Feedback Loop: Getting beyond marriage

Cara Ellison is fed up with games that remind her of how single she is. And in a brilliant personal essay over at Unwinnable she uses the interactive novel, Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, to explain why.

I don’t want games to tell me that a relationship or marriage is one of the ultimate goals in life; and yet the frameworks for compulsory monogamy pop up often in games. Placing an emphasis on ‘achieving’ a relationship in games puts undue pressure on players who are already acutely aware of tropes such as the ‘virgin nerd’ stereotype. Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins even acknowledge this particular stereotype by having the super-hunky-sexy-paladin-man Alistair confess his virginity in a nice move to smash the idea that male sexual experience is desirable. (As a side note, I failed to seduce Alistair, though I tried SO hard. I think I gave him pretty much every gift I had.) (Single.) Where DTIPB differs from games such as Dragon Age is that the relationships are happening around you anyway. In this way, Love’s game is a positive step forward –as Mattie puts it, “Don’t Take it Personally, Babe provides an alternative where the player isn’t required to bring meaning to a relationship, but can still interact and learn from it.” In other words, there is very little pressure to ‘achieve’ a relationship; they just happen naturally. Love’s game becomes an example of organic relationships.

I use to love relationships in videogames. Even the ones I had no control over. In my younger years (read: 11 – 12) a relationship was much more than just the algorithms and bits that produced it.

The date sequence in Final Fantasy VII is a prime example. Aeris wasn’t just Cloud’s tough-as-nails, gentle-as-a-flower romantic spark. She was also a patchwork quilt of every romantic desire and love-laced wish of my own, projected onto her polygonal surface. Part of growing older for me meant realizing that there were no Aeris’s in the real world. No plucky and pretty mystics with endless amounts of energy, understanding, and unpresumptuous virtue.

We all have our flaws and insecurities, our fears and vulnerabilities. No romantic partner is perfect. Most of us are barely adequate.

And so when Ellison mentions the achievement driven nature of Dragon Age’s romantic entanglements, it reminded me of my own experiences with Mass Effect, BioWare’s other major series. I couldn’t agree more with the problem Ellison is getting at, and while traversing the galaxy with Shepard this dilemma was painfully inescapable.

Start talking about the jewel in BioWare’s RPG crown, and inevitably someone will discuss who they tried to “get with” throughout the series. Which is understandable because, especially by the second and third games, It’s clear BioWare has put a lot of time and thought into its romancing mechanic. But what if I don’t want to learn more intimate things about my fellow squad mates by bedding them? Can’t we just be friends?

I’m sure BioWare would maintain that the relationships you develop with other characters in Mass Effect will be rich no matter how you choose to forge them. But every time I hear a friend talk about the NPCs gone wild aboard their Normandy, I’m left suspecting that I missed out on something important.

But I’ve got to save the galaxy! I didn’t have time for romance. Did Captain Picard have time for romance? Of course, Captain Kirk did, and he was able to have his cake and eat it too. So perhaps the problem wasn’t with the game but rather with me. It’s simply reflecting the reality of life. Some people don’t have to work for love, others don’t have to sacrifice their career for it, and the ones like me can’t seem to remember to pack a lunch, let alone slay Reapers and date Liara all in the same day.

Which is to say that I too would like to see more games that explore the idiosyncrasies of romantic relationships as well as more unconventional ones. Romance in a videogame doesn’t just need to be about the complexities of navigating sex or negotiating monogamy.

The definitions of romantic relationships are evolving and expanding. Making the traditional (some might say manufactured) conception of romance available to gay people as well as straight is good. BioWare deserves credit on this front. But I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like it’s time we grew out of the bed and wed mentality. If videogames are going to make NPC interaction a focal point going forward, it would be nice if they moved past the Hollywood version of love as well.


  1. Andrew McDonald

    The picture for DTIPBIJAYS really threw me off. I sat through a final exam thinking about how much I hated every minute I spent reading text over people I don’t like having relationships I don’t care about. So when I got back and actually had time to read the article, I was really thankful that the article was not actually about DTIPBIJAYS.

    I didn’t even realize there were romantic options in ME2 until I had already finished the game. I am honestly surprised thinking back that I didn’t even think about the possibility that the game had romantic relationships, since I had only a few months before played DA2 where they had very clear romantic partner options (all of which were bisexual. Huh? Maybe I’m missing a big controversy about that, but I have never heard anyone talk about it).

    As far as what this article is actually about… I don’t actually have a comment. I’ve never enjoyed a video game romance and doubt I ever will. While I like the idea of expanding from Hollywood romance, I also hope they include a “skip” button.

    • ethancgach

      I agree for the most part. Most mainstream stories could benefit from losing the romance emphasis, or the seeming need to always include a love interesting/tension.

  2. Actually there were a few episodes where Picard DID have time for romance. The biggest one of course ends with him calling it off because “reoccurring character syndrome”.

    • ethancgach

      Very true. But only a few.