Romance in videogames is a double-edged sword. While some might argue that it serves a great purpose to the emotional investment we have in our characters, it could also be argued that it’s all ultimately trivial when it isn’t necessarily the point of the game itself (unlike dating sims). There’s been a handful of good, to great, RPG’s over the years that have featured a romantic option system, from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to Persona 5 and the Mass Effect series. These aren’t the best examples of why romance in gaming has any place in their stories (at least not to some crazy extent), but rather for what they attempt with it, and what they actually get right.
The Witcher 3 is probably the one title that sticks out like a sore thumb when it comes to wooing your female companions. As Geralt of Rivia, you’re given plenty of options in your pursuit of love and acceptance when you’re not driving a sword into the skull of a griffin. The game acknowledges the impact of its romantic aspects, but wisely chooses to never make it detrimental to the plot. Sure, you might run into some emotional troubles along the way when your relationships with certain women crumble, but it only serves the purpose of building stronger connections with characters. You get some goodies out of it as a reward, but not something that entirely shifts the narrative in a direction that’s unfamiliar. The two primary love interests, Yennefer and Triss, are very attractive and headstrong, but what they each mean to Geralt depends entirely on the player.
In one scenario, you can choose to altogether ignore Triss in favour of Yennefer, and when the time comes, offer her a subtle rejection if you feel strongly enough about Yen. On the other hand, you can easily turn away Yennefer and pursue Triss – or if you prefer, romance both of them and end up in a sticky situation in the end. What’s great about this simple, albeit inconsequential, romantic option is the feeling of fulfillment to Geralt and the player. It’s their personalities that will win you over and allow you to make an informed decision of who you’d like to spend time with after the credits roll.
The characters are incredibly well written and fleshed out, so it makes it both easier and harder to make on-the-nose decisions regarding their feelings for you, and yours for them. The point I’d like to stress here is: the romance in the game is not a bait to get you to “care” about other characters. It’s a means of building upon the already established history behind them and their personalities, so when it comes time to make a decision, it already has a ton of weight behind it.
Comparatively, a game like Persona 5 takes a very different approach to romance. With no pre-established history behind the characters, you’re forced to start from scratch and actually build a relationship with each individual female. This can be quite a hefty task as the game intentionally limits your allocated time slots and activities, so getting through the dozen or so female romance options can prove daunting. The beauty of Persona 5’s romantic choices is how you choose to spend your time with them. While The Witcher 3 is almost always focused on advancing the main plot forward with the occasional moments of romantic chemistry, Persona 5 grants you a metric ton of free time. This adds so much replay value to the experience. If you were focused on honing your characters' battle skills in one playthrough, you can easily start over a new leaf and take the hard road by focusing solely on scoring relationship points with female characters in the next.
Where this differs from other romantic options in games is just how endless the possibilities are with each companion, depending on the excruciating amount of time devoted to them. On my own playthroughs, I favoured Ann and Makoto, and each road taken yielded different results, both in the main character's personal life, and in battle. It wasn’t drastic changes, e.g. Mass Effect, but it did slightly change the perspective of the main character and where his priorities stood. This sentiment almost rings true for the entire Persona series. It did begin in the first game, but got progressively deeper with each iteration. With Persona 3 and 4, the romance was fully realized and we actually saw changes being made in our choices that affected the game.
As far as games that go the extra mile to have adverse changes to the experience, one need look no further than the Mass Effect series. I know plenty of players who treated the games as intergalactic dating simulators. This is a testament to how intricately Bioware implemented choice-making in these games. After all, the games are titled “Mass Effect” because of the consequences your decisions have, and it reflects in the way our main character, Commander Shepard, handles each relationship. Some choices have purely political outcomes in regards to the overarching plot, while others do affect the way certain characters, particularly your romantic options, come to see you. The Mass Effect series treats its romantic choices very differently from the likes of Persona or The Witcher.
Character building and relations are essential tools in the development of Mass Effect’s vast array of characters. Their development and arcs are purely dependent on your actions and decisions, making for some extremely difficult choices when it comes to romance – a core gameplay mechanic explored fully in dating sims. When you do succeed in making the choices you desire, however, it wants you to continue trying to shape the experience around your romantic endeavors. You might unexpectedly find that your love interest is greeted with life or death situations along the story, and it’s up to you to act upon these instincts simply because of the established relationship you have with that specific person. Suffice to say, I absolutely love how Mass Effect constructs its romance. Awkward sex scenes aside, there’s a very endearing sense of accomplishment to each tough call Shepard has to make, but above all, there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. For all its flaws, even Mass Effect: Andromeda makes a greater attempt at romance than many of its counterparts – even if it does look like mannequins professing their jaded and confusing love for one another.
Romance may seem like something that’s not on the agenda of any regular gamer's mind, especially in games about killing wyverns and travelling the galaxy. However, I do still appreciate the thought process that goes into creating romantic situations and predicaments for our characters. It’s another fine layer on top of the experience, and draws in an entirely different market of gamers who want a little more chemistry than your standard dungeon crawler or MMORPG.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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