This week I completed Dragon Age: Origins on the Playstation 3. I'm not going to bore you with a review of a game released half a decade ago – its a really nice story but the graphics have aged a bit and the combat is repetitive – but I am going to discuss a question it made me ask: where is the love?
First of all, here's a little background about me. I love videogames; I can spend hours chasing a high score one of my friends has set, I can lose entire weekends to online multiplayer marathons and I can get so wrapped up in singleplayer games that I forget who I am in the real world. That said, as much as I like shooting lads and stabbing dragons, I'm also something of a romantic. After a long day its a coin toss whether I'll feel like a couple of rounds as the Master Chief or a night under a blanket with Baby Houseman and Johnny Castle. When I hear the names Jack and Rose, its a 50/50 split whether I think of Metal Gear Solid II: Sons of Liberty or Titanic.
So it frustrates me no end that while videogames have found a million different ways to explore the art of war, they still shy away from the tender act of love. Much like the way television's 24 delights in showing us every gory detail of Jack Bauer torturing a terror subject but pans the camera away if he kisses his girlfriend, videogames don't bat an eyelid at asking me to mow down hundreds of men who are just fighting for their country but court tabloid controversy if they allow two people of the same gender to hold hands.
I'm aware that there is a whole genre of dating sims and life games which explore these themes, but my interest here is the mainstream, so-called “AAA” of videogames, the titles that spend big bucks and make big bucks. In that category, the only company which seem to be, in my experience, meaningfully exploring interactive, romantic fiction is Bioware.
Canadian videogame developer Bioware, famous for its RPGs, created some of my all-time favourite games in the Mass Effect Trilogy. I loved the intelligently designed, expansive, unique science fiction universe. I was in awe of he graphics, sound and music. I was thrilled by the excellent third-person shooting action. I was engrossed by the well-written, well-acted, pioneering interactive storytelling. By the end of Mass Effect 3, after I'd fought my way through a galaxy on the brink of extinction to make a fateful decision, the thing which made it so hard wasn't the epic scope of the galaxy I was about to influence, it was the touching romance of the love story I was about to conclude.
My Commander Shepard was in love with Liara T'Soni. The reason this captured me so much wasn't because I'm a teenage boy titillated by the idea that I might see some digitised alien boobies. Nor was it the power rush of being able to pick from an assortment of potential partners and copulate with any one of them. It was the realness, that ineffable feeling that these two characters were real and so was their relationship.
This “chemistry” is what separates the memorable fictional romances from the piles of charmless Seagal movies and daytime Channel 5 snoozefests. Ross and Rachel, Dawn and Tim, Wesley and Buttercup, or Christian and Satine are memorable because we believed in their relationship and wanted them to end up together. The difference is good writing. From the moment Liara delved into Shepard's mind to find out about the Protheans, and found a strong, loving soul instead, I could see their romance blossom. I stepped into the Commander's shoes and just as I knew she was an honourable paragon with a disobedient streak and a determination to stop the Reapers, I knew she was in love with Liara.
Very few videogames even attempt to explore love to that extent. The love interest is a sub-plot, played out in cutscenes, like Metal Gear Solid's Snake and Meryl, or the love interest is a prize for completing the game; rescue her from the dragon/ terrorists/ wizard and she's bound to put out. When it is included in-game, it works coldly and mechanically. Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of my favourite games, and I thoroughly enjoyed the little love stories which played out between military operations. My approach was to try and encourage the relationships between characters whose initial cutscenes showed the most romantic promise, but the point remains that I could make anyone shack up with anyone else just by putting them in adjacent squares during fights.
In Dragon Age: Origins, I played as a female elf because she had the most interesting background story; born in poverty to a culture which had been subject to slavery until very recently, she was almost raped by a human on the day of her arranged marriage. I played her as a sarcastic do-gooder with zero tolerance for racists or anyone in the slave trade. Then she met Alistair.
His sarcastic sense of humour, his naïve heroism and his shy likeability seemed like a perfect match for Sha'ar the Elven Grey Warden. Through thick and thin, they grew closer, then one night at camp their love came to the fore and they snuck back to her tent. It was as satisfying a moment as Ted Mosby kissing Robin Scherbatsky at the end of Season One of How I Met Your Mother. When Alistair dumped her because he could never marry her as king, it was heartbreaking. I genuinely wanted to key his car, like a generic woman scorned. When Morrigan presented a way for neither of them to die, the bitter choice was a perfect climax to a love story better than anything in cinema so far this decade. So far, so good, right?
The Problem in Dragon Age was that this system was codified and reduced to numbers like the characters' battle stats. In a massive bit of irony, whereas Mass Effect had a disappointingly binary morality system compared to Dragon Age's difficult decisions, Mass Effect had an organically written approach to romance at odds with Dragon Age's system of buying somebody gifts until they forgive their moral objections and have sex with you.
More and more romance and sex is sneaking into videogames and I couldn't be happier about it, but until Liaras start to outnumber the Ashley Grahams there's still a lot of work to do. Next time you help an eight-foot-tall monster of a man with wrists the size of my thighs slaughter hundreds of people with different skin to him, don't ask “where are the grenades?” Ask “where is the love?”