No matter what, if anything, you celebrate this time of year, there’s just something nice about gift giving. We may give or receive games as gifts (and what greater joy is there than the gift of playing a game together?), but today, we’re talking about gifts in games. Who’s good at it? Who’s bad at it? Is gift giving as intrinsic to romantic relationships as games would have us believe? Let’s find out.
Which game character would you absolutely not want to draw your name in a Secret Santa? Whose name would you not want to draw?
Melissa Brinks: Once again I have written a question I struggle to answer. Going through a list of some of my favorite games, I struggle to think of any character who I would want to draw my name in a Secret Santa. I’m going to focus wholly in on Dragon Age; it’s the game that keeps coming to mind because I love the characters so much, so here’s what I’ve got.
I would hope Leliana draws my name. I would also hope Alistair would draw my name because I love him very much, but I also fear that whatever gift he would give me would be way too personal to receive at a family gathering. Leliana’s gift, on the other hand, would be cool, thoughtful, and maybe stolen.
I would not want to give Morrigan a gift because I want her to be my friend and I don’t want to disappoint her.
Zainabb Hull: In line with Melissa’s Dragon Age picks, I would kind of love to see what Zevran would gift me in a Secret Santa—I’d expect something kinky and outrageous yet somehow also deeply romantic? I would extremely not want a gift from Blackwall because I think it would just be something he wants himself.
For most characters, I feel like I’d be able to find a good gift, or at least a sarcastic one for characters I dislike—maybe some Frantz Fanon for Nathan Drake or Angela Davis for Mass Effect’s Ashley (and most of the Mass Effect cast, to be honest). My worst nightmare would be to draw a name and have no idea what that person is into or would appreciate receiving. What do you get Mario, for instance? (I have played a bit of the new Mario Kart and fifteen minutes of one of the 3D games. I do not know Mario’s tastes or hobbies.)
Wendy Browne: Gift giving isn’t part of the God of War game mechanics, but Kratos is the first character I thought of as my response to both of these options. Just imagine Kratos in a Santa hat glowering at me as he hands over some sort of bloody weapon, which he would then expect me to wield expertly or GTFO. Then I’d anxiously hand over my gift and watch his utter disdain as he unwraps it. It is, of course, a blood-of-thine-enemies-scented candle, but I just know he wouldn’t appreciate it AT ALL. I’m not saying playing Secret Santa with Kratos would ruin Christmas completely, but it might be close.
What gifts in a game have been the most meaningful to you or the character you’re playing?
Zainabb: Not to be that guy, but receiving Zevran’s earring made him one of my forever-favourite video game characters. I already resonated a lot with his openness and humour regarding sex and relationships, but the earring was an unexpectedly romantic gesture that I really appreciated as someone who is also very mushy. I wasn’t expecting to feel such an affinity for a fictional character, and Zevran’s particular combination of flirtation, romance, and loyalty made romancing him more comfortable for me than, for example, Alistair’s awkward declarations of love (I romanced him by accident in my first playthrough and felt Extremely Uncomfortable with how fast the romance moved).
On a similar note, I felt pretty emotional when I returned Sten’s sword to him in Origins. Funnily enough, I relate to many aspects of the North African- and Arab-coded Qunari and their culture(s), and I hold a lot of affection for Sten. Reconnecting him with his sword felt like a nice way to express that affection and respect in-game.
Melissa: I’ve just decided to answer all of these questions about Dragon Age, I guess. I don’t know if Morrigan’s friendship really counts, but the way I played my first Grey Warden was as a sort of wide-eyed Circle mage who thought Morrigan was extremely cool. As in every game I play, I tried to get along with pretty much every character and use diplomacy to achieve whatever goals I have. Origins makes that too easy given that you can pretty much just spam your companions with gifts until they like you, but it’s so easy to make Morrigan disapprove of your actions and dialog that I really did feel like I had to work for it. And when you finally have a final chat about friendship, Morrigan is so hesitant and awkward in asking whether she and the Warden really are friends… my tender heart! As much as I do wish she was romanceable as a female player character, the gift of her earnestness about how much the friendship means to her, as a person who has never experienced unconditional love, absolutely tears me apart.
Wendy: The simple answer is Alistair’s rose in Dragon Age: Origins, which always makes me swoon despite me not being an overly romantic person. But the answer I’m actually going to go with is something less tangible: Jack’s trust and friendship. Seeing Jack’s trailer for Mass Effect 2 was the final lure into the game, and the character did not disappoint. I worked so hard to earn her trust, and am very mama bear about her and proud of how mama bear she becomes over her team of biotics in Mass Effect 3. The most rewarding part of the Citadel DLC was spending time with Jack and the subtle ways she thanks Shepard for that trust and friendship, and reciprocates the same without having to use the actual words.
Emily Durham: Popping in to also scream about Dragon Age. One gift in particular rocked my whole perspective on… everything. Bear with me, it requires a bit of context. In Dragon Age II, Hawke and Varric go into a primeval thaig, where they find a red lyrium idol, which Knight-Commander Meredith eventually uses as a huge, evil, magical death sword. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, Solas (my favorite, I’m a die-hard Solas apologist, fight me) is revealed to be Fen’Harel, the Dread Wolf, an elven “trickster god” who accidentally maybe sort of caused the apocalypse a thousand years earlier. And in official teaser art for Dragon Age 4, Solas is shown reaching out to take a red lyrium idol, presumably to harness its terrible power in an attempt to undo the catastrophic damage he did to the world a millennium ago.
Okay, now that the setup is done: in Dragon Age II, you can give Hawke’s elven companion Merrill a Dalish sylvanwood ring, a very thoughtful gift that she treasures. The ring’s carvings depict the tale of the Dread Wolf’s betrayal, and she explains to Hawke that elven legend says Fen’Harel tricked the gods by saying there was a powerful blade that could turn the tides in the war between the Evanuris and the Forgotten Ones. I recently replayed DA2, and now that I know so much more context about the world, when Merrill said the word “blade,” I just about fell out of my chair.
Did the red lyrium idol always have the power to turn into a sword? If Solas used the promise of an all-powerful “blade” to trick the gods into exile, did he already know about the red lyrium idol, a thousand years prior? Did he make the idol? For that matter, why are there elven artifacts and statues in primeval dwarven thaigs? I could scream about this all day, but just that one word in Merrill’s response to my gift left me with even more burning questions than I had before.
What’s the worst gift you’ve received (or given) in a game? Why was it so bad?
Sara Davis: I love that companions in Fallout 4 will hand you some stuff they found while you’re out adventuring. Especially Curie, who helpfully gives you stimpacks, and MacCready, who gruffly hands you ammunition even if he’s not sure he likes you. But some wasteland folks have deeply questionable taste. Really, Piper? More Sugar Bombs? Thanks, I’ll sell those off for two caps next time we meet Trashcan Carla. Aaaah okay Strong, what is this—radioactive bug meat? Wow! Could you carry it for me? It’s kind of heavy and my arms are full of these desk fans I’m scavenging for parts.
Melissa: To continue my own personal theme: the sheer number of dog biscuits I gave Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins, just because I could.
Wendy: I would love it if my Animal Crossing: New Horizons villagers refrained from giving me garbage cans and dinosaur poop, thanks.
What’s the function of gift giving in games? Is it a mechanic you enjoy or dread?
Sara: I’m going to tell on myself a little here: gift giving is a mechanic I enjoy because the function is loot. In my earliest gifts-in-games memories, giving gifts to NPCs meant there was a chance they’d give me a better gift in return! In Animal Crossing—the first one, ahem, which I played on my older brother’s GameCube when I visited home from college—I would send fruit to villagers by mail and get glowing, chirpy replies with gifts attached. Sometimes they sent furniture. As someone who plays every game like it’s The Sims, furniture is the mother lode!
In the Fable series, you can marry almost any villager by raising their disposition—often by giving them presents—and finally by offering them a gold ring. I confess I had a spouse in every town, partly because I like having a house in every town, and a house is not a home without someone there to greet you. If I’d be away for a while, my spouses usually had a gift for me: sometimes something small I could sell, sometimes armor I may or may not wear, occasionally a rare sword. But, of course, there is a little dopamine hit from being greeted and gifted by my spouses, who I had carefully and not at all shallowly chosen for their apparel and disposition. They missed me! I am appreciated!
Zainabb: Not gonna lie, I also love loot! It’s always fun to see what my Animal Crossing neighbours gift me in the mail or as a reward for helping them out with something.
I also think gift giving and receiving serves to create a sense of connection with characters, whether they’re Animal Crossing villagers or party members in Dragon Age. Giving gifts often improves your player character’s relationship with NPCs, resulting in story (or backstory) progression and rewards like loot! It is, of course, highly transactional—give someone a gift and you’ll get something in return—but I would give gifts to my faves even if it wasn’t, because it’s a nice way to show your appreciation for and understanding of a character.
Now, would I give gifts to characters I don’t like if there was no promise of story progression? Probably not, unless I could give them something stinky or shady.
Melissa: I love the concept of gift giving, but, to be honest, I can’t think of any games that have really wowed me with my ability to give characters gifts. Receiving gifts can be great, likely because the interactions are scripted, but having a +/- system tends to make gift giving feel transactional, as Zainabb put it. Input gift, receive relationship boost, even if it’s the same item over and over again. I suppose that does have some connection to real life—no matter how many times I receive a gift from someone, it still means something—but because so many games operate on this system of rewarding the “correct” input, it never feels meaningful to me.
I would love to see a gift giving system that rewards effort. A game like Stardew Valley with crafting elements would be a great way to feature something like this, even though as Melissa Kagen pointed out in her article on wooing Leah, a more complex gift (pizza) does not result in a warmer reception than some simple goat cheese. And like, goat cheese is great and takes effort to produce, don’t get me wrong. But if I know that Leah is a sculptor and I take my time to find the materials needed to craft her the perfect hammer, especially if I take the time to, I don’t know, get it engraved with a little heart or something, I feel like that’s more meaningful and mechanically possible. Not through a series of quest checkboxes, but through exploration and thoughtfulness. Am I asking for too much from a farming simulator? Maybe.
Wendy: It’s hard to get away from the transactional aspect of gift giving in games, and I certainly look forward to the the benefits, but I like games like Star Wars: The Old Republic where you have to be more thoughtful in your gift giving. You really have to get to know your companions to understand what they will appreciate most. Sure, you can just look it up in a guide, but it was much more rewarding for me when I figured out exactly what would make Kaliyo not consider betraying me for a minute, or what gifts might give SCORPIO pause in her plans to kill me.
If you could give any gift to any character, what would it be and who would you be giving it to?
Sara: I would and do give anything they want to Barkspawn (Dragon Age), Dog (Fable), and Dogmeat (Fallout 4). They are the best boys.
Zainabb: Speaking of best boys, if I could receive a gift from any character, it’d be a big ol’ bear hug from Kentucky Route Zero’s Blue.
I would give the Shambhala guardians in Uncharted 2 some kind of defensive weapon that automatically blasts intruders to smithereens upon entry. Would it be a satisfying end to the franchise for Uncharted fans? Obviously not. But would it bring me specifically a lot of joy and comfort, and generally be a win for anti-colonialism? Absolutely.
Melissa: The most recent game I played was Paradise Killer, and I would like to give every character in it either a swift kick in the ass and/or many books on ethics. As we’ve established, I like to accomplish things with diplomacy, but I have no sympathy for any of those terrible people (except the one who is a victim, and yes, all the rest are terrible, even the ones I liked).
Wendy: You know what, Kratos, you’re gonna accept my blood-of-thine-enemies-scented candle and you’re gonna like it, dammit.