Dragon Age: Inquisition uses three strategies to mask both the fact that all romantic plotlines in the game follow a single ideology and the inconsistency of some elements of the ideology with the resonance caused by certain companions.
The first strategy is built around the fact that the progression of the romance stories requires time and effort from the player. They must pay attention in dialogues, complete missions, spend time watching cutscenes. This maintains the resonance between the romantic plotlines in the game and their prototypes in mass culture. The player feels invested in the Inquisitor’s relationships, completing companions’ requests, and holding personal conversations with them.
However, from the point of view of the abstract player, the feeling of “sacrifice” in this case is false, since while the necessity of spending more time on the game can lead to emotionally conditioned conflicts in real life, inside the game the Inquisitor’s time and resources are unlimited. Dialogues and mission that occur as part of the romances do not require the Inquisitor to spend resources that could have been required in other situations.
The second strategy is based on the fact that the romantic storylines serve as add-ons to the non-romantic ones. The most obvious example is the “approval” parameter. For the romance to progress it is necessary for the player to reach a certain value of approval. The increase in approval, in turn, is made through dialogues at the base camp and through making the decisions that match companion’s views both during missions and while managing the Inquisition. This can create a likeness of romantic conflicts, as these decisions imply real consequences, including problems, in the main part of the game.
But it is significant that this rather detailed system does not react to the main character’s romantic relationships. The player makes decisions based on a desire to see the Inquisitor in a relationship with a specific character, but the game does not contain any reflection of this fact. Moreover, the majority of such decisions are not presented as a choice between emotions and pragmaticism, but rather between two pragmatic courses of action and the companion’s assessment them is of secondary concern.
Of course, a specific player can make decisions based on a desire to please a certain companion; however, the game itself does not contain elements that would reflect such a motive. For instance, the player can perceive their decision to make Cassandra Pentagast the new head of the Church in terms of their feelings toward her, but the game will not present any details or dialogues representing that perception.
Finally, the third strategy is tied to the asymmetry in the relationships between the Inquisitor and their potential partners. At the same time as the Inquisitor avoids romantic conflicts, many of their potential partners find themselves involved in one. For example, the advisor Josephina breaks off an engagement for a relationship with the main character. For Cassandra, the very fact of a stable relationship creates internal conflict. And in the case of the mage Solas, who ends up leaving the main character, the scene before that reflects a romantic conflict, where Solas’ desire to complete his plans outweighs love.
But even these sacrifices don’t contradict the ghettoization—they do not affect the personalities or social standing of the characters to a point where it can’t be ignored, not do they affect their ludic characteristics. Even more interesting is the fact that game presents affordances for emotional changes in companions though their character quests, but they exist parallel to romantic storylines. This asymmetry, in my opinion, is what contributes to the pick-up feeling described by Kelly. The main character forces others to change within the bound of their relationships, remaining unchanged themselves. This allows us to recollect the concept of “playersexuality” (Cole 2017), which in this case affect not only the NPCs’ sexuality as such, but also reflects their readiness to enter into an asymmetrical relationship with the main character.
POINT OF ORIGIN
At this point it is worth remembering the circumstances in which Bioware games developed their approach to romances. Their mechanic of interparty relationships has a specific point of origin—the game Planescape:
Torment released by Blacklsle in 1999, which used the Infinity Engine, created a year earlier by Bioware for the game Baldur’s Gate.
Like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment is an RPG in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, using similar mechanics, camera position, and the approach to transferring tabletop rulesets into a computer game. However, the difference between Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment is that the latter told a personal story.
The narrative of Planescape: Torment focused on a specific character—an immortal known as The Nameless One and a small group of companions. The Nameless One was trying to find out how exactly he became immortal and what to do with it, at the same time building relationships with people around him. In terms of plotlines, Planescape: Torment was almost linear, with the variety of different playthrough achieved by different ways of developing The Nameless One, and personality and abilities the player had given him through interaction with NPCs and companions. The story maintains this strictly personal approach until the very end, in which The Nameless One faces his own mortality and forces it to merge with him so he can die.
This attention to the personality of the main character resulted in the attention to his social connection, including romantic ones. Key characters in the game were former lovers of the Nameless One, one of them, a ghost, meets him at the very beginning of the game. At the same time, the developers allowed the main character to enter new romances, introducing a system of relationships between the protagonist and his companions based on choices in dialogues, a system which later became the foundation for similar mechanics in other RPGs.
The game offered only two potential partners: the thief Annah and the succubus-cleric Fall-From-Grace. But both romances included romantic conflicts—like other characters, the partners could leave the party after several unfortunate dialogue choices, enter into a conflict with one another, or attack the protagonist. In the story, which for a large part revolved around a conflict between the main character and his former lover, new romance could not be ghettoized.
A good example of the lack of borders between romantic relationships and the rest of the game is the kiss with Fall-From-Grace, which leads to the death of The Nameless One. Being immortal, he is instantly resurrected, but the very presence of this scene, and most importantly, the reflection of the related choices and mechanics in dialogues allows to perceive it as a manifestation of romantic conflict, in this case an internal one, the protagonist’s wiliness to face death for a kiss with his lover.
Bioware borrowed many ideas from Planescape: Torment for their Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, in particular the complex relationships between the main character and the party, and among the other party members. The game also included romantic conflicts, the most striking of which was the love triangle that could occur between the protagonist, the bard Haer’Dalis, and the elf Aerie. The contest for the attention of the latter in most cases ended in a duel with lethal consequences between the main character and his former brother in arms.
But unlike Planescape: Torment, the main story of Baldur’ Gate II was an epic one, not a personal one. The protagonist stood against the mage Irenicus, who was trying to destroy the city of Suldanesselar. And the romances appeared as something important, but still secondary. Borrowing romantic lines from Planescape: Torment, as a way to make the main character more interesting and to increase the variety of play-throughs, the developers switched accents, moving this mechanic to the area of side missions. And this led to the necessity of controlling its level of influence on the main story and gameplay.
In the following decades the situation was complicated by market and technology. Developments in graphics (like switching from 2D to 3D) and increased aspirations from consumers made companions in RPGs more expensive for development. Each companion now required much more work to create and voice, and consequently their numbers were reduced.
The introduction of conflicts that could lead to a character leaving the party became too risky—the abundance of companions in Baldur’s Gate II implied that a player, who didn’t decide to play the game subversively, could always put together a balanced party, even after antagonizing some potential comrades. But in the KotOR or Dragon Age franchises the loss of even a single companion is a serious problem that creates, among other things, practical issues with completing the game, and signifies that the huge effort in animation and voicing was for naught.
In these circumstances developers could not risk adding to the game the most natural result of a failed relationship—parting. Companions stayed in the party no matter what, and only the player’s conscious decision could make them leave. But this, in turn, required the simulation of the party dynamic not as friends, emotionally tied to the protagonist, but around more abstract ideas such as the necessity to face the Reapers, the
Blight, or other cataclysms. It led to the separation of romantic relationships into a sphere that exists parallel to the main activities and motives of the characters.
At the same time, it is important to note that in many games outside of the RPG genre, where story is based around romantic or emotional conflict involving the main character, the abstract player itself is presented as a rational and ethical actor, in need of moral, and not emotional, justification for any acts of violence. Love, friendship, and the desire to avenge the death of a loved one serve as the protagonists motivation in many games, such as Dead Space, Watch_Dogs, and Bioshock: Infinite. But for the abstract player it is obvious that the opponents deserve death not because they stand in the way of love, but because they are bad people or dehumanized monsters. These kinds of stories avoid situations of real choice between the protagonists attachments and an ethically correct decision. Love still stays in the “ghetto,” serving not as a part of the story, but as a way of making the main character more interesting and sympathetic to the player.
This approach is, at least partly, based on the continuing identification of games with male audiences, and the widespread stereotype that men in general are afraid to express, and even experience, strong feelings. One can recall Ursula Le Guin’s essay Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? (Le Guin 1982), where she supposed that Americans’ aversion to fantasy was based upon the fear that they would appear “infantile” or “feminine.” One can suppose that modern developers are still following stereotypes that link interest in emotional stories with the female gender, and interest in games with the male, as discussed by authors like Yasmin Kafai (Kafai 2008).
But many real gamers hold a different opinion on the matter. In her article I’m in love with someone who doesn’t exist, Annika Waern researches forum posts dedicated to romances in Dragon Age: Origins (Waern 2015). She points out that the most popular romantic options are Alistair and Morrigan, which leaves the “ghetto” more than others, even if only in the final chapter of the game. Waern supposes that the two other romantic interests are less popular for the exact reason that they stand alone from the main story.
An even more striking and convincing evidence that players are ready to be guided by emotions is the willingness to created “romantic” mods that allow romantic pursuit of a desired character. It is important to note that these are no sexual mods, but rather fully-fledged love stories that players create for themselves. It becomes obvious that at least a part of those who play video games are ready to spend time, effort, and energy to “play love.” And developers that enforce the unbreakable borders of the “ghetto” risk disappointing their fans more and more.
The “ghettoization of love” can be described in the following way: the exclusion of romantic storylines of the game into a separate sphere, excluded from other game narratives, the boundaries of which are completely controlled by the player. This process reflects the very particular, though hidden, ideology of representation of love, which obviously contradicts the ideologies of texts that affect the images of specific companions and their romantic plotlines, thus creating certain narrative tensions.
Western culture traditionally doesn’t depict love as something comfortable, controllable, and secure, hence romantic relationships that combine images based in older texts with the ideology of ghettoization often create negative impressions. It can be perceived as objectification, disrespectful representation, or, on the contrary, artificial imposition of romantic storylines that require significant time and effort from the player but practically do not affect the gameplay and fictional universe.
The three strategies of concealment, and most importantly, the mastery of the people responsible for the looks, speech, and voicing of the characters allow them to hide this problem, while at the same time underlying the necessity to solve it completely. Players are ready to “fall in love” with video game characters. And the success of games that reject the “ghettoization” of love, such as the Witcher franchise (Majkowski 2018), or outside the RPG genre, Life is Strange, confirms this.
But most importantly, as Aki Jarvinen demonstrates in his article (Jarvinen 2008), video games always provide players with an emotional experience. And developers must learn to interact with this experience, control it, and use it to enrich their works.
Baldur’s Gate 2 (2000) BioWare/Interplay Entertainment
Bioshock: Infinite (2013) Irrational Games/2K Games
Dead Space (2008) EA Redwood Shores/Electronic Arts
Dragon Age: Origins (2009) BioWare/Electronic Arts
Dragon Age II (2011) BioWare/Electronic Arts
Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) BioWare/Electronic Arts
Jade Empire (2005) BioWare/Microsoft Game Studios and 2K Games
Knights of the Old Republic (2003) BioWare/LucasArts
Life is Strange (2015) Dontnod Entertainment/Square Enix
Marriage (2007) Rod Elumble
Planescape: Torment (1999). Blacklsle Studios/Interplay Entertainment
Sleeping Dogs (2012) United Front Games/Square Enix
Sims (2000) Maxis/Electronic Arts
Watch_Dogs (2014) Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) CD Project Red/CD Project
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