Ah, romance. That thing two (and possibly more!) people share with one another. Those feelings of excitement and mystery!
Makes you sick just thinking about it, doesn’t it?
Romance appears in quite a number of role-playing games, most notably BioWare’s, who have even gotten in a bit of shit by some raging bigots who can’t stand the idea of same-sex romance options in a video game let alone real life. But let’s not get into that old debate.
Let’s get down to business; I have a love-hate relationship with romance options in video games. Here’s why.
For those unaware, love is a feeling of deep affection that someone shares for someone or something. Romantic love is the expression of love and in the context of this article romance implies the expression of strong emotional desires towards another person, in this case, your characters feelings towards one of the numerous non-playable characters in a video game.
Since BioWare’s got some recent games which all have romance options I’m just going to use that one for my primary example, but I shall also dabble into other games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and perhaps even The Witcher series.
I don’t actually love romance options in video games. In truth, I actually dislike them in their current format and I’ll explain why later but I enjoy the concept of romance options as yet another way to build depth and character into what may be a stagnant game.
In some games romance is an event that the story is deliberately driven to. The story is written in such a way that your character is “fated” to meet and engage in a romantic relationship with another character. This kind of romance has no real problems in my eyes, as the romance is deliberately used as a plot point. Naturally it can be portrayed badly but it’s all deliberate in the end. The player doesn’t get to choose who or why he has a romance, as the story is driven to it by force of the writer.
In other games, most notably BioWare’s titles, relationships are an option by which the character can engage or disengage at will, usually over the course of the game. You select a partner you wish to woo and you start wooing. Over the course of the game your character is ideally supposed to convince their chosen partner that they are, indeed, a lovable kind of guy (or gal). It’s a pretty straight-forward procedure and in the case of BioWare the climax is an achievement and one of those evil sex scenes you hear about on FOX News.
The purpose, or at least it’s concept, is to provide a bit more character to the story and the plot, and to add more “realism”, especially in games with war-torn environments where you may never see your loved ones again.
The idea of adding more depth to a game is wonderful. Pity it doesn’t actually happen.
As stated above, in BioWare’s games, you pick and choose a character you want to go out with and start trying to convince them to your way of thinking. You do this by choosing relevant dialogue options whilst talking to your chosen partner, more slowly unlocking as you progress through the game’s main storyline. By the end of the game you’ll reach the “epic climax” where you get your free achievement and hanky panky.
So why do I hate them? Why do they suck? Because they add no depth what-so-ever, which I always thought was their entire purpose. In all the games I’ve seen romance options they’ve either been about getting free stat bonuses for successfully romancing a character, getting a free maid to cook and clean my player-owned house or seeing some actually raunchy sex scenes (in an R18 game so no, not Mass Effect).
In BioWare’s games their purpose ultimately boils down to, as stated, a free achievement and me watching my character get touchy-feely with another character. The original Witcher title tries to do better by adding separate paths depending on who you romance (only two options) and it actually does add a bit of character depth but since you can basically have sex with every hooker in that game as many times as you want and get some weird collectible card for doing so, what’s the blazin’ point? In the second Witcher title you still only get two options but the sex scenes are far more raunchier (the first playthrough was an awkward experience, lemme tell you) and cheating on your original lover means absolute nothing.
Skyrim though… oh good lord, Skyrim. Skyrim has this really gimmicky “marriage” system where you wear an amulet which signifies how desperate you are and when someone else who’s as desperate as you notices the amulet, you guys go to a temple and get hitched, then your lover moves into your house and proceeds to be your kitchen bitch for the rest of eternity. That’s it. That’s really it. There’s no purpose to it, there’s no rhyme or reason, you just wear an amulet and get married! Just like real life!
Another seemingly minor issue is also the method in which you break-up, or disengage relationships. You can leave a relationship in a BioWare game pretty much at any time by simply saying you’re no longer interested in that person. You won’t be able to go out with them again and they might ignore you forever but you’ll be free to start a relationship up with any other character and screw their brains out, too! You damn player, you! It’s almost like playing Pokemon, only with the hearts of woman (or men, if you’re a BioWare fan): “Gotta sex ‘em all, Mass Erect!” (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist).
This is why I hate the romance system in games. For all the work and effort you put into trying to woo someone over, it all boils down to jack all. In older games characters could actually get a stat boost or some tangible reward which made romancing a viable tactic for powergamers but it’s always been a really tacky and shallow system.
Developers need to give romance options meaning and depth. They need to have a better reason than “We’re all about to die. Let’s have sex.” because otherwise they’re a big waste of time.
I don’t honestly care for the cheap cinematic at the end, nor do I care for an achievement that nobody else cares about. What I want from a romance is the ability to unlock more lore and information on the character I’m romancing. I want a system which rewards me with more in-depth knowledge of both my character and my characters partner. I want the romance to actually develop both characters and if I cheat on them or leave them then it needs to have real repercussions. It doesn’t have to be so-far as them being really shitty in combat (because they’ve gotten all depressed) but it needs to be far more than “Oh… okay then. I’ll sit here and watch as you screw that other guy then.”
I like the depth romance options could provide, but I feel no game has ever delivered.