Romance Mechanics in Video Games
By Peter Fobian
Relationship mechanics have become a mainstay of the 40+ hour genre of RPGs, with increasingly complex quests chronicling your character’s romantic conquests with the opposite (or same) sex and even crossing various species as sci-fi titles like Mass Effect and fantasy series like Dragon Age let you pursue individuals with scales, tails, and whatever you call those things on Liara’s head. Adding a bit of love into a game can be a charming distraction or, sometimes, the entire point of the game, as with Catherine. It’s been great to see relationships in gaming, and the fandom around them, grow and evolve, but, in the past few years, I’ve been getting diminishing returns. After experiencing both extremes of video game romance in Fallout 4 and Witcher 3 in 2015 and a few more recent releases, I think I finally have my answer.
Where games offer all variety of options and events when it comes to the pursuit of a relationship, the chase has always been the focus of romance in video games. Meet minimum prerequisites, complete character-specific missions, and correctly navigate your way through dialogue trees to reach a romantic confession, and then what? Well, depending upon the game, not a whole lot. In Dragon Age you can tackle the unusual challenge of organizing a foursome and some games have sparse romantic holiday or plot events, but the answer is really not a whole lot. You’ve got your significant other and whatever mechanical your relationship may or may not provide, but as far as your interactions with your new significant other are concerned, you’ve usually hit a dead end.
The usual speech you hear at your friends wedding usually goes to the tune of, “this is just the beginning.” Although domesticity may seem mundane after the butterflies and emotional rollercoaster of meeting someone new, there has to be something there after you’ve change your relationship status on Facebook, right? Depending upon the game, you can immediately jump to your next romantic pursuit (which may come with consequences) or just enjoy your in-game bonuses for having a romantic partner and get back to the main story. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting stat bonuses, special abilities or items, and, frankly, I think cinematic combination attacks with your special someone should be a required feature in all video games. But why does it stop there?
Let’s take recent JRPG titan Persona 5, for example. You’re given a multitude of romantic options (which unfortunately do not include Ryuji and Yusuke, you cowards) among your various social links. You’re encouraged to build your relationships with various bonuses and, at the end of a few of them with girls your age (or VERY not your age, stop it) you have the option to become an item. How does this affect the game afterward? You get a few special special scenes together! Actually exactly 3 of them. Hawaii, Christmas Eve, and Valentine’s Day.
But, for day-to-day purposes, that’s pretty much the end of your relationship with them. Calling them to hang out doesn’t get you anything different. Hell it’s not even different from if you’d taken the non-romantic route. On top of that, the limited personal time you’re given incentivizes you to NOT spend time with them in lieu of building your other social links and training up your stats. Which character you choose has no mechanical benefit not otherwise gained just by completing their social link. Even your special scenes together tend to play out in a suspiciously similar way across all your romantic prospects, to the point where getting caught cheating might be only of the only ways to add some variety to new game + playthrough (you didn’t do that the first time, did you???)
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, taking inspiration from its ancient Greek setting, is a little more… liberated when it comes to romance. Alexios or Kassandra can get with nearly a dozen NPCs by selecting easily identifiable romance options in dialogue. These encounters are not so much romantic subplots as they are one night stands, but hey, that was the style at the time!
Mass Effect has a bit more plot engagement with your romantic choices. You get your pick of various crewmates ranging from human to alien, male to female to not applicable. To its credit it also gives you some LGBT romantic options. The process plays out pretty similarly, however. Talk to the characters, say the right things, go on a few character-specific quests, and soon you have the opportunity to pop the question.
After that, not much changes besides the option for, er, conjugal encounters and a few select scenes where who you’re shacked up with affects the dialogue. Several of them even creating genuinely touching moments which actually enhance the story! If you’ve got a save file from the past game handy, your past romantic pursuits even change a few dialogue options in subsequent games. As with Persona 5, they even create a (few) plot specific moments where your relationships status comes into play which, credit where it’s due, play out in significantly different ways depending on who you’re with. All the same, once you’re “official” the new content mostly stops.
Bethesda may be one of the worst perpetrators of this “acquisitional love”, going for variety over depth by providing a ton of romantic options that really don’t amount to much.
In Fallout 4, romance is completing the character subplot, picking the romance option right at the end, and then not much else but a few snippets of unique dialogue and a buff you get for “sleeping together”. There’s no character specific scenes later on and you can even go on to romance each of your potential partners without any drawback. Not knocking polyamory, but what are the chances you start dating 12 people and nobody has a problem with it? Especially Danse… Either you’ve found a very open-minded group, people will take whatever they can get in the wasteland, or your character isn’t being entirely honest with everyone involved. It is worth mentioning that they all seem open to a romance regardless of your chosen gender though… maybe they are all actually open-minded…
Skyrim went even wider and shallower with its romance, providing over 60 prospects who can be easily wooed by completing a task ranging from a sidequest to something as simple as chopping firewood to hiring them (not like that). After that you skip right to the end by buying an Amulet of Mara (basically a wedding ring) and getting hitched on the spot. From there everything that’s there’s also becomes yours, you get that same “Lover’s Comfort” buff, you might get random gifts or, if you’re really lucky, they may open up a shop after you get together.
As with most Bethesda games, the modding community took it upon themselves to improve the areas their titles fell short. Skyrim in particular has a huge community mod with extended sidequests spanning several romantic prospects while Fallout 4 received mods to add extra possible suitors. So you can see there’s definitely a demand for this sort of thing and people with the time and will to make it happen…
One trait all of these games have in common is a relatively faceless protagonists, either created or curated by the player to be whatever they want to be. That’s great, but it also makes for some challenges when it comes to romance. It’s hard for your significant other to talk about how they love a certain thing about you when… the point is you could be however you like? Don’t get me wrong, a malleable protagonist is definitely more of a challenge than a dealbreaker. Give the writing team more leeway and voice actors extra hours in the booth and conversations can take different directions depending upon character choice. Studios have been boasting the increasing number of hours of dialogue likely soon to extend into years per game as well and a vast number of unique outcomes based on player choice so you’d think it would just be a matter of applying some of that to this area.
Of course that’s just one option. The Witcher 3 delivered a very satisfying romantic subplot by going to opposite direction and centering things around Geralt. Having a defined personality and history within the world gave some context to the affections of the game’s various romantic options that were a little more substantial than “you’re great!” In fact, it accomplished a lot by limiting the player in other ways. By providing only two romantic options (outside of some recreational choices), it gave them the leeway to get granular with characters interactions within your love triangle, including the uncomfortable fact that, when faced with two romantic prospects, saying yes to one means you have to say no to the other.
Well, this isn’t strictly true, you can always say no to romance entirely by turning them both down or say yes to each but… you may remember my mentioning consequences for that sort of thing? But, assuming you choose one, the forced proximity between you and each of those romantic partners as main characters out to save the world together, creates consequences. The complications of having several interested individuals in the same group is frequently swept under the rug but in Witcher 3, you’re definitely going to be reminded of the road not traveled in some particularly awkward scenes. Not the ideal way for a spurned lover to act, but romance tends to get messy, right?
This might sound like a poor sell on a more developed romantic subplot, but that’s just one of the ways Witcher 3 makes a concerted effort to contextualize the romance within the greater story. In addition to some extremely awkward scenes between Triss and Yennefer after you’ve made your decision there are also small reminders that you’re an item seeded throughout the cinematics and conversations going forward. They even went to the trouble of making a unique ending based not only on the outcome of the final conflict but also who you’ve committed yourself to, which is a surprisingly novel choice among titles where I suppose you just assume things go well.
The Witcher 3 definitely has some narrative advantage out of the gate when it comes to romance, being based on a full book series and including 2 prior games, but your past interactions with Triss are video game original. Long spanning franchises with (mostly) recurring main characters like Mass Effect definitely have the time to build up some twists and turns but instead found ways to reset with each game so there are no hard feelings with your prior relationship while you explore your shiny new romantic options. I’m not saying all good writing requires romantic baggage but keeping to the a bland formula of finding your prospects, choosing one, becoming official, and then basically moving off feels like a missed opportunity.
Where Witcher 3 does focus on a smaller, more defined cast, it does give up a quite a bit of diversity. You can’t be whoever you want and date whoever you want, despite some very attractive characters not made available for romance (letting you pass up on Dijkstra and Zoltan is criminal), but it’s one way of making your choices feel more meaningful than a gold trophy for your friends on PSN to admire and an awkward CG sex scene (although Witcher definitely has those).
You may remember a simpler time in RPG history where there was a single canon romance baked into the plot. Not great for player choice, but they allowed for a lot more moments between the lovebirds as the story developed. They don’t just get into a relationship then drop the subplot, but have moments together throughout the story, supporting one another, getting into fights, and generally doing all that, y’know, stuff couples do. And a lot of those couples are still iconic to this day. Just about every pair from Final Fantasy has hung around in the fan conscious for decades after their release.
Now this may seem like some kind of tug of war between good writing and player choice, but why can’t we have both? Games regularly go through quantum leaps in sophistication. RPGs have gone from turn-based to real-time to open world to online with drop-in multiplayer. We’ve gone from a central plot with a single ending to multiple endings, hundreds of side quests, and thousands of ways to work toward 100% completion. Next to them, romance seems like an afterthought deserving of some more love and attention.
This largely applies to games of the triple A and full length RPG variety. Visual novel games have been putting in good work in this category for nearly as long as romance in games has existed and more narrative focused titles both from the indie scene and smaller scale projects from mid-level developers like Dontnod’s Life is Strange.
As players have been given greater control over the story in games, it seems strange that certain aspects should grow more shallow. Outside of games where a dedicated romance is written into the narrative or which are entirely focused on dating and romance mechanics, there are few titles these days that make a great effort to make anything out of relationships beyond officiating them and then leaving whatever happens next to the player’s imagination. Investing yourself in a subplot only for it to come to a cold stop doesn’t feel great. All the elements for a really satisfying system are there, they just need someone to put them together.