from a game? Why?
Heather Wells: Oh boy, this is a hard question for me because video game fandom was basically my life for, uh. Way too long. I’m an awful gremlin and I like my ships angry, sad, tragic, or all of the above. As much as I want to say my current Persona 5 obsession, I’m gonna go with Seifer/Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, the ship that started all my shipping and fanfiction writing and LiveJournal shitposting. I liked it at the time because they’re both so similar, scared of the same stuff but showing it in very different ways. Seifer’s all anger, kicking and stomping his feet, mad that he’s not living the life he wants, and angry with everyone because they aren’t helping. Squall has the same fears, worried about being forgotten and people talking about him in the past tense, but he’s totally bottled it up. Seifer screams about it, Squall internal monologues. They could help each other work through some shit, I think.
Also I’m a huge, huge, huge sucker for that whole “friends to enemies to friends (and vice versa)” trope. There’s lots of other game ships I like, but this one will always hold a special place in my heart for really introducing me to fandom and to lots of amazing people.
Tia Kalla: The first ship that comes to mind when I think about video game ships (or most ships, if we’re being honest) is the Invincible airship from Final Fantasy IX… naw, just kidding. It’s Ringabel and Edea from Bravely Default. Ringabel, a character with amnesia, first falls in love with Edea by reading about her in the diary entries of a mysterious journal he finds. He ends up traveling with the party primarily to be around Edea, but at no point does he push the romance issue. Meanwhile, Edea’s not really paying attention because she’s busy trying to right all the wrongs in the world. Bravely Default has a huge amount of lore/characterization, which gives the game so much time to put work into taking the relationship from a one-sided crush to an actual working partnership/romantic pairing, while simultaneously letting both characters improve themselves as individuals. The slow-burn evolution and equal development of both sides is what really makes it work for me.
Honorary mention goes to Yaiba and Mio from 7th Dragon III for being a sweet, sapphic, and very much textual pairing.
I’m an awful gremlin and I like my ships angry, sad, tragic, or all of the above.
E. Forney: I am not a big shipper in general, but there are a few relationships from various fictions where I am like “Ah yeah, that’s cute, love to hear all these side details and headcanons from that.” I am trying to think of a ship from a video game that I would consider myself a fan of, but I’m drawing a blank. I can think of ships from other forms of media, like shows or movies or books, but not from a game… huh. I think the closest I can think of is Taako and Kravitz from The Adventure Zone: Balance Arc which is technically an audio recording of a game… but not a game I played, of course.
Melissa Brinks: I am absolute trash for Alistair and my warden in Dragon Age: Origins. She was an elf mage from the Circle who puts up with exactly nobody’s BS, including his. It’s been years since I played the game, but I still think about how much I love them! They’re perfect for one another! Now I’m getting worked up about it again!!
Heather actually goes into a lot of what makes this ship work for me down below, but I’d also add that the feeling of player agency in Origins is really why I love these two characters together. Origins has my favorite dialog system, in that nothing is weighted with morality points or personality types and what you see is what you say. Because of that, my warden had a lot more nuance than my Hawke or my Inquisitor, who were relegated to personality types—diplomatic, snarky, and so on. My warden feels more full as a character, so while I still enjoyed the experience of romancing Anders as Hawke (well… you know) and Josephine as the Inquisitor, neither of those feel as real in the way that my warden’s romance with Alistair does.
Maddi Butler: I don’t feel particularly strongly about ships in most games, but I really liked Geralt and Yennefer in The Witcher 3. From the beginning, Yennefer is smart, capable, and not afraid to put Geralt in his place. Yen has a life outside of Geralt; she feels like a real character and not just a girlfriend they threw in because the main character needed a girlfriend. I don’t feel strongly about most canon ships, though. For me, the draw of the game is based on two things, which are “How big can my sword be?” and “Can I spend 65 hours doing sidequests?”
My least favorite ship is definitely the Regalia in FFXV after it turns into the flying car, because I cannot drive it at all.
Liam Conlon: I don’t get too hard into shipping with most games. Usually this is just the result of relationships of characters being less important than the overall thrust of the plot. I wish more games would slow down and take more time with their characters. Alas.
I really enjoyed Cole and Zeke’s relationship over the course of the first two Infamous titles. While neither of them had particularly amazing takes on superheroes and they both suffered from a reductive morality system, Zeke and Cole kinda become the focal point of Infamous 2. Forget about saving the world from impending doom, what do you do when your best friend blatantly betrays you right in front of your eyes? And then doesn’t fall into the darkside or anything like that but remains your friend, guilty, and you have to contend with that? Can you mend that relationship? I was so pleasantly surprised when the second game in the series slowed down to spend time between these two characters outside of the explosions, the plague monsters, the gravity of everything. Because it’s just as important as everything else.
Azha Reyes: Riku and Sora from the Kingdom Hearts series have honestly owned my soul since I was a wee tyke in high school still figuring out I was gay. The journey Riku goes through grappling with his darkness and coming out the other end stronger, more confident, and willing to do whatever it takes to protect the person he cares about feels deeply relatable to me as someone who spent a long time closeted and bitter about it. They will always be the ship that first made me realize that it was okay to be who I am.
Do you like your ships to be canon? Does it matter?
Heather: Nah, I really don’t care. Chances are good I’ll like the canon ships just as much as any other, but my ships don’t have to be canon for me to like them. Seifer/Squall is decidedly NOT canon, at least as far as the end of the game is concerned, but I really like the arc between Rinoa and Squall a lot, too. I’m a grade-A certified multishipper and I like a good story—point me to a good fic for your favorite ship and I promise you I’ll end up shipping it, too.
Tia: Welcome to shipping, where the pairings are made up and the canon doesn’t matter! Seriously, the only time I care about whether a pairing is canon is when a developer actually has the guts to canonize a marginalized pairing not usually seen (e.g., a queer pairing.) But I think shipping tends to be largely in the realm of noncanon to begin with. A lot of shipping, like slash, has its roots in marginalized communities making the pairings they don’t see in canon. Even canon pairings will often branch out into fanworks that expand on what’s in the canon (which may not be much). This is especially true with games that tend to be aimed at tween-ish audiences but are played by teens and adults, by which I mean Pokémon. Pokémon is the franchise that launched a thousand ships.
Forney: I guess I usually prefer canon ships? I like to have headcanons for things, but not really for relationships most of the time. There are very few stories in any media where two characters did not have a romantic or sexual moment and aren’t canonically together in any way where I reacted with, “You know, I think it would have been better if they were together, so that is my headcanon now.”
Melissa: I also tend to be drawn more to canon ships, but owing to the dearth of queer ships in a lot of media, games included, I’m also quite happy to ignore canon and imagine whatever I want to see. If a ship matters to me on some level and it doesn’t happen in canon, I’ll live. But especially with regard to queer ships, I do hope for canon representation—it’s 2019, it’s time to admit that Sora/Riku has a lot more textual evidence than Kairi/anybody.
But especially with regard to queer ships, I do hope for canon representation—it’s 2019, it’s time to admit that Sora/Riku has a lot more textual evidence than Kairi/anybody.
Maddi: Like Heather, ships don’t have to be canon for me to enjoy them. I think that’s because there are so many badly written female love interests—at least, in the games I’ve been playing lately—that canon ships are all but meaningless to me. Kairi and Lunafreya (Final Fantasy XV) are two of the flattest characters I’ve ever seen as love interests. It’s just hard to care about canon ships when so little effort is put into making them seem like real, well-rounded people outside of their relationship with the protagonist.
Liam: It can. Depends on the characters. I think it’s wack when games don’t have the courage to show marginalized characters in relationships. This is, of course, a constant problem with queer characters. I definitely engage in shipping, but I think it’s important to not give credit to companies who don’t actually put in the work to showcase marginalized characters having relationships. I mean just look at what the entire fandom has done for Overwatch. It’s wonderful what they’ve created for so much of the cast, but I absolutely don’t give any of that to Blizzard for their minimal attempts at including two (2) gays.
Azha: Chances are that if I’m shipping a straight couple, they’re already canon (it’s rare for me but it happens), so it doesn’t really matter much to me there. I am desperate for more queer rep in major video games like a lot of us, but I know that’s a slow zig-zaggy march. For now, I’ll take the one-sided canon ships like Yu and the Protagonist in Digimon Story: Cybersleuth – Hacker’s Memory and the strongly implied ones like Sorey and Mikleo in Tales of Zestiria. It’s… something, at least.
What makes game romance work for you? What doesn’t work for you?
Heather: Character development is so, so important with game romances, I think. Show two characters growing together and I’ll be all over it. Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins is a great example of this, because he goes through some serious character development throughout the story, and the way the ending plays out really depends on if you were able to help kick him into gear or not. It makes the romance part way more interesting, too, when the characters are actually changing and developing alongside it. If there’s no growth, or no interaction between them, I just can’t buy it.
I like the character relationships in Final Fantasy XV, for example, but I hate Noctis and Lunafreya’s scene at the end of the game. That could have been a genuinely sweet moment, but instead it just feels like the game is trying to get a few tears out of me when it didn’t put in any work to deserve them. At no point in FFXV do we get the impression that Noctis and Luna love each other as deeply as that ending seems to imply, and I could write a dissertation on this but I will stop here by saying relationships in games really only work for me if the writers/devs put in the work to show some emotional depth.
Tia: Seconding Heather: characterization is everything. I have to want to believe that both characters are into the pairing. That means that both halves have to be well-developed individuals with something to like about them. I think that’s why the pairings of Hero/Jessica (over Hero/Medea) in Dragon Quest VIII and Hero/Bianca (over Hero/Nera) in Dragon Quest V are hugely popular canon pairings—we get to see a lot more of Jessica and Bianca both on their own and interacting with the hero than we do with Medea and Nera.
Conversely, female characters that are clearly no more than love interests or prizes to be won don’t give me a reason to like them; therefore I don’t see why the hero would like them, either. Characters that are also paired up because no female must remain unwed also bore the crap out of me. PCs can also be subject to this too, though—keeping the silent protagonist too silent can make a ship look one-sided. (Hi there, Crono/Marle.)
Conversely, female characters that are clearly no more than love interests or prizes to be won don’t give me a reason to like them; therefore I don’t see why the hero would like them, either.
Forney: Wow, do I just not play games where romance is a mechanic? I suppose I wouldn’t find that too surprising, considering I would never describe myself as a romantic person. I’m not aromantic orientation-wise, but I would maybe consider myself demiromantic (and I’m asexual). I guess those identities and my personality of being a goofball most of the time makes romantic subplots just disinteresting to me. I guess I played Monster Prom one time with some pals; it’s a choose-your-own-adventure kind of dating game where you get to pick one of the four monster characters and try to romance a selection of NPCs. For that, I wasn’t even reacting like, “It would be so cute if they got together!” I was more interested in seeing what kinds of writing and story would come from different decisions. Unlocking decision trees is fun!
Melissa: Exactly as Heather said: characterization and growth are key to my enjoyment. I’m a sucker for romance in any medium, but it has to be earned and purposeful. There are plenty of games that include romance without engaging meaningfully with it, but the romance doesn’t really do anything for me there—you see this in games like Stardew Valley, where romance adds like, a gameplay benefit (someone to help you with chores and occasionally make you food), but not a whole lot of depth or evolution beyond that. It’s fine, I don’t dislike it, but it’s also not really memorable.
The easiest place for games to go wrong is to treat romance itself like a game, with a kiss or sex as a win state. I wrote about this ages ago, but even in a game like Dragon Age: Origins where I do love the romance and it does feel earned, everything kind of stops changing once you’ve had sex. Worse, you can absolutely win the way to your partner’s heart by giving them nonsense gifts—it’s literally like someone took that apocryphal quote about people not being machines you put kindness into until sex falls out and turned it into a game mechanic. That’s how many games treat romance, like an exchange of gifts for fondness, which tends to lead to sex and nothing beyond that. Sex is not the goal of romance; it may be a feature, but unless we’re talking solely about hookups and not like, lasting, long-term romance, it shouldn’t be feel so much like a win state.
Maddi: Seconding all of the above. I need to care about the love interest, and ideally think about them as more than a love interest. Lunafreya was so integral to the plot of FFXV, but everything about her, from her power as Oracle to her role in Noctis’s life was downplayed to the point that she pretty much only existed to explain what was going on in the world outside of Noctis, Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto.
Liam: I think Tia’s point about female characters that are no more than love interests/prizes to be won is a consistent hurdle that a lot of games with relationships fail to properly contend with. That said, I can get behind romances, even from the point of view of straight men, if there is proper time and consideration given to the characters. I don’t need everyone to be a perfect, self-actualized person. I want conflict and failure. I want that pull to be invested in the prospect of two or more people really having a connection.
I don’t need everyone to be a perfect, self-actualized person. I want conflict and failure. I want that pull to be invested in the prospect of two or more people really having a connection.
Azha: Personally, I want to feel that the characters deeply care about each other, not just as love interests but as friends. Romantic plots often fall short for me when the story leans too hard on telling me that the characters care about each other and connect without actually showing it in their actions. This is especially true when it comes to straight couples. It’s really easy for a story to take the shortcut of “He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?” and that’s just never been enough for me. Give me characters who are genuine friends and just happen to be romantically interested in each other.
Why do you think romance is such a popular feature in games?
Heather: It’s a feel-good aspect. Romances in games are often endearing, with lots of interesting character tidbits and cute scenes to fill even my cynical heart with joy. It’s also almost always one of the few avenues for in-depth character backstory in games—if there’s a character you really like, the romance branch for them will probably give you all kinds of extra back story and cutscenes and dialogue options. It’s also just fun. Pairing up all my Fire Emblem units so they get stronger attacks and have cute dialogue together is a nice intermission to the nail-biting “oh god guess I’m reloading cause Miriel died AGAIN” intensity of the story missions.
Tia: Love is a huge part of human existence. If a game presents characters that are meant to be read as people and not mere avatars but has no love in the game, I just don’t buy them as actually human. That doesn’t have to necessarily be romantic/sexual love (if you put found family in your game you have pretty much guaranteed I will love them and protect them) but a lot of writers tend to conflate the romantic/sexual part with all love and just lean heavily into that aspect.
Forney: I dunno, people just wanna be loved, right? And I don’t mean exclusively in a romantic way—most people like to make connections and feel worthy and important to others. But at least in Western culture, where individualism is seen as more important than community in a lot of ways, it seems like romantic love is the only way people are supposed to experience intimacy sometimes. As someone who is asexual and demiromantic, I find I’m kind of picky when considering what kind of partner I might like to be with, if anyone. But I still like connecting with people… so I’m sick of the idea that only your one monogamous romantic/sexual partner is your source for confiding secrets, touching/cuddling, intimacy, whatever. I feel like this draws me to games where the main point isn’t a romance, isn’t to save a princess or prince.
But at least in Western culture, where individualism is seen as more important than community in a lot of ways, it seems like romantic love is the only way people are supposed to experience intimacy sometimes.
Melissa: I’m trying to think of why I, specifically, like it, even though it’s often not done particularly well, and coming up empty. I think Forney touches on something really important, specifically that some of the most important bonds we can form in games are romantic, because many games are just… not interested in exploring human connection outside of a romantic space. There are exceptions, of course—many games often have friendship in addition to romance—but so many narratives treat friendship as like, diet romance that even that feels a bit hollow, sometimes. Relationships, romantic or no, are interesting! They can be fun! I’m thinking of things like Life is Strange, where even if you somehow manage to not read Max and Chloe as romantic you still have moments of friendship that are actually meaningful and carry narrative weight. They might kiss at the end, they might not, but the foundation of friendship (which, in my opinion, is what romance is built on) is always there, strengthening their bond no matter how you read them.
Liam: I just think you can pretty much improve any genre by having a system that lets my characters smooch. XCOM? Let my soldiers make out. Apex Legends? I wanna plant a nice cheek kiss on my teammate (with their consent of course) for handing me a great gun. Hollow Knight? We’ve got a button dedicated to peering into someone’s dreams… where is the kiss button??
How can you negotiate romance in tabletop or LARP games?
Heather: Boy, this is a really great question. I’m excited to see how other people answer who have more experience with this stuff! I haven’t gotten into too many romantic subplots, but I did have one budding romance in a recent D&D campaign and, as with most things in life, communication was key. Talk to your fellow player about it to figure out where you want to go and what the boundaries are, etc.
Tia: Consent, consent, consent! If you think your character and someone else’s might be good together, definitely discuss it with the other person first and make sure any important boundaries are set. Doubly important when it’s a LARP and people’s physical boundaries are in play as well. Also, keep your in-character and out-of-character distinct. Your characters having a fight or your characters kissing should never cross into how you treat the person behind them.
Forney: I haven’t done too much of this in RPGs, and part of that is because I myself am not good at it! Even if I’m playing like a horny bisexual bard in D&D, flirting with NPCs and talking through “I seduce them into a trap” is tricky because it’s so opposite of me in real life. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try to roll a natural 20 to fuck my way out of a scenario because it’s what my character would do. There’s good fun in that to be had! But only if it’s appropriate for the game and group of players.
In games where my player character and another player character formed some sort of romantic or sexual bond, it was always important to be like, “Hey, out of character, I think my character would kind of have a crush on yours because of whatever. Does that make narrative sense? Is that something we want to play out?”
I learned this early on in a game of Fiasco—I was playing a female character and a male friend was playing a male character. They were working together in a conspiratory nature, and it became funny to play them as a sort of are-they-or-aren’t-they way with regard to their sexual exploits. I really liked that choice for the story, but we didn’t really talk about it out of character, so it felt super awkward. Even though I knew this male friend was not trying to hit on me, the player, I still sort of had that guard up while playing. Talking about how funny it would be outside of the scene first would probably have made it a bit more comfortable to play out.
Melissa: I love playing characters who are nothing like me in tabletop games, which means that a good portion of my characters love flirting. I can’t flirt to save my life, but my characters tend to be quite a bit more flirtatious than me just because I enjoy doing something super out of character for myself. It’s non-committal; I don’t expect nor do I want in-game flirting to turn into anything more than that. That said, I think what everybody else has said about communication is really important. I don’t know that I’ve been the best at this in the past, primarily in my first D&D game, where I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it, and especially not that my character was going to end up being a relentless flirt.
I think it’s fine to discover this along the way, but I also think I should have asked the other players if they were okay with that; exactly as Forney said, talking about it outside of the game first, even taking a moment to pause and say, “Hey, is everybody okay with this development for my character?” wouldn’t have robbed it the game of its fun, and would have ensured everybody was comfortable with it. Nothing came of it, but when I thought about it later I realized that I could have easily overstepped a boundary and that I should be more mindful—my fun in roleplaying should never come at the expense of somebody else’s comfort.
I’m really grateful that there’s so much open conversation about negotiating boundaries in tabletop games going on, because though I didn’t mean any harm by having a flirtatious character, that doesn’t mean that harm couldn’t have occurred. It’s good to be mindful, and these open and honest conversations will hopefully make discussing boundaries as important to forming a game as character creation!
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.