Relationships in Games That I Actually Cared About

I’ve talked before about the various trends over the past year that I’ve found exciting and one that I’ve been particularly excited about is the maturing of game writing and the increasing complexity and realism of storylines and characters. I like a beat ’em up/hack’n’slash/2D platformers as the next and there are plenty of games that I loved despite their crappy stories. Fun comes in many forms and ultimately it still comes down to gameplay and mechanics for me. That said though, there’s something magical about a story and characters that truly engage you. It’s like being transported to a different world and seeing through someone else’s eyes.

Even more rare in gaming history than those truly inspiring stories is the realistic and nuanced portrayal of relationships between characters. It’s understandably difficult. The limits of technology have often meant that relationships are often reduced to giving gifts or going through stilted lines of conversation to get people to like you. Obviously, that’s not quite how relationships work (at least most of them)! Even if the relationship is somewhat realistic, it’s even more difficult to make it compelling. However, I think the industry has really shown that it’s evolved beyond that now and that it can create realistic relationships between people that you actually care about. And I’m not really talking about romantic relationships here as you’ll see below. So here are my personal top 5 relationships from games I’ve played that got me right in the feels. Yours of course, might be completely different! Of course, I’ve heard about other games that have great relationships like Red Dead Redemption, but obviously I can’t comment since I haven’t played it. Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments below! Also beware that there are minor hinted spoilers – nothing major, but you may want to skip the entry if you don’t want to find anything out about the game.

In no particular order:

Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 – Shepard and everyone

I bet you saw that coming a mile away didn’t you? In fact, many of you would probably be shocked if I didn’t include this one the list considering how much I talk about the story and relationships between character from this series. The relationships in Mass Effect may not be the most nuanced of all the games on this list, but there’s something special and engaging about the closeness that Shepard develops with his squad members. It’s not just Shepard and his various love interests that are interesting either. Wrex and Garrus were my bros and there was no romantic entanglement there at all.

All the characters and their relationships with Shepard were clearly crafted with love and attention. It takes time to get to know each and every one of them and each relationship feels unique. How your squad mates treat you, whether they trust you and whether they consider you a friend depends on how you interact with them and the choices you make.  I also love the fact that some relationships take a couple of games to truly yield results. Also, whatever your feelings about ME3, I thought the increased and more natural interaction between your squad independent of Shepard’s involvement really added to the sense that these were real people (or aliens) with genuine and unique relationships. BioWare is undoubtedly one of the best at creating emotional connections with their characters.  Go BioWare!

Half Life 2 – Gordon and Alyx

This may seem like a bit of an odd one. Alyx is a kickass character on her own anyway, but there’s something really genuine about her friendship with Gordon. To be honest, I wasn’t that fond of her at the beginning and it seemed like she was just there as a potential love interest, but the more I saw of her the more I grew to like her. What’s most amazing about their relationship is that Gordon is silent protagonist, so you never even hear him interacting with her! And yet, the growing closeness between them becomes glaringly obvious and with each time they save each other’s butts they seem to trust each other a little bit more. Alyx can hold her own, but the times where you lose sight of her and you’re not sure whether she’s alive or not are genuinely harrowing moments. Even though he doesn’t say anything, you can tell that Gordon cares very much for her through his actions and his evident protectiveness over her. Alyx of course, is obviously more interested in Gordon than in a friendly way. That ‘will they, won’t they’ aspect of their relationship makes it all the sweeter.

The Last of Us – Joel and Ellie 

The relationship between Joel and Ellie has been discussed in detail pretty much everywhere on the internet, so most of you are probably familiar with it even if you haven’t played the game yourself. The development of the relationship that Joel and Ellie share is by far one of the most subtle and beautiful I’ve ever seen in a video game. The various stages that they go through and their increasing closeness over the seasons feels very natural and real. There’s no sudden ‘I’ll die for you’ declarations and no long exposition on the nature of their relationship. Most of their emotion is evident in their expressions, their body language, their actions and the things that are not said. This is also the type of relationship that hasn’t been explored too much and it feels very fresh and different from other relationships in games. It’s a purely platonic relationship that doesn’t revolve around giant battles or gift giving and long conversations. There’s just this incredible complexity that layers itself subtly with each cutscene, each snippet of dialogue and each time you try your hardest to protect the kid in your care. That’s all I’ll say as I don’t want to give anything away and I want you guys to experience their growing relationship for yourself if you haven’t already.

The Walking Dead (Season One) – Lee and Clementine

There are obvious parallels that can be drawn between Lee and Clementine’s relationship and Joel and Ellie’s, but beyond being the fact that there’s an older man and an unrelated kid, they feel very different. Unlike Ellie, Clementine is completely vulnerable. Other than being older, Ellie is also pretty damn tough – she was born into a post-apocalyptic world and has never known anything other than that harsh world. Clementine on the other hand is just a little kid who is still waiting for her parents to come home. You discover right away that she has an inner strength far beyond her years, but when it comes down to it she’s still young and scared and unsure what to do. And like any kid at that age who is lost and alone, she clings onto the one person she thinks she can trust. It’s difficult not to feel an instant connection and desire to protect her. After all, if you don’t do it, who will? Again, The Walking Dead is excellent at making you really care about the relationship between the characters and desperately wanting that happily ever after ending for them.

BioShock Infinite – Booker and Elizabeth 

This one should also come as no surprise to you guys either. Other than ‘Dat Ending’, which blew our collective minds, one of the things that was most lauded about BioShock Infinite was the bitter-sweet relationship between Elizabeth and Booker. While Elizabeth has led a sheltered life and consequently is rather idealistic, innocent and at times naive, Booker is pretty much the opposite. He’s not only much older, but he’s also incredibly jaded, even though his soul begins to shine through as you progress through the game. He’s obviously been through a lot in his life and done many things he’s not proud of and as a result he’s created a shell around himself to keep everyone else out. It’s not surprising considering the life he’s led. The themes of redemption and forgiveness recur throughout the whole game and Booker himself seems to constantly be wondering whether it’s truly possible to correct your mistakes. They seem like water and oil – Booker’s darkness only highlights Elizabeth’s light. And yet, Elizabeth has that very child-like quality of being able to see the best in people and somehow their unlikely partnership blossoms over the course of the game. Yet right from the beginning, an air of impending tragedy hangs over them, which makes you want to hang onto their every interaction even more.


8 responses to “Relationships in Games That I Actually Cared About

  1. You’ve definitely covered some of my favorites here (Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite). Have you played Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons? It really rang a bell in my head as far as the nature of relationships in gaming is concerned.

    • Yeah, The Walking Dead and BioShock Infinite were ridiculously good in terms of creating genuine and compelling relationships.

      No I haven’t, but I’ve heard very very good things about. I’ll have to check it out!

    • Alyx is pretty awesome! She’s tough, funny, loyal, interesting and the perfect counterpart to Gordon’s stoicism. I’d definitely play a game with just her! And hopefully Dog, because Dog was freaking awesome too!

  2. Such good picks! I love all of these as well, and I agree that the relationship between Joel and Ellie in TLOU is amazing for being so subtle. You do have to pay attention to every little bit of dialogue as you’re exploring, and it all adds up in a realistic way. I love that. But then, I’m also a fan of the over-the-top romances in Mass Effect and stuff… I just love good characterization in games. =)

    • Yeah, the Joel/Ellie relationship was just incredible, especially since most relationships in games are often involve a lot more exposition and conversation – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the Joel/Ellie relationship is just so real in its complexity and subtlety. Of course, like you I also love those Mass Effect type relationships that are definitely more OTT! It’s like watching a feel-good movie! 🙂

  3. Great post! I hope to play Bioshock Infinite sometime soon, as everyone praised the hell out of this game and I avoided spoilers about the ending too. 🙂 And, yes, yes, YES to Mass Effect having great relationship portrayals. And Lee and Clementine from Walking Dead broke my heart. Those feels!

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