It's the dimension of BioWare RPGs that the most diehard fans can't get enough of, the casual fan finds scintillating, and the marketing seems to overlook entirely in favor of action and epic storytelling: romance. Both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises have made the studio synonymous with in-game romantic relationships, and have found themselves at the center of controversy more than once as a result.
But despite the naysayers or online boycotters, the ability to romance characters - should the game design allow for it - remains. And rather than wait for the inevitable uproar surrounding the romance options for Dragon Age: Inquisition, the series' lead writer David Gaider has explained why romance isn't going anywhere, and how tempting it can sometimes be to scrap the system entirely.
For those who don't follow the fan debates surrounding BioWare games, suffice to say that almost every decision made by the writers is met with some form of criticism. If the team allows open-ended relationship choices between races and genders, they come under attack from those who oppose those notions; in other words, becoming crusaders for gay, lesbian, bi- or transsexual rights when they were simply giving players more options.
It's a minefield from start to finish, but the lead writer for the series has spoken up on numerous occasions, standing up for the studio's decisions, and offering explanations whenever possible. It's no surprise, then, to see Gaider take to his personal blog to answer a question posed by an anonymous fan: does the constant tidal wave of accusations ever cause the development team to reconsider the concept of romance in their games completely?
Sometimes it’s tempting.
I can easily imagine a time when the romances in Inquisition are revealed (whether that will be before or after release, I have no idea). There will be an inevitable reaction from people who are disappointed they couldn’t romance someone with their character of choice, and some of them will rant at length as to how they were only deprived of said romance because of some agenda... And that romance we actually put in is not only terrible but is homophobic/biphobic/racist/pedophilia/etc., which their romance pairing would not be.
The core of Gaider's sentiments isn't hard to understand: no matter how much the studio may emphasize and prioritize player choice, they'll never be able to make everyone happy. Rather than throwing their hands up in frustration, Gaider claims, the responsibility falls to the studio to accept that anger and outrage are a result of a community that is passionate, first and foremost.
How one views the role of romance in a BioWare RPG depends largely on not just firsthand experience, but the player's level of investment in the game's story and characters. For onlookers or players interested solely in combat and progression, the idea of romancing party members means wasted game time and resources. But to those who value the characters and relationships developed in a BioWare title, they are nothing if not passionate.
A passionate fan base is a gift and a curse, which BioWare is all to aware of following the controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3's ending, and Dragon Age 2's departure from its predecessor's structure. For the part of the Dragon Age team, the fan criticisms seem to have been taken to heart.
Even so, is it worth courting the inevitable controversy that BioWare's take on romance brings with it, while other triple-A games succeed without it? According to Gaider, it's the enthusiasm of the fans who care, not the disinterest of those who don't, which matters to the writers:
I know some fans would be happy if we just abandoned the effort altogether. Generally those are people who don’t use that sort of content in our games anyhow, so us not pursuing it naturally wouldn’t bother them.
To me, the thing that BioWare does best is not story but characters–I think our characters are done to a level that few other games even attempt, with an element of agency that strikes a chord in our players…and romances have been a natural outgrowth of that. Sure we could stop, but that would be turning our backs on something we do which almost no-one else does. The question would be: “why?” And what do we replace it with?
Gaider concedes that there may come a day when an answer to that question can be offered, but it hasn't yet arrived. And with the team behind Dragon Age: Inquisition promising a richer, more organic approach to romantic relationships (and relationships in general) this time around, the most passionate fans don't have anything to worry about.
What are your thoughts on romance in BioWare RPGs? Are they part of the reason you keep coming back, or would you still enjoy the games without it? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is expected to release in 2014 for the Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4 and PC.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.