Contributed by Simon
The concept of choice in our games today is taking over RPGs and other story-based genres. You can shape the main character’s morals and priorities; the game’s hero becomes your hero .How they look, how they act or where they go, these options are left up to the player to decide. Recently however, a new choice has crept into our games: who to romance.
The romance option has become as in-demand as outfitting your character or deciding what gun to use. Why then do so many games nowadays fail to utilise this area of story-based games? Whilst many games have the option, the idea of a relationship is very watered down, a declaration of interest and soon your chosen partner will follow you to the ends of the earth (literally, they’ll just follow you everywhere). So should we be content with what we have – a quick flirtatious comment and she’s yours? Or do we want more? Surely the romance option is the next step towards full immersion. The more realistic the better…right?
In past story-based titles, romance was never an option – it was either present or it wasn’t. Whether you liked it or not, your main character made their choice and you just had to like it. Of course, being a genre that mainly revolved around storytelling, RPGs were more susceptible to this than any other, especially JRPGs. Final Fantasy always included a story romance. Mostly it was sweet and heart-warming, but looking back, don’t you sometimes wish Cloud, Squall, Zidane or Tidus would’ve chosen differently? Why not Yuffie or Selphie? What’s wrong with Freya or Rikku? But then Final Fantasy never pretended to give you choice; you couldn’t change how they looked, how they acted, so why then should you choose their romance option?
But that’s the past; the future is choice-based games. Games where what you do is not pre-determined; you can go where you like, speak to who you like, romance who you like. And yet, the immersive relationship has still remained untouched in many of these types of games. Take Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas as examples, two Bethesda games and two game series widely considered pioneers in the popularisation of the open-world RPG. Both pride themselves on their expansive worlds, where your progress through the game is secondary to your sense of adventure. And both tackle the relationship concept, yet it all seems a little half-hearted.
In Fallout: New Vegas, there is little on offer in the way of romance. Instead, you have followers, people who are in a tight spot and it’s in your discretion whether or not to help them. If you do then they will thank you with their undying loyalty, even if you run them head first into a Deathclaw nest. With these, you can declare your interest, but nothing more; no flirting, no dating, not even an awkward innuendo. The game seems to place more importance on gaining your teammate’s loyalty than their love.
Skyrim is a little different; whilst the idea of gaining followers is the same, not all of them are available for marriage. There are many who are willing to tie the knot, yet most aren’t stupid enough to follow you into a necromancer’s cave. Once your mutual attraction is declared, you can marry your chosen partner and ask them to move in with you. Once they are in, they will lovingly address you every time you return home – they even offer to make you a nice warm bowl of soup. Yet this is the same for every character you can romance. Be it the fiery, aggressive huntress Aela or the merchant Ysolda, they all address you in the exact same manner.
The option for relationships in games is firstly a way of immersing yourself further in to the gaming experience and secondly a way to expand on certain characters’ story arcs, but with so many options out there in Skyrim (sixty-two in all) it was almost impossible for Bethesda to create a richly detailed story for each one. This leads to the question then, what was the point in having a romance option in the first place? The concept of gaining followers in either of these games is understandable, as they can help you during combat, but the step further to relationships is unnecessary. It seems as if Bethesda has seen the popularity of the romance option and decided at the last minute to add it in to their games.
Bioware have been the main instigators of gaming romance options ever since their first game, Baldur’s Gate. Despite their recent faults, (we all know what I’m referring to, right?) every story-based game they have ever released has had some option of romance. Each option is seen as a means to expand on certain characters’ story arcs and truly allow the player to immerse themselves in the game.
In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic your main romance options were either Carth or Bastila. With both it really takes some effort to open them up; you have to constantly chat to them, make them feel comfortable enough to reveal their problems with you and the world. If you even make a slight error, the romance scene isn’t available. Even more than that, the romantic connection is instrumental to the story. When Bastila is turned to the dark side, it is your emotional connection that drives her back to the light.
Dragon Age was another game that helped shape the future of a good Bioware romance. In Dragon Age: Origins, there were multiple relationships for both male and female characters, including same-sex options. Romantic connections were made depending on your dialogue options chosen in-game whilst your love interest is in your party. Still, all this hard work can be avoided if you merely bring them the right presents whilst in camp. Either give them a special individual present relevant to them, or give them multiple generic presents and their affection skyrockets. If you really want to romance someone in Dragon Age, then it’s all too easy to give up on the talking and simply give them a bunch of presents, completely taking away from the whole concept. But both KOTOR and Dragon Age laid the groundwork for romance options in future Bioware titles, honing their skills for latter Mass Effect games.
Mass Effect 1 had, as you would expect, by far the least amount of choice, allowing the player to choice either Ashley or Kaidan, depending on gender, or Liara as a multi-gender choice. Over the course of the trilogy, more and more characters were introduced as romance options, where by Mass Effect 3, eleven characters had full romance story arcs, with several additional flings on the side. Yet despite the large amount, each had a unique and complex back story to go with it. Even so, due to the Normandy being of limited size, only some of your teammates could join you onboard in the final game. Therefore romances with players such as Miranda and Jack were cut short and weren’t fully realised. This is something Bioware are going to have to deal with if they continue to put such diversity in their romance options in future games. When the world they have created is so expansive, players will be crying out to romance characters left and right. “Why couldn’t we romance Wrex?” “I really wanted Mordin to give me sex tips about himself”. Bioware became so accomplished at character development in Mass Effect, that players really felt connected to so many people.
For a concept that adds so much to a game; a quick-fire way to make a player care about a character, it seems strange that game developers have yet to utilise it to its full capabilities. Characters are vital to any story: if you don’t care about the characters you won’t care about the game. With games shifting their attention to immersion and realism, it’s imperative that characters are well written. The romance option offers this – what’s more real than dealing with relationships? However, romance for romance’s sake should be avoided. Your love interest should make you work a little for it: you should have to want to talk to them, take them on every mission and serenade them to the point where you feel you want to play the game through again so you give other characters the equal amount of attention.
That is how you include the romance option, not with a necklace, or by fast travelling to the other side of the map to pick up an item. If you’re going to do it, do it right. No poorly crafted attempt with generic dialogue and very little in the way of development. The more realistic the better… right? Yes, absolutely right.