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.
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?
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?
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.