Are games art? Are they merely entertainment? As a potential storytelling medium, the onus is on games to prove that they are capable of telling complex, involving and affecting stories. There are already examples of such in the medium, and whether or not they stand up to those belonging to more traditional media is certainly a valid question, but today I'd like, instead, to take a look at some of the triumphs and hiccups in presenting in-game romance. Specifically, the effectiveness or outright absurdity of specific scenes, the best and the worst thereof.
In the Ruins with Triss (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings)
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a game loaded to the gills with sex. It also, though, features an enduring relationship between player-character Geralt of Rivia and the sorceress Triss Merigold. She's plot significant, having been present in the original Polish stories written by Andrzej Sapkowski (well worth reading, by the way), which makes it all the more titillating when she and Geralt take a dip in a pool-sized, plant-lined bath among some Elvish ruins. The amorous activities are fairly well animated, yes, but the writers were also smart enough to throw in a bit of comedy to offset any awkwardness that might otherwise arise from having two polygonal bodies bump nasties.
Tali (Mass Effect 2)
Having appeared in the first game, but not a romance option, Tali'Zorah nar Rayya returns in the sequel with a stronger, more kickass personality and a potential role as Shepard's immunodeficient beau. It's in part the sensitive nature of her nearly non-existent immune system, in fact, that makes her romance scene so compelling, as she paces about, running through the steps she's taken to minimize ill effects, displaying touching vulnerability that leads to an all-in moment of intimacy. It also serves to provide a clear picture of just how much she cares about the player, given the impact her actions will inevitably have on her body.
To Kill a Mockingbird (The Darkness)
Not only is To Kill a Mockingbird one of my favorite movies, but it's present in its entirety in The Darkness. In fact, players are actually encouraged to watch it due to a brief, romantic interlude in Jackie's girlfriend's apartment. Jackie and Jenny cuddle on the couch as the movie plays and, when she falls asleep, players are able to either leave or stick around with her. Either way, this goes toward strengthening the bond the player feels with Jenny before the game truly gets dark, and works far better than a brief conversation or a throwaway moment of physical intimacy ever could.
Miria (Fallout 2)
Found in the town of Modoc, Miria is the daughter of the slaughterhouse owner and, shall we say, a bit promiscuous? Not that you'd know this right off; bringing it up to her is a surefire way to offend her. If the player eases into it, however, and has a high enough charisma, it's possible to entice her to make a move.
The moment itself is done in Fallout's typical fade-to-black style, but the aftermath is what really counts here: Grisham, her father, stumbles upon the two of you in flagrante delicto and forces a shotgun wedding, unless you are able to convince him that this was a harmless, medical examination (only possible if you're a male character, interestingly). If you are forced to marry Miria, however, she becomes a permanent member of your party who is useless from the start and never improves. The only means by which to get rid of her? Kill her, sell her to slavers, or swing a divorce in New Reno by way of Father Tully. Miria is fairly unique in that it's the degree of player agency informing her "romance" scene that elevates it above the rest.
Farah (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time)
The all-too-brief romantic interlude between the Prince and Farah is, perhaps, the most striking and effective in all of gaming. That the two characters begin at odds, neither trusting the other for valid reasons, is all a prelude to the eventual bond that develops between them as they journey through the sand-desecrated palace and gardens, working together to advance where, for one or the other, it would be impossible. They eventually begin to care about one another, fall in love, and have a beautiful moment together in a hidden bath house they find, untouched, in the catacombs beneath the palace. This moment makes the events that transpire afterward, though, all the more affecting, culminating in one of the most bittersweet endings in gaming history.