Sunday, February 6, 2011

Building a better video game romance

Ever since Baldur's Gate 2 introduced players to the charms of Aerie, Jaheira, Viconia, and Anomen, romances have generated more discussion than just about any other feature I can think of. It's almost gotten to the point where the subject deserves its own Bioware forum, where players can knock themselves out speculating about who's romanceable, sharing tips on how to get the "best" results, and generally engaging in a lot of fantasy kissing-and-telling.

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.

For me, the inclusion of romances in RPGs seems natural. RPGs are supposed to offer the opportunity to live a different life - why shouldn't that include one of the things that makes life worth living? In fact, you could argue that a game like Dragon Age - with all its romantic content - doesn't go far enough. If it truly and accurately modeled human needs and desires, we'd be spending a lot more of our time working on our relationships with Morrigan or Alistair, and a lot less time working on our Herbalism skills.

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 pickup
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.

Speed dating
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.
Probably more importantly, there was a level of abstraction in older RPGs that encouraged players to "fill in the blanks" with their own imaginations. Watching your party from a zoomed out perspective, it was easy to imagine conversations taking place down below that weren't represented in-game. In contrast, a highly cinematic game like Dragon Age makes you feel like it's all there - that if it wasn't voice acted, it didn't happen.

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
"Hopelessly Romantic"
In Baldur's Gate 2, the love interests ran the PC through a romantic gauntlet where one wrong response could derail the whole thing. Ever since, players have treated romances as a minigame whose ultimate goal is sex. Dragon Age: Origins went so far as to reward the player with an achievement for bedding each love interest - and one, called "Hopelessly Romantic," for doing the nasty with all of them (over multiple games, thankfully).

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.


  1. Every second day I find another interesting post here, incredible.
    I'm a sucker for romances myself and agree with you on the quality and how predictable they've become, even though I admit Leliana managed to break my heart once more, even though I knew exactly how Bioware romances work today.

    However, ME2 was the first game I couldn't stand another romance in anymore and skipped that whole part. I saw the scenes on the tube of course, and yes, thrill is gone, just laughing about Miranda's bra.

    I was thinking about how to change that formula myself, and as an example the Witcher comes to mind. Basically Triss: sex first, romance later - or rather, it's assumed the two love interests already had their time with Geralt in the past and he just needs to warm up the romance. I think it still worked well, it's not that the first "climax" right at the beginning of the game ruined the interest in her in any way.

    Or how many romances begin with a one-night stand and build up from there - you meet companion X in a bar first, can have a few drinks, spend the night together, from then on it's decision time, she could join up with you, you can build up on it, or she just goes her way and done. Of course this doesn't really match many people's (maybe a bit naive) idea of an ideal romance, but it's just realistic - and there can still be that other companion that uses the Bioware standard.

  2. Great point, Casa. BioWare romances are always heavily idealized to the point where they've become very predictable in their structure. I suppose this is more a criticism of BioWare in general than the concept of romances in RPGs, but seeing as no else is doing them, it's hard to disconnect the two. I often say I’m not fond of romances in RPGs – perhaps it would be fairer to say I’m not fond of the archetypal BioWare romance. The amount of air time they receive on the forums irritates me no end. But I’m 29 and happily married, so maybe that’s the inevitable result of becoming older and curmudgeonly.

    The best romance I can remember was Annah from PST. As Mat said, there was no sexual consummation and the relationship was often tumultuous, but the one line of dialogue near the end of the game where the Transcendent One reveals that she fought desperately to protect you before she died moved me more than any romance in a BioWare game.

  3. I also greatly enjoyed the Annah "romance", even though I'd say it too was far too short to be a believable... well, romance. But just that one interaction that you have with Annah, where you can kiss/bite her. That little interaction contained more fire than most other romances combined. Perhaps a combination of the odd setting/characters, great writing and sort of allowing the player to actively *do* something back to the fiery Annah, not just being a watcher. Not sure.

    I think most romances fall flat, there are few I can remember liking. I actually liked Morrigan, not because I enjoyed the actual *romancing* (I think a lot of it is pretty banal), but because she could never be swayed from her goals despite romancing you. There was no "living happily ever after", and I think I can gravitate towards those things more.

    Also, I think Alpha Protocol was excellent in the romancing department. Again, because it didn't feel like any huge proclamations of love were made, no living together for eternity. Even the most "involved" one (with Mina) still feels born out of passion and even desperation. It's more a romantic encounter than a full romance, and I think that worked so much better given the limited time-frame.

  4. I haven't played Alpha Protocol yet, but what you described seems to follow with Chris Avellone's philosophy on romance which, I'm guessing, closely mirrors my own. The modern RPG is too short for a formulaic modern day-analogous romance to work without coming across as somewhat twee and banal, in my opinion. Mat's observation about older RPGs abstracting events – even given their greater play-time – was fantastically astute, and perhaps gives root to my sentiment that modern day romances are inept when compared to something like BG2.

  5. Casa, thanks for the compliment, and for bringing up The Witcher. Had I thought of it, I would have mentioned that in my post. Definitely a different approach to romance, and though Geralt's escapades were often cringeworthy, it worked for me. I hope they do something similar for Witcher 2, minus some of the cheese.

  6. I was also moved by the Annah romance, though my memories of it are vague. Of course, the whole denouement of that game was amazing, but I seem to recall feeling real pain when the Transcendent One is tormenting Annah by telling her that the Nameless One doesn't care about her. I wish I still had my old PST save games so I could go back and play through some of these parts.

    Thanks for the info on Alpha Protocol, Starwars. I'm coming to rely upon you to fill me in on games I haven't played (which include most of the non-fantasy RPGs). :-)

  7. If you want somebody to love you, then just be yourself. Some people try to act like somebody else, somebody the boy likes better. I think the boy isn't being very good if he does this to you and you should just find a nicer boy.