Over the past decade I’ve lost count of the number of RPGs I’ve played, both from western and Japanese developers. I’ve saved countless worlds and faced down a myriad of gods, and though my love for the genre has not changed, there is one aspect of these titles I’ve come to loathe: romance.
And before I get into it, let me clarify thing. Yes, I’m a lonely fat bastard. But I’m a sucker for good romance, in life and in fiction. Romance is usually the part I enjoy the most in stories, as it really drives character growth, not just for your point of view character but also for the romantic partner.
The problem is that in most cases the romance options in videogames are checklists, with each ticked box just making it so the characters open up a bit more, even past deep personal trauma, and your one-line quips tick other boxes in the list, which you can often bypass, depending on the game, with gifts and knickknacks. I can only imagine someone getting the wrong message on how human interactions work.
But my big issue is that characters in these games aren’t written as full characters, they aren’t complete human—or other—beings, but a collection of facts for you to unlock and attitudes for you to shift, and the relation between those is rather thin. They’re too malleable and will often change themselves drastically to become your romantic partner, which is bizarre. Worse still is that the goal in the entire romance is just a cutscene where two mannequins go at each other. The emotion is not important, just the bland sex scene. Additionally, the romance has no effect on character’s lives or their decisions, there isn’t even a moment of consideration. Since the romance is separate from the characterisation and personal plot lines, it’s just a side activity, not the deep connection that a romance and romantic attachment really are.
So, for me, romance in videogames has become one of those mechanics I groan at when presented with and it immediately creates a form detachment from the characters, because I know they’re not people, not even written as such, just another toy for you to play with, get a cutscene, an achievement and move on. Hell, in some games that’s kinda what you do, unlock a series of romance options and watch all the mannequin scenes. There’s a reason I skipped out on any form of romance presented in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, because they don’t contribute anything to the narrative or the characters.
In fact, the only romance in video games that I’ve found myself caring about in the past few years come in two flavours: the first is those where the romance is already written. It’s not your choice but part of two or more characters’ arc—I’m not one to demand character choice in everything, sometimes good writing is better—and you just witness “the dance” as it plays out throughout the game. The Last Story is this kind of game, and the romance is pretty well done. Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky has this kind of story in it as well.
The other type of romance is closer to the checklist one but better developed and I’ve only found it in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, where you have a big group of party members with whom to bond, with that bond eventually leading to a romance in the 2nd game. But they’re two full RPG games where you interact with fully developed characters and get to know them. And to create that bond you have to actually spend time with them and hell, GET TO KNOW THEM! And when the romance happens, it becomes an important facet in both characters’ lives and it doesn’t lead to a mannequin scene, which I appreciate, and at most leads to a kiss and that’s about it, with the emotion behind it being more important than the act itself. And in the first game a deep friendship is as far as you get. So, you have 2 games to develop a bond and deepen it to the point where the romance is believable and worth the investment and where it feels like it has an impact on the character motives and actions.
But in both cases, the characters are well-written people with their own motivations, fears, hobbies even. They weren’t created for the sake of filling a romantic role in this checklist, but romance is an extra option that develops another side of them, adding on top of the already well-developed characterisation. And the romance itself is believable, between two people and both giving to the relationship. Or at least more so than the dull, shallow and frankly one-sided “Bioware-style” romances where it’s the person you’re romancing that does everything for you. They open up to you, they change—as much as they’re allowed to—for you, and make themselves an ideal mate for you, while your character doesn’t give anything of themselves, they just take, so that if you see these relationships from a long-period perspective they would be incredibly unhealthy.
It’s become so that I can sniff out bad romance options in games from a mile away, when the game’s advertising and developers don’t make it clear in advance that it’s going to be the case, as it was with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, where they pretty much made it clear that you can spend the game doing a sex-tour of the Greek Isles. Hell, this was a game where characters propositioned sex to my protagonist on the moment of meeting. At least buy me dinner first, for Olympus’ sake.
If I’m honest, I now don’t want optional romances in games. Have the writers decide who the characters are shacking up with, maybe that way we’ll get something that is believable and worth investing in for the duration of the game. But if you’re still going ahead with the The Bachelor(ette) approach to game romance, then at least make sure we’re dealing with people, not sexbots with a shallow personalities.