Monday, January 10, 2011

Getting hot and bothered over RPG romances

If there's a Bioware RPG coming up, it must be time for a romance controversy. A few weeks ago, David Gaider had this to say about critics of same-sex romances in Dragon Age 2:
So long as romances of any kind are optional and need to be actively pursued by the player in order to be experienced, they simply don't have a leg to stand on. Advocating that nobody should be able to have content you don't intend to personally use is largely pointless - outside of a vague notion that such efforts should go towards other things, instead. Personally, it's not a lot of effort to include them. The resources we can devote to a minority of players isn't great, but I imagine to those players it's quite worth it... and I would hope that some folks could be sensitive enough to be happy for those players, at the very least out of the selfish notion that they may one day end up in the minority of some content issue and receive the same consideration if nothing else.
If you've seen that quote before, it may have been on one of the blogs that pounced on it during the slow news weeks around Christmas, reposting it under headlines like "David Gaider responds to critics of same-sex romances." The only problem is that he wasn't responding to critics - or at least, they were nowhere to be found in the Bioware forum thread where he posted his remarks. The thread was about Bioware's confirmation that there would be same-sex romances in Dragon Age 2, and reactions ran the gamut from "meh" to "yay!" Nowhere in said gamut did I see anyone suggest that the romances shouldn't be included. Gaider's response was to someone claiming there were a lot of homophobic people on the Bioware Social Network.

So yeah, not much of a controversy. I'm not accusing Gaider or the blogs of erecting a straw man here. I just think it's too bad that these unnamed critics - if they do exist - didn't show up. Because I think there are some legitimate concerns about including same-sex romances in a fantasy RPG. And by "legitimate," I mean concerns not motivated by homophobia.

For the record, I think it's a welcome sign that mainstream video games can include same-sex relationships, and I commend Bioware for their efforts to be inclusive. That said, I think there's a pretty clear tension between trying to be inclusive and satisfying an RPG's other goals.

Most obviously, Dragon Age and most other RPGs are modeled on medieval Europe, so the presence of modern attitudes about sexuality stands out as a glaring anachronism. Dragon Age in particular is billed as a gritty, realistic RPG. Does that mean it has to be set in a world that's oppressive to minorities? No, but it does mean that there needs to be some sort of explanation for why the story's hero can have a gay relationship without anyone in his hardened (oh, stop it) group of companions batting an eye. Of course, that's quite a writing challenge. How do you reconcile enlightened sexual attitudes with a world that's ostensibly inspired by GRR Martin?

But if it's difficult to build a medieval world with modern values, the alternative is a complete non-starter. Personally, I think it would be interesting to roleplay a gay person in a hostile medieval society, but I can't imagine any major game company would want to give me that opportunity. To this day, there's controversy over the use of the N-word in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If people are bowdlerizing the works of Twain to remove offensive words - words that are undeniably accurate reflection of an unalterable past - there's no way a game company is going to voluntarily invent a world in which bigotry is widespread.

Of course, none of this matters as much if it's true that the romances in question "need to be actively pursued by the player in order to be experienced." That's often not the case, however. Typically the PC is presented with an opening to kick off the romance, which usually means a bit of dialogue in which the love interest announces his or her intentions. This dialogue can't be too subtle, or the player is liable to go down the wrong path without realizing it - either missing out on the romance completely or facing a more obvious (and awkward!) romantic moment.

In the end, the game may not be forcing the PC into a romance, but it is forcing the player to learn about the sexual orientation of all potential love interests - and that, for the reasons stated above, is bound to impact the player's perception of the setting.

It must also be said that with the need to introduce multiple romance options for straight characters and the added options for gay characters, the player could get the impression that the PC is constantly being hit on. If not done well, there's the potential for the game to start feeling like a dating sim rather than an RPG.

Having said all that, I do appreciate RPG romances in general and support same-sex romances in Dragon Age, with obvious reservations. And regardless of what I think, same-sex romances are here to stay - in Bioware games, at least. They may not be what every player wants, but the players that do want them are obviously very passionate about it.

However, I do think there's a price to be paid for inclusion, and in many cases, that price is a watered-down setting. It's not hard to understand why many developers choose not to include romances, same-sex or otherwise. Love is complicated in RPGs. As in life.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry. Messed up the original post I made.

    ~ Alazander

  3. Hey just found the blog so catching up. One line here that caught my eye:

    "If people are bowdlerizing the works of Twain to remove offensive words - words that are undeniably accurate reflection of an unalterable past - there's no way a game company is going to voluntarily invent a world in which bigotry is widespread."

    I guess in an absolutest sense, history is unalterable. However, the interpretation of history is altered all the time, as in your example of the editing of Huck Finn. Sadly - and sometimes interestingly - histories or biographies say more about the period in which they are written than the period they are written about. But that's another topic...

  4. I think we too closely link the idea of fantasy RPG's with ideas of Medieval Europe. It's somewhat of a natural assumption I suppose, but just because everyone is running around with swords and shields doesn't mean philosophies on life in another (fantasy) world have to be ‘Medieval’. Particularly a world in which societies and religions differ so much from the predominantly catholic mindset of people in Europe at that time. Many cultures existed at a similar level of technology as medieval Europe in which same sex relationships were not so much a taboo, Japan being an example. I guess I see the current conception we have of ‘gay’ and ‘hetro’ as being shaped through the framing device of Christianity. A world (or state) governed by different beliefs would by no means have to mirror European history in aspects of culture and even a socially conservative society doesn’t have to equate to a sexually conservative one. I think the predominance of settings a little too much like medieval Europe without proper justification in game/novel has become uncomfortable and limiting. I like that fantasy can be used to explore different mindsets as well as locations. I don’t think role play and immersion have to be at odds, but I do think at the end of the day a good RPG errs on the side of role play, the ability to choose, because it’s why people love the genre.