Love Without Consequences: Ideology of Romance Representation in Video Games. Case Study of Dragon Age: Inquisition
This is a case study of the ideology behind the representation of love in the video game Dragon Age: Inquisition by Bioware, which it shares with many other video games, both made by the same studio and by other developers. It proposes that throughout the industry, love and romantic relationships are depicted as a retreat from conflicts, dangers, and the stresses of the wider world. To this end, developers often depict love as something which does not influence anything aside from the personal feelings of the partners involved, stripping it of any potential political, philosophical, religious, or other context.
But this “ghettoization of love” is often at odds with cultural inspiration behind particular love stories, as is the case of the Dragon Age series. This text is inspired by an attempt to role-play a romance between main character and non-player character (NPC) Cassandra Pentaghast as a story of love between a religious person and a non-believer who is gradually converted as their relationship progresses. But, despite the fact that Cassandra is one of the most interesting religious characters among a multitude of different NPCs present in fantasy video games, her romantic lines painstakingly exclude any possibility of romantic conflict, making a story of conversion through love something that players can imagine for themselves without any narrative support from the game. This, in turn, hints at a deeper ideological problem in an approach of AAA-studios to the depiction of romance in video games.
DRAGON ACE ROMANCE
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a roleplaying video game developed by Bioware Studio in 2014. It is the third game of the Dragon Age franchise, started in 2009 with Dragon Age: Origins. The events of all Dragon Age games happen in the universe of Thedas, a classic fantasy world populated with races familiar to any fan of the genre—humans, dwarves, elves—and the giant Qunari, designed by Bioware themselves. All games of the franchise were commercially successful, praised by critics, and gained a cult following among gamers. The fourth game of the franchise, Dragon Age: The Dread Wolf Rises, is in progress as of the publication of this writing.
Due to its popularity, many authors have analyzed this franchise, and the way it deals with the themes of romantic relationships, love, and sex in particular. From the early 2000s BioWare earned a reputation as a developer that payed attention to these areas with such games as Baldur’s Gate 2, Jade Empire, and Knights of the Old Republic. Their games formed and improved on the model of relationships between the main character and their companions that had become a standard for the entire genre, even in games from other studios, such as Neverwinter Nights 2 or Pathfinder: Kingmaker.
In the Dragon Age franchise, much like in the synchronously released Mass Effect, the developers attempted to provide the player with as many options as possible in the realm of romantic relationships. They sought to produce more romanceable companions, more races, more LGBT+ characters designed to show the studio’s dedication to inclusion. The quantity of these options rose from game to game, with Dragon Age: Origins allowing the player to romance 4 out of 9 companions, Dragon Age II with 5 out of 9, and Dragon Age: Inquisition with 8 out of 12 secondary characters (9 companions and 3 advisors).
The abundance of potential partners willing to enter a relationship with a character of any gender, or those presented as openly LGBT+, attracted the attention of not only gamers and journalists, but also academics (Kelly 2015; Bennis 2019, Frick 2019). Some researchers focused on the queerpotential presented in the game (Navarro-Remesal 2018), in particular between two of the player’s companions—the qunari Iron Bull and the mage Dorian Parvus (Pelurson 2018). At the same time, the romantic lines in the franchise romances were often criticized as heteronormative or as caricaturizing and distorting images of LGBT+ people (Dym 2019).
Peter Kelly’s article Approaching the Digital Courting Process in Dragon Age 2 (2015) is of particular importance. While he explores romantic relationships in Dragon Age II, many of his observations can be applied to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Kelly suggested that the romantic plotlines in the franchise procedurally follow the logic of so-called pick-up guides. In both cases the relationships are reduced to a simple opposition of “correct” and “incorrect” responses, where choosing “correct” responses in a certain order helps to develop a relationship. This development, in turn, invariably follows a progression with clear stages: a kiss, physical intimacy, and life together.
Sex here does not appear as a part of the relationship, but rather as a “reward” for saying the right words, a characteristic which brings together video games and pick-up ideology in depersonalizing the partner and mechanizing the relationship. Kelly suggested that this approach toward relationships reveals the developers’ desires to please, first and foremost, the male and heterosexual part of their auditory, perhaps because of outdated notions of the domination of young white heterosexual men among gamers, noted, for example, by Janine (2007).
While acknowledging the merits of Kelly’s work, it is possible to present a different perspective on one small, yet important, detail. In his article, Kelly focuses on the fact that the approach presented in Dragon Age II (as well as in pick-up manuals) depersonalizes partners, turning them into simple “machines” for exchanging correct words and actions for sex. And while this observation is generally just, it seems important to highlight the fact that unlike pick-up manuals, developers of the Dragon Age franchise put in significant effort to force the player to pay attention not only to the general attributes of all the available partners, but also their individual differences. While the ideology behind pick-up manuals—male-oriented texts that promise a reader an easy and practical guide for starting romantic and sexual relationship with any person of another gender—implies the existence of some universal words able to please any person Dragon Age franchise, albeit clumsily, attempts to present a different approach wherein relationships serve as a reward for attention payed to the feelings, thoughts, and priorities of the partner. Correct answers are based on assumptions about the companions’ character and knowledge of their biography. This attempt to present companions not only as a tactical resource, but also as characters with their own personalities, may seem naive, and is practically negated by the ability to instantly reload a save in case of a mistake. But still, it should not be ignored.
Considering this, it seems that the main problem with the pick-up approach is not the depersonalization of the partner as such, but rather the ease with which the player is able to choose the correct dialogue option to progress the relationship. In his analysis of pick-up ideology, Kelly brings up the example of the book How to Become a Womens Puppet Master (Swingcat 2011), concentrating on the depiction of love as something quantifiable and consisting of predictable logical steps. But even the title of the book suggests that the central premise of the text is not the solution of love to simple and understandable steps, but rather the depiction of romantic relationships as inextricably connected with control over the partner and avoidance of the necessary loss of control by the pick-up artist.
It is this pursuit of control, in which the main character “conquering” others with strategically assured responses while avoiding personal risks, that creates the sense of similarity between romances in Dragon Age franchise and romantic pick-up artistry or play. This, in turn, is connected to the problem mentioned at the beginning of this article: the lack of romantic conflicts in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
In my opinion, that is the main problem with the representation of love in this game, as well as in many other projects. But this article focuses on one game, which will be analyzed using the concepts of “simulation” proposed by Frasca (2003), and “resonance” proposed by Adam Chapman. Chapman, in turn, relies upon the works of Thomas Apperley and texts in ecopsychology.