I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying
When it comes to thrilling entertainment, video games are second to none. Few can refute the dopamine rush of felling a Dark Souls boss, mastering a Mario Bros. level, or eking out a narrow Fortnite victory.
More debatable, however, is how well games handle their stories. In a crowded entertainment industry built on decades of cinema history and centuries of great literature, video games have always had trouble proving their worth. Even venerated classics like BioShock or The Witcher are generally considered outliers in a nascent medium.
Yet, increasingly, games are bucking the status quo. Indie developers are growing in number, bringing fresh ideas and much-needed diversity. Technology has improved dramatically over the last few console cycles, and we’re nearing a state where uncanny valley is officially a thing of the past.
Case in point: character work in games. A compelling plot is one thing, but creating a character that feels believable and elicits strong emotion is another thing entirely. Achieve that with two or more characters, and the feat becomes all the more impressive.
In recent years, there are several games that have nailed these character dynamics. So, long intro aside, here are five of the very best game character relationships:
Max & Chloe – Life Is Strange
Life Is Strange is such an interesting project, in many ways because of what it’s not. From a technical standpoint, it’s not particularly impressive. Character models are stilted, lip syncing is questionable, and movement and actions can feel sluggish.
What it is, in spite of all these things, is a fantastic portrayal of two individuals. There’s Max, a timid, Pollyannaish student with an eye for photography, and Chloe, a childhood friend and high-school dropout widely deemed a misfit by everyone else in town.
As Life Is Strange weaves a narrative that’s equal parts sci-fi, romance, and thriller, it’s this relationship between Max and Chloe that makes the story sing. On paper, these two couldn’t be further apart in life since their old friendship broke off. Yet, their paths cross again, as if by fate, and Max and Chloe rediscover what it is they valued in one another way back when.
Raw, personal, often clumsy, yet always moving, Max and Chloe’s story captures human emotion in a way no game has done before. Needless to say, it shouldn’t be missed.
Shepard & the Crew – Mass Effect 2
We were ecstatic when Mass Effect: Legendary Edition was announced, and with good reason. The RPG trilogy revolutionized how we as players interact with storytelling in games, and how future developers would craft those experiences.
Player agency took on a huge role in this space saga. Dialogue choices personalized the experience and set players up for massive choices that would impact the greater narrative. While not every decision mattered, those that did were among the best moments gaming had to offer.
For many—myself included—Mass Effect 2 was, and still is, the apex of the series. As Commander Shepard, you lead a squad of amazing individuals, each heralded for their unique background and skill set. From mainstays like Garrus to newcomers like Jack and Thane, the members of the Normandy SR-2 are as lovable as they are badass.
While the relationships you build throughout the game are memorable enough to make this list, the entire experience is elevated by its last few hours. For those new to the series, I won’t say much, but those familiar with the fabled “Suicide Mission” (and its titular song) know it’s an unforgettable sequence in an all-around incredible trilogy.
Joel & Ellie – The Last of Us
The relationship between Joel and Ellie is likely the most controversial on this list, and understandably so. I doubt many question the actual quality of the animation, or the weight of Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker’s powerful performances. What some may—and do—object to is the very nature of the characters themselves.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship is built almost entirely on lies. There’s the initial deception behind Ellie’s immunity. There’s the love Joel develops for Ellie—very much real, but steeped in love for his departed daughter. And, of course, there’s the big lie (you know the one).
Very rarely is the relationship between Joel and Ellie healthy—or even happy, for that matter. (The Last of Us Part II only takes that unhealthiness to a new level.) And that doesn’t make for a “great” character relationship, as this title would imply.
But it deserves a spot here, for one reason alone: It’s human. Like the relationship between Max and Chloe, Joel and Ellie’s rapport is messy. There is no happy ending for the pair—no magic panacea that let’s them ride off into the sunset. There are only the choices they make, and the consequences they must live with. It’s not an admirable relationship, but it sure is a relatable one.
Noctis & the Bros – Final Fantasy XV
I have a love-hate relationship with Final Fantasy XV. The plot is barebones, with major story points gutted to justify cash grabs like the Kingsglaive movie. The combat is janky and cumbersome, made worse by an atrocious camera. And despite its ambitious structure, the game falls into the typical trappings of open-world games—all bloat, little of substance.
And yet—and yet—I can’t help but love Noctis and his entourage. Despite following the game’s development since it was announced in 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, I’ve never grown bored of those familiar faces.
When the game released in 2016, I tolerated its flaws. I listened to those cheesy one-liners, ad nauseum. I cooked with Ignis (“That’s it! I’ve come up with a new recipe!”). I took photos with Prompto (“Oh! Love the lighting!”). I… walked around, I guess, with Gladio (“Watch where you swing that thing!).
This isn’t a game that deserves to make a “best” list. It’s a lukewarm RPG, a poor action game, and a disappointing Final Fantasy title (albeit with dope music). But when it comes to game character relationships, there’s an undeniable charm to this scrappy boy band.
Maybe it’s the road trip aesthetic, the “Stand by Me” motif, or the admittedly stellar visuals (particularly on beefier hardware). Perhaps it’s the heartrending tribulations the four face during their quest. Whatever it is, these brothers will always have a place in my heart—rough edges and all.
Lee & Clementine – Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One
Lee and Clementine are perhaps the two most compelling characters on this list. Their relationship—borne of the chaos of a zombie apocalypse—echoes that of Joel and Ellie. But where those two build their relationship on deceit, Lee and Clementine build theirs on trust.
Unlike Joel, Lee’s darkest point occurs prior to the apocalypse. After walking in on a man sleeping with his wife, Lee kills him in a fit of rage. He’s sentenced to life in prison, only to escape the cop car transporting him when zombies attack. The outbreak, oddly enough, gives him a new lease on life—and an opportunity to right some of the wrong he’s done.
Like so many on this list, Lee isn’t infallible. He committed the worst act imaginable, and will never be able to fully atone for what he did. But this background only serves to underscore the kind heart beneath all of the tragedy and self-sabotage. He shows this compassion throughout his journey with Clementine, an impressionable child who’s lost both her parents in the outbreak.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead is filled with difficult decisions. In a game like Mass Effect 2, players might have a choice between a “good” answer and a “bad” one. The Walking Dead presents you with no right answers—only the lesser of two terrible outcomes.
No matter how terrible the decision, Lee and Clementine’s relationship always serves as a North Star. The love the two share gives hope and meaning to all else in this post-apocalyptic world. So when, at the end of Season One, The Walking Dead presents you with a choice that’s really not a choice at all, it makes their relationship come full circle in an utterly satisfying way.
What game character relationships did I miss? Share your own favorites in the comments.