Romance in videogames is weird. For one, it’s often handled in ways that range from awkward to downright offensive, and let’s not even start on how deep the uncanny valley suddenly becomes when plasticine mannequin men/women start making goo-goo eyes at each other. But romance, relationships, and sex are fundamental parts of the human experience. They make and break people, peel back layers of personality and reveal us at our most vulnerable. So I’m glad to see that BioWare has no intention of quitting romance, but I sure do wish they did it better.
Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider broached the topic of romance on his blog, noting that while the idea of dropping romance altogether is “tempting,” they won’t be going anywhere in the near future.
“I can easily imagine a time when the romances in Inquisition are revealed. There will be an inevitable reaction from people who are disappointed they couldn’t romance someone with their character of choice, and some of them will rant at length as to how they were only deprived of said romance because of some agenda. We took away that romance because we’re mean, or because we’re boring and couldn’t we see that the romance they wanted would be so much more interesting? And that romance we actually put in is not only terrible but is homophobic/biphobic/racist/pedophilia/etc., which their romance pairing would not be.”
“To me, the thing that BioWare does best is not story but characters – I think our characters are done to a level that few other games even attempt, with an element of agency that strikes a chord in our players. Romances have been a natural outgrowth of that. Sure we could stop, but that would be turning our backs on something we do which almost no-one else does. The question would be: ‘why?’ And what do we replace it with?”
He further noted that he’s well aware that BioWare makes mistakes, and that the RPG mega-studio could well decide to remove romances from a new IP in the future. But for now, he said that even the most vocal opponents of BioWare pairings obviously care, even if they choose to express it through outrage and vitriol.
And that’s true, I think. Also, it’s worth noting that BioWare’s romance options have improved markedly over time, especially in terms of variety/sexuality/preferences. But even then, I wish they would take things further, and not just in terms of sensitivity toward problematic elements. I actually really liked how Liara was handled in Mass Effect 2/3, at least conceptually speaking. Instead of being a trophy you nudged and nuzzled until sex fell out before the credits rolled, she was (if you pursued a relationship with her in Mass Effect 1) a long-distance pseudo-relationship and then, in ME 3, one with a lot of baggage. There were ups, downs, moments where you could chose whether or not to be faithful (if you considered your Shepard monogamous), and so on and so forth. It wasn’t cut-and-dry like so many other BioWare romances. I think that’s a step in the right direction.
Really though, relationships are insanely complex, multifaceted things. I personally view BioWare’s attempts as more akin to Hollywood blockbusters than anything truly accurate, in-depth, or horizon-broadening. For that, I think more focus is needed. A number of Twine games and some of the more experimental visual novels put human relationships directly in their crosshairs, and that often leads to more interesting, personal results. The Pulse-Pounding, Heart-Stopping Dating Sim Jam also produced some wonderful stuff.
But I appreciate what BioWare does within the triple-A spectrum, and I hope it continues to push at the outer walls of its relatively tiny box. Its games have helped a lot of people grow, change, learn, and express sides of themselves sadly inhibited otherwise. Credit where credit’s due.