Romance in video games has been around for a long time, but it’s always taken a back seat. It was a niche element that didn’t really contribute too much to the gaming experience. It was just there for the sake of being there. But of late we’ve seen some really great romances in games. Romance has evolved to become a key component in games, and more often than not, improving the gaming experience overall.
Romance Then & Now
The idea of a romance between characters in a game is an age old concept. Think back to Mario and Princess Peach baking a cake together (yea, we’re onto you Nintendo). But most developers actively avoided making romance a key component in their games. They had their reasons, of course, the biggest one being conservative censorship. You see we’re talking of a time when it didn’t take much for a censorship board to slap on the “sexual content” tag onto anything. And since the primary gaming demographic back then was kids, parents wouldn’t be too happy buying a game that had said “sexual content” tag.
But times have changed now. Developers started taking more risks with their games, censorship be damned! Games had evolved past pixels and linear plotlines, it was time for romance to evolve too. The way romances are being woven into storylines now is quite different from the way they used to be in the past. Romance was no longer just filler backstory anymore, it was something you actively strived towards in a game. Romance started becoming more substantial, becoming an important element in games, especially RPGs. Along with RPGs came the added element of choice, you could now choose which character you wanted to woo. We can credit games like Baldur’s Gate for pioneering the ability to choose and create our own romances, albeit they were rather artificial and awkward, but hey, it was a work in progress.
Romance in Role-playing
When it comes to romance today, at least in western RPGs, there can be no doubt that Bioware is dominating that area of the market. One need only look at three of their most popular franchises: Star Wars: Knights of Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age. The three franchises clearly show Bioware is not afraid to take risks. If you’ve played Mass Effect you’d probably agree that after experiencing an Arasi tryst, things can only get better. Mass Effect managed to bring about a paradigm shift. They even had no qualms about introducing same-sex romances into their games.
Bioware received a LOT of backlash for Dragon Age: Origins, where two of your companions were bisexual and same sex romances were possible. But they continued the trend throughout the series regardless. This is evidently the reason that Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third instalment of the series, is actually banned in India. Romance obviously isn’t limited to just western RPGs. Eastern RPGs (primarily JRPGs), such as Final Fantasy, Persona, and Fire Emblem among others, also used romance in their games extensively, so much so that it was often a selling point for some titles and people would often “ship” characters together. (That’s just geek talk for “pairing” characters)Romance drives the story
Romance drives the story
Then there are romances in non-RPG games as well. Story-driven single player games often make use of romance in their plots, as a driving factor or an additional element that happens on the side as you progress through the game. This gives players more incentive to actually complete the game. However, successfully incorporating romance into the plot is no easy feat, and more often than not it can backfire and make the experience worse for gamers. But there have been many instances of games doing romance right. Take the tragic story of Max Payne for example, a man troubled by the gruesome murder of his wife and child has a turbulent affair with Mona Sax which could have been salvation, is cut short when she’s killed. That’s some heavy plot right there, and if you’ve played the games, you know how it tugs at your heart.
If you’re looking for another example, try 2008’s Prince of Persia revival. We’re aware that there were elements of romance in previous Prince of Persia games (such as The Prince and Farrah, or The Prince and Kaileena), but in our opinion, The Prince and Elika were the most authentic. Unlike previous Prince of Persia titles, The Prince is with Elika for a majority of the game, and you actually witness them grow closer as you progress through the game. The banter and the jokes between the two is endearing and you develop an attachment to them. Now you want them to make it, you want them to survive, you want this to work out, so you work extra hard to beat the game. But as you near the end of the game and see the events unravel, you can’t help but wonder if you’d have done the same thing if you were in The Prince’s shoes. Bet you’re curious about what happens now, eh? Romance is powerful stuff.
Let’s not forget The Sims, which is literally a game that simulates life. A game about living life is bound to have romance in it. You can court someone, get engaged, get married, have kids, have more kids, ditch that family and start all over again (don’t do that last part), but you get the idea. In a game like The Sims which incorporates so many aspects of life, you can be sure that many people played the game solely for the romance, even if it wasn’t the sole and core aspect of the game.
When romance makes a difference
Now in most of the games we’ve mentioned above, romance is usually a subplot, albeit an important one, but it’s never the main objective. Mass Effect is about defeating the reapers, not courting your companions, right? However, there are games where romances are key to the plot and actually affect the end-game and the in-game world or universe.
In The Witcher for example, not only are your romances crucial to the plot, they feel incredibly real. Character development is done fantastically and their reactions feel genuine. This quest for realism in romances is evident in games like Dragon Age: Inquisition as well. You can’t woo anybody just like that. Characters within the games have personalities and preferences of their own, based on their own backgrounds and environments. This in-turn made “the chase” all that much more satisfying when you finally succeeded.
With love, from Japan
There is of course, another category of purely romance based games as well. Dating simulators. These simulators which were hugely popular in Japan have exploded in America as well recently. Unlike any of the games we previously mentioned, the sole purpose of these games is court women. Of course, they’re not limited to just women – there’s a dating sim for everyone, no matter what your interests, be it alpacas, undead vampires, aliens, pigeons, dinosaurs, or MMO characters. Thanks, Japan. 😀 Most dating sims are quite simple, all you need to do is make a few decisions here and there as you read through the plot. Some of them incorporate puzzles as well, to add a challenge. Rarer still are the ones with actual gameplay, some of which are actually quite fun to play. Just keep in mind that if you’re going to go looking for dating sims after reading this, quite a few of them are NSFW. You’ve been warned.
Games are actually beginning to capture the feelings and emotions of gamers and convey the feelings of the characters back to them. Players become emotionally invested in characters. You could say that people were actually falling for virtual characters from games, and who can blame them when they’re real enough to actually incite human emotion.
Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh
If he’s not gaming, he’s… no wait he’s always gaming.