I am the kind of gamer who loves building relationships with fictional characters. While I am easily drawn into a well-written story based in a detailed and expansive universe, my attention is always kept there by the smaller, more intimate stories therein. This is a direct reflection of my IRL personality: I am often drawn to group activities because of my interest in the event itself, but it is always the individuals in attendance who keep me coming back for more.
The number of games out there that allow me to satisfy this craving for building relationships is staggering. My adoration for companies like Bioware knows few bounds, because their believable character arcs and relationship dynamics are second to none. I’m definitely not alone in my desire, either: there was much elation about Skyrim’s built-in marriage system, and the Fable series has always been celebrated for the increasingly diverse romance options that are available to the player. Indeed, if a gamer wants an element of romance—or really close, unique friendships—added to their adventure, there is no shortage of options.
This, however, has given rise to a very interesting set of problems. I can create characters who are spitting images of my IRL self, from the color of their eyes (hazel-green) down to the decisions they make (Alistair approves +10), but I always seem to have an awkward time of creating characters who experience relationships in the same way I do. This is because I’m polyamorous—that is, I have multiple loving, committed relationships at the same time, with the consent and knowledge of all people involved—and the default relationship structure in our western society is monogamy.
The first game to ever make me sit down and ponder the absence of polyamory in its story was Mass Effect, particularly after my many flirtatious encounters with both Kaidan and Liara. When confronted by the two of them aboard the Normandy, I was perplexed when they told me that I had to choose between them. Don’t get me wrong: I knew that monogamy was probably the only relationship option in Mass Effect, as an alarming number of people in the world are not aware that polyamory is even an option. That said, this encounter hit me in a very visceral and uncomfortable fashion, making me realize that the lack of polyamory just doesn’t make sense in the context of the world’s lore. Monogamy was clumsily shoehorned into the romance system, giving an otherwise solid story experience a huge, glaring flaw.
Let’s consider the asari as a whole for a second: this is a race with an average lifespan of thousands of years, with a culture that encourages inter-species breeding in order to proliferate genetic diversity in their population. This is all fine and good, but I can’t help but wonder: if the asari are so concerned about fostering genetic diversity among their species, why do they seem largely monogamous? We hear several times throughout the series that asari typically have many partners in the span of their lifetimes, especially if they have a thing for short-lived races. In that case, wouldn’t it make more sense from an evolutionary perspective that the asari would acquire multiple partners simultaneously in order to more efficiently diversify their gene pools?
Dragon Age: Origins did the same shoehorning with its Zevran romance. Zevran is clearly a man of varied tastes and talents, and if you romance him, you find that the depth of his loyalty runs deep for the Warden. Why, then, would he so readily give up such an integral part of his personality for the sake of an exclusive relationship with the Warden? It was jarring and immersion-breaking when Zevran approached me about my budding romance with Leliana and asked me to choose which relationship I wanted to pursue. Of all the party members, I would have pegged my two rogues as the most understanding of my desire to be in loving, committed relationships with the both of them.
It would have been selfish of me to ask Zevran to stop being the charming rogue who sought to use his wily charms both professionally and casually for the sake of our relationship, and if Leliana found something in a different partner that I couldn’t provide (say, for example, someone who hadn’t ingested darkspawn blood and wasn’t expected to die in the Deep Roads), it would be equally selfish of me to stop her from giving a second relationship a try at the same time. Why not? If they say they love me, I’ll take them at their word, and if I get jealous of their new partners, we can talk about it and work through it.
You’ve probably noticed a couple of things by now: the first is that I’m talking about these characters as if they’re real people (I assure you that this is normal, and that I’m not weird). The second thing you’ll notice is that the relationship dynamics I’m talking about seem very complicated. And they are! Polyamory is hella complicated—but you know what? Monogamy can be hella complicated, too! Relationships in and of themselves are complicated, nuanced things, and that’s part of the reason why I love pursuing them both in my real life and in my gaming lives.
My criticisms of the above relationship dynamics shouldn’t be misconstrued as a diss on monogamy, by any means. Monogamy is an absolutely viable relationship dynamic that fits perfectly well within the scope of some character’s personalities. The problem here is twofold: in the wake of a lot of progressive changes in how characters in games are representative of their audiences, some of us got left out; and when monogamy is the only relationship option available in large, detailed, and expansive worlds, it will make some of your characters and their stories suffer from the lack of variety.
I do have hope for the future, however. There are whispers, hints, and fumbled attempts floating around in some big titles that make me feel like there are considerations being made. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, when you visit the Winter Palace and hang out in the ballroom for a while, the footman announces the arrival of an Orlesian noble’s “metamour”—in polyamory parlance, a metamour is your lover’s lover, someone your partner is involved with romantically, but you are not. In Fable 3, you are allowed to have multiple marriages, but your spouses can’t know about each other or they’ll break up with you. (When I mentioned “fumbled attempts,” this is one of them—it’s definitely non-monogamy, but not of the ethical variety that is advocated by polyamorists.) The progress that is being made on the front of representing polyamory in games seems to be slow-going, but I’ll take small steps forward over no progress at all—or, worse, taking steps backward with negative representation.
So, sound-off fellow polyamorists! Whether you are polyamorous in your real life or just in your gaming life, are there any other games or series you have played where monogamy felt unnatural or forced? Are there games out there that portray polyamory and ethical non-monogamy in a positive light, in your opinion?