How Can Romance Storylines Be More Engaging?

Crossposted at The Border House.

This post contains some major end-game spoilers for Dragon Age as well as some minor character-related spoilers for Mass Effect 2.

Between Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, there’s been a lot of talk about romance storylines in games over the past several months. They are still something of a novelty, and many people feel passionately about them, so it’s not surprising that they get so much attention. On the other hand, romance storylines tend to all progress in the same linear fashion*: pick a character you like, engage in some (sometimes adorable, sometimes hilariously bad, always entertaining) flirting, eventually have sex or get married or both. This is a shame because there is a lot of potential to really tug at players’ emotions by integrating romance more deeply into a game’s story and changing up the linear progression. (I’m focusing on BioWare-style romances for this post; for a take on breaking out of that structure, this column by Emily Short is a must-read.)

One issue here can be mitigated by opening up roleplaying options. Every game that has romance options has fans that are annoyed because they couldn’t romance their favorite character. Unless a developer has the time, resources, and inclination to make every character romanceable (which I don’t think is necessarily a good solution), someone’s going to be mad. But even if certain characters would never be interested in the PC, why isn’t the PC able to express his or her interest in another character? Is that too misleading? Why not have dialogue options that let the player flirt with a character they like, even if it results in rejection? Commenter Mantheos suggested this as a way to acknowledge that the PC could be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, even if there aren’t any actual same-sex romances (though ideally there should always be at least one potential same-sex romance available, preferably the same number as opposite-sex romance partners), but the idea can be extended to allow more interesting roleplaying options across the board. Dragon Age in particular has a lot of dialogue options that don’t matter very much to the story, but are available in order to allow the player to roleplay their character, to choose how the character would express themselves. There’s no reason this consideration shouldn’t extend to flirting. Mass Effect 2 actually comes close to doing this at one point–in talking with Samara about being a Justicar, you can ask whether or not the Code forbids romantic relationships; she says it does not, but she considers that part of her life “over.” You can then suggest that, hey, you never know, but she insists this is the case–though she appreciates that you asked!

But what I would really like to see are romance storylines that are better integrated into the overall plot of the game. Not to the extent that they are mandatory (not everyone likes them, and people should be able to play asexual or uninterested characters if they want), but it would be interesting and fun for these relationships to have a bigger impact on the overall story. Dragon Age does this a bit, but unfortunately only if you’re a female character romancing Alistair. (Fair warning: I’m about to spoil the romance story as well as some key end-game stuff.) Alistair is the bastard son of the deceased king’s father, making him, according to some, the rightful heir to the throne of Ferelden, and since much of the middle of the story revolves around resolving the power struggle around the vacant throne, any relationship with this guy is going to get complicated. (Since the PC can only romance Alistair as a woman, I’m going to assume a female Warden in the following synopsis.) At the Landsmeet–a meeting of the nobles of Ferelden called to decide who should take the throne–the Warden can back either Anora, the king’s widow and former war hero Loghain’s daughter, or Alistair for the throne, or convince Alistair and Anora to marry. Or, if you’re a particularly persuasive human noble, you can even make Alistair king and announce that you’ll be his queen. So the relationship has a big impact on this plot point. If Alistair is in love with the Warden, it’s going to take some convincing to have him marry Anora–and if she tries to remain his mistress, it doesn’t work out. On the other hand, if the Warden is in a relationship with Alistair, she has motivation to not make him king, which he’s stated he doesn’t want, anyway. (That’s not even all the possibilities; definitely read Chris Dahlen’s “Chasing Alistair” and the comments.) The other major plot point that is affected by the relationship is the ending: the relationship gives a pretty strong motivation for the Warden to make the “Dark Promise” with Morrigan so that both she and Alistair survive the final battle; if she doesn’t make the deal, there is nothing she can say that will convince Alistair to let her sacrifice herself–he will always die for her.

A relationship between Alistair and a female Warden adds a layer of complexity to some of the end-game plot points because it is so intertwined with the plot. (Contrast this with the romance storylines in ME2, which don’t appear to affect anything, not even the companion’s loyalty level.) Unfortunately, this is the only romance storyline that gets this sort of treatment. Of course, some characters are going to be more deeply involved in a game’s plot than others, and this sort of thing can get very complex very quickly, but even so, it would be nice to see more romance storylines that aren’t completely separate from the main plot.

The other way to make romance storylines less predictable is, obviously, to shake up the formula of flirting -> kiss -> sex -> end. A great way to open up the possibilities here is to reject the commodity model of sex that I’ve written about before in relation to video games. Mass Effect 2 still very much buys into this model–the sex is still the endpoint, the goal of the relationship.

Dragon Age, on the other hand, avoids relying on the commodity model almost entirely. The progression of the relationship is different for each character. For example, Zevran “may be easy to bed, but it is inversely difficult to win his heart”, as Denis so wonderfully put it. The romance with Alistair follows a bit more of a traditional arc, but the sex is neither the goal nor the final development. For all the characters, the development is interesting and natural, making the storylines far more engaging and rewarding to play than the cheesy pickup lines in ME2.

The only stumble is the gift system. I agree with Dan Bruno’s criticisms to an extent, though I think with some tweaks, it could be good. The problems only arise if you break out of roleplaying (though Dan is right that characters should react appropriately to inappropriate gifts), or try to game the system. You can’t just give a character flowers, you have to find out what they like (generally by guessing–one improvement that could be made is to give the player the ability to find out what a character likes through conversation or squad banter), and even appropriate gifts have diminishing returns. It’s even possible to find gifts that are related to the conversations you have with the characters, and these trigger special dialogue. Gift-giving is imperfect, but it adds some necessary flexibility to the approval system, as well as an additional way for PCs to express their affection.

The usual progression can not only be mixed up, it can be done away with altogether. Who says romance plotlines always have to have a happy ending? It’s going to make players angry, but at the same time, tragedies can be even more emotionally involving. You can already “cheat” on your lovers–what if an NPC cheated on you? To get back to my point about tying romance in to the plot, what if an NPC used your affection to benefit their own ends? Players are always going to want “happily ever after,” but there are so many more possibilities.

The key here is to make the “bad” endings the result of both the characters’ personalities and the player’s (mostly) informed decisions; Dragon Age generally succeeds in this when things end badly (how the game often punishes characters for sacrifice and rewards them for being selfish could be an entire post on its own–it’s a surprisingly cynical game that is honest about how much it was influenced by George R. R. Martin (this is a compliment)). Alistair refusing to keep the Warden as his mistress is in total keeping with his character, as is him deciding to sacrifice himself; both of these things are also avoidable results of the player’s informed choices, the first about making Alistair king, and the second about refusing to make the deal with Morrigan. Neither of those choices are easy, but that’s why the end-game events of DA are so gripping and often heart-wrenching.

Romance storylines aren’t currently being used to their full potential, although Dragon Age made a lot of progress. There are many ways romance plots can be expanded upon and made even more interesting, and I look forward to seeing if any game developers, particularly the DA team, make strides toward realizing that potential. What do you think? Are there any games that already break the mold for video game romances? What other ways can they be improved?

Many thanks to Kateri for compiling a massive list of posts about Dragon Age, from which I stole most of the articles linked above.

* Disclaimer: Other than the aforementioned BioWare titles (plus the first ME and KOTOR), I’ve really only played one other game with the sort of romance plot I’m talking about, and that’s Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. If there are more, or if you have examples of games that do change up the formula, please mention them in the comments.


7 thoughts on “How Can Romance Storylines Be More Engaging?

  1. I’ve only read about it, but ME2’s Jack has a sort of nuance to her; the PC romancing her can have sex with her very quickly, but she’ll never talk to you again.

    Going all-Paragon rewards you with a much more romantic ending.

    Only a quarter of the way through ME1. It’s amusing how the source material tells you the Ansari are unfairly stereotyped as sexually promiscuous, which is only a myth made up by horny men.

    And then about 90% of the Ansari you actually meet are courtesans and strippers.

    I’d have liked the chance to romance the British ship’s doctor. She’s much older, but very classy.

    • I’m not sure I’d hold up Subject Zero as an example of a “mold breaking” NPC romance. I certainly wouldn’t bill it as challenging the “commodity model” of sex which Alex mentions above.

      You get the opportunity, fairly early on, to have perfectly healthy sex with Jack, in which she is a full and enthusiastic participant. If you accept (the “Renegade” option) she never talks to you again. If you refuse (the “Paragon” option) she comes to you later *in tears* telling you that you were *right all along* and then *lies there weeping while you bang her*.

      The whole thing is entirely rooted in the commodity model. Having sex with her when she initially propositions you is the Renegade option because you’re “taking” sex from her without having done anything to “deserve” it. In the Paragon version, you play by “the rules” and receive sex as a reward.

      It’s even more skeevy when you take into account the fact that despite being explicitly bisexual (or at least, explicitly having had sexual relationships with women in the past) Jack can only be Romanced by male characters. The whole thing has this horrible “emotionally damaged Bad Girl needs a man to save her” vibe that really bothers me.

      • I sarcastically describe it as “He heals her with his magical penis!” Ugh.

        I hadn’t thought of it as being the flip side of how we usually see the commodity model, but that totally makes sense.

  2. I’m not sure I’d count the Alistair romance as being integrated into the main plot. *Alistair* is integrated into the main plot, and romancing him puts a new perspective on that plotline, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t change the *events* all that much.

    Thinking about it, what you get with Alistair is very much the opposite, it’s not that the romance is integrated into the plot, it’s that the plot is integrated into the romance. When you romance Alistair, you romance the heir to the throne, and it’s theoretically possible for your relationship to end with you letting Anora execute him.

    Ironically, some of the most satisfying and nuanced romances I’ve seen in RPGs have been the result of bugs or unfinished endings.

    For example, in /Neverwinter Nights II: Mask of the Betrayer/ you can romance Gann of Dreams, but a bug prevents you from getting the “real” romance ending, so you get the Declaration scene, but in the end he still wanders off and leaves you, which I thought was genuinely heartbreaking, and weirdly mature. Once you patch the game, the romance plot ends up with you getting married back in Thingy Harbour (didn’t that get burned down?) which is just stupid.

    My favourite romance arc, though was Carth Onassi in KotOR, if you take the Female Revan/Dark Side options. You have this whole big arc where he learns to trust you, then falls in love with you, then you betray him, then (if you completed the Romance arc) there’s an extra final scene where he confronts you on the Star Forge and plays the “I know there’s good in you!” card at which point you have *no option but to kill him*. Apparently they were going to implement an option where you repented at the last minute, but didn’t have time.

    Most generally, I think the trick here might be to avoid seeing “the romance” and “the plot” as separate things. Rather than having “player romances X” and “player defeats villain” as separate storylines, have “player defeats villain while romancing x” as a single storyline. This is broadly how it works in /Dragon Age/ – Alistair *is* the main plot, and you can fall in love with him as part of that. Otherwise your romance plots wind up being – in essence – sidequests.

    • Totally agreed–romances have the potential to be so much more interesting and engaging when they aren’t treated as completely separate sidequests.

      I started playing KotOR recently, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the romances play out. Everything I’ve heard sounds awesome.

      Thanks for commenting! =)

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