There’s something uniquely entertaining about romantic subplots in RPG games, particularly that of Dragon Age: Inquisition. You get a strange blend of awkward mechanics and clunky dialogue all wrapped up in a charming package as you navigate your way through certain death in order to save the world. Plenty of time to woo someone special, right? Bioware refers to this side quest (of sorts) as the “romance arc” wherein you express your interest in courting another character by opting for preset dialogue options to indicate romantic interest. This lays the foundation for monogamous commitment later on in gameplay, should you so choose. It’s pretty much accepted at this point that the result of this feature will be as rewarding as it is amusing.
That’s all well and good, but there’s a distinct element of this whole exchange that feels just a little too one-dimensional for my taste. Is it the abrupt, almost stepladder nature of the romantic narrative itself? Or is it the unspoken contractual agreement between yourself and the other character that you will, inevitably, be thrust into physical intimacy with little warning? For those of us playing with no interest in a sex scene, there are few alternatives when you pursue another character. (I’m acknowledging here that there are all of two options sans sex, despite neither being flagged as such. You just have to scour the forums, I guess?)
I’ve romanced my fair share of companions in the Dragon Age series, mostly because this allows for an even more nuanced look into the story arc of a particular character. Even so, the very nature of a romance option within the structure of RPGs warrants a closer look and, perhaps, a discussion as to how we can better craft a more natural environment. Bioware is breaking new ground in the field of gaming, but there’s a hell of a lot to discover beyond what’s widely accepted to be “romantic” in society.
The romance arc, once “officially” begun, strictly adheres to one of two choices: sex or no sex. Is that much of a choice, really? To be fair, sex doesn’t always immediately occur after choosing to begin a romance with another character, but it will happen with almost all potential partners not long after entering into said relationship, and the effect is more than a little jarring. In order to pursue any character in the Dragon Age series, the process usually proceeds as follows:
It’s interesting that developers would spend so much time crafting distinct personality traits for the playable protagonist (diplomatic, sarcastic, and aggressive), but forgo any alternatives when it comes time to commit. There, it seems, every protagonist behaves the same. You either declare your undying love after one sexual encounter or risk ruining the mood. Only your romantic interest is allowed the time to deflect or delay without any lasting consequences. (Sarcastic Hawke’s optional response to Anders in Dragon Age II is an inspired addition to the dialogue, if a little delayed. I would’ve loved if something like that were an option before the sex, not after.)
While I’m fine playing through this less than authentic method of developing a romance with someone in-game, I still feel like it’s lacking a fully-formed concept. Flirt + Flirt + Quest is the equation, but the ‘Sex’ shouldn’t have to be a result the majority of the every time. Personally, I’m laboring under the assumption that sex and love are not mutually exclusive. I think we can do better.
With the rise of Tumblr and Archive of Our Own as creative platforms for fans to shape new ideas, I’m surprised more bloggers aren’t exploring relationships that don’t adhere to the established marriage mechanic. For example, the headcanon that Varric is asexual, aromantic, or otherwise on the spectrum is the most I’ve seen discussed on romance with little to no interest in sex (at least in my own research sifting through Tumblr tags). While fan interpretation is a wonderful thing, where are the dialogue options more in-line with this concept for the protagonist of the story itself?
What if, simply given the world-ending nature of the Dragon Age: Inquisition plot, I felt as though the protagonist wouldn’t have time for sex at that point in the story? What if, surprising as it may be to some, I wanted to complete a romantic arc with one specific character without any sexual encounter at all? I don’t see why adding an option to opt out is that big of a deal. Not every couple has sex, and not every romance is officiated with it. Frankly, I find what isn’t explicitly said or done to be far more engaging from a storytelling perspective than going right for the ‘achievement,’ so to speak.
Overall, I deeply appreciate the lengths to which Bioware has gone in paving the way for inclusivity and representation in games. In particular, Josephine and Solas are, in fact, romance options that don’t involve sex (which is something neither of them acknowledge at any point, thus, you’d have to be dwelling in the forums to know about it). It’s precisely because of this that we can even have a wider discussion on the changing landscape of gameplay and storytelling, and I certainly don’t discredit their efforts. Is “realism” a fully achievable concept for this particular art medium? I’d like to think so. But we’ll never grow if we don’t encourage an open, positive forum in which to discuss the current disparity.
So! What aspects of romance mechanics in RPGs bother you most? Or, if you’re more the constructive type, how can RPGs better form a realistic romance? Let me know what’s on your mind in the comments.