SIMULATION OF ROMANTIC LOVE
This article views Romanticism as an intellectual movement which forms the base of Western cultures understanding of love, affecting, among other things, the representation of this feeling in video games and among players. Romanticists paid significant attention to the inner world, creating approaches to its conceptualization that still affect mass culture today. It was based, of course, upon previous traditions, going as deep as Middle Ages and Antiquity. That allowed the romanticists to create an understanding of love that not only affected later texts, but also included previous stories, rethinking them and giving them new meaning. This is especially important in the context of Dragon Age: Inquisition, as many of the romance plotlines in the game resonate with plotlines that chronologically precede romanticism, such as chivalric romance.
The important theme of the romantic conceptualization of love is conflict. One of the clichés in discussions of romanticism is the opposition between a romantic hero and the world, with the conflict taking the form of love. The hero is ready to sacrifice social standing, sanity, friendship, and life itself for love. Love became something that did not belong to the “mundane” world, doomed to be tested by conflict between people, social norms, or mystical forces. The conflation of love and conflict and the understanding of conflict as a sign of true love is one of the fundamental legacies of romanticism.
It is necessary to distinguish two main forms of such conflict. First is the internal conflict, or emotional conflict, that happens inside the hero’s mind and forces him to face his/her own prejudices, fears, or beliefs that stand in the way of their love. In the last decades, this conflict has become popular, perhaps because it suits psychological discourse requiring any person to be ready to change for a loved one.
The second form is the external or material conflict, which threatens a hero with a loss of social standing, a confrontation with other characters or society in general, a risk of death or with death itself, etc. It is worth noting that in romantic depictions of love the second form of conflict always includes the first. It is never just about overcoming an obstacle, but about making an emotional decision, overcoming fear, relinquishing ambitions, etc.
This differs with the conception of love as conquest that can be seen in folktales and epics. The later suggests that a hero receives the object of their passion as a “reward” for victory or possession of certain qualities, bypassing the moment of emotional decision or leaving it obscured.
The other alternative worth mentioning depicts love as something opposite to conflict, a sudden miracle that affords a hero a safe haven from the troubles of everyday life.
All of these approaches to representing love differ not in form, but in ideology. Different authors and readers perceive same stories as having different meanings. For instance, Robin Hood’s relationship with Maid Marian (Child 1888) can be understood as love that pushes Robin toward confrontation with the rest of the world, and demands Marian to reject her social standing. But it can also be understood in terms of love as a reward, where Marian becomes the “trophy” that Robin wins from his enemies, or even as love as a shelter. The last approach suggests that heroes’ relationship serves as the only simple and peaceful part of their lives, giving them strength to face new challenges and adventures.
But the possibility of various interpretations of the same archetypal story does not change the fact that inside a specific work, a suitable plotline signals to the abstract reader to which type it belongs. One of the signs that show the affiliation of a work to the logic of romantic love is the presence of emotionally conditioned conflicts that occur because of characters’ feelings, which from now on would be called romantic conflicts.
The romantic plotlines of Dragon Age: Inquisition are structured according to Bioware’s established scheme, initially introduced in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows ofAmn and later developed in Knights of the Old Republic. The main character, known as Inquisitor or Herald of Andraste, has a base, where they can interact with their companions, and attempt to enter into a relationship with them by choosing a special dialogue option marked with a heart icon. In such dialogues, and during missions, the player makes choices that increase or decrease companion’s approval of the main character.
Certain values of that parameter in turn allow access to extra dialogue options, including those related to romance. Depending on the race and gender of the character, and in some cases on a choice between several dialogue options that serves as a “test” of how well the player knows the character, the romance plotline progresses. Reaching certain thresholds in the romance plotlines is marked with special dialogues, cutscenes, reactions of other companions, and side missions that the player must complete to take further steps in the relationship.
But what is particularly striking is that this system does not suppose romantic conflicts. It does not imply any emotional change for the protagonist: choosing dialogue options motivates the player to better understand romanceable character, but does not require compliance with their values (for example, their religious views). The game “punishes” the player for disrespecting the religion of their chosen partner, but does not require conversion. Basically, it follows the third above-mentioned approach to love, considering it a safe haven from ills of the bigger world, with lovers striving to be as emotionally safe for each other as possible.
Of course, for some people (for instance, those who decided to play a militant atheist), the necessity to respect religion can work as a source of emotional conflict. So for an analysis of the game itself, and not a fan reaction to it, we must turn to the figure of the abstract player. The abstract player has a measure of freedom—they are free to hold on to any interpretation of the work that the work itself can suggest. However, this range has well defined limits, which in our case include the ability to see multiple faiths as true, but do not support proselytization from the player or the NPC’s.
This approach to romance also excludes “external” romantic conflict, which is especially visible in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Unlike many main characters from other RPG’s, the Inquisitor is not a solitary adventurer traveling with a group of companions. They are an important political figure in Thedas, the leader of an organization working toward reforming the largest church of the fictional universe, and responsible for upholding peace in a number of countries. The Inquisitor is constantly making political decisions: forming alliances, distributing resources, deciding the fates of nations and peoples.
But the romances stand apart from these events. The fact that the Inquisitor is in a relationship with some character does not add any extra options of resolving a conflict to suit their partner’s wishes. And the dialogues that appear in the romance plotlines contain no mention of the decisions made. Politics, and in a general sense social life, are strictly separated from romance, to the degree where the two areas have no influence over one another.
This approach is not unique to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Jameson noted (2006) that the image of love as a refuge from politics is typical to colonialist nations. But in the context of this game, it creates a conflict between the resonance and affordances. Many potential partners resonate with a type of character that are, in turn, associated with the Western notion of romantic love that requires partners to make sacrifices and face conflicts.
Cassandra Pentagast, as a romantic partner, causes resonances with stories of relationships between members of different confessions or between clerics and lay people. Sara resonates with the problem of different class standing, Cullen—with chivalric romance, Josephina—with Picaresque novel, Solas—with love as an obstacle for other plans. Lastly, Dorian Parvus obviously touches upon the issue of LGBT+ relationships, which are still subject to loss of social status or even criminal prosecution in many nations around the world. All of these types of romances differ significantly from the “love as refuge” that is offered by Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The desire to shield the player from romantic conflicts permeates the entire logic of representing love in the game. This manifests, for instance, in the lack of romances initiated by the main characters companions. It also affects the hierarchical nature of romances within the party, in which case the relationship between the protagonist and a companion “suppressing” the relationship between two companions, specifically Dorian and Iron Bull. The connection between these two characters simply does not appear if the Inquisitor pursues either of them as potential partner. In both cases we see a manifestation of the same logic—a desire to protect the player from the necessity of making a decision that mixes emotional considerations (do I like this character?) and pragmatic ones (do I want to ruin my relationship with a companion?).
The developers even adapted the fictional universe itself to bring romantic relationships outside the bounds of politics. Like many fantasy worlds, Thedas follows the canon of neomedievalism, a pastiche style that heavily uses popular imagery and story tropes commonly associated with European Medieval Ages (Eco 1986). Dragon Age’s aesthetics, terminology, and many other elements resonate with the traditional elements of this genre: conflict between Church and magic, oppression of minorities, romanticized knight culture.
But in Inquisitions romances, Thedas is quite modern and even idealized. In the part of the world which appears in the game, there is no homophobia, the Inquisitor is not pressured into arranged marriages, the theme of celibacy among clerical figures is deftly avoided, and a romance between the head of the largest religious organization and a member of a different faith, such as a qunari, does not cause any scandals.
This is worth notice, that the game’s strategic component would have allowed a representation of the following conflicts without much effort. For instance, the player could lose part of the Inquisitions resource by entering into a scandalous relationship, which would reflect the disappointment of Thedas’ more conservative circles. And the fact that the game lacks even these surface level romantic conflicts leads me to believe that it was a conscious, or, at least, semi-conscious, decision on the part of the developers. In conjunction with Frasca’s ideas, they simulate love, rejecting those elements of the simulated system that seem insignificant. And the choice of said elements reflects the ideology installed into the game: the idea that love serves as a refuge for the main character where they can rest from politics. In the present article this ideology of exclusion of romantic relationships from the rest of the game world will be called the “ghettoization of love.”