Whether justified or not, the idea of romantic entanglements in video games and BioWare have become nearly synonymous. With romance and courting gaining special attention in both Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the studio's writers know that the shift to next-gen means every aspect of game design will have to raise the bar: romance included.
With Dragon Age: Inquisition getting even more time in the oven than first expected, the development team is placing more emphasis than ever on player freedom. Love interests are certainly included, but as the lead writer and director make clear, Inquisition will be a new chance for the team to get relationships right, and make something truly groundbreaking out of what some feel is a disguised (and occasionally offensive) game mechanic.
Diehard fans of fantasy role-playing may have accepted Dragon Age: Origins' system of wooing lovers by saying what they wanted to hear and giving them gifts - adorable, hairless pig-rabbits as they may be - but those looking for true immersion had to suspend disbelief. That's something that the team hopes to change with their first next-gen release.
So, first things first: how do the developers decide which characters will be potential love interests for the player? Lead writer David Gaider explains the challenge to Game Informer:
"We'll talk about what the romantic arc is and what that character's story can tell as a romance... Because there's more than insert coin, get sex, right? There are different types of romantic tales and romantic archetypes. I know people can water it down and say they're all the same, [but] no they're not, there's a different story that can be told."
Gaider was quick to clarify that the team of writers doesn't lay out large romantic arcs, scenes, and love interests ahead of time. The top priority is building each character to stand on their own; when they're interesting enough to do that, pairing them up can lead to some surprises, as one particular character in Dragon Age: Origins proved:
"Trying to figure out what the romance is...sometimes it requires you to sit back and think about the character a slightly different way because you've always thought about them [one way]... Morrigan initially was not supposed to be a romance. I had to change the way I thought about her... [I saw her] as her having built up this sort of armor around herself – that there was a different person underneath. One that she purposely had to squelch because she thought that [it] was weak, because that was what she had been taught. Suddenly when I thought about that, it was, 'Oh, that's an interesting place to go.'
"You could almost sleep with Morrigan immediately – before you even got to know her at all – and that was part of her thing... She expected that and right afterwards it'd be over, but you could then scratch beneath the surface and break through her armor."
Gaider is right to point out BioWare's attempts at making sexuality a healthy part of certain character's lifestyles - not uniformly positioning a romantic encounter as an end 'objective.' In truth, the decision to introduce characters who view romance, friendship, and apparently revealing clothing in vastly different ways was an interesting one. Fans of Dragon Age: Origins would likely say that same mentality is what led the developers to give player's the choice of their own race and class (a choice that's returning in Dragon Age: Inquisition).
Modern game designers may be approaching photo-realistic graphics, but simulating real human behavior remains a challenge. Instead of trying to portray a love story in the midst of an epic action-oriented game, Gaider claims that the hardest part of his job is making romantic relationships seem natural; not only for those who choose to engage in them, but making sure players who don't pursue romance aren't cheated of content:
"Our romances tend to grow out of a friendship, out of necessity, almost more than anything else... We want a player who isn't romancing a character to still get a sense of who that character is and feel like they have a relationship. You're going to walk the same path, but then at some point, you're going to grow into the romance, and that's going to be separate content.
"We still want the heart of that character to be available to anyone... So for us, it's, 'How do we make that seamless?' And if it's seamless, the player isn't going to be able to distinguish between those two paths necessarily."
It's that goal which seems to be bringing the most changes to Inquisition's follower relationships: in both Origins and Dragon Age 2, characters whom the player had made little effort to grow fond of had their respective content locked off. Since the sliding scale of approval often lumped romance and friendship together into the same blurred system, the results were... less than natural.
The team's solution is a clever one, but an incredibly large challenge. By building content to be "event-driven" instead of approval-driven, the writers allow approval to merely inform the tone of the conversation that would take place regardless. Creative director Mike Laidlaw explains:
"They're like, 'Yes, you've chosen a thing that I disagree with, but we're good friends... So that's going to change the color and tone of [those interactions], so [they're] more nuanced. I think that's going to take them beyond what's been done in the past.
"In my ideal scenario, your interaction with the character isn't just about having interacted with them; it's about your interaction with them in relation to the whole game that you've chosen to play. So if you make really sweeping decisions in other parts of the game, that may actually change the nature of those interactions."
As if Inquisition didn't have enough riding on its success already - as BioWare's first next-gen entry, setting the framework for other studio franchises, and looking to earn back fans who were disappointed in Dragon Age 2 - the developers seem eager to add serious character development to the list as well.
Do you think they've got a handle on the most nagging issues? Or do you think the romance system is working fine the way it is? Share your own thoughts in the comments.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is expected to release in 2014 for the Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4 and PC.
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Source: Game Informer