Video games have long struggled to incorporate romance into the player character’s experience. The wildly variable results attest to the difficulty of approximating intimate human interaction in a gaming scenario. The earliest examples were limited to either a “rescue-object” or a “press A to activate sex” paradigm. Later technological developments allowed greater depth of romantic story-telling, but were usually confined to cinematic cutscenes. Even though RPGs of the current generation have been able to provide players with more variety and richer interactions with NPCs, the romantic landscape in gaming narratives is still fairly circumscribed. Nevertheless, there is still much to say about morality at the intersection of ludus and eros.
One truth that seems to emerge from studying games like the Witcher, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, and Fallout series is that the more open-world an RPG, the more difficult it is to create romantic storylines that are simultaneously engaging and flexible. For example, while Mass Effect features several romantic options, but most of them take place at prescribed points in the narrative and are dominated by cinematic sequences; the overall effect is that of a choose-your-own-adventure movie: lots of compelling dialogue and action peppered with occasional choice points. On the other hand, Skyrim presents many more romantic options which can be explored at any point within the game, but these interactions are often reduced to a handful of dialogue options, which requires the player to imagine much of the relationship. Regardless of which model a game employs, the moral dimension of these romantic interactions leads to some fascinating considerations both inside and outside the game.
Allow me to pause here for a disclaimer. The assertions I am about to make must not be misconstrued as a attempt to describe a causal link between the depictions of romance in video games and some of the “hot button” issues in gender relations in the real world. The limits on in-game interpersonal encounters are often the by-product of the gap between the sophistication of current game engines and the complexity of human interactions. Nevertheless, there are some fruitful connections to explore.
The first element to examine is the level of agency of the romantic object. The earliest romantic inclusions are little more than rescue-objects that exist only to be kidnapped by the Big Bad (think Princess Peach). Later games provide NPC romantic partners with some level of agency, but the courtship process is reduced either to a series of cutscenes with idealized words, bodies, and actions or to a fetch quest for which the player is rewarded with romantic companionship. Each of these three models deserves some attention.
The “rescue-object” model suffers from the same limitations as other forms of storytelling that depict women (and usually only women) as objects of rescue, such as medieval romances or early serial films. These works reinforce (intentionally or not) several problematic tropes: women are helpless, romantic love is a reward for heroism, and so on. Still, few people would ever hold up, say, Super Mario Brothers as a model of realistic human interaction.
The “cinematic cutscene choice” model intersects more complexly with the real world. In these models (think The Witcher or Mass Effect), the writers have the ability to create engaging characters and interactions with a certain level of fluidity. The limitation is that these interactions tend to reinforce the same unreasonable tropes as other forms of media. Putting aside for the moment the issue of the idealized bodies and interactions, we still have to contend with the fact that these romantic interludes only exist at certain scripted points in the game, thus adding to the common misconception that romance happens at dramatically appropriate times (at The Big Dance, before The Final Battle, etc).
While the “open-world fetch quest” model features greater flexibility and choice, and does lend itself to marginally closer approximations of human romance (such as those depicted in Skyrim, especially with the Hearthfire DLC), it tends to reduce romance to the successful completion of a minor quest and/or positive disposition levels. Taken at face value, this model reinforces the comical “nice guy coins” trope often seen in anti-MRA arguments: You brought me a mammoth tusk AND you’re wearing an Amulet of Mara? Of course I’ll marry you, Almost-A-Stranger of Black Marsh!
Of the three models detailed above, it is the third, even with its limitations, which possesses the greatest potential for moral role-playing. With sufficient imagination, a player can devise a believable headcanon that incorporates and contextualizes even the nonce dialogue of romantic companions. Once these extraludic factors are in place, a player can then begin think morally about romantic interactions. Consider these examples from Skyrim:
- In Hearthfire, one can marry, establish a home, and adopt children. What, then, is the PC’s level of responsibility in balancing time spent at home with time spent adventuring? Does this answer change if the main quest (in which Alduin is threatening to end the world) is not complete?
- What are the moral implications of choosing a spouse who is also an adventurer, given the possibility of being killed in battle? Does this answer change if you have children?
- If you are running an obviously “evil” PC, does that mean your spouse is also “evil,” regardless of his or her own actions?
Perhaps the best example of an “open-world fetch quest” model that actually provides some depth is the one presented in Fallout 4. I should qualify the remarks that follow by saying that I’ve only had Dogmeat and Piper as companions so far, so my experience is a bit limited. Nevertheless, I have had sufficient time to explore the romantic possibilities in the game. As with many games of this type, companions become available from a combination of quest completion and adequate disposition. The element that makes Fallout 4 so rich, however, is the slow introduction of romantic possibility; as a companion spends time with you, they react to your actions depending upon their own values. In fact, the game includes a “Relationship” dialogue option, which allows the PC to ask the companion about the status of their relationship. Piper, for example, seems to admire actions that suggest a kind of Chaotic Good principled roguishness. She likes it when my PC picks locks, but also when he takes stands for underdog characters. Eventually, dialogue options appeared that allowed for flirtation, but were being run as persuasion checks — in other words, you can flirt with your companion, but there is no guarantee that your flirtation will be appreciated. Furthermore, a “successful” flirtation doesn’t end with a marriage proposal; at some point after you pass the flirtation check, your companion will initiate a fairly deep personal conversation that will end with a dialogue option that allows you suggest a romantic relationship. However, even when you are given this opportunity, you still have to pass another persuasion check in order to begin a love affair. In other words, your NPC companions have some level of agency, even if it is represented by a random number generator. Even if you do everything “right,” your companion may still not be interested in becoming lovers. If your proposal is accepted, then the customary “Lover’s Embrace” perk becomes available, but beyond that and few pieces of new occasional dialogue, gameplay does not appear to change much after this point. Unlike Hearthfire, there are no options for setting up a home with your companion (headcanon aside), and there are no non-companion romantic options. Still, Fallout 4‘s romance system comes closest to replicating human interaction with its slow pace, uncertainty, and possibility of failure.
In most action RPGs, romance and human interaction is, at best, beside the point; maintaining a lover or spouse is not much different from decorating one’s home — an entertaining diversion from killing mutants/aliens/raiders. But for the moral agent, an engaging romantic relationship can not only flesh out a character, but it can also help to put one’s actions into a larger moral perspective.