Designing Romance: In-Game Marriage Mechanics

Mass Effect, Liara, Commander Shepard

Mawige! Mawige is what bwings us togtheh today!

But yes, marriage and romance are what I’m going to talk about today, so it is fitting. A number of RPGs have a built-in mechanic whereby the player can establish a romance with a non-player character that may or may not affect gameplay. I first noticed this particular relationship mechanic in Final Fantasy VII. This romance subplot was first brought to this country in Japanese RPGs thanks to it being a feature in a number of their own games. In FFVII, depending on conversation options chosen and who you had in your party the most, you could go on a date with either Aerith or Tifa when you reached The Gold Saucer. Now, if you ignored both girls equally through the game, then you could go on a date with Barrett. Fun stuff—and it didn’t really affect gameplay other than who was with you in the cut scene.

That humble beginning has taken us to where there is a whole genre of relationship/romance games in Japan, some of which are more sex-based as opposed to romance-based. Also, due to the success and popularity of some of the games with this in them, Western game designers have added romance elements into their games. In some games, a relationship you can’t affect is the motivating factor for play, such as you need to save someone who you don’t actually interact with. I far prefer when you can interact with the NPCs and create a reason to care about them.

Three games I have played with very different mechanics to bring these relationships/romances about are the Mass Effect series, The Elder Scrolls: V Skyrim, and Dragon Age: Origins. These three show vastly different methods of creating relationships/romance in-game and provide an interesting commentary as to how game designers view relationships.

Skyrim, Elder Scrolls, Amulet of Mara


Let’s start with Skyrim, as that one has the most basic mechanic of the three. This game by Bethesda Game Studios does allow romance to happen. You can be either male or female and ‘romance’ either a male or female for pretty excellent sexual equality. While some people may have been up in arms over the supposed ‘gay agenda,’ it is actually quite easy to understand from a gameplay stance, as in many ways it doesn’t matter. To start a romance in Skyrim, all you have to do is have an Amulet of Mara. If you wear this amulet around a large number of NPCs they will assume that you are trying to marry them and will make comments to that effect. If you say yes, then the game gives you this mini-mission where you go to the town of Riften and head off to the Temple of Mara to get married. Congratulations, you have completed the game play part of having a romance in Skyrim.

After that, this particular mechanic allows the player to either move into the NPC’s house or move into one the player owns, thus saving on any fees that staying at an inn would accrue. Sleeping in the bed you share gives you both a resting bonus and a limited bonus to your skill learning due to the NPCs ‘loving embrace.’ It shows nothing more than the standard sleep screen and is rather disconnected from the visuals, as there is simply a dark screen with no sound effects. Also, your spouse calls you their love a lot, as if to remind you that you have been married, because clearly this romance is deeply felt.

The change in dialogue options are interesting but distracting at times, as you are usually trying to get things done. Then you have the far more important bonus with being married: Money. Your spouse can start a store to keep themselves busy where you get 100 gold a day in profits whenever you ask for it, just like your own personal piggybank. Also, since they work as a store, you can sell things to your own spouse for even more money.

This makes marriage a simple financial transaction. While that was one of the more prevalent reasons for marriage in the Middle Ages, you would think there would be some other reason established in-game. The game doesn’t even create relationship differences between you and other NPCs because you are married. It is just a way to do more business and occasionally get some free food. Marriage in Skyrim is more about income than real relationship building. That’s fine, but I don’t think the game went that far with the potential the system had. It sometimes feels like this romance option was tacked on to the rest of things, which is a touch unfair to the designers who did an amazing job on most everything else, but it is my opinion.

Dragon age: Origins, Bioware

Dragon Age

Dragon Age: Origins from Bioware, on the other hand, has a much more complex relationship system that does affect gameplay. Each companion of your party has a relationship meter at the bottom of their image on the gear page. This bar shows how far in the positive or negative your relationship has gone based off a number of factors. Thus, certain things you say to the character can shift that meter one way or the other. The farther the meter goes in one direction or another, the more positive or negative a character treats you, up to the point where a relationship becomes a possibility depending on who you are talking to and what gender your character is.

So, the primary effect of the relationship meter is to change how these companion NPCs treat you in conversation and in gameplay itself—a very neat mechanic to have in a game and, in a lot of ways, true to life. Through your conversation choices you can either build those relationships, making the NPC either your friend or to seriously dislike you. This creates moments where NPCs make choices that either benefit or damage you in one way or the other. How these NPCs react depends on personality aspects in their character. The mechanic is rather complex and it is easy to see why there is a part of that where you can give certain of your allies gifts to effect that meter. If you choose the right gift, you can get a pretty large shift up or if you choose something the character dislikes, down the meter goes. Discovering what item goes with what person depends on how well you can figure out their character.

This is fairly realistic in some ways. The combination of conversation and gifting is a factor in creating relationships in real life. My problem with the mechanic is that it really does feel like sometimes you are buying both friendship and love with items you can either purchase from merchants or find as loot. That is an odd feeling indeed. What I did like was how the changes in those meters, sometimes even slight ones, change elements of gameplay. Certain gameplay options open up depending on how you build those relationships, including new missions becoming available. That means that the relationship building is a fundamental part of the game and working through it makes for a better and more complex experience. Bioware certainly did a good job.

Mass Effect

Mass Effect

The last game I want to discuss is the Mass Effect series also from Bioware. Granted, the relationship/romance mechanic changes somewhat over the three games, but there is also a lot of similarity in the system as well, holding to the same fundamentals. Depending on the conversational choices you make—usually Paragon or Renegade—you can start a romance with a number of the allies you run around with. In fact, some characters can only be romanced if you are more Renegade in your actions than Paragon, most notable Jack in Mass Effect 2. The morality meter that exists to judge your gameplay actions has an effect on how these relationships can come about and on gameplay in general. Add to that the fact that different characters were/weren’t available for romance depending on your character’s gender and it seems rather realistic. There is even the fact that in some cases you cannot have a relationship with a given character until the second game, depending on conversation options that you took in the first game, such as with Tali’Zorah.

The big payoff for this romance building is a cut scene where your character makes out with the other. It can also have an effect on the relationships of several of your allies, though on the whole, none of these romances has a major effect on gameplay. It is an extra feature in the game if you will. There is a degree of conversational change involved between you and the others, but since the voice actors had to create at least three different options per individual conversational choice, it wasn’t like it was that much extra work. And of the three games discussed, the relationships in Mass Effect feel more natural, mostly due to the fact that the character doesn’t become a piggy bank or you can buy their affections. I found the romance options in this series to be interesting with very compelling storylines that held my attention. Through these conversational choices, you get more backstory from various characters that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise which was a nice touch.

This mechanic felt the most natural of the three as there was no implication that you were buying a relationship with the character like in Dragon Age: Origins. There were several scenes that had more of an emotional impact thanks to this particular mechanic making a deeper and richer storyline. It also didn’t bog down gameplay as it was a talk-it or leave-it situation. If you had no interest in building a romance with anyone, then it did not change the overall gameplay, unlike with Dragon Age: Origins where all actions tended to affect the relationship meter. I just wish that I didn’t always end up with the same romance option time and again, thanks to the way I play. Mostly I just wish Tali’Zorah was interested in female characters for romance, as she is too cute for words. Oh well, guess I’ll just play through and date my space wife Liara again.

All in all, the romance mechanic in games has some degree of effect on the gameplay, whether it is simply as source of income, bonuses, and character development or as complex as the game giving you access to different game options depending on what you do with the relationships. This is an aspect of gameplay that can be a lot of fun for the player to navigate, giving the game something more than running around, completing missions, and killing bad guys. Sure, Western games are not as relationship intensive as some of Japanese titles, but in some games the building of a relationship/romance can be that complex.

When it comes down to it, this is not a mechanic that is going anywhere and will doubtless remain an aspect of most any RPG that you will come across. So, chat up those NPCs! After all, you never know where that dialogue is going to lead.


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