I’m a firm believer that video games can be art. Video games can emotionally resonate with people as strongly as a beautiful painting, and can be as well written as any book. Yet there is one area of storytelling where video games just haven’t caught up with other artistic mediums: romance.

I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Origins in preparation for writing a review, and honestly I’m having to force myself to pursue a romance option with any of the characters. Not because the characters aren’t well written or unattractive, or the romance isn’t believable. I just don’t find it interesting, because I know how it’ll go.

We’ll go through an extended flirtation, probably a cool quest, and then we’ll have sex. Then it’s over. I’ll have “won” the relationship and there will be nothing left to do. That’s how every video game I’ve ever played has treated its romances (and if there’s an exception to this rule, please let me know in the comments because I’d love to play it.) For video games, having sex is the finish line of a relationship.

The End.jpg
The end… at least as far as the relationship is concerned.

But that’s ridiculous.

The adventure is only just beginning!

When I was younger I was okay with how video games portrayed relationships, because it aligned with how I saw romance: it was all about sex. Now that I’m older and have had several relationships, I now realize that the initial dating and first sexual encounters are just the tip of a beautiful iceberg. All the most rewarding, and most painful, moments of a romance come after all of that. Learning a partner’s ambitions, dreams, and fears is every bit as intimate as learning their body. More to the point, two people’s personalities can clash, or mesh, in so many different ways that it’s rich with story possibilities.

One of the most tragic missed opportunities for this kind of emotional interplay was in the Mass Effect series. You begin a relationship with one of three people in Mass Effect, but even if you chose to remain faithful to that person through Mass Effect 2, by Mass Effect 3 your relationship is essentially set back to zero: you have to court them all over again and then have sex when you’re done. Yet imagine if they had kept the relationship intact instead and we continued to explore the characters of Shepard and their love interest through the next two games.

Ashley wants to become a Spectre, but you’ve only just been reunited with her. Can you let her go? If so, will Ashley be hurt you didn’t try to fight to keep her and see that as you not valuing the relationship? If you try to talk her out of it, will she resent you for putting the relationship above her career?

Ashley Williams
Okay, you can be a Spectre… just put the gun down, honey.

Liara falls in love with another member of your team. Who does she choose? Or maybe because multiple partners aren’t unusual in Asari culture, perhaps she tries to convince you to allow her to see the other person as well? Allowing us to explore nontraditional relationships, and the complications that come with them.

The Mass Effect series was perfectly positioned to deliver deeper, more complex relationships. Imagine how much more interesting Andromeda might have been if, instead of making a twin, we made a spouse we had a family with? The relationship could start out well, full of hope and optimism (and sex), but as the dire situation in Andromeda becomes clear, the relationship becomes strained as well. Maybe the spouse blames you for putting their children at risk by talking them into coming to Andromeda in the first place. Or forget kids, let’s just focus on the spouse.

Your spouse is a exobotanist, and is part of a team that would scour worlds looking for edible vegetation. Do you allow them to continue the work that they’ve dedicated their life to? Or do you use your influence as Pathfinder to reassign them to some laboratory on Nexus out of harm’s way? If you do assign them to Nexus and they find out, how will you justify your actions? Why is your spouse’s life worth more than the person who will replace them? And why can they not choose to risk their life when you’re risking yours by being a Pathfinder?

That’s just one possible scenario and you can already see how it could branch out to create so many different stories. Imagine if you had chosen to reassign them to the Nexus and then they’re killed when the Archon attacks at the end of the game. How would you react to the guilt of knowing that, in trying to keep them out of harm’s way, you led them to their death?

The Archon and Company
Imagine if we’d had any kind of personal stake in this story…

I don’t mean to be picking on Bioware, they’ve given us some wonderful relationships and stories over the years. And they’re obviously not the only ones who use sex as the finish line of relationships, it’s all games as far as I can tell. (Again, if I’m wrong tell me in the comments, because I’d love to play that game.) Even The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, which I feel is one of the best video games ever made, failed to take relationships past this point.

Games have explored platonic love, and love as a concept and emotion, but to my knowledge no game has explored romantic love beyond the initial courtship. Romantic love is so much more complex than how it’s portrayed in video games, it ebbs and flows, evolves and shifts. It would be an incredible challenge to tell that story, but it’s only in facing such challenges that the best works of art are created.

Unlike film and books, there’s still new ground to be broken in video games and so many stories to explore. We just need to have the courage to challenge ourselves.

 

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Written by John Stevenson

I'm a freelance writer based out of Seattle, Washington.

17 comments

  1. Well, the Harvest Moon games take it to marriage and children, but those relationships are based purely on the gifts you give her. So, it’s even more one-dimensional.

    I think the number of dimensions that exist in a real relationship are why they stay away from them. As impressive as they are, the stories in Bioware games only ever deliver a few paths in a story, but it would be good to have at least a few good romance tracks to go down.

    I used to like those games with lots of choices, but I’d rather be told a good story than be allowed to make choices in a bad one.

    1. Yeah, I didn’t mean to make it sound like I wanted this to only be in RPGs. I’d be happy to see a story in an FPS about a soldier’s relationship with his wife while he’s at war. Or an adventure game that tells a love story. I just used Bioware games as a point of reference because I happen to be playing one of their games right now.

  2. As someone who has played Bioware Games in the last decade, I have started to see romance as a plague in RPG game development and story. Unless the romance is essential or helps contributes to the story, like it was in KOTOR, then more power to them. But if it is optional then it should be done away with or practice the principle that less is more.

    Mass Effect is a great example of how much romance has turned into a tumor lately. Mass Effect 1 was good that it only had three options and weren’t essential to developing the story. but by the second they increased the number from 3 to 9, then Mass Effect 3 went overboard by having 3 more options. So Bioware is creating the third game and they are still trying to cram more content when they should be resolving storylines and conflicts not to mention it becomes jarring when the fate of the galaxy is at stake and you’re trying to bone some character. I’m not even getting into Andromeda which had a record 10 romance options in a game that had limited production time, its sounds like a studio that had misplaced priorities. Instead of having meaningful missions and quests and better characters, we are stuck with boring romance quests that barely contribute anything to the plot and game content.

    Like you mentioned above in your article if they had focused on the initial three, then they could add more nuance to the characters and story. They could even explore different kinds of scenarios with these characters and how certain quests could be resolved. Not to mention romancing someone in games should help express the idea of what kind of player you are,

    1. Yeah I absolutely agree, as time wore on Bioware added more and more romances, but they grew more and more shallow as they did so. You never got to delve below the surface of any of those relationships, and it was distracting how out the way the games went to create romance.

      Less is definitely more, and that’s an excellent point, because allowing romances to mature would lend itself to that very concept. Once relationships get passed that exciting initial point, romance is often much more understated and not an exciting romp from one sexual encounter to another. It would lend itself better to more nuanced characters and roleplaying than what we have now.

      Thanks for taking part in the discussion!

  3. Andromeda did have one interesting side item. In Cora’s romance, there’s and option to ‘win the relationship’ with a very touching romantic scene that didn’t involve actual sex.

    I don’t know if Bioware was trying to slide some actual ‘romantic couple’ content in or was simply trying to cater to people who wanted the romance but weren’t comfortable with an actual sex scene.

    1. Really? That’s interesting, I didn’t romance Cora in my game. Will look it up on YouTube.

      And I’m not against sex scenes in video games, some are incredibly well done. Depictions of sex isn’t something to shy away from.

      I just wish games explored beyond just that initial stage of infatuation.

  4. I don´t disagree with your overall point, but I don’t think the Dragon Age games are the best example, since they all provided me with a love interest that weren’t simple or straightforward.

    Be aware that this text below contains SPOILERS for the games…

    In Origins I romanced Alistair. He is your typical young handsome hero destined to do great deeds. I liked him a lot 😉 Which is why the ending was rather emotional, when I first had to convince him to sleep with an evil witch in order to save our lives (and even father her child), and after that, I had to say goodbye and let him go on to take his rightful place in society, while I remained in my place as a warden.
    In DA II I romanced Fenris (as most female players do 😉 ) His story is also not so straightforward. I finally managed to get close enough to sleep with him, but the next morning he freaked completely and would hardly talk to me for a large part of the game, and then mostly when he was drunk. The end text did say we traveled on together, which is a small comfort. Had I romanced Anders instead, I guess the ending had been even more twisted!
    In Inquisition there weren’t as many interesting male options, so I ended up with Blackwall. He also wasn’t easy to get close to, and just when we hit it off his big secret became public, and I had to act as the inquisitor rather than lover, and banish him from my lands forever.

    If you are interested in a game that depicts life after marriage, you should try the The Dream Machine, a small and quirky adventure essentially about a guy having second thoughts about his future as a husband and father.

    1. Yeah I wish I hadn’t been playing DA:O when I thought of this article, because now that I’m deeper into some of the game I’m remembering how complex some of the relationships are. Unfortunately this is a topic I’ve been wanting to cover for a while, and Dragon Age is the game that reminded me to write it.

  5. I bet it boils down to something simple: the courtship phase is the easiest, and most exciting. That’s why there’s boatloads of romantic comedies/dramas about the couple getting together, but not the afterwords. As any married couple will tell you, the afterwords takes a lot of work…the reward is, I believe, more fulfilling, but marriage is very much a long-term investment. The sex is different (not worse, just different), the romance is different, add kids and suddenly there’s change there, too. From the outside, marriage looks very dull and boring, often because the couple maybe doesn’t realize what they’re getting into. For a shorter portrayal of romance, which fits most games’ time frame of a few weeks to a few months, the dating is easiest.

    I had the random idea when I was playing AC: Unity of making Arno and Elise husband and wife from the get go. She’s a templar, so that dynamic could be there as well (you’d just have to figure out how they hid it from one another). Many of the AC games take place over several years so all the drama as you mentioned above could be put in, as the story would be more long-form.

    Plus, I’m sure publishers would balk at such things: “Well, I don’t think a fifteen year old would want to see married people stuff, and we have to keep them in mind you know…”

    1. Oh I’ve no doubt that’s exactly why, it’s just easier and more exciting to show the early part of relationships. I’m sure publishers are a big part of the problem, since they loathe to experiment with anything.

      I don’t necessarily need the characters to be married either, just any kind of relationship that’s gone on for a few years and moved past that initial courtship. I’ve actually never played any of the Assassin’s Creed games past 3, the plot just became so convoluted that I lost interest. That sounds like it would have had possibilities too though.

  6. Honestly, the BioWare relationships, since BGII, have not been very good. Not that they were great then, but you had to work a hell of a lot more. The new BioWare romances are like playing an extremely ‘loose’ slot machine. Just keep pumping the quarters and you’ll hit the jackpot after a couple of bucks. It’s like they were written by 14-year-old boys who just discovered the joys of self-manipulation and have no idea what happens after sex..

    Bethesda’s are shallow (because there scores of them) and are really more about perks and generally lack any substance. (You can marry Ysolda in White Run by getting her a Mammoth Tusk. You get a perk that gives you 100-septims per day). But they’re not intended to be some major sub-plot either. So I don’t even bother.

    The Witcher romances were far better. There’s not only your obligatory one-night-stands and short-term hook-ups (because people do that) but there are long term romances over multiple games. You can romance Triss from early Witcher through Witcher 3. And even the Blood & Wine expansion for W3 the relationship is very important and it’s more than ‘sex then move on’ as they actually do things, like talk about their long-term relationship plans, that people in real relationships do…. (They also do that in the main campaign, like how Triss wants Geralt to move in with her. Etc. etc., etc.)

    Anyway, I think you’re right about most romances. But most of the over-wrought, end-with-sex romances have been coming from BioWare. It’s a big focal point of their games and they do a really shitty job with them.

  7. Personally, I don’t really care about whether there was sex or not, what I do care about is subtle changes (which doesn’t usually happen) in interaction between characters, in dialogue, intonation, etc. when relationship between characters changes.

  8. I agree that a lot of times relationships are depicted as a “goal,” but as others have commented I think courtship is probably the easiest (and most exciting?) part of a relationship to depict. Within that, there’s a lot of variation in the “meanings” behind it, and interesting stories, and I think that there should always be a good secondary story to a romance if it’s going to be included, instead of just fluff and fan service (which has its place, I’m sure). I’d like to see the relationship develop over time as possible. Mass Effect is in a somewhat unique position, as the characters spanned three games, and, like you mentioned, the relationships were more than having to insert compliments and gifts until the trophy is unlocked, so to speak.

    Anyway, great article!

  9. Solid topic. I honestly wish I had thought of this as a writing topic for my website/blog. You make really good points about how one dimensional romance is in video games. Great article! I definitely appreciate how it made me truly think how romance is portrayed in video games, with a finish line, a short one at that and then…. It’s over. Great job!

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