I, of course, am above all that. Sure, I have romanced all the female love interests in every Bioware game I've ever played, but that was just for the sake of cultural awareness, scholarly interest - you know, that sort of thing. Moving on...
One of the most interesting things about romances is the very fact that people find them so interesting. The knee-jerk reaction to this is that people who enjoy RPG romances are either sex-starved nerds clutching their 20-sided dice, or female. However, it's become increasingly obvious that not all RPG romantics can be pigeonholed that way.
But I'm not advocating for that, exactly. Rather, I'm advocating for better romances. Because as interesting as they already are, there's certainly room for improvement.
The pattern is familiar by now. A member of your party initiates conversation, but rather than talk about the latest quest, he or she wants to chit-chat about backstories, feelings, philosophy, or similar claptrap. It might start off as the sort of smalltalk you have with other companions, but then the conversations grow more and more intimate, and pretty soon a friendship is assumed to exist.
And then comes the pivot. A dialogue option pops up that allows you to express your romantic interest in the NPC. And from that point on, you are officially in a romance.
This setup works nicely as long as the option to start the romance is crystal clear to the player (as I pointed out in my post on gay romances, the last thing you want is for a player to wind up in a romance he or she didn't want). Also, the cumulative effect of multiple love interests each trying to chat up the PC can quickly devolve into soap opera if not handled well.
But beyond the pitfalls, there's the simple fact that this structure has become a little too familiar. Must the love interest always be a traveling companion? (Bioware has hinted that might not be the case in Dragon Age 2.) Also, must every romance spring from a friendship? A different approach would have the PC and love interest fall in love - or at least, lust - without the extended buildup. While bringing its own pitfalls, this in a way makes more sense for the compressed time frame of an RPG.
Once underway, romances tend to proceed at a dizzying pace. Baldur's Gate 2 could take players 200 hours or more to finish, leaving plenty of time for romances to develop in a way that seemed natural. But more recent cinematic RPGs like Dragon Age are less than half that long, leaving writers with the challenge of creating a believable romance in a few thousand words.
|The love interests of Baldur's Gate 2 - Aerie, Jaheira, Viconia, Anomen.|
The point is, romances need more content. Modders can, and have, helped with this by adding additional dialogue (including so-called "flirt packs") to flesh out romances. However, modders and game developers alike ought to consider going beyond the "talky" model of building a romance. If romances are really important, then they deserve their own quests - quests that focus on the romantic relationship and maybe give the PC and the romantic interest some alone time. If this means having fewer love interests overall, I think the result would be worth it.
"Winning" the romance
Unfortunately, because of the way expectations have been set, any romance that doesn't end in a sexual encounter risks being a disappointment for players. One wonders how the excellent Annah romance in Planescape: Torment would go over today, given that its physical apex was a kiss. My guess is, not that well. And yet given the length of recent RPGs, the Annah-style romance makes a lot of sense.
Barring a return to a more demure age (Planescape came out in 1999), game modders and developers should explore new paths for romances to follow and new ways for them to culminate. The steady climb toward copulation has become a predictable formula, and the minigame aspect of it - let's face it - is downright tacky.
Is the thrill gone?
Sadly, I found the romantic content of Dragon Age: Origins less satisfying than the pioneering love affairs of Baldur's Gate 2. My relationship with Morrigan was tarnished by a certain dark ritual at the end of the game and my metagame knowledge about how the whole thing was constructed. My affair with Leliana stalled due to a bug.
At first glance, that doesn't say much for the evolution of RPG romances as a feature. But as I said, rapid changes in the video game business are making romances more challenging (and expensive) to implement. Because of those difficulties, I don't know if full-blown romances will ever become the norm in RPGs. Right now, they're pretty rare outside of Bioware games. Which is too bad, because romances are an important feature for those of us who enjoy them.
But also, the craft of designing and writing RPG romances would benefit from some different perspectives. Right now, RPG romances are in a place where a lot of real-life romances find themselves from time to time - a rut. It's going to take some fresh thinking by game designers and modders to get them out.