Common Game Elements is a feature where I talk about something that reoccurs a lot in video games. It may be something very prevalent or something that I noticed because it has come up a few times in recent memory. This episode is a direct continuation of last episode where I discussed how the heroine (not to be mistaken for female protagonist) usually becomes the protagonist’s love interest. This time I’ll be looking at whether the same happens when the protagonist happens to be female.

Like I promised last time, I’m going to be talking about what happens with romance when a video game features a female protagonist. The interesting thing about this is that I’ve noticed a trend that is the exact opposite of what happens when the protagonist is male. Thus the general rule of thumb sounds like this:

If the protagonist is female, she will have no male love interest.

A quick note, I will not be listing otome games at all because they are by definition romance games for girls so when I made this observation, I had in mind games that didn’t cater to this niche (not that we have many officially in English anyway). Also, like last time, I will not be listing games that have a gender choice as this trend is strictly about games where the protagonist must be female.

Examples:

  • Terra (Final Fantasy VI) – The official protagonist of the sixth instalment wants desperately to feel love, but the kind of love she finds isn’t romantic at all. The hero, Locke, hooks up with the other main prominent female, Celes.
  • Lightning has no love interest, instead the main hero, Snow, is romantically involved with her sister, a non-playable character.

    Lightening (Final Fantasy XIII) – She has no romantic plot. Instead, her sister Serah and the leading male character, Snow, are the official couple.

  • Annie (Atelier Annie) – No romance between Annie and any of the male cast. Sure she wants to marry the Prince, but that’s less about love and more about marrying for money. Not to mention the Prince has so little “air time” in the game. He’s not present for 90% of the game.
  • Maria (Knights in the Nightmare) – Again, no romance or love interest for Maria. In fact, the whole story is rather sombre and the two romances introduced all end badly.
  • Ashley (Trace Memory) – The only “person” Ashley interacts with is a ghost named D and he’s just her friend.
  • Macaiah (Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn) – There are some hints here and there for Sothe and Pelleas, but ultimately Sothe comes off more brotherly given the revelation about their relationship and Pelleas has very little screen time to further develop those hints into something more.
  • Samus (Metroid series) – For almost all games Samus has no love interest. Other M did introduce Adam, who I do feel gives off some love interest vibes, but the game doesn’t really go there, preferring to characterize their relationship as more of mentor/student and father/daughter. Adam is even referred to as a father figure by Samus.
  • Chell (Portal series) – Only human in the game and thus no male love interest is introduced.
  • Jade (Beyond Good and Evil) – No real love interest introduced. The leading male character, Pey’j, is Jade’s father figure.
  • Mackenzie (Touch Detective series) – No love interest introduced. The main characters are all female except for the older butler.
  • Shantae (Shantae) – The one male character, Bolo, doesn’t seem to have much interest in Shantae, romantically.
  • Jennifer (Rule of Rose) – No real love interest, although Wendy could be called one if one wants, albeit, even then, it’s two girls.
  • Alis (Phantasy Star) – As far as I can tell, nothing romantic is implied between her and the main male hero, Odin. Future games make no allusions either.

Exceptions:

  • Cornet is madly in love with the Prince and even saves him from the clutches of a old perverted Witch.

    Gwendolyn (Odin Sphere) – I mentioned this as an example of last time’s phenomena, but it also works as an exception to this trend as Gwendolyn is our first playable character and she falls in love with another playable character, Oswald.

  • Cornet (Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure) – Cornet wants to marry the Prince and that’s exactly what happens. She even rescues him!
  • Eirika (Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones) – While the hero is her brother, Eirika can hook up with two other male characters instead.
  • Aya (Parasite Eve series) – While in the first game Aya has no love interest, she gets one in the second game in the form of Kyle Madigan. The 3rd Birthday confirms the two were going to marry.
  • Jeanne D’Arc (Jeanne D’Arc) – There is a romantic sub plot involving her, Roger, and Liam in a love triangle. The game has several moments that suggest her and Roger do return their feelings, including the ending.
  • Elise (My World, My Way) – The romantic sub plot is more silly than serious, but it is present.
  • Bayonetta (Bayonetta) – Although it is more hinted at, Luka does play the romantic interest for Bayonetta.

This time’s element doesn’t have a lot of example because games with no gender choice and a playable female character are still pretty rare. It took me quite a while to even amass this small list as most games with a female character tend to be ones that allow for gender choice. I’m also missing a few games that I didn’t include because I was not sure where they should be listed, but more on that later.

Ashley from Trace Memory is a quite likeable young female protagonist with no love interest

As one can see even with this small list, there are quite a few exceptions, but most games still try to not get involved with love when their protagonist is female. There are a variety of reasons this could be the case and the most obvious is the fact that game developers are still by and large males. Perhaps developers, being male, feel they cannot understand love from the female perspective, or more optimistically, they are afraid of chickifying their female protagonist by introducing the love element. And I want to remain optimistic, but I do want to bring up another problematic angle on this topic. If one recalls last time’s element, there were quite a few examples that involved the male protagonist saving the love interest as a means to express said love. This isn’t just a problem for video games though. Many forms of media often have the male love interest saving the female love interest as a big part of the development of their love. From books such as Twilight to movies such as James Bond; the male goes out of his way to help the female in some way and this acts as a trigger for them developing feelings.

So what’s the problem here? The problem is that if the female protagonist is saved, it takes out the agency of the player in the game. Video games are all about player agency and the player overcoming odds, so it is rather counter-intuitive if the game has the protagonist locked away in some castle and saved by another character before she can even start her journey. Of course, the developers could go ahead and have the male be rescued by the female, but it looks as if this road is one most developers are wary of treading (for obvious reasons pertaining to social expectations). The sole game that deals with this sort of situation, Rhapsody, takes a far more humorous approach to the topic. By making it a tongue in cheek approach, the game is saying to us, “it’s ok, we aren’t seriously saying it’s ok for a girl to rescue a guy”. The problem at it’s core is masculinity. We seem to be ok with accepting femininity as flexible and women acting as “men”, but we are still unready to give up old notions of masculinity. Masculinity as strength, as power, as the dominant force, as rationality. And because we, as a society, are unable to accept that, our usual methods of reproducing the story of love falls short in the video game medium when we make the protagonist female. So we either avoid it all together or we play it in a different sort of way. For example, Roger, Oswald, and Kyle do not play distressing roles but rather support roles. They are seen as holding their own and being strong, powerful, etc. in their own right. Other series, downplay the romance, like with Luka from Bayonetta and instead highlight the Bayonetta/Jean angle and have Jean play the rescued “friend” (open to interpretation). Fire Emblem’s Soth romantic route, for example, has him pledge to “protect” Eirika, rather than the other way around and Innes’s romantic route has him tell Eirika that he’s tried to beat her brother in swordsplay as a means to express his feelings for her and his jealous at their close sibling relationship (so once again, some sort of task to prove the male’s love for the female). In funny cases like Resident Evil, where both female Jill and male Chris have their own games where they are the protagonist; the fifth instalment, which stars Chris, is also the instalment that most hints at some underlying feelings between the two, and it does so via Chris’ desperation at finding and saving Jill.

Bayonetta's female protagonist was clearly designed with the male gaze in mind.

There is also the possibility that the developers expect their players to be male and hence not too interested in romance from the eyes of a female protagonist. Bayonetta, for example, was clearly made with the male gaze in mind and would explain why Luka, as a love interest to Bayonetta, is so vague and underdeveloped. It would also explain why the romantic subplot was delegated away in Final Fantasy XIII to another character, rather than our female protagonist, Lightning. What is most perplexing though is Final Fantasy VI, which has one of the most natural love stories I’ve seen in a video game. The female character who participates in FFVI’s love story, Celes, is also the unofficial second protagonist of the game. She becomes the leading lady at a certain half-way point in the game. Although, even so, the love story plays out less through her eyes as she rarely voices her feelings or opinions about Locke’s past love. Meanwhile, Locke rescues her once (while Terra is still leading the party) and gets a lot of exposition pertaining to his story about lost love. So although FFVI comes close, there is still a lot of problems in it’s execution that suggest the developers were not interested in the female point of view.

So at it’s core, the problem is very much that developers aren’t seriously considering love stories from a female perspective for one reason or another. Perhaps they feel inadequate and fear making a silly love story due to their own prejudices and hence avoid it, or perhaps they cannot construct a meaningful male character for the female protagonist to romance due to constraints our society places on how men should act, or maybe they think there aren’t that many female players and that male players are not interested in seeing love through the eyes of a women. But whatever the reason, at it’s core it’s a problem of the way we think of gender. That is, these problems all stem from the idea that what sex we are is so integral to our human experience that it becomes almost unthinkable to portray or witness the human experience through another gender, or to blend the experiences of one into the other. Of course, our gender does affect our experiences, that is undeniable, but I do not think it does so to such an extent that one cannot write a character of another gender. One of my favourite books (and romances) was written by a man from the perspective of a women. It’s not impossible, it just requires us to drop our preconceived notions of the other sex and think of them not as something that is totally alien to males, but another human being that happens to be female.

That said, I don’t mean to paint all developers with the same brush and I most certainly do not know each developers’ reason(s) for the lack of these kinds of stories. These are just my thoughts on general possibilities when thinking of the general trends in the industry and society. Likewise, it’s not just the individual developer’s “fault” but society’s collectively as well. If we aren’t making ourselves heard, developers can’t know their ideas of who is and is not a gamer are wrong, nor that gamers and consumers do want to see these sorts of stories and characters. There is also the fact that the third option is becoming more and more the thing to do, and by third option, I mean just letting players choose the gender of the protagonist. Some of these games even have romance options for each gender, like in Harvest Moon, or Mass Effect. So there is certainly a handful of developers recognizing that not all gamers are male and that romance shouldn’t be avoided just because it’s from the perspective of a different gender from your own. I’m looking forward to see how this trend and problem is solved in the coming years.

–SW

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