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This month is Romance Month! All of our articles in April deal with romance or relationships (or both!) in games.
In 2000, BioWare and Black Isle Software released the second game in their acclaimed Baldur’s Gate series. Baldur’s Gate II built on the strengths of its predecessor: an expansive world, bold plot, an emphasis on player choice and agency, and a sly sense of humor. In particular, Baldur’s Gate II built on the original’s broad cast of vibrant non-player characters, reducing the number of NPC party members from twenty-five to seventeen, but giving each character unique side quests to pursue and unique side dialogue between party members. It also represented the first time that BioWare would explore the idea of “Romanceable” NPCs, which has since become a staple of their games.
In 2012, BioWare and Electronic Arts released the third game in their acclaimed Mass Effect series. Mass Effect 3 built on the strengths of its predecessors: an expansive, vibrant world, a bold plot, a continued emphasis on player choice and agency, and a sly sense of humor. Mass Effect 3 also built on the prior games’ broad cast of vibrant non-player characters, reducing the number of NPC party members from the second game’s whopping thirteen choices to six or seven (based on access to DLC and choices from prior games). It also represented a continuation of BioWare’s ongoing staple of “Romanceable” NPCs, which have become a staple not only of BioWare’s games, but of the Mass Effect universe in particular.
Comparing Baldur’s Gate II’s romances to Mass Effect’s is not only an interesting way to look at how BioWare as a company has changed over the past twelve years, but also the way that gamer culture and video games in general have changed.
Baldur’s Gate II offered three opportunities for male characters to find romance: Jaheira the half-elf Fighter/Druid, Aerie the elf Mage/Cleric, and Viconia the drow elf Cleric. Female characters were limited to a single romance choice: Anomen, the human Fighter/Cleric.
Mass Effect 3, on the other hand, offered male Shepards the chance to romance Ashley Williams, Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, Jack, and Steve Cortez. Female Shepards could romance Jacob Taylor, Garrus Vakarian, Thane Krios, and Samantha Traynor. Finally, both male and female Shepards could pursue romances with Liara T’soni, Kelly Chambers, Samara, Morinth, and Diana Allers. Kaiden Alenko is an interesting corner-case: in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, Kaidan was only romanceable as a female Shepard, but became available as a male romance option in Mass Effect 3. Finally, the Citadel DLC offered the chance for female Shepards to have brief flings with Javik and James Vega, two characters otherwise unavailable as romance.
Already, we see that the Mass Effect series offers a much broader choice of romance options. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Mass Effect 3 was the culmination of an trilogy’s worth of romantic subplots, whereas Baldur’s Gate II is only one game. More interesting, however, is the broader diversity not only of choice, but of substance: Mass Effect was not the first of BioWare’s games to offer a bisexual love interest (that would be 2005’s Jade Empire), or a lesbian love interest (2003’s Knights of the Old Republic), but Mass Effect 3 was the first to offer a male love interest who was exclusively homosexual (Steve Cortez).
One area where the Mass Effect series has not particularly improved upon Baldur’s Gate II is in the phenotypes of the female love interests. Despite the possibility of recruiting at least one non-attached female halfling (Mazzy) and one non-attached male dwarf (Korgan), Baldur’s Gate II’s romances all come down to some type of elf (if female) or a human (if male). Romance is not even possible unless the player character is either an elf, human, or half-elf.
Mass Effect’s universe has an even broader variety of phenotypes for their alien characters, ranging from the jellyfish-like Hanar to the diminutive Volus. All party members are by necessity either human or close to human, but even so, the male love interests offer a broader range of phenotypes, including a birdlike Turian, a green-skinned, reptilian Drell, and the opportunity for a brief fling with a four-eyed amphibianlike Prothean.
Female love interests, on the other hand, are all either human or near-human Asari (with one exception.) In fact, (according to Bioware themselves), Asari were designed to appeal to the “sexy green alien woman” archetype popularized by works such as Star Trek, but whose origins can be traced all the way back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.
The aforementioned exception to the human/near-human rule was the Quarian (Tali), whose design conceit was that she wore a face-concealing mask and that the player character was not privy to what her race looked like underneath. This was undone in Mass Effect 3, when the game creators notoriously used a mildly photoshopped stock photo of a female human model to represent Tali’s appearance under her mask.
The end result is that the female love interests’ phenotypes were retroactively reduced to a number of conventionally attractive female humans and near-humans, as opposed to the wide range of unusual alien designs used for the male love interests.
In the Baldur’s Gate games, the player character chose a party of up to six characters (including their player avatar), with whom they would interact throughout the entire game: both combat experiences in dungeons and non-combat experiences in town. Despite the large number of recruitable NPCs, players will normally only be able to recruit five at a time. The majority of inter-character interactions take place organically during normal gameplay.
In comparison, the Mass Effect games use a mission-based structure, using the Normandy as a hub between missions. Although only two NPCs can accompany you at any one time, all of the NPCs are available to interact with between missions, on board the Normandy. In fact, the majority of character interaction takes place during conversations on board the Normandy, in conversations initiated by the player.
This seemingly small change has larger consequences in the way the various romances play out. First of all, (with the exception of a few predetermined points), very few conversations are ever initiated by the love interest. (The major exceptions are most sex scenes, and the scene resolving possible love triangles in Mass Effect 1.) This places Shepard in the position of always being the one to pursue relationships. Whereas Baldur’s Gate II’s love interests often initiated conversations themselves, Mass Effect’s love interests are almost entirely passive due to a quirk of the hub-based game structure.
Secondly, the mission-based gameplay, combined with the shorter length of the games in general, means that the pace of Mass Effect’s various romances are much faster compared to Baldur’s Gate II. As an example: one love interest in the game (Dr. Liara T’Soni) can theoretically be recruited in one of the last missions in the game. In order to make this romance possible no matter what order the missions get played in, Shepard can achieve a deep, romantic relationship with Liara after a grand total of two oversations. Mass Effect 2 and 3 are somewhat better about this, but the overall pace of the romance feels truncated, compared to Baldur’s Gate II, where establishing a romance with a love interest can take upwards of thirty conversations over several hours of gameplay..
Secondly, the timing of various events is identical in the Mass Effect games. Sexual encounters will generally take place just before the final mission of the game. Mass Effect 2 confirms its romances within one or two conversations after completing the love interest’s loyalty mission. Baldur’s Gate II, due to its use of a real-world clock to determine when the next phase of a love interest’s relationship becomes unlocked, has a much more fluid feel (although this fluidity often led to strange quirks, like your love interest wanting to discuss the relationship in the middle of a desperate fight through monster-infested dungeons.)
The fact that all interaction between the love interest and player character takes place on the Normandy means that it is possible to romance an NPC whom you otherwise spend very little time with. This is in sharp contrast to Baldur’s Gate II, where the requirement to have the love interest in your party also means that you will witness their interactions with other NPCs and fight alongside them in combat.
Finally, Mass Effect mostly acknowledges that a particular character is your love interest through changes in dialogues and cutscenes. Baldur’s Gate II attempted a much deeper integration: for instance, it is possible to fail one romance due to decisions made in an in-game main quest (Anomen Delryn), which has no equivalent in the Mass Effect games. Most interestingly, Baldur’s Gate II altered the course of a late-game mission if you were in a romance by kidnapping your love interest and forcing you to engage in a lengthy side quest in order to bring them back. Again, Mass Effect has no such equivalent.
The first Mass Effect game was infamously referred to as a “hardcore pornography simulator” by an online columnist: certainly, the love scene in that game is arguably the most risque cutscene that BioWare has placed in any of their games. Given that sex and sexuality are parts of any romantic relationship, it is inevitable that the romances that BioWare chooses to write would also address the sexuality and sex lives of their participants.
Baldur’s Gate II explored a rather broad range of attitudes towards sexuality. Aerie’s romance, for instance, is largely chaste (until the Throne of Bhaal expansion, which we will get to later). In fact, sleeping with Aerie too soon causes her to mistrust you, and eventually leads to the relationship falling apart. On the other end of the scale is Viconia, whose romance is quite sexually charged, but eventually falls apart due to her personal issues with trust (a concept later re-explored with Dragon Age: Origins’ Morrigan.) Somewhere in the middle of the scale lie Jaheira and Anomen, both of whom are more than willing to engage in sex, and treat it as part of their relationship with you.
Although Mass Effect’s original three romances were rather bland in this regard, the romances explored in Mass Effect 2 are somewhat more nuanced. Garrus, for instance, originally views his sexual encounter with a female Shepard as a “means of blowing off steam,” but is more than willing to be convinced into a deeper relationship. Jack, on the other hand, comes from a background where she has been objectified sexually by people she thought she trusted: it is, in fact, possible to fail her romance by engaging in a casual fling by accepting sex with her too early. Romancing Tali forces the player to face the fact that sexual contact may be physically dangerous to their love interest, while Samara, as an Asari Justicar bound by a strict code of conduct that leaves no room for romance, will acknowledge her feelings for you but refuse to act on them in any way.
The one area where Mass Effect’s romances have not particularly improved upon Baldur’s Gate II’s may be in the consequences of sexual contact. None of BioWare’s games have really addressed the possibility of sexually transmitted disease, for instance (although Tali’s comes close, given that the character has a compromised immune system and must take great care before any sexual contact). In addition, none of BioWare’s games since Baldur’s Gate II’s expansion Throne of Bhaal have explored parenthood in the context of a romantic relationship.
Aerie’s romance in the Throne of Bhaal expansion remains the only romance in any of BioWare’s games where a player character and his love interest may conceive a child, carry it to term, and give birth. Granted, the net effect this plot has on gameplay is rather shallow, and amounts to the loss of an inventory slot and some conversations, but the fact that it was even explored was a step in the right direction. Many characters (for instance: Liara and Garrus) do discuss settling down and having families in the Mass Effect games, but (due to the scope of the games and the way the trilogy ends) exploring this isn’t really a possibility.
If there is one point where BioWare’s handling of sexuality has actually improved, it may be in their handling of sexual preference. Mass Effect 3 not only includes bisexual and strictly homosexual romances, but it was also one of the first games to alter the sexuality of a previously canonically heterosexual person to bisexual (Kaidan Alenko).
On the other hand, BioWare’s romances remain either strictly monogamous or serially so: probably the only time that BioWare explored polyamory in any sense was Jade Empire, and even then, only in the most perfunctory manner. That game allowed a male player character to pursue romances with both Silk Fox and Dawn Star (the two female love interests). At several points, the player is asked to make a choice between the two love interests. Refusing to do so until the end of the game while having a close relationship with both (and high enough Charm) would result in the two love interests becoming friends and entering into a shared relationship with the protagonist.
This is not exactly the deepest exploration of polyamory, but it did, at least, acknowledge that such relationships could exist. This is in contrast to BioWare’s other games, where polyamorous relationships were either impossible (Mass Effect) or played for humor or titillation (the one night-stand with Isabella in Dragon Age: Origins).
BioWare’s relationship with romance is complicated. In general, they have improved in their handling of romance. In particular, BioWare’s depiction of diversity in sexual preferences should be applauded. However, the one area in which they may have failed is the depth and nuance of their love stories. Too often, romance subplots are written less to explore entire romances, and more to add a few cutscenes and dialogue options to a story.
2013’s Saint’s Row IV by Volition parodied this tendency in BioWare’s romances by having the “Romance” option being a single button press. Players could literally experience “romance” with every NPC in the game by walking up to them and choosing to press a different button on the controller. Volition were not the only ones to notice this trend in BioWare’s romances: Jim Sterling in an October 21, 2013 episode of The Jimquisition, also spoke on this trend, and expressed his opinions on the matter:
Almost all “romance” in games consists of saying nice words and buying presents until someone falls in love with you just enough to get your dirty end away. Once it happens, it may as well have never happened. The concept hinges on the idea that you get sex by performing a set of insincere tasks.
The possibility for meaningful exploration of romance, love, and sex in video games is there. In fact, this is even done in the Mass Effect trilogy itself. Liara’s love story is about a naive and shy young woman going to great lengths and overcoming great obstacles in order to save the life of the one she loves. Ashley and Kaidan’s love stories are roller-coasters of emotion, beginning with forbidden love between a soldier and their commander, seeing the relationship fall apart due to mistrust and betrayal, and climaxing in a standoff that tests whether that broken trust can be repaired. The same can be said of Garrus, Tali, Thane, and numerous other love interests. Even those stories that turn out to be little more than single-game flings (like Jacob or Kelly) still explore other possibilities when it comes to love.
Unfortunately, the illusion is broken upon a second or third playthrough. The difference in a relationship between a character you romance and one you befriend amounts to some changed dialogue, some altered cutscenes, and a photo on the nightstand. While this view of romance might be appealing to some, love and romance are powerful forces that can completely alter the way a relationship proceeds. The gap between loving someone passionately and merely allying with them in battle should amount to more than who warms your bed the night before the final battle.
There are things to love in both games. I personally do not miss the awkward gameplay and crude graphics of Baldur’s Gate II, and I appreciate the higher production values of the Mass Effect series. Still, there were times, playing Mass Effect, that I longed to hear my lover unexpectedly announce to me that she was pregnant, or spend long conversations about survivor’s guilt with her, or even watch the man I love turn into a cold-hearted, vengeful monster because I gave him the wrong advice on how to handle a crisis in his life.
Give me drama. Give me the chance for horrifying loss and failure, so that the happiness gained in the end will be that much more satisfying. Give me desperate battles hacking through a dungeon full of undead monsters to get to my love, held in the clutches of an evil vampire.
Give me love. Give me adventure. Give me romance.