From Jaheira to Liara: A Brief Survey of BioWare Romances 6


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.

Diversity

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.

Experience

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.

Sexuality

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).

Conclusion

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.


Albert Hwang

About Albert Hwang

Albert Hwang mostly spends his time overthinking pop culture, and occasionally writing creepypasta at the SCP Foundation (www.scp-wiki.com). He also recently began a blog (themocaw.wordpress.com), where he tells stupid stories involving him and his friends. Despite the photograph, he does not, in fact, have Super Hat Powers.

  • auri­ca

    Hey! I just want­ed to add that Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition intro­duces four new NPCs in total, all of them romance­able — includ­ing both les­bian and bisex­u­al char­ac­ters. I find espe­cial­ly the last one par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing since it blows up all stereo­types regard­ing bi males :] P.S. The graph­ics is now way less crude too!

    • Aurica,

      I haven’t picked up Enhanced Edition for Baldur’s Gate yet, but it does look inter­est­ing. I’ll give it a shot: the idea of revis­it­ing BG’s style of romances, with the advances made over the years, does intrigue.

      Albert

  • Ava Avane Dawn

    In gen­er­al, I didn’t enjoy the Enhanced Edition very much, although I admit I never came far enough for any romanc­ing to take place. The first Baldur’s Gate isn’t very good at rela­tion­ships of any kind though, mind you. I loved the arti­cle and I do won­der where Bioware, but also the peo­ple of Torment: Tides of Numenera will take romanc­ing in the future — I believe they said they won’t have romances in the tra­di­tion­al sense, and then went on to give exam­ples of more inter­est­ing types of love inter­ac­tions, for exam­ple that between a mad sci­en­tist and hir inan­i­mate sub­jects. I do hope that they in their round­about way do explore romances in a deep and sat­is­fy­ing man­ner. For me it almost seems like an era of Bioware role­play­ing games has ended, see­ing how I’m not up for some sort of Mass Effect Spinoff, can’t get excit­ed about Dragon Age 3 so far, and see no new ip announced…

    • The first Baldur’s Gate didn’t real­ly have too much going in terms of NPC rela­tion­ships, after you ini­tial­ly recruit­ed them, this is true. To be hon­est, every time I went back to replay the orig­i­nal Baldur’s Gate, I even­tu­al­ly ended up abort­ing my playthrough of the game and going back to Baldur’s Gate II: the story is bet­ter, and a lot of the pac­ing and bal­anc­ing issues that made BG a slog at times were fixed in BG II.

      I haven’t real­ly been fol­low­ing Torment: TON’s devel­op­ment, most­ly because I’d pre­fer to be pleas­ant­ly sur­prised if it actu­al­ly turns out to be great. Personally, though I find that the games that explore romance most effec­tive­ly, for me, are the ones that use romance and rela­tion­ships as one of the key axes of the game.

      Personally, I think the idea of con­tin­u­ing Mass Effect is a mis­take, but I have the feel­ing that the deci­sion is based more on publisher’s desires to milk the fran­chise, rather than any artis­tic rea­sons. There’s no rea­son why the new spin­off game can’t be good, but as with Torment, I haven’t real­ly been fol­low­ing the devel­op­ment of the game, though I do hope to be pleas­ant­ly sur­prised.

      The Dragon Age series pret­ty much lost me after the lack­lus­ter DLC for Origins, and the even more lack­lus­ter Dragon Age II. The rela­tion­ship between the Mages and the Templars was one of the least inter­est­ing parts of Origins for me, and hav­ing the sec­ond game pret­ty much focus entire­ly on that, and find­ing out that the third game will delve into that even deep­er, is a fair­ly large turn-off. Again, though, maybe I’ll end up pleas­ant­ly sur­prised.

  • Liam Smith

    I take issue with the idea that Bioware has never dealt with the sub­ject of STDs and that this is bad thing. Many of Biowares actu­al love inter­ests would be unlike­ly to have STDs being either vir­gins (Aerie, Dawn Star, prob­a­bly Silk Fox, Liara, Tali, Alistair, Merrill, Fenris) or have gone a long time with­out hav­ing sex or at least sex with more than on part­ner (Jaheira, Sky, Garrus, Thane, Leliana, Anders). To then shove in some STD (not to men­tion the game mechan­ics for it) on to one of the more sex­u­al­ly active char­ac­ters would frankly come across as alamist. Also they actu­al­ly did briefly address the issue in Dragon Age 2, in which Isabela, the pirate queen with a famous­ly expan­sive sexlife, is seen vis­it­ing Anders, the party’s heal­er mage, at his clin­ic where he appa­rant­ly has often cleared up STDs ‘Bela’s picked up. I’d say that’s pret­ty good since the game is not actu­al­ly about sex.
    Griping, I know, but felt it was worth say­ing.

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