I know a lot happened this week. Trust me, I know it all too well.
But for personal reasons that really, really don’t warrant going into, I decided I wanted to talk about this instead. You can go to literally any other outlet to hear about the Apple Arcade or the latest Apex Legends news or whatever’s going on with Nintendo and their new Switches if you want. I’m sure there are lots more qualified people writing about that junk.
I, however, am going to spend this column talking about Bioware romances.
From the moment Anthem was revealed and I started covering it, one of the most common complaints I’ve levied against the game was how it didn’t have any of Bioware’s iconic romantic options in there. From the moment we learned gameplay and story would be kept at arm’s length – and that there was no one at the fort you could woo with your charm, wit, and frequently a bit of pity and good luck to boot -- I’ve sort of used it as a rallying cry, saying how there’s no point in playing Bioware games if you can’t bump uglies with one of the pre-determined romanceable NPC’s of your choice. And it only occurred to me… well… recently that my opinion on the matter actually has to be defended. There are people – confused, sad people – who don’t quite get why this is such a big deal for me.
After all, the problems with Bioware romances are as ubiquitous as the games that spawned them. They can be extremely awkward things, especially in the earlier games (or the latest one from Mass Effect) with characters dry-humping with painted-on underwear, misaligned kisses, awkwardly delivered lines, contrived plots (almost as contrived as the excuses many characters use to become your party members) and laughable excuses to postpone conversation or seduction because there are calibrations that need doing, dammit.
And it’s not as if they’re the only games that have romance in them. Granted, romance is not a territory that games explore as frequently as, say, violence, but it certainly comes up from time to time in games like Hellblade and even some of the GTA games. Bioware certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on them in RPGs, where it can play a pretty big role in games like Divinity 2 and The Witcher 3, even though it sometimes seems like some games go out of their way to keep romance out of the picture Wandersong.
So why am I so obsessed with Bioware romances?
Well, part of it is that sometimes I like to get swept up in the whole Waiful business. I’m not as hardcore about it or anything, I don’t even have a single body pillow or poster or anything like that, but there’s a certain kind of harmless tribal fun in arguing which girl is the best (Cassandra in Dragon Age, Tali in Mass Effect, Triss in The Witcher, and Poppy in League of Legends) and making your points. It’s something I’ve debated even writing an opt-ed about, but then I quickly come to my senses when I realize that would literally be the saddest thing I’d ever done in my already depressing life.
But when I actually think about it, I realize that there’s far more to it than just a simple – if understandable – desire to engage in make-believe whirlwind romances or to “claim” (creepy word, but it’s the best I can think of) an NPC for yourself. Especially in Bioware games, which are so often built around the idea of making your own character.
For one: romance forces you to care about a character and engage with them far beyond any other normal character. It’s all well and good to meet an NPC, grow to like them, and talk to them a bunch: but when you’re trying to romance a character, you have to actually pay attention and take notes. Most romantic options in Bioware games act as a kind of quiz, forcing you to say the right thing at the right time to the right person in order to charm them. It’s extremely simple compared to real life (where’s my dialogue option menu dammit?!) but that doesn’t really matter: what matters is you’re paying extra close attention for signs and quirks and opportunities with this character, which means you’re treating them with a lot more care and attention than you might normally. If the character is well-written – typically a given for Bioware games – this really shows off their many dimensions, and will, in turn, help players appreciate them more. And that means sometimes thinking of them as more than just pixels and polygons, which is ultimately the kind of feeling you want to inspire in RPG’s.
In a similar vein, romance often adds a much-needed new dimension for world building and storytelling in these games. Let’s not forget, in literally nearly every RPG and game I listed above (congrats Wandersong), the main gameplay thrust is combat. You fight things, you level up, which lets you fight things even better. In these worlds, which are so frequently in duress by some world-ending cataclysm or engulfed in endless battle, it’s good that you get the chance to explore the world and your companions in a lenses outside that combat. You might like your mage pal for his area of effect spells and the often lifesaving crowd control he lays down, but you hate his personality and his motives and his other story-related actions. So you replace him with someone who’s a whole lot less useful but who you personally like: and in the process you express your affection in a practical way that actually leaves you at a disadvantage. Or maybe you get to know him a little better in an effort to find out if he’s redeemable. This “changes” the game itself in some pretty profound ways, when you try to balance a limited party with limited space with who you personally want to hang out with.
But obviously it also extends to the story itself. Talk to a character and they’ll talk about what you’re doing, of course, but Bioware will also make sure they talk about their background, their surroundings, the people in their lives – including you. When you sit down at camp and you shoot the breeze, in a way removed from the actual combat, you see how characters’ jive outside the realm of gameplay, and what their opinions are outside who they target in the middle of a fray. This becomes even more pronounced, especially in Bioware games, when the subject turns to romance: for example, that’s how we learn Iron Bull is a daddy-style dom and that Cassandra is more traditionally inclined, introducing a soft spot non-romantic games would either forego or shoehorn in. Romance, in short, is a necessary “break” from the endless battles in the game, a reminder that there’s more in the world than just drawn swords and loaded guns, and it gives you new ways to see the world, and the character you’re supposedly trying to build.
Which ties into one of the more obvious perks of romance: if you’re doing some real, proper role-playing, who your character is attracted to can help you build your character, which is why those pre-determined romances in video games never worked for me, even if I technically had to work for them or earn them. Making that decision helped me learn something about the character I was playing, who was the real star of the show, and in the process helped me care about them a lot more – something that can often be necessary when these characters, by default, don’t have much room for unique expression, or opportunities to define themselves outside arbitrary or binary decisions.
And of course, it just gives you a reason to return to the game. It’s fun to re-explore old ground while making new decisions with new characters, and that includes who you get to romance. Deciding that I wanted to romance Garrus instead of Tali was a big reason I was able to plow through Mass Effect 1 again. And I’ve started at least three files in Dragon Age 2 just so I can try to see if there’s a better romantic option than Merrill. And sadly, since you can’t romance Aveline, there isn’t.
I’m not saying that romances would be enough to save a game like Anthem – but I am saying that their exclusion is indicative of the bigger problems that surround it. Anthem’s story and world has been called boring and dry and overdone, and it’s not hard to see how the lack of romance played into that. There was no reason to especially care or pay attention to certain NPC’s. There was no new angle to explore the world. And there sure as hell wasn’t many chances to define yourself better as a character.
The kinds of things I’d expect from a Bioware game.
The kinds of stuff I miss.