Gamers are an opinionated fan niche. Whether it’s your preferred system or whether you like a twist of romance in your stories, conversations about games can turn from mild disagreements to name-calling no matter the topic. Dreadfully serious folks sometimes find romance plots to be a distraction from “real gaming,” whatever that means, while other take it a step further and claim that the inclusion of romantic plots in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect actually damage their narratives. They’re not sweeping epics, they’re not storytelling masterworks—they’re glorified dating sims, not fit to be called games at all.
What constitutes a game is an argument in and of itself, and dating sims are a part of that long, arduous discussion. Regardless, I’m of the opinion that most games could benefit from a little more emotional connection—when you’re slaughtering orcs by the hundreds, maybe it’s okay to have a smooch or two to break up some of the bloodsport.
Romance adds emotional connections that games sometimes lack and encourages deeper storytelling through more characterization. And they’re fun: for many players, romance in video games offers an entertaining, sometimes idealistic relationship they may not have access to in real life. But games are an evolving medium, and that means there are some bumps in the road, the treatment of relationships being one of them.
I’ve had Dragon Age on the mind since I recently played through the series for the first time. With a wealth of attractive, charming characters to woo, the series encourages the player to pursue the paramour of their choice by selecting the right dialogue options and giving them the right gifts. The object of your affection will fall into your arms without questioning that you might have lied to or manipulated them, that you’re a violent racist, or that you have completely opposing points of view. They don’t really care about who you’re playing—they care that you know what options to pick and what gifts to give, and, of course, that you’re the hero of the story.
For example, you can give Alistair a thousand dog bones and he’ll still love you, never mind that he is a grown man, not a mabari hound. He’ll even be pleased with a soggy cake. While Alistair may be canonically starved for affection, the fact that you can romance him by handing him trash requires some suspension of disbelief. It’s not about a real connection between the characters, it’s about giving him things and making sure he hears what he wants to hear.
The issue is that this is not a great portrayal of romance. Granted, any vision of fictional romance will be fantasy to a degree, particularly when elves and magic are involved. It’s not that playing Dragon Age is going to give you an unrealistic idea of what romance really is (again, elves), but that it echoes some pretty gross ideas about relationships that exist in our culture.
Romance in video games often boils down to a sort of minigame—pick the right options, provide the right gifts, and be rewarded with a sex scene. And then…that’s it. Most video game romances feature sex or an extended kissing scene as your ultimate goal, with few exploring the complications and evolutions of longer relationships.
It’s understandable to an extent—there are usually larger events going on, even in an ostensibly silly and strange game like Hatoful Boyfriend. But still, it’s frustrating to see sex repeatedly used as a mark of achievement, particularly when attached to a system like Dragon Age‘s, where little meaningful interaction occurs beyond the physical connection.
This plays into the perception of relationships as a game to be won, boiling down to the idea that the right conversational options will get you into somebody’s pants. It’s the foundation behind pick-up artists and the friend zone—I gave you a thousand dog bones and took you to see your sister, I made the right dialog choices, so now you have to sleep with me. You owe me.
Again, it’s not that games are the cause behind these attitudes. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable mirroring of unhealthy attitudes toward sex and relationships in our own culture. It’s unlikely that it’s intentional, and it’s also important to consider that real people have whims and ideals that aren’t typically programmed into video games like Dragon Age. You might see them in a reality simulator like The Sims, but even those are just twenty-five “flirts” away from disappearing. Character interaction in games is fairly simplistic, particularly in a game where you’re also fighting enemies and stopping a world-threatening evil.
Still, there are ramifications to this treatment of romance. Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s Sera is a lesbian, and thus completely unavailable to male Inquisitors. While much of the response to the game featuring a lesbian character was positive or neutral, many straight male gamers, used to having a variety of romantic options to choose from, found this to be an affront. After following the traditional path of correct dialog options, they were still shut down, and many took issue with that, feeling as if they were owed sex for their trouble. This leads to the creation of mods to bend the rules, including ones that make Sera bisexual rather than a lesbian, a form of erasure that, while non-canon, still speaks to something distasteful in our culture.
A fictional character does not truly have agency, because their actions are programmed or written in rather than being true choices. But this still smacks of something we find too much of in the real world: entitlement to disinterested women’s bodies because of friendship, conversation, or other interactions. Dragon Age did not create this behavior or attitude, but it mirrors the real-world view of women as something to be won by jumping through a series of hoops.
Dragon Age is not, of course, the only example of troubling romance in games. BioWare’s Mass Effect features a similar system sans gifts, but with many of the same pitfalls. The Witcher 2, infamous for its trading card system, allowed players to sleep with tons of women in-game and collect cards depicting your conquests in various states of undress. Other games frequently include romance just to kill off a character and introduce a dark and troubled past—see Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Gears of War 2, and The Darkness.
Despite gaming romance being fraught with distressing tropes, all is not lost. Returning to Dragon Age as an example, by the second game in the series, you have a complication introduced in the rivalry system—romance in Dragon Age II can be founded upon disagreement and even hatred, creating a different dynamic between two characters that acknowledges that not all attraction stems from having the same interests and beliefs.
While we could talk all day about the representation and romanticizing of unhealthy relationships, it’s interesting to note that rival romances aren’t just about passionate hatred turned passionate love. Romancing Anders without being his friend will have him confess that he has gaps in his memory and that he feels unable to control Justice, the spirit that possesses him—something he’ll keep secret from a friendly Hawke. This additional component to a different type of relationship makes the entire thing more interesting as, just in real life, your interactions with a person shape their feelings toward you and what they’re willing to share.
Dragon Age did not create this behavior or attitude, but it mirrors the real-world view of women as something to be won by jumping through a series of hoops.
There’s also Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s romance triggers. Iron Bull’s romance only begins if the Inquisitor kills a dragon—it’s not the most realistic of relationship catalysts, but Bull’s interest in the Inquisitor comes not from his apparent hero-sexuality, but rather from being impressed by their skill. It’s a small thing, but a step in a different direction nonetheless.
There is still room for growth, even in games renowned for their storytelling like the Dragon Age series. What kinds of things do we want? Romances arising out of friendship and respect, perhaps. Romances where characters discuss their disagreements rather than ignoring them or giving a -5 approval notification—if my character has said your entire people is a waste of space, I want more than just a finger-wag for it. Romances that don’t end with sex, but rather continue to evolve beyond physical intimacy. Romances that don’t include sex at all, because that is not the mark of success in a relationship.
Choice-based games like these aren’t the only representations of relationships out there, but giving the player agency and the ability to choose does make sex and romance feel like a reward rather than a facet of human existence. If we can move past those hang-ups, we’ll likely see more romances that represent the potential for all kinds of relationships, not ones that feel so simplistic and game-y compared to the spectrum of human interaction we see currently.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.