How Can Romance Storylines Be More Engaging?

Shepard and Thane, one of ME2's love interest characters. (Pictured: Shepard, a white woman with short red hair standing with one arm forward, aiming a heavy pistol, and Thane, a green amphibious-looking humanoid alien standing slightly behind her and to the left.)

Shepard and Thane, one of ME2's love interest characters. (Pictured: Shepard, a white woman with short red hair standing with one arm forward, aiming a heavy pistol, and Thane, a green amphibious-looking humanoid alien standing slightly behind her and to the left.)

This post contains some major end-game spoilers for Dragon Age as well as some minor character-related spoilers for Mass Effect 2.

Between Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, there’s been a lot of talk about romance storylines in games over the past several months. They are still something of a novelty, and many people feel passionately about them, so it’s not surprising that they get so much attention. On the other hand, romance storylines tend to all progress in the same linear fashion*: pick a character you like, engage in some (sometimes adorable, sometimes hilariously bad, always entertaining) flirting, eventually have sex or get married or both. This is a shame because there is a lot of potential to really tug at players’ emotions by integrating romance more deeply into a game’s story and changing up the linear progression. (I’m focusing on BioWare-style romances for this post; for a take on breaking out of that structure, this column by Emily Short is a must-read.)

One issue here can be mitigated by opening up roleplaying options. Every game that has romance options has fans that are annoyed because they couldn’t romance their favorite character. Unless a developer has the time, resources, and inclination to make every character romanceable (which I don’t think is necessarily a good solution), someone’s going to be mad. But even if certain characters would never be interested in the PC, why isn’t the PC able to express his or her interest in another character? Is that too misleading? Why not have dialogue options that let the player flirt with a character they like, even if it results in rejection? Commenter Mantheos suggested this as a way to acknowledge that the PC could be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, even if there aren’t any actual same-sex romances (though ideally there should always be at least one potential same-sex romance available, preferably the same number as opposite-sex romance partners), but the idea can be extended to allow more interesting roleplaying options across the board. Dragon Age in particular has a lot of dialogue options that don’t matter very much to the story, but are available in order to allow the player to roleplay their character, to choose how the character would express themselves. There’s no reason this consideration shouldn’t extend to flirting. Mass Effect 2 actually comes close to doing this at one point–in talking with Samara about being a Justicar, you can ask whether or not the Code forbids romantic relationships; she says it does not, but she considers that part of her life “over.” You can then suggest that, hey, you never know, but she insists this is the case–though she appreciates that you asked!

But what I would really like to see are romance storylines that are better integrated into the overall plot of the game. Not to the extent that they are mandatory (not everyone likes them, and people should be able to play asexual or uninterested characters if they want), but it would be interesting and fun for these relationships to have a bigger impact on the overall story. Dragon Age does this a bit, but unfortunately only if you’re a female character romancing Alistair. (Fair warning: I’m about to spoil the romance story as well as some key end-game stuff.) Alistair is the bastard son of the deceased king’s father, making him, according to some, the rightful heir to the throne of Ferelden, and since much of the middle of the story revolves around resolving the power struggle around the vacant throne, any relationship with this guy is going to get complicated. (Since the PC can only romance Alistair as a woman, I’m going to assume a female Warden in the following synopsis.) At the Landsmeet–a meeting of the nobles of Ferelden called to decide who should take the throne–the Warden can back either Anora, the king’s widow and former war hero Loghain’s daughter, or Alistair for the throne, or convince Alistair and Anora to marry. Or, if you’re a particularly persuasive human noble, you can even make Alistair king and announce that you’ll be his queen. So the relationship has a big impact on this plot point. If Alistair is in love with the Warden, it’s going to take some convincing to have him marry Anora–and if she tries to remain his mistress, it doesn’t work out. On the other hand, if the Warden is in a relationship with Alistair, she has motivation to not make him king, which he’s stated he doesn’t want, anyway. (That’s not even all the possibilities; definitely read Chris Dahlen’s “Chasing Alistair” and the comments.) The other major plot point that is affected by the relationship is the ending: the relationship gives a pretty strong motivation for the Warden to make the “Dark Promise” with Morrigan so that both she and Alistair survive the final battle; if she doesn’t make the deal, there is nothing she can say that will convince Alistair to let her sacrifice herself–he will always die for her.

A relationship between Alistair and a female Warden adds a layer of complexity to some of the end-game plot points because it is so intertwined with the plot. (Contrast this with the romance storylines in ME2, which don’t appear to affect anything, not even the companion’s loyalty level.) Unfortunately, this is the only romance storyline that gets this sort of treatment. Of course, some characters are going to be more deeply involved in a game’s plot than others, and this sort of thing can get very complex very quickly, but even so, it would be nice to see more romance storylines that aren’t completely separate from the main plot.

The other way to make romance storylines less predictable is, obviously, to shake up the formula of flirting -> kiss -> sex -> end. A great way to open up the possibilities here is to reject the commodity model of sex that I’ve written about before in relation to video games. Mass Effect 2 still very much buys into this model–the sex is still the endpoint, the goal of the relationship.

Dragon Age's Leliana. (Pictured: A headshot of a white woman with blue eyes and short, light brown hair parted off-center with a single braid in it and no bangs except for a couple strands.)

Dragon Age's Leliana. (Pictured: A headshot of a white woman with blue eyes and short, light brown hair parted off-center with a single braid in it and no bangs except for a couple strands.)

Dragon Age, on the other hand, avoids relying on the commodity model almost entirely. The progression of the relationship is different for each character. For example, Zevran “may be easy to bed, but it is inversely difficult to win his heart”, as Denis so wonderfully put it. The romance with Alistair follows a bit more of a traditional arc, but the sex is neither the goal nor the final development. For all the characters, the development is interesting and natural, making the storylines far more engaging and rewarding to play than the cheesy pickup lines in ME2.

The only stumble is the gift system. I agree with Dan Bruno’s criticisms to an extent, though I think with some tweaks, it could be good. The problems only arise if you break out of roleplaying (though Dan is right that characters should react appropriately to inappropriate gifts), or try to game the system. You can’t just give a character flowers, you have to find out what they like (generally by guessing–one improvement that could be made is to give the player the ability to find out what a character likes through conversation or squad banter), and even appropriate gifts have diminishing returns. It’s even possible to find gifts that are related to the conversations you have with the characters, and these trigger special dialogue. Gift-giving is imperfect, but it adds some necessary flexibility to the approval system, as well as an additional way for PCs to express their affection.

The usual progression can not only be mixed up, it can be done away with altogether. Who says romance plotlines always have to have a happy ending? It’s going to make players angry, but at the same time, tragedies can be even more emotionally involving. You can already “cheat” on your lovers–what if an NPC cheated on you? To get back to my point about tying romance in to the plot, what if an NPC used your affection to benefit their own ends? Players are always going to want “happily ever after,” but there are so many more possibilities.

The key here is to make the “bad” endings the result of both the characters’ personalities and the player’s (mostly) informed decisions; Dragon Age generally succeeds in this when things end badly (how the game often punishes characters for sacrifice and rewards them for being selfish could be an entire post on its own–it’s a surprisingly cynical game that is honest about how much it was influenced by George R. R. Martin (this is a compliment)). Alistair refusing to keep the Warden as his mistress is in total keeping with his character, as is him deciding to sacrifice himself; both of these things are also avoidable results of the player’s informed choices, the first about making Alistair king, and the second about refusing to make the deal with Morrigan. Neither of those choices are easy, but that’s why the end-game events of DA are so gripping and often heart-wrenching.

Romance storylines aren’t currently being used to their full potential, although Dragon Age made a lot of progress. There are many ways romance plots can be expanded upon and made even more interesting, and I look forward to seeing if any game developers, particularly the DA team, make strides toward realizing that potential. What do you think? Are there any games that already break the mold for video game romances? What other ways can they be improved?

Many thanks to Kateri for compiling a massive list of posts about Dragon Age, from which I stole most of the articles linked above.

* Disclaimer: Other than the aforementioned BioWare titles (plus the first ME and KOTOR), I’ve really only played one other game with the sort of romance plot I’m talking about, and that’s Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. If there are more, or if you have examples of games that do change up the formula, please mention them in the comments.

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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25 Responses to How Can Romance Storylines Be More Engaging?

  1. Klee says:

    Awesome post Alex. Now I just have to read all stuff you linked to.

  2. 8mph Ansible says:

    lol, my mind immediately came up with three of those links for this comment before making it past the first paragraph.

    Gratify to know this gaming blog is willing explore in-game romance, in a mature manner if at all. Makes me not sure where to begin.


    • Alex says:

      Yeah, there has been a lot of great posts written about the DA romances. I hope I’ve added to the conversation!

      I think there’s a lot to say about them because they are really doing something that hasn’t been done before, I think, except for certain types of games that are specifically dating sims perhaps, but those generally don’t get localized outside of Japan. Which is a shame, because clearly there might actually be a pretty big audience for that sort of thing.

  3. z says:

    When I was playing DAO with Leliana, I was actually quite worried that her vision of her “falling into darkness” would mean that she would die at some point in repelling the Blight.

    Well, she didn’t; and while this would have been an interesting romance plotline twist, it would have felt entirely unfair if other romance lines with other characters would have resulted in more fortunate circumstances.

    Yes, we need to have more variety in the romance options, but that variety shouldn’t prejudice some lines or others, otherwise there’s the possibility whether intended or otherwise to read commentary into the decisions that are made in the romance plot.

    • Alex says:

      Good point.

      I think this would be less of a problem if 1. A tragic or other less-than-desirable ending were one of multiple possibilities, and 2. there were more games that did romances at all so the impact of any one going a certain way would be diluted. Of course, both of those things are difficult to achieve in their own ways.

  4. Richard Naik says:

    The usual progression can not only be mixed up, it can be done away with altogether. Who says romance plotlines always have to have a happy ending?

    I’d argue that the Morrgian romance plot goes against the “happy ending” motif-you lose her at the end no matter what, and it becomes clear that she was indeed using you from the start. I’d also say that it has a fairly significant impact on the overall plot (although not near as big as Allistair’s) since it makes her pre-endgame offer have that much more impact.

    Nice job.

  5. Jayle Enn says:

    I remember liking how the romances were set up in Baldur’s Gate II. At some semi-random point after getting a compatible party member, they would initiate conversation. If you weren’t interested, you could tell them to keep their thoughts on the quest (or just tell them off), but otherwise they would talk to you again at irregular intervals. During these little scenes you could learn more about the character and guide the path of your relationship with them through dialogue options. One character who would call you a wimp and quit the party if you responded to her verbal barbs with politeness and apology. Two others could end up getting into a battle of words if you chatted both of them up. There was no romance option for the gnome, unfortunately.

    • Alex says:

      That’s really neat. I really ought to play Baldur’s Gate and its sequel some day… ^^;

      • Jayle Enn says:

        It played out a bit like the semi-random character interludes from earlier Bioware RPGs, only instead of the camera focusing on a party member and the narrator noting that he/she seemed to have something on their mind, soft music started to play.

        It didn’t have much impact on the story as a whole, unfortunately. It was mostly just a bit of extra recorded dialogue, and a bit of happily-or-not-ever-after during the epilogue text scroll.

  6. Asilic says:

    Great post Alex!
    I wanted to comment about the differences between the characters developpements and romances in DA and Mass Effect, but I will restrain myself :P

    I do believe DA done a great job in integrating romance and story and because of it I was disapointing in Mass Effect 2. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Mass Effect but some of the romances and backstory of characters seem more like easter eggs.

    • Alex says:

      Thank you! I totally agree about ME2, my disappointment was one thing that led to me writing this post. Though, the one thing ME2 has over DA is the actual sex scenes… I saw the one with Garrus in my playthrough, and it was actually rather sweet (also no nudity, which is to my preference XD;; ). But the ones in DA are just awful. I feel bad saying it because I love DA so much, but it’s true.

  7. Dan Bruno says:

    Nice post, Alex!

    The most irritating part of a typical romance storyline for me is the lack of a satisfying end state. I don’t want to run out of new dialogue options the moment a relationship starts! That makes the rest of the game incredibly dull. In my first Dragon Age playthrough I dumped Leliana for Alistair because I was sick to death of hearing “Well, aren’t you sweet and attentive?”

    I know there are limited resources for writing and recording dialogue, but there’s gotta be a solution somewhere…

    • Alex says:

      Thanks! =D

      Pacing is definitely an issue. It was possible to get through the pre-Landsmeet romance story very quickly (especially when it’s so adorable and fun) and then have nothing else interesting happen until endgame. One solution could be to have progression tied to completed missions in addition to the approval meter, but that seems unsatisfactorily artificial. Hmmm.

  8. Laurentius says:

    I don’t know, maybe there is something wrong with me but i found DA:O ( i haven’t played ME2 yet) romance storylines unintersting,flat and unengaging. Why ? Mostly i blame Bioware PC creation system,i couldn’t relate to romance with my character being so totally blank and unmoved: falling in love, finding that love is returned, being rejected, sharing bed -my character’s reaction was horrible b/c in fact there was none. For me it was massive let down (cheese dialogue and awful sex scenes of course add up to my negativness)

    • Alex says:

      There’s nothing wrong with you! It’s like the debate over whether first person perspective or third person is more immersive. It is for some people and for others, it isn’t. In the same way, for some people not showing the PC’s reaction allows them to imagine exactly how they would react, but having the character react might be annoyingly out of character. For you it’s the opposite, it’s just a matter of preference =) It would be interesting to see a developer tackle the issue instead of sidestepping it.

      • Laurentius says:

        Indeed, there is also the case since romance devlopes and presents itself through “net of dialoge options”, it most often looks to me like robots talking about human emotions. In game it leads to some situation that really makes me cringe ig: after my character relations with Leliana devloped, there was a little talk about it with Wynne, i find dialogue options just terrible. For every calm and really understandable advices from Wynne (my favorite npc in DA:O), avaliable responses were either suprisingly cold like my character’s love being actually staged or shockigly nasty towards Wynn, which my character has special bond with ( or so i thought ). All in all most of the times, romance storyline in DA:O was like daja vu of watching romance scenes from StarWars: AotC and RotS: unbelivable and most often spiraling into weirdness.

  9. Dan Fabulich says:

    If we’re considering Quest for Glory 5, there’s a number of other old Sierra games with nice romance plotlines, tightly integrated with the plot. (Gabriel Knight leaps to mind.)

    Further afield, there’s a whole genre of life simulation games to consider, especially including the “visual novel” genre. I’d particularly recommend Alter Ego:

  10. Jayle Enn says:

    I really preferred Quest for Glory 4 for… well, just about everything, including the romance scripts. There was no dialogue with the one love interest until the very end of the game– it was more like you were sharing dreamlike moments with her memory. The other was a story of deception, betrayal, and eventual self-sacrifice. Both of them worked nicely with the Orpheus and Eurydice homage in QFG5, but there was sadly little engagement with them beyond bringing tokens of affection.

    I do think that personal ‘tokens’ or making an in-game effort to spend time with a party member is a fantastic mechanic for developing intra-party relationships in general though. I -think- the ‘Persona’ series of games has a similar mechanism, but I’m not very familiar with them.

    • Alex says:

      Gosh, QFG4 is the best. I initially didn’t think it was relevant, but thinking about it more, it does have a lot in common with BioWare romances. They’re episodic, for one thing, a structure that I think works well (I said on twitter at one point that they’re like television romances, like Hodgins/Angela on Bones). Also neither of them have a happy ending, exactly, which is interesting.

      I think tokens are only a problem when they’re the only interaction available (then we are falling squarely into commodity model territory). People do give gifts, after all. Variety is key!

  11. Richard Naik says:

    Jayle Enn:

    I do think that personal ‘tokens’ or making an in-game effort to spend time with a party member is a fantastic mechanic for developing intra-party relationships in general though. I -think- the ‘Persona’ series of games has a similar mechanism, but I’m not very familiar with them.

    I saw the gift system in DA as more of a “safety net” than anything else. You can save your approval rating with your companions if you accidentally piss them off, which can be very easy to do in some cases.

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