Welcome to the Games Section’s second monthly roundtable! Every month we will address a pressing issue in the world of gaming. This month, the month of sugary hearts and boxes of chocolate, we are talking about love in games. What works, what doesn’t, and what games got us going. Have additions to our lists? Join in the conversation below!
What type of game do you play the most?
Wendy: Roleplaying games.
Claire: Maybe it is split between “cute” and “existential?” Or fighting games. I don’t know.
Al: It’s hard to say. I have logged the most hours in The Sims franchise, but I’ve been playing that since I was wee. I’ve probably purchased and played mostly sandbox RPGs and shooters.
Jules: These days it’s mostly strategy and simulation games as well as RPGs and the occasional FPS thrown in.
What game has the best romance options?
Wendy: Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Dammit BioWare! Their romance options (of which I have had many) continue to improve, and they vehemently shun gamers who disagree with romances that aren’t the typical heterosexual fare. The options have also improved in terms of how they are presented, providing scenarios that are more and more unique to each character and go into greater depth and maturity than just a final roll in the sack (unless a roll in the sack is the way a particular character likes it).
Obsidian Entertainment already did this in 2010, with Alpha Protocol, where the main character is not guaranteed friendship, much less romance, with the women in the game. You actually have to treat them appropriately and understand what makes them tick if you want their respect and possibly their affection. BioWare has since caught up, and I was very pleased with the recent Dragon Age: Inquisition, which puts higher stakes on romances. In older games, just picking the right phrases or giving gifts guaranteed you 100% affection. But, even if you do everything “right” in Inquisition, there is a chance that your Inquisitor will end up alone on Valentine’s Day. Some fans aren’t happy with the idea of their pixel boy or girlfriends breaking up with them, but I don’t mind the potential for heartbreak, as it makes the game that much richer.
Claire: In Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker you can make rugged soldiers do it in a box on the beach? Much better than the romance I experience in my precious scrolling beaters. I remember playing Overlord with my housemate in university and being completely gobsmacked that you could choose to date this woman or that woman. And then that you could have SEX. That was so completely outside of my conception of “games.” I voted for the “evil woman” option, because both were so fetishised and characterless that at least the bad one didn’t make me feel like “I” couldn’t get revenge on the game at large.
Jo: I feel like romance is really difficult to express, and giving a player a menu of choices is almost like guaranteeing you won’t be 100% satisfied. I love Mass Effect, but the inroads I made in 2 were destroyed in 3, where just idly talking to a person (like that awful on-ship reporter) can result in accidental shower sex. I feel the same way about a lot of games with romance options—if you can reload a save just to get a better choice (or use a walkthrough, you monster), does the romance have any meaning, really? So let’s go with Final Fantasy 7, where the romance option is more philosophical than actually romantic.
Al: Jo, my first email address was about Cloud and Aerith. So intense.
Jo: Full disclosure: I may or may not have lost a bet in regards to the release year of Kingdom Hearts III, and I owe someone a Cloud/Aerith fanfic.
Al: This was the hardest question for me. I DON’T KNOW! I suppose I’d probably also go with Mass Effect. I would hesitate less if Jack has turned out to be gay.
Jules: I’ve honestly not played that many games with romance options aside from the aforementioned Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, but oddly enough I didn’t mind the “Girlfriends” system in Sleeping Dogs. It’s less romance, more casual fling options, and there is definitely some amount of grossness in how dating the women you meet unlocks certain bonuses for you on your minimap; however, digging deeper actually points out the triviality and ludicrousness of any dating system in an open world GTA-like game.
Looking through your records on each of the women, their descriptions for most of them illustrate that you as the main character were also just a fling to them as well, a cheap thrill being a tough Triad member. Wei, the main character, also being an undercover cop, mentions upfront frequently that romance is not a good option for anybody involved to the women he meets. And finally, if you do date every single available woman in the game, it all comes back to bite you in the ass as you get dumped and left high and dry because of your actions.
I don’t want to call it a good system, but I’m glad it had its holes pointed out. It definitely feels like a series of options shoved in for the sake of it, and the writers had fun demonstrating that any main character written for a seedy-criminal-underworld-drama video game is just not the sort of person you want to be involved with.
When romancing in games, how do you pick which character to romance?
Wendy: Whichever ones feel right. Usually, if romance is an option, then there are all sorts of opportunities to get to know the characters and see which one clicks with how I am roleplaying my main character. If I play the game again with a different character, I may choose someone completely different.
Claire: This has never happened, that I can recall. I guess I would pick whoever I shipped the player character with the most?
Wendy: How could you not try to romance Vice President Keith David? It’s Keith David! I would have been happy just reading porn mags with him on the ship all day.
Al: Well, I usually don’t have many options. I play my characters as lesbians, so either there is no one to romance, or one person to romance. As Wendy has pointed out, Bioware commits a lot of thought and time to these sidequests, so I do have options in their games. And I chose Liara, because blue (OK, and her brains).
Jules: They’ve gotta make me laugh. If they’re charming, a decent enough person, and have some killer dialogue then they’re most likely going to be the character I try to romance the pants off of.
If romancing is an option, do you ever not take it?
Wendy: In theory, yes, but usually I fail because flirting is just so fun. Hell, I’ve even modded games just so I can romance eeeeeveryone, because monogamy is so dull. I did make a point of not getting with anyone in Alpha Protocol, but then SIE happened (right). She is a deliciously sexy older woman who knows exactly what she wants and is not afraid to take it, even in the most inappropriate and shocking ways.
Al: I have never not romanced a character if romancing was an option. My Sims always have intense love affairs, my Fable III character married every woman in the land, and I replayed the Mass Effect series almost entirely so that I could do different romance options. This is not because of some obsession with romance between pixels, but because I am consumed with desire for achievements, and possibilities.
Jules: I’m with Al on this one. Usually, the only time I don’t romance a character is because I’ve either already romanced them or I’ve played through/seen all of the endings for all of the other options.
What makes romance in a game good?
Wendy: I enjoy the romance options most when they are organic and there’s an opportunity to build a friendship with the characters. If I’m not in control of the story when it comes to the romance, then I want that plot element to make sense. I want to believe these characters have a good reason to be together and I want to feel something if they are torn apart, as I did with Jim Raynor and the Queen of Blades in Starcraft II. I want their romance to be as integral to the story as everything else.
Al: Ugh, Wendy, my heart. Sarah Kerrigan was too much woman (and evil) for Raynor. It still hurts.
Wendy: Evil? Was she really? I would be kinda mad too if I got dumped in a swarm and left to die.
Al: True, true. Okay, vengeful. I think the comics play up the more aggressive aspects a bit more, but, yea, they deserve it.
Jo: I started in on a long rant about the perfect romance in the perfect game, then saw that it was a question below, and reined myself in. I always prefer a wonky romance, that’s well developed with character interactions, and makes me feel like I’m being romanced too. I like when both characters get a chance to be proactive, and when sometimes the “right” decision doesn’t matter.
Al: Basically, not Fable. While the Fable franchise is a well-crafted bunch of games, their romance is entirely pointless. I had like ten thousand wives and just threw money at them to fill in the time (but I am super pleased that those games let me be super gay). It needs to seem like those characters may actually have a real connection and that it’s not just the outcome of my successful button-mashing/conversation-pathing (even though it always is).
Jules: I want the romance to earn my emotions, dammit. I want things to be referenced back to. I want there to be banter and lingo only me and my pixelated partner would understand, the ability to be frustrated with them and for them to be frustrated with me. I want romance in games to feel like an actual partnership, with mistakes and consequences.
I recently played a browser-based text game made with TiddlyWiki called Venus Meets Venus which centers around a lesbian cis woman meeting and, for the first time, dating a queer transgender woman. In that, there is a perfect demonstration of this with little asides that detail second and third and eighth and twelfth dates between the two characters, and afterwards they still refer back to those moments as in-jokes that any couple would have.
Also I wouldn’t mind more polyamorous options built in for those interested; I totally get it’s not for everyone, but I know plenty of people who would like to see that make an appearance as some sort of mechanic.
What makes romance in a game bad?
Wendy: When there’s just no reason for it. When it’s shoehorned into the story for the sake of having a romance option and pixelized boobs (unless done so satirically, as with Saints Row IV). For the most part, I’ve not played any games where the romance is bad though. At worse, I had some issue with Mass Effect 3, because I felt like some great friendship moments are lost if you chose romance. Instead, you get the sexy talk. And and sometimes Commander Shepard just really needs a hug, okay Garrus? Not every romance is about sexy times… excuse me… I need a moment…
Jo: He researched human mating rituals for you, Wendy! He put in the time! He got music! If there had been a paragon option for “Garrus, make me a mixtape,” he would’ve busted out the Barry White for all of us all of us in the Garrus Vakarian fan club)!
Wendy: But then when I just wanted to talk, he was all about the calibrations! And once he wasn’t even at his post. He was off having drinks and smokes with Liara. They were totally talking about what Shepard is like in bed. I know it!
Al: I don’t know. I think it’s the calibrations talk that really got me in the sack.
Jo: A friend of mine once confessed to our group that she doesn’t get Shepard/Garrus, because she saw him more as a brother than a lover. I am very curious, as a result, of the spread here: who tapped Garrus to lead the squad at the end of 2? I certainly did; because I trusted him most.
Al: Pfft, I did, for sure.
Jo: I think two elements make for a really good romance: player agency and player investment. When you interact with a NPC, the reactions should feel natural, and I’ve played one or two games where the AI’s response is nonsense. Similarly, if you’re playing a game where you’re rescuing someone beloved (Transistor and Machinarium come immediately to mind), the act of playing the game is the act of rescuing the person, engaging with the romance. If the person in the tower’s not worth it, it doesn’t matter how good the game is; the raison de game is gone.
Al: If I’m defining “romance” widely, and I am, there is a lot of the bad stuff in video games. Sex is everywhere, and so is the objectification of women. There are so many games with “eye candy,” and a multitude with straight-up brothels. Max Payne III, The Darkness II, The Witcher II for some examples. What is the point? It usually doesn’t progress the story in any meaningful way. At least in The Darkness’ case, the game points out how much “suffering” there is in the brothel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sex workers rights, but it’s rarely portrayed in a healthy or purposeful way in gaming.
Wendy: Oh come on. You didn’t try to collect all the romance cards in The Witcher?
Wendy: Oh oh! I almost forgot to complain about Kaidan in Mass Effect. You can learn a lot about all the characters from talking to them, but with a female Shepard, Kaidan eventually equates talking with flirting. What started as an interesting friendship and gets kind of creepy as the series progresses. He also refused my threesome with Liara offer, which pretty much sealed his Virmire fate.
Al: So true. I really do believe that he is the worst. WHAT A FOOL!
Favorite romance moment?
Wendy: When Alistair confesses his love in Dragon Age: Origins. His character is just so honest and sweet and when he says, “Maker’s breath, but you’re beautiful,” you know he means it with all his heart. I have played this game several times and have told myself I would not romance him again. But then… Maker’s breath…
I played Darkness II specifically because of the romance. I didn’t play the prequel, but after hearing about it, I did watch its most romantic scene, which is just two people enjoying each other’s company. From this, the main character’s motivations were clear to me, and I appreciated all the moments in Darkness II where Jackie talks about Jenny or sees her in a dream. There is even a romantic achievement that you can earn by not taking the obvious option (it is interesting to note that few people have earned this achievement). When they are finally reunited, I had to let Jackie hold Jenny the longest time.
Jo: The end of Transistor. The player has been controlling Red the whole time. Your sword talks in your ear, tries to comfort you when you’re upset, and even shows vulnerability of his own. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t played the game, but when your rescue attempt goes awry and the ending happens, beyond your control, I melted into a puddle just thinking of the times we’d already shared.
Al: The entirety of Shadow of the Colossus. That game is everything I believe in when it comes to romance.
Jules: I mentioned Venus Meets Venus before and it crosses my mind here again. The game follows their relationship and all the ups and downs you would find in most new couples as well as the unique roads you travel down dating any trans person. It’s an incredibly sweet and honest game that’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking and describes itself as “not a love story.” And it’s not; it’s simply a story of two people meeting and the bliss and mistakes they experience. One of the things I love about it is the descriptive nature of things we simply take for granted in any relationship, and for me it’s this particular aside of how much a spare key matters.
Does mating/romancing/partnering options in games add anything to the game experience for you? Why or why not?
Wendy: Well, now that I’m a BioWare junkie, yes, the experiences mean a lot to me, and I pout when I find a cute character in another game that I’m not permitted to romance and am forced to create headcanon about instead. But it’s not just about romance. I love the opportunity to simply get to know these pixel people when they are well written and develop as the game progresses. I walk into these games expecting good stories and characters. Romance is just icing on the cake.
Jo: Romance, I think, can be a great part of a story, but can sometimes (to me) feel like the game is shipping itself (Fire Emblem: Awakening). But it all wraps in with story for me, and I can play a great game without and a great game with. I guess I never end a game thinking, “Gee, it’s too bad X and Y didn’t get their cuddle on.” A nuanced, lovely friendship is just as impactful as a well-done romance.
Al: Sometimes I think witnessing romance between the characters can be really powerful and move the story along. In Gears of War, when Dom is reunited with the husk of his wife Maria, it is an incredibly powerful moment. The entire reason that Dom entered the COG was to support her and their two children. Then his kids are killed and he has a very personal reason to defeat the locusts. Maria sinks deeply into depression and eventually wanders out of society, leaving Dom to only wonder about where she could be. Finally, he finds her and she has been lobotomized. There are moments of him seeing her the way she was before he mercy kills her. I don’t know about other players, but I really wanted to kill some Locust hordes right then and there, real motivation.
Jules: I think everyone else has put it best; it’s about fleshing out characters more often than not, and romance options just happen to be one of the simplest ways for games to achieve that. It’s a simple Point A to Point B system in terms of meeting a character and becoming infatuated with them; therefore, there must be a lot more to them for you to discover for it to matter. So, in that sense, romance can be important to me in a game, but it can also feel too forced and ham-fisted and frankly offensive sometimes when it’s done more as lip service than anything else. Honestly, right now I’m more interested in friendships and rivalries and other platonic relationships to be depicted in games with any sense of weight and meaning.