Romance is a more popular game mechanic than ever, whether it involves finding a sweet girl to settle down with in Stardew Valley or picking the better waifu for Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy VII between Aerith and Tifa (the answer is Tifa, by the way). For all the romantic debauchery available to player characters, though, it can feel weird when they don’t get an alternate love interest, especially in games with big parties or multiple bachelor/ettes of all genders. Contemporary games feel like a virtual cornucopia of hot young singles, but they all share the same type: just bland enough to be projectable for any player and therefore inoffensive to any given romantic partner.
Giving all of a game’s love interests two romantic arcs to cover the timelines where the player character chooses them or not is as arduous as it is unrealistic, but Fire Emblem managed to pull it off. Ever since its SNES days, most Fire Emblem games have turned shipping the army’s soldiers with each other into not just a story element, but a gameplay mechanic. If two characters fight next to each other on the battlefield enough, they start to get to know each other better, and players start to see new options for their relationship.
With each event comes stat boosts for whenever the two fight near each other, and after three or four events (depending on the game) they might get married, which leads to some truly great romantic endings in the Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Three games in the series have gone as far as to include the children of the army couples as playable characters, with their stats and skills based on who exactly their parents were. Fire Emblem stands out by sharing the love across an entire army, so why is it that other games with romance options don’t follow its example and let the romantic runners-up find their own happiness?
Harvest Moon And Rival Couples
While Fire Emblem is the biggest mainstream series to allow for NPC matchmaking, it wasn’t always the only one — the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons franchise (which will be referred to as just Harvest Moon for the rest of this article) had “rival couples” for a long time. Starting in Harvest Moon 64, eligible bachelorettes could get married to people other than the player, a mechanic dubbed “rival couples” because the player would have to make sure to marry their bride before someone else could.
Unlike Fire Emblem, rival couples were predetermined — marriage candidates could either end up with the player or their designated NPC partner and nobody else. The mechanic lasted a long time, but not forever, because 2009’s Harvest Moon: Animal Parade was the last game in the series to feature it. While a few later games had events where two marriage candidates would interact and get a bit of ship tease, rival marriages have yet to return. In a 2016 Nintendo DREAM and Famitsu interview with then-producer Yoshifumi Hashimoto, he revealed that the reason for doing away with the mechanic was because male players didn’t want to lose their chosen bride to the rival, while female players felt that the rival ladies were better matches for bachelors than the players themselves were.
While rival marriages have yet to return to Harvest Moon, they’ve been a common request from the Western fanbase. If Harvest Moon took a page from Fire Emblem and let the player choose who to pair up the remaining marriage candidates with, it would resolve the issue of “predetermined couples” that fit each other better than the player and whatever chosen bachelor/ette they went with, and by making matchmaking a player-initiated mechanic instead of something that could happen on accident, nobody would need to feel rushed to marry their favorite candidates. Harvest Moon games are always centered around the lives of the townspeople along with the player’s ranch (including players raising their own children to adulthood), so letting characters marry each other again would give some much-needed life to the NPCs.
Enforced Singleness Creates The Most Clichéd Kind Of Power Fantasy
Video games are usually meant to be power fantasies, and that’s fine, but it breaks the suspension of disbelief when there are so many single young people around but they’re only interested in the game’s silent protagonist. In games where romance is a side mechanic and not the main point, it can feel too self-indulgent when the player is the only one who can find romantic happiness. It’s as if the writers are afraid that players will be too possessive if the pixels on the screen decide to date other sprites, even if the player decides they’re not a good match.
Going back to Harvest Moon, that was certainly an issue many fans had with rival couples back in the day, but those fans were usually on the younger side and therefore took it more seriously. For games aimed at older players like Rune Factory and Persona, though, those same complaints shouldn’t apply. In games where love interests only have eyes for the player, it can be very jarring when players find themselves in a harem anime setup because the options they didn’t choose were literally programmed to never move on.
Fire Emblem‘s pairing system offers a perfect compromise for players who don’t want other couples and those who do, as the events leading up to marriage need to be manually triggered and will not happen on their own. If a player changes their mind about a pairing, they don’t have to go through with it, and if the player really wants to keep all the hot young singles to themselves, they just never have to activate any events. Thankfully Fire Emblem: Three Houses has plenty of great non-romantic endings, as well. If a player is tired of people flirting with them after they got married, all they have to do is set up their ex with someone else, while a player who wants to see the flirty dialogue from other characters but doesn’t want to marry them can just let them pine away.
In an era where romance in video games relies on a lack of strong characters in lieu of player wish fulfillment, Fire Emblem stands out for letting anyone in the army find their soulmate. It can get exhausting playing as yet another dense anime harem protagonist in a game where the player isn’t even intending to romance someone in the first place, and pairing off other characters can be a fun and satisfying remedy to that issue. Shipping is already the wind that keeps most fandoms sailing, so why not take advantage of that and make it an element in more games?
With how big shipping is in any given fandom, it’s shocking that it’s not an active element of more games. Fire Emblem‘s support conversations not only give more life to the characters and setting but also give the games extra replay value. They encourage fresh playthroughs to make a different match. Romantic matchmaking would add even more replayability to games with romance mechanics, and flesh out the worlds of the games in the process.
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