Romancing the Drone: How Video Game Foreplay Makes Us Care for Our Digital Loved Ones
Sex in games is nothing new, but developers are increasingly looking to craft more realistic romances – even with anthropomorphic cattle.
My first love was funny, strong, and really knew how to handle his sword. He was a virgin, too, so we lost our innocence together. Kind of beautiful, right? It wasn't all jokes and daydreams of the future, though. Life was chaotic, and it always felt like the world was just about to end, but that's young love.
Then there was the wiry Japanese schoolboy who taught me how to fight. And his roommate, so tortured, so mysterious. I had them both.
The business owner was the first one I actually married, and after I built us a house, we adopted an adorable little girl. Everything was great until she was kidnapped. I think of her often and promise myself that I really will go rescue her, one day, if I ever get some extra time.
I loved them all, and it wasn't just about the sex. There was something else. A sly glance, an admiring word, their confidence in me to complete any mission. What I loved most was the romance.
You do know I'm talking about video game characters, right?
People tend to talk a lot about sex in video games, but what about the romance? These characters, Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins, Akihiko and Shinjiro from Persona 3 Portable and Camilla Valerius from Skyrim, all made me feel something, and I'm not just talking about what was going on in my pants. It was the way we interacted, or how they helped me be better at playing the game, that made me feel for them. Is it possible to fall in love with a fictional character? I don't know, but I can say that some of them still make my heart go pitty-pat.
People love to love in games because it gives the interactive experience an added dimension of reality. You aren't going to beat someone with a war hammer in real life (well, probably not, unless you get into a particularly wild LARP session), but it's likely that you've had a romantic encounter. Video game romances give players one more way to escape everyday life, and it's not really cheating if the "other woman" isn't real. Right?
I'm so interested in this topic that I actually wrote and produced a supernatural romance comedy video game called Strange Loves: Vampire Boyfriends where you can date vampires, slay them, or be come one. The three main love interests are a blonde vegetarian vampire fighting to help humans; a tall, dark, and bloodthirsty vampire who embraces who – and what – he is; and a bald beefcake who trains slayers and hates all vampires. They all have different looks and personalities, to appeal to different types of players, and it's always interesting to hear which one stole a particular player's heart.
I wanted to include more gender and identity options for romances in my game, but I realised early on that if I didn't manage the scope of the project, I was never going to actually finish making the game. I did hide an Easter egg female romance option towards the end, which has proved to be quite popular, but writing a whole new branching storyline just for her wasn't in the cards at the time.
Controlling scope isn't just something an indie writer, like me, has to deal with. Mike Laidlaw is creative director for the Dragon Age series, one of the best examples of romance in video games from the game-making giant, BioWare. A lot of discussion about romance in games comes back to the biggest question about romance in the Dragon Age franchise: why do we all keep getting dissed by Varric, the hirsute dwarf who will always have my heart?
"Adding a romantic arc to a follower character in one of our games instantly makes them more involved as characters," Laidlaw says. "Additional romance-only scenes are created, more writing has to be done, and we have some extra steps to go through, such as ensuring the voice actors have both the range and the personal comfort needed to play a role in a romantic arc."
Have you heard Varric's voice? I'm sure he'd be just fine with whispering sweet nothings to me, but okay, fine. I get it. Still trying to get over it. Laidlaw continues: "A lot of extra effort goes into making the romantic characters work 'just right', in part because the creators fall in love with them a little bit, too."
To get a better idea of the extra effort Laidlaw refers to, I got in touch with Karin and Patrick Weekes, lead editor and lead writer respectively at BioWare. Not only is the pair a couple that gets to work together on romance games, but she is also his editor. Drawing on your life is essential for creatives, and being married to your collaborator can add a little extra to those daily tasks. I ask Karin what it's like when personal details find their way into one of their games.
"It's generally cool and interesting to see how a real experience turns into something that supports a character and storyline. Plus, I'm not required to tell anyone else what may be real and what he invented." It's also Karin's job to make sure that, even if it is real, it still rings true. "We editors spend lots of time muttering lines to see how they sound and feel when spoken."
Drawing on the couple's marriage, Patrick wrote the Iron Bull character in Dragon Age: Inquisition as a mature, experienced romance option. "The sexiest thing Bull ever does is stop (Inquisitor adviser) Leliana the morning after the player's first time with him," he tells me. "Leliana is going to wake up the Inquisitor, and Bull says, 'No, let her rest.' Now, if you're parents like we are, having someone say, 'I care about you, so I am going to keep people from waking you up so you can get a few more hours of sleep,' is like middle-aged parent erotica." Karin agrees: "That is not like middle-aged parent erotica, that is totally middle-aged parent erotica. So hot." Aren't they adorable?
But game writers don't just take inspiration from their own lives. They also look to well-loved stories. In addition to being a senior product manager at EA/BioWare, working on the upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda, Hilary Heskett Shapiro is also a published author working on her first romance novel.
"Video games are a great way to learn how various stories can be told, and even with a multitude of variables, the basic structure usually falls in line with a story that has been told before," she says. Shapiro is particularly interested in looking for what might have inspired the stories she enjoys playing, and she found something special in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
"I fell in love with a man named Vilkas. Our beginning wasn't easy, but before long, we tumbled into a friendship. Then, he did something to push me away. It took time for us to get over our pride and reunite once again. Sound familiar? He was the Mr Darcy to my Elizabeth Bennet. Yes, I was the Dragonborn and he was a werewolf, but our story – in my playthrough – hit similar notes to Pride and Prejudice. Isn't it great that I could find a Jane Austen classic within a video game?"
But enough about the past and present – what about the future? Two people on the cutting edge of the game dating world exploring new ways to handle, among other things, love and gender, are AM Cosmos, a media blogger with a particular interest in dating sims, and Arden Ripley, a writer working on a new dating game called Date or Die. They both have some interesting ideas about what we can anticipate from the romance genre.
Many of Cosmos' friends are aflutter over the newest Dragon Age, Inquisition, and it's not the monster slaying that they're on about. "They all gossip about the romanceable characters and the story," she says. "They replay the game and exhaust it of possibilities, then turn to me and ask for more games with romance like that." As a fan of Japanese dating sims, Cosmos has a few she can recommend, but she notes that there still aren't enough translated into English, yet. "Localisation publishers are starting to notice the need, and we are getting more options coming out soon!"
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Ripley has high hopes that new technology and direct access to publishing will continue to make it easier for all kinds of people to make games. "More marginalised creators, who may not have been able to create these projects otherwise, can publish their work, which means a greater diversity of love interests and love stories seen in games." She also believes that these indies can influence and inspire triple-A developers – the likes of BioWare and beyond.
I've organised a panel on this topic called Foreplay: Romance in Games for several years now at PAX East and PAX Prime, and we're pretty much always standing room only. The fanbase is there and growing right alongside the numbers of games that keep expanding the romantic options. Ripley agrees. She thinks that we'll soon have "more romance with LGBT+ characters, disabled characters, polyamorous characters – just more in general". I checked. More is almost always better, and in this case, it totally is.
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