Gamification of Sex and “Human” Relationships in Dragon Age 2

I’m more or less finished messing with Dragon Age 2. I’ve put in something like 50 hours, which is a work week for me. That seems respectable enough. And while I’ve already reviewed Dragon Age 2, there were a couple of things that wound up on the cutting room floor.

I didn’t, for example, blather on about the companion romances in DA2. Others, however, have been practically hyperventilating over them.

Dragon Age 2 Isn’t Straight Enough

Mike Fahey over at Kotaku covered the brouhaha on Bioware’s forums wherein a forum poster, one “Bastal,” complains, essentially, that there is no suitable romance option for a straight male player, role playing as a straight male character, except for Isabela, who “Bastal” finds much too, “exotic” (cough, splutter); David Gaider, the lead writer for the Dragon Age franchise responded with a concise, somewhat eloquent “eff off.” Go read that, or dig in direct at the source.

That back and forth has already been done to death and, frankly, I found the whole interchange boring and really mention it only because it’s part of a larger narrative, as is the next item.

David Gaider Hates Gay People

As if on cue, and nearly certainly as a poor attempt at trolling, someone else on Bioware’s forums started up a petition to have Gaider fired, in short, because Anders, DA2‘s healing companion, is a sexually aggressive gay guy (of course, only when the champion is male, when the champion is female, then Anders is just a sexually aggressive straight guy). How one leads to the other is beyond me.

Again, I’m so certain that this is just bad trolling that I’m going to ignore most of this argument as well. I do, however, think it brings up an interesting issue with Dragon Age 2.

Virtual Relationships Aren’t a Balance Issue

Finally, Tycho over at Penny Arcade has the response that really should have been made from the get go, which is: the sexually aggressive male companion, the lack of a blonde, white-skinned, busty female romance option, “that is the game.”

Bioware is receptive to comments and concerns about bugs, glitches and game-breaking technical issues. If your save files keep getting corrupted, Bioware cares and welcomes input from the user base. There is, however, a mentality particular to the internet that a game company is interested in re-building their game to suit what the fans think is best. Don’t like the way the reboot of Prince of Persia ends? Post open letters to Ubisoft all over the internet so that they change the ending. To anyone who has ever had to work on a large creative project with a group of other people, this mentality sounds and feels quite a bit like equal parts ignorance and madness.

Anders’s dialog options are not a bug. They may be poorly written and cringe-inducing (they are) but they are not some minor development glitch to be ironed out. The decision to give Isabela a cartoon, panting libido occurring “naturally” only in camp and pornography was no doubt a bad one, but it was still the decision the writers and developers made.

If you buy that games are or can be art, then taking to the internet to demand that Fenris undergo a personality makeover (or, really, a personality injection) is akin to writing a letter to Eames to tell him his chairs suck. If you are more of the sort that believes that games are entertainment only, then demanding that Anders be patched such that the he no longer interprets kindness on the part of the champion as a come-on is like writing a letter to Michael Vick and telling him to go back in time and play in the playoffs as you wanted him to.

On the other hand, sitting down, thinking about what went wrong with the game and describing how it went wrong might be an interesting read for players and a useful one for developers.

Dragon Age 2 Just Has Bad Romances

The bit that confuses me in all this is that the romances have been notable in Bioware games by virtue of their existing, not because they were particularly well brought off. Bioware romances tend to be largely talky affairs and, at best, an interesting bit of side fluff that help to flesh out your companions. Frankly, if the alternative to this older standard of NPC romances that Bioware establishes is what we’ve gotten in the Dragon Age franchise, then I politely suggest Bioware invest in a time machine. It’s worth noting that with respect to Bioware’s games there has been an interesting vocabulary shift from, “NPC party member,” which term has its roots in tabletop RPGs and was how “companions” were described in Baldur’s Gate II, to the more recently used, “companion,” which is, in America at least (and in Firefly), a euphemism for, “prostitute.”

The precise mechanics by which a companion is wooed have varied from game to game. Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect are tied for the worst romance mechanics; the former borrowed heavily from the gifting mechanic popular in some Japanese Dating Sims (which more or less monetized in-game relationships, which is… problematic) and the latter reduced “romance” to “flirty dialog culminating in sex.” Baldur’s Gate II, of all of Bioware’s games, had the best romance mechanics. The entire thing was dialog-based, was timed in such a way that the interactions seemed to occur organically (rather than: after you have completed x mission then these next steps in the romance options are available) and had significant consequences but no real reward other than that it developed an interesting side-story with one of your party members. Romanced party members did things like get pregnant, change their alignment (which is a huge deal in the Dungeons & Dragons rule system), leave the party for a time or even leave the party forever.

Elder Scrolls: Morrowind had a number of guilds and groups you could join. What was remarkable was less the number of groups (not all that many), and more the fact that joining each group felt significant. The entrance exams were significant. Your character could climb the ranks in the guild via increasingly significant quests (that sometimes involved murdering every NPC in a different guild) until they became the guild master. Being in a specific guild not only opened up a lot of exclusive avenues for adventure in the game, it also closed a number of other ones. Bethesda’s next game in the series, Oblivion, did away with this exclusivity and thereby made the guilds a much less interesting experience. The “lesson” Bethesda learned between Morrowind and Oblivion was that players want to be able to do anything and everything, with no narrowing of options or consequential decisions. This has been an increasingly prevalent design decision in games produced this generation and it’s an absolutely ruinous path to take.

The problem here is fundamentally structural. Bioware has made two decisions when writing and designing romances, the implications of which frustrates any attempt at a serious, mature approach to romance or character development. On the one hand, Bioware has gamified romance: there are not only rewards (some of them just changes to character textures, which, given the paucity of companion modification options, actually feel significant) but also clear steps to get there (the dialog wheel displays a glowing heart next to romance-specific options). Furthermore, romancing a character helps improve the character’s opinion of you and thereby unlocks a special character-specific attribute. On the other hand, Bioware has made the experience of romancing a companion largely a boring one: because romances have rewards associated with them, and because players don’t like having their options narrowed, there is no soft limit (such as gender, preference or species) which dictates whether or not a companion is romance-able, presumably because it would be unfair if female players got two romance options and male players only one (a similar complaint was made of Balduer’s Gate II). The only limit Bioware makes is that certain companions are entirely un-romance-able; that is, if Anders is interested in a female champion, then he’s interested in a male champion as well while Varric’s disinterest in male champions also extends to female champions. The upshot is that romances, and, more importantly, the story elements they develop become boring achievement grinds. Gamification, after all, is what Jane McGonigal suggests we do to get through unpleasant tasks. It’s a delightful distraction to trick us into making sure we take out the trash every day. The implication being that Bioware couldn’t come up with compelling romances or couldn’t come up with a reason that players would explore the romance option without McGonigaling it up.

There’s a deeper implication too: that Bioware has given up on telling a human story or having “human” characters (“human” in the psychological, emotional sense, not in the species sense). Instead, we’re given puppets with occasionally cool outfits. Puppet actors, as Ken Levine points out, make for awkward sex scenes.

At the end of the day, making a video game of romance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can imagine a fantastic Game Dev Story-esque romance game. Gamification of human interactions, on the other hand, speaks of pathological problems with whoever has to turn friendships into secret achievement grinds.And, frankly, RPGs are special. It’s one of the few, if not the only, genre of video games where things like story, plot and character development are actually important and a failure to get them right can have dire consequences when you bring a game to market. The gamification of champion-companion interactions is bad enough, but the gamification of romances really shows how little Bioware cared to flesh out DA2‘s story. That’s not to mention how the design of DA2‘s romance mechanic plays into the stereotypes of cold, metric-obsessed programmers and dysfunctional, lonely gamers.

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