'You might forget your first kiss, but your first Dragon Age Romance stays with you forever'. At least, that's how it is according to this cosplayer, who tweeted about how an emotional song always reminded her of a video game love story:
'Everytime I hear This Is War I think about the credits of Dragon Age Origins and my Warden and Alistair, crying oceans'. Maybe that part on top is a little much, but she has a point. Dragon Age: Origins and other Bioware #RPG titles are famous (or infamous) for their romantic content and the enthusiasm it has inspired in players.
Sleepless in Athkatla
I had my first romance with a video game elf before ever asking out a girl in real life, when I met the lovely Viconia in the city of Athkatla in Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. I rescued her from a band of bigots who were about to burn her at the stake for the color of her skin. It was love at first sight, but it wasn't an easy relationship. Viconia was passive-aggressive, cruel and manipulative, but also mysterious and vulnerable. Her evil ways caused clashes with my more heroic companions. She couldn't used edged weapons. But...I cared about her.
'Nick,' I hear you say in that world-weary tone, 'you'll fall for anyone with a pretty face and +2 mace as long she can turn high-level undead'. Because you're dead-hearted cynics who'll never know true love. Viconia was more than just a cleric. Through a series of text window dialogues and scripted encounters, Bioware's writers had made me care more about more than competing quests and accumulating power. I'd become invested in a character's feelings about mine. My conception of my own player character became more detailed and nuanced because of the ability to express the inner life I imagined him to have. I'd signed up for the quests and battles, but I'd become a fan of romance in video games.
I found out that there were two other characters a male protagonist could romance in the game, but the permitted storyline was strictly monogamous, so each one meant a new playthrough. I did that. There was one character that could only be romanced by female protagonists, so I made my first female character just to woo him too. He was a total jerk as a regular companion and just as irritating a boyfriend, but I stuck with it to see what happened. In the end, I begrudgingly admitted that romancing Anomen, who my previous characters had always discarded as soon as possible, had revealed some aspects of his character that made him more sympathetic.
The actual mechanics of the romances in Baldur's Gate 2 were basically dialogue puzzles where the protagonist had to pick the right answers to multiple-choice questions to move the romance sidequest forward. Say the wrong thing and you'll get kicked to the curb. Make the right choice based on what you know of the character's personality and you progress to the next question. Your character can't initiate anything, but the player does have to pay attention to each character to work out what to say to them, because each is designed with a different path to their heart.
Baldur's Gate 2 romances were memorable and engaging, but not without problems. Aside from the reactive nature of the dialogues, it was also a feature blatantly pandering towards straight men, at the time the most typical gaming demographic. All romance options were strictly heterosexual, 3 out of the 4 were women. The three ladies were strong stereotypes. Aerie was the sweet and innocent maiden, Jaheira the assertive, confident mother, and Viconia was unashamedly sexual and immoral. More content for male love interests had been planned for the game, but had been cut from the released version.
Aside from these issues, there was also the fact that there was a lot of character development and story effectively 'locked' behind these romances. If you weren't the right race or gender or didn't pick the right dialogues, you could still keep on the NPC as a platonic companion, but it often meant you couldn't progress in their stories. In practice, these characters had problems that somehow could only be fixed with sex. If you just wanted to help out a friend, tough luck.
Just how much the romances contributed to the popularity of the game can be seen in the modding community, where fans put in a lot of work improving and expanding the romance content of the game. This included some adding more options for female protagonists and allowing the player character to be a bit more pro-active in displays of affection (keep in mind the primitive graphics levels of the game, all character interaction was done via text, this was nothing like the glut of explicit Skyrim sex mods).
Modders even retroactively added romance components to the first instalment of the series, the original Baldur's Gate, and to a related game that completely lacked any kind of romance element, Icewind Dale. Noticeably, female fans were prominent in these efforts, and I can't help but think that Bioware's inclusion of romance content, even if not fair to women at the start, did a lot to cement their goodwill among female gamers.
Love In The Age Of Dragons
This enthusiastic response from the fanbase didn't go unnoticed by Bioware, and romance content continued to be an aspect of their RPGs. Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect all had them. But it was Dragon Age: Origins, their ambitious fantasy RPG, that inspired players like the cosplayer quoted earlier to feel ALL the feels forever. Dragon Age's main story was pretty much by-the-numbers fantasy fare, but it stood out from the crowd by really fleshing out their companion NPCs, giving them endearing quirks and emotional lives and generally making them feel like real people, and the RPG party feel like true companions on the road.
The system still had its flaws. For one, the 'relationship values' that measured how a companion felt about you were very easily raised with gifts, making getting someone to love you could easily be reduced to fetching some things they like. Still, the system had progressed by leaps and bounds since those heady days of burgeoning romance in Baldur's Gate 2. The protagonist could now me more pro-active in their affections, and improved graphical capability showed characters interacting with more than just text. This famously included (honestly, kind of awkward looking) sex scenes.
My first unforgettable Dragon Age: Origins romance was with slutty, mysterious, cruel bog witch Morrigan (you may have noticed a pattern here). But just like in BG2, the other characters were compelling enough to encourage multiple playthroughs to win the hearts of different companions. I particularly liked Alistair, a sweet, wisecracking, virginal prince who was a cool subversion of the more typical innocent princess. Finally, I could have a boyfriend who wasn't a such a dick.
It wasn't just the graphics that were up-to-date. Dragon Age: Origins also featured bisexual characters that could have the hots for your Warden (the title of the protagonist) regardless of gender. There were no strictly homosexual characters, but the option for same-sex relationships was there. While by no means obligated a player to pursue one, it unfortunately did end up dividing the fanbase, as there were some players who just couldn't handle the idea of diverse sexual content in their games.
More Options To Love, More Haters To Deal With
The development of romances to be inclusive of a variety of genders and sexualities didn't go down well with some, who were repulsed by the idea of same-gender romance in particular. In response to accusations that such romances were offensive and only included because of 'political correctness', Bioware's lead writer had this to say in response:
The romances in the game are not for "the straight male gamer". They're for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention....And if there is any doubt why such an opinion might be met with hostility, it has to do with privilege. You can write it off as "political correctness" if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They're so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don't see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what's everyone's fuss all about? That's the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want...And the person who says that the only way to please them is to restrict options for others is, if you ask me, the one who deserves it least. And that's my opinion, expressed as politely as possible.
- David Gaider
The RPG genre in particular, with its focus on choice, consequence, and immersing yourself in an alternate identity, has a tendency to touch on some sensitive social issues as a result of what developers do and not not allow in their game worlds. This kind of reactionary political backlash certainly hasn't stopped Bioware from sticking to their guns when it comes to representation in RPGs. Their latest offerings, Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition (especially), both feature a variety of options for different matchups.
In doing so, Bioware also keep up the standard for representation of sexuality in AAA RPGs. If, for example, a game is released with only opposite sex romance content, questions are raised why they were left out. In games where there's a strictly defined protagonist, such as in The Witcher series, it's easy to limit the player's options based on what this character would do. In games where you make your protagonist from scratch, this is going to be MUCH harder to justify.
Other, smaller developers that have made 'spiritual successors' to the Baldur's Gate series, such as Obsidian, have had to take a more cautious approach. Aware of the kind of social tension that could result from romance content, and needing to rally every single potential supporter to crowdfunding efforts, they decided not to include any romance options at all in their latest RPGs, Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny. This disappointed fans to whom romance was a much-loved gameplay element of the series that these games pay detailed tribute to in all other aspects. On the other hand, these games did allow for some very detailed and enjoyable platonic banter and interaction with the companion characters that earlier games would tend to lock behind a romance sidequest.
But Obsidian, by playing it safe, did avoid the fallout of the culture wars breaking their fanbase. Beambog, who released Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, weren't so lucky. They introduced same-sex romances in their expanded content for the Baldur's Gate series, and suffered a strong 'anti-PC' backlash for both including a black lesbian character (romanceable), and a minor character who happened to be transgender.
I appreciate that not everyone would want to experience all the romance content in the game enough to play against their real life gender and sexuality. As well as being soft-hearted, I struggle with being an obsessive completionist. But the fact that people are actively trying to police the expression gender and sexuality in games that are supposed to let players live a fantasy life makes me all the more grateful to Bioware for pioneering these options in games, and upholding their principles under fire.
Long Term Relationships
Assuming that developers are brave enough to continue to develop romantic content in games, what should we expect from the future? A variety of choices when it comes to gender and sexuality is important. I may be a completionist but I think that if there hadn't been the comfortable option of roleplaying a straight m-f romance back when I met Viconia in Baldur's Gate 2, I might not have been confident enough to experiment with alternatives straight off the bat. I think it's only fair that LGTBQ gamers also have the option of playing characters they feel represent them.
The actual mechanics used for romance have come a long way from Baldur's Gate 2's multiple choice tests, and the Dragon Age: Origins system of love interests as slot machines where you put gifts in until true love (and cutscene boning) comes out. But they can only get so complex and involved without becoming the center of attention.
Still, there's a lot more than can be done to develop romances (and friendships, rivalries etc) with characters in a way that integrates them more with the flow of the game, so that it doesn't feel like character arcs are disconnected from the main story events, or are interrupting to drop info dumps on you at random moments.
Mass Effect: Andromeda has promised more 'natural' romance subplots, but will it deliver?
There are some who would scoff at the very idea of romance storylines in video games. Maybe they think it's a sad masturbatory fantasy for the stereotypical overweight neckbeard. I do think that there's a point at which lust for a fictional character can get kind of creepy if it starts to inform how you treat people in real life. Video game characters are designed as fantasy objects, typically with a view to player wish-fulfilment. Real people, with their own desires and complexities, are definitely not.
While video game romances make it fun to explore romantic adventures and scenarios that you might be curious about, or even help you discover things about yourself, a game still has a lot of limitations. I often put a lot of myself in my character's preferences, but I also sometimes play against type. Whichever way, it's important to keep a distance between fantasy and reality. At the end of the day, a romance in a video game isn't going to relate to real-life dating and relationships much more than being good at Street Fighter will actually make you a karate expert.
I recently reunited with Viconia in my umpteenth Baldur's Gate series playthough and re-lived the thrills of that rough-and-tumble romance with a more mature, appreciative attitude. In a world where I could grow to be such a powerful wizard that I could crush any enemy with a few clicks, building a relationship with this complex character still felt like a high-stakes affair. It's a dead-end relationship, doomed to fade after the ending credits, but it taught me to appreciate a softer, more emotional aspect of gaming alongside my hack-and-slash. It encouraged me to play in ways I normally wouldn't, and develop an interest in complex character and relationship dynamics in games.
Every time I encounter a game with romance elements, I get a flashback of my first encounters with that sultry dark elf, with the soft music that accompanied that nerve-wracking question to which I had to make the right choice or risk losing something that had nothing to do with my game stats and everything to do with purely in-character motivations. My video game avatars have loved and lost many times by now, but it's true what they say—you never forget your first.