Any emotionally honest relationships in video games?

A while ago, I think there was a discussion on the podcast about which games have the best romance, and the answer was, none of them do. There aren‘t any good romances in video games. I think that’s pretty accurate.

Speaking broadly, video games struggle to capture real, honest, human emotions. Partially, that's probably because video games that feature characters so often cast them in bizarre, over-the-top, and therefore unrelatable situations. Hard to empathize with anyone when they're a hedgehog who's _gotta_ go fast.

But what games feature characters that share real-feeling relationships? They don't have to be romantic in nature. For me, Night in the Woods did a great job capturing the feeling of drifting apart from one's parents, despite still loving them. Also, I'm still in the early stages of Trails in the Sky FC, but the dynamic between Estelle and Joshua is a believable if light-hearted and anime-soaked take on sibling rivalry. Finally, the way Flint responds to Hinawa's death in Mother 3 felt mature and reasonable compared to what I'd expect to see in a JRPG.

Given the times we're living through, seeking emotional connection seems like a good way to heal our hearts. I think that must be possible through games, and not just books, movies, and certainly not Twitter.

Any ideas?

picking a visual novel feels like cheating somewhat because so much of the focus of the game is on the writing that it has more time to luxuriate in fleshing out characters, and there are a lot of VNs i could choose but the one that comes to mind for me is Butterfly Soup. the game has a good romantic relationship but the relationships i like the most are the platonic ones between friends. they really capture the feeling of being a weird kid, staying up too late goofing around, and interpersonal drama, but there are also great moments that really capture the feeling of something like “i went over to this friend's house for the first time and saw how different their life is from mine and overheard how their parents talk to them, etc” that's really humanizing

Because of the nature of games, and how how there‘s always a system behind them it’s extremely difficult to have a relationship happen naturally without having the player thinking about how to trick the system into getting a person to like them.

The best kind of adaption of this is probably Ladykiller in a Bind. It acknowledges these systems and tries to embrace and subvert them.

For me, the one that always resonates is the relationship between The Boss and Snake in MGS Peace Walker. Spoilers for a 10 year old game, so not really The Boss, but the AI that emulates The Boss and drags up all of Snake‘s guilt about killing her. A bit on the extreme side, but as an examination of a man wishing he could take back a terrible thing he did to someone he loved, while trying to move on from that mistake… there’s something there.

I guess it doesn't really answer the question because you need all the sci-fi elements to get to something real. I almost feel like the games by their nature have to deal in hyperbole to get towards something deeper.

Thanks for these thoughtful responses.

I think visual novels still count, but I get what you mean about them being borderline. Butterfly Soup has been on my radar for a while, and your description of it has definitely bumped it up the queue, @cera.

@shane, I've never even heard of Ladykiller in a Bind, but it seems interesting!

@robinhoodie, I've felt like the MGS series (as well as Death Stranding) always comes tantalizingly close to having real things to say about human relationships, but then Kojima always comes along and Kojimas it up. That said, Peace Walker is The One I Haven't Played (Yet), so I probably should get around to that one day.

The Kratos/Atreus dynamic form God of War 2018 really impressed me, and off the top of my head I can‘t think of one that feels anywhere close to as authentic as it does. It actually got uncomfortably real for me, at points, and made me reflect on my adolescent petulance in ways I hadn’t in a while prior. I understand some of the dislike that's been leveled at it, but I had lost interest in video games for many years prior to 2018, and it really showed me how much games had advanced as a medium after almost a decade of having disengaged from them.

I haven't played it, and I might never, but I have heard authentic things about the human relationships in both Last of Us games... also Tim once brought up Lufia II as being the best example of a romantic relationship in games in an early episode of the IC podcast. I still haven't played it but I desperately want to.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 has a remarkably beautiful friendship between your character and the only consistent party member/bodyguard Malroth.

[some spoilers ahead about the general narrative]

In this iteration, Malroth is a standoffish bad boy, who initially cares very little for the feelings of others. Yet, out of admiration (and slight envy) for the player character’s talents, he is able to see the value in people. He quickly latches himself onto the player and becomes open to developing friendships with others as your mutual influence grows. Then some certain circumstances way out of his control, cause him to lash out on the player character in the story’s climax. As someone who gets to see his growth and is partially responsible for it, this feels pretty devastating, which makes the resolution that much more satisfying. He thanks the player for their forgiveness and patience, and asks if it’s okay if they continue their journey together despite what he did. This feels like a rare emotional accountability that we don’t often get to see in video game plots.

Despite not having any dialogue in the game I feel like Quadrilateral Cowboy shows some really intimate relationships. It has some scenes where you go to your friends houses early in the morning to pick them up. While the friend walks out the door almost immediately you can walk around in the dark and look at old photos while their partners are sleeping. It also has other great hangout scenes like playing badminton on a rooftop. The story is kind of only between the missions but the relationships felt very real and genuine.

This is absolutely cheating but I feel like the relationship between player character and environment in Attack of the Friday Monsters is very accurate to being a kid and imagining cool stuff happening in your sleepy town. Also, being in a sleepy town! It's not really what you asked though.

I also think part of the relationship between Kaoru Sayama and Kiryu in Yakuza 2 is pretty accurate, specifically the part where they're both into it but waiting for the other person to say so and wind up missing the best opportunity to state their feelings as a result (but then later do anyway). It would've been cool if they didn't just ship her off to america for the next game. Give me a Yakuza sidestory starring her, I say!

Personally, for me, The Begginers Guide was the emotionally effecting game I've played since To The Moon. That was a complete surprise to me because when I sat down to play it I had no idea what I was in for. I recommend going in blind if you havnt played it so spoilers below.

Spoilers for "The Begginers Guide"

Though not about a romantic relationship, I don't have the worlds to properly express what this game made me feel, but it struck me as very honest.

It's a walking simulator. You learn about "coda" through "Davey" showing you their private art. "Davey" curates this experience and over time you begin to wonder what Davey's relationship with coda actually is. Should he be showing you these things?

What's more, he "davey" starts making changes to codas games so the player can experience the "better/properly", a new level of transgression that also begins to escalate and become more obvious. Davey begins to make assumptions about coda as a person based on what types of projects they made.

Finally culminating in an ending I did not see coming and punched me in the gut.

A message from coda to davey that he needs to stop showing other people his games. That's hes upset by Davey's actions and basically just wants Davey to leave him alone.

But davey doesnt get it. Cant get it. He feels ownership over this artist he relates to (but doesnt know in any real sense) and is trying to get that artist to make art again, but also trying to show others why that stuff was important to him. But in doing so davey is also disregarding the the art itself as it exists and stuffing it with his own meaning and making his own editorial choices with it.

It gave me a BIG THINK on a lot of topics like being a "fan" of someone and their work from a distance and how one sided that relationship is and what a folly it can be to think you really know someone based on the extremely limited information they choose to present you about themselves, and what it's like when someone you want to be friends with doesnt want to be friends with you, the ethics of sharing other people's unreleased art without permission, what can happen when you go to far trying to find the message you want in a work and start disregarding the actual authors intentions (and perhaps making some false assumptions about them based on what you wanted to see there instead of what's actually there)

Etc etc etc. I could go on and on.

I like that there really isnt a lesson learned by Davey in the end. Hes in pain about codas rebuke but he doesnt change his behaviour. And that feels very honest to me. Some people dont change. Some people dont get the lesson.

You guys have given me some great suggestions for games to go and experience someday! Thank you. I'm sort of embarrassed that I forgot about Dragon Quest. Just off the top of my head, I can think of some wonderful little human-feeling vignettes from V and XI.

@exodus - Good call with Attack of the Friday Monsters. I loved that game, and what it was trying to do. And you raise a good point: some emotionally honest experiences can be had all by your lonesome, which is something that game, and the Boku no Natsuyasumi series captures well, and something that becomes maybe harder to do once you're an adult without a lot of time to imagine and drift around.

I played attack of the friday monsters while housesitting at my mom's place, staying in what used to be my room, taking care of the pets - pretty much the perfect environment for that sort of thing.

@exodus#4021 That sounds really wonderful. Makes me want to start a new thread about times folks have experienced video games in the perfect physical setting.

@jaws#3850 God, after I beat Dragon Quest Builders 2 a friend of mine started playing it and all I wanted to do was gush with her about the friendship with Malroth. It is so good. It‘s maybe the only Dragon Quest spinoff I’ve ever played where the story made as much of an impact on me as the really good mainline games.

@whatsarobot#4043 That would be a good thread. I was taking the batteries out of my DS and PSP collection tonight and was thinking about how much playing a portable can be like reading a book. They're both things you do on the bus or in an airport and thus end up joining a lot of the same feelings. I remember more about where I played The World Ends With You than I do what happens in the game.

@robinhoodie I try to explain this phenomenon to my PC-gamin‘ friends all the time. It’s the number one reason why I'm a handhelds-first game liker.

there’s probably a bunch i’m not thinking of, and i actually don’t like the Joel/Ellie Last of Us relationship much at all, but the famous Ending Scene is extremely resonant.

~*~last of us 1 spoilers below~*~

||joel and ellie went to a hospital of a group trying to fix the zombie virus. ellie is immune to zombism and hopes she can help. joel finds out they’re going to have to kill ellie, I guess, to find a cure. this part is stupid, but whatever, it’s setting up Joel (who starts the game losing a daughter to zombies) murdering everyone in this hospital and driving away with unconscious ellie. when she wakes up, he says oh, they couldn’t figure it out, or something. and ellie looks at him and just says “Okay.” and it’s the best moment in the game, because it’s honest in representing the first moment in your life you realize you cannot trust your parents on something. smash cut to credits. ||

@espercontrol#4329 Yeah, subtlety isn't a thing that video games tend to do well, but that scene is a rare example.

not to be “that guy” but I honestly believe the romance between squall and rinoa is better written and more believable than p much any other videogame romance especially for like, narrative heavy games of that era.

it definitely is still a cliched manic pixie dream girl plot and has the usual problem of "rinoa is attracted to this moody loser jerk because ???". "you're the best looking guy here" is at least somewhat believable given that they are both teenagers I guess but she still kind of exists to mindlessly be squall's love interest without much agency of her own. but despite all that if you view it from the lens of like, a young adult fiction style piece (which is def what ff8 works best as) I think it's really well done and relatvely understated. they made some effort to like, give them actual chemistry and their personalities grow into each other in fairly believable, satisfying ways.

I believe the question was most “iconic” romance and I feel like squall x rinoa is definitely in the running for that as well.