D Bag D Bate: Romance in Gaming

For our newest feature, Mike Egan and I conducted an email debate about the merits of romance in gaming. Seemed appropriate given the time of year, right?  This thread was started prior to Valentine’s Day but worked out so well that we missed our target by a few days. Oh well.

Colby: Valentine’s Day is upon us, Mr. Egan. The birds are singing. The sun is shining. OpenTable’s servers are screaming under the horde of procrastinating men rushing desperately to find an available dinner reservation. CVS is well-stocked with candy, flowers, and cheesy stuffed animals that’ll cost a fraction of the price the next morning. Love is in the air, sir. Can you feel it?

Egan: After many years in retail, the only time that annoys me more than this time of year is Christmas. Hours of carols and people rushing to get last minute gifts brings me back to those terrible days. I have become such a bitter old man when it comes to Valentine’s Day. My wife and I haven’t done anything for Valentine’s Day in years. At this point, it’s just another day of the year for me.

Colby: Just another day? Be careful whom you spout such words in front of. Hershey has spies everywhere, and they don’t hesitate to dispatch their chocolate-covered hit squads against those who decry the sanctity of Valentine’s Day. If the police find your corpse in the gutter, stuffed to bursting with nougat, we’ll all know what happened.

Egan: I am less worried about the Hershey Inquisition than I am about my wife hearing about this. Thank god she doesn’t read things that I publish on the internet–we would be in a lot of trouble if she did. Let me tell you though, that nougat will fuck you up. Shit’s crazy.

Colby: Yeah, it’s like Mass Effect’s Jack in a chewier form and without the tattoos. Speaking of Mass Effect–a series both famous and infamous for its treatment of intergalactic love–what’s your take on romance in gaming?

Egan: In games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I feel like romance has no place. I would rather the developers spend time on better gameplay instead of wasting time on letting me get romantically involved with someone in the game. Gay or straight, I don’t care–the romance options should all just be left out.

Colby: I wholeheartedly disagree. Titles like the two you mentioned are all about story, and romance adds a lot to a narrative. Its doubly effective in situations where the player chooses who the main character falls in love with. That set of polygons isn’t just someone you’re supposed to care about; it’s someone the player chose to pursue from an array of options. There’s ownership there, and it adds an additional layer of complexity to every important story event involving those characters. I’m going to get a bit spoiler-y for my next example, but I suspect at this point that everyone who cares about Mass Effect has already played it. Take the decision Shepard has to make regarding whether to save Ashley Williams or Kaiden Alenko. If the player is romancing one of those two characters, what’s already an interesting choice becomes downright fascinating. Does the player choose to save his lover at the expense of another cremate? Is that selfish? Does doing so make him or her unfit for command? Love is a complex thing, and it can add a lot to games, especially games that include difficult decisions that affect other important characters.

Egan: On the flip side, They could have taken the time to add additional story independent of the romance. I would have loved another hour of story in either game as opposed to a romance option which I took no time to even look into. I have never had an interest in romancing other characters in games. I did it once in Dragon Age–in fact, it inspired the title of one of our podcast epsiodes, Bangedher the Archer. After playing through that romance option, I felt that it added almost nothing to the game. My choices later in the game were never effected it by it, and even if they were, none of the other NPCs would have called me on my shit anyways. There is no additional accountability due to those actions; Garrus isn’t going to call you pussy-whipped if you saved Ashley and let Alenko die. The additional emotion is purely self imposed.  The game doesn’t go deep enough with the choices. How do you feel about a game like Skyrim, which offers the option to take a wife without introducing any hard choices about your lady friends or really adding much additional story?

Colby: I feel like you’re missing out. There are some great narratives that come with romance options (Isabela, Merrill, and Tali all spring to mind), and I’d argue that a rather large percentage of the emotion generated by gaming is self-imposed anyway. Good literature makes you think, and that’s what a lot of these options do. Take Isabela, for instance. There’s a scene where the player basically has to decide her fate because she stole something. A lawful Hawke should probably turn her over to the authorities. I really wrestled with that decision, and in the end I decided that my heroic character shouldn’t be completely selfless and saved her.

Marriage in Skyrim is basically just another way to acquire a bunch of stuff. There’s nothing to the actual courtship, and it’s a totally one-sided relationship. Your spouse runs a store and cooks meals for you, but you don’t have to do anything for them in return. That seems like a real missed opportunity. There’s so much an open-world game like Skyrim could do regarding romance, but it barely scratches the surface of the topic. I would love to see a game that manages to emulate the give-and-take of a real relationship.

Who did you romance in Dragon Age?

Egan: I forget who it was. The archer bitch.

Colby: Leliana!

Egan: Whoever. I often have trouble getting into game-imposed relationships. This is slightly unrelated, but when a game tells me a character is a good friend, then that character instantly turns around and does something douchy, I don’t back that character. The first thing that comes to mind in that regard is the mage’s origin in Dragon Age. You are told this guy is a friend, and he proceeds to be a cry baby and then randomly kills someone, and you have the choice to turn him in or let him go. Of course I turned him in! That guy was an asshole and the time spent building a relationship with him was negligible. While romance can be difference in some situations, you have to actively build a romance with someone. Although some emotional attachment does come from that, I feel like that choice still has no effect on the game. No matter your relationship to Isabela, the game will act almost exactly the same regardless of whether you chose to save her. 

I’ve never been interested in taking a wife in Skyrim. I would rather spend my time, you know, saving the world, as opposed to getting my digital dick wet, but that may just be me. I may be in the minority. I met a friend of a friend who pointed out that in Skyrim he is getting married and owns a house. He laughed and said “I am doing better in game than in real life.” I wonder how many gamers are using successes like this as a replacement for failure in real life. While I understand that not every gamer is a forever alone loser–most gamers I know aren’t, in fact–there is a group of gamers that do fit into this category. Are they the target demographic for romance as romance, as opposed to someone like you who plays it for more narrative?

Colby: But if you get married in Skyrim, you can get a home cooked meal every day! EVERY DAY! That’s got to count for something, right?

I’m not sure there’s a particularly large demographic looking for romance in single player games. I could be wrong. I have no numbers with which to back up that claim. All I’ve got is the supposition that there’d be more romance-oriented games if such people existed in large numbers.

Although I’m a fan of the Bioware love options, there’s only one video game romance that really stands out to me, and that’s the story of Tidus and Yuna from Final Fantasy X. That game had its warts–that laughing scene makes me want to turn the game off every time–but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get attached to those two. That story’s just one tragedy after another, and it really builds a connection between the player and the two leads. Their courtship itself is nothing all that interesting unless you’re into swimming with all of your clothes on, but the idea of Tidus and Yuna struggling to find a way to be together against a world that wants to tear them apart is–pardon my mushiness–downright touching, and Final Fantasy X wouldn’t have been nearly as good without it. You haven’t encountered anything similar in your gaming career?

Egan: You know, this really goes to show how much I ignore romance in games. I have taken the last day to think about a romance in games that have really stood out to me and I can’t think of a single one. Romance is just totally secondary to me in gaming; it’s the gameplay and the rest of the plot that really stand out to me. Maybe after this, I will notice romance more, but currently, I am drawing a total blank.

Colby: Not even Sarah Kerrigan and Jimmy Raynor? I know you’re a big Starcraft guy.

Egan: That shows how much I don’t pay attention to romance. I didn’t even think of that one. Look at the games I am currently playing: League of Legends–a competitive game with a solid back story, but no story within the game–and Path of Exile, an ARPG infamous for not having much of a narrative. I did recently finish Braid, which has an excellent story, though. 

Colby: Ah, Braid. Koz recently contributed an excellent story about romance in that game. Surely you don’t think Braid would’ve been better without its twisted love story?

Egan: I mean, with Braid, that is the game, without the twisted love story, there is no game. I feel like in situations like that, romance is the game. The majority of my issues with romance in games is around the Bioware style added optional romance, as opposed to games where the romance is the core of the game.

Colby: Ah ha! I knew there was a hopeless romantic buried in there somewhere! I’d like to see more games do romance the way Braid did romance. In real life, relationships are extremely complicated; they involve two individuals with different goals and aspirations trying desperately to stay on the same page. That was one of the things I found so compelling about my Hawke’s romance with Isabela. Lawful Hawke wanted to do what was right for Kirkwall, but Isabela was just out for herself. Somehow, they made it work. Maybe that’s not realistic, but it was certainly entertaining.

Your closing statement, sir?

Egan: In closing, I feel that romance in games isn’t something that should be completely ignored. Like a good movie, sometimes a romance is essential for the plot. I take issue with romances outside of the core plot and romances that actually have no effect on the rest of the game. In Dragon Age II, the choices you made while in a romance with Isabela don’t effect the rest of the world. As I said before, no one calls you pussy-whipped for protecting her. It just happens, and then the rest of the game moves on as it would with or without the romance. I still would rather see additional missions in the main storyline instead of wasting my time trying to get with some other character in the game.

Colby: I think romance is an important part of many major modern titles and gaming wouldn’t be the same without it. Love adds a layer of intrigue to every portion of a game, whether it’s explored in the narrative or simply in your own head, and I think developers would be wise to keep further push the use of romance in gaming.

What say you, dear readers? What’s your take on romance in gaming?


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