Romance has always been a common element in video games. The hero has a love interest waiting for him in the end. A player could romance one of his or her party members. Love is a prevailing theme, a reward for a battle well fought. In short, video game love affairs are largely unrealistic, even the ones that attempt to tell a story of love gradually developing on a battlefield, with people’s responses guiding the way. They represent an ideal and escape, something a true relationship will never always be.
There’s only one title that’s come close to getting it right, and that’s Vanillaware and Atlus’ Odin Sphere. The three love stories depicted in this game are come close to being true, even when relying on stereotypical archetypes. They work because they portray the ups and downs that come from being connected to another individual, and the unconditional acceptance that results when two people commit themselves.
Take Mercedes and Ingway. The two have what would be considered a traditional, fairy tale romance, fitting since Mercedes is an actual fairy. Hints of “The Frog Prince” intertwine with Romeo and Juliet. Ingway, transformed into a frog, retrieves a bow from a swamp, rather than a golden ball. For his reward, he begs a kiss that will return him to his human form. Like the princess in the story, Queen Mercedes hesitates. It’s only after Ingway proves himself as a true friend and companion by providing wise council in harsh times and cursing a sorcerer named Beldor to save her life that she makes good on her promise. Her symbol of love returns Ingway to himself, and he leaves with a promise of his own. He will return to Mercedes.
He doesn’t. Caught up in his own desire for revenge against his father Odin, Ingway willingly becomes a victim of a spell that becomes curse. He is granted the ability to transform into Darkova, but such a beast is too dangerous a form for any man. The same sorcerer he saved Mercedes from uses this against him, turning Ingway into a puppet while trapped as Darkova. Cornelius, another hero, sets him free of his misery. Ingway wishes he could see Mercedes one last time before he dies. She arrives too late, coming across his corpse before her own final battle against Onyx, and tearfully laments his broken promise.
We don’t always get to remain with the people we love. Too many games seem to forget people are human. We get caught up in our own paths and insecurities. Mistakes can tear us apart. Foolish actions can cost us precious time. Mercedes, a fairy princess, then queen, is repulsed by a creatures appearance and missed out on an opportunity to be with someone wonderful as a result. Ingway’s pursuit of vengeance backfires on him, keeping him from returning to the woman he loves.
Relationships don’t always end badly. Odin Sphere is quick to remind us there are happy endings, despite rocky starts. Gwendolyn and Oswald begin the game as enemies, with the former representing her father Odin’s interests in acquiring the Crystallization Cauldron from the fairies and the latter acting as an agent of Queen Elfaria at the request of his stepfather, Melvin. Both characters have spent the entirety of their lives being treated as tools of war, objects unworthy of affection. When they meet on the battlefield, Oswald bests Gwendolyn. He sees in her a kindred soul and spares her life.
What follows are subsequent quests in which first Oswald goes to great lengths to get Gwendolyn away from Odin and become her husband. He slays the dragon Wagner for her sake, but then refuses to kiss the slumbering woman if it would mean her unnaturally loving him as a result. Gwendolyn is stolen away and given to Onyx, resulting in the two men fighting over her future. Oswald then finds that Gwendolyn won’t love whoever kisses and awakens her, and chooses to do so with this new knowledge. He cares for her so much that it doesn’t matter if she’ll decide to leave and love another, so long as she’s awake and free. He gives her the Ring Titrel, Crystallization Cauldron’s controller, as a sign of his devotion.
Real life never literally sends us to hell and back for the people we love, but the journey of Oswald and Gwendolyn can be seen as a metaphor for any relationship.
When Oswald departs to repay a debt to Onyx, Gwendolyn leaves his home. She takes the Ring Titrel to her father, despite being banished and nearly killed upon her return. Odin takes it and offers her a chance to reclaim her place, but also reveals what Oswald went through for her. She goes after her husband, fighting Leventhan the dragon in his place and nursing him back to health after the battle. However, he learns of her turning the ring over to Odin and believes she’s used him as everyone else had. Gwendolyn goes to reclaim it from Mercedes, who had stolen it from her father, but finds Oswald was taken to the Netherworld by its queen in her absence. With one last trial ahead, she dives into the Netherworld with her father’s aid and brings Oswald back.
Real life never literally sends us to hell and back for the people we love, but the journey of Oswald and Gwendolyn can be seen as a metaphor for any relationship. Courtship can begin with one party feeling greater affection than the other, unconditionally caring about someone enough to make sacrifices on their behalf, even knowing it might mean they’ll go off and find happiness with someone else. Likewise, we often don’t realize how important someone is to us until we’re faced with a substantial loss and find ourselves fighting to protect what’s most dear. Perhaps if we do let go or fight back, we’ll find ourselves rewarded for our struggles in the same way Oswald and Gwendolyn are, with a new shot at a fresh life together.
Which brings us to Odin Sphere‘s final and most realistic couple, Cornelius and Velvet. The prince and princess are in an established and happy relationship as the game begins. Neither of their families approve however, with Cornelius’ father threatening him and Velvet’s brother, Ingway, casting a spell that inflicts the curse of the Pooka upon the prince. Unfortunately, the only cure is to reclaim every Valentinian Coins in exchange for a wish, a practically impossible task.
Cornelius accepts his fate and new form, and is prepared to abandon his former life and say goodbye to Velvet forever. However, she accepts him as he is, as it’s the man inside she’s always loved. They understand that together, they can overcome everything. Especially since Velvet had placed the same Pooka curse on the Crystallization Cauldron and, in defeating and stopping it during Armageddon, finds herself under the same spell. Odin Sphere‘s epilogue finds the two still together, content cohorts, as they find the final Valentinian Coin and wish all of the people inflicted by the Pooka curse back to their original selves.
Perhaps the tale of Cornelius and Velvet is most reassuring of all. When people love each other, nothing matters. Such feelings are unconditional, no matter what afflictions one or both may suffer from. All that matters is finding that one person with which you can connect, and working toward common goals together. Things may not be perfect. People make mistakes. But as long as there’s a bond and understanding, a happy future might await.
There’s an understanding in Odin Sphere we don’t often see in games. Relationships between people are delicate things and often difficult to accurately depict in media. Yet this RPG does a wonderful job of showing how three different pairs connect. It’s reassuring and heartwarming, and Odin Sphere Leifthrasir will be a welcome means of re-experiencing these stories.