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Writing About Talking: Jumping the Shark #56

No High Scores

This is the first week of Jumping the Shark I’ve missed in a couple of months so, of course, they chose a topic near and dear to my heart: Romance in games. I guess with the show being released on Valentine’s Day, I can forgive such insolence. It’s harder to forgive the fact that with all the Bioware talk, Baldur’s Gate II was mentioned only in passing. Seriously, Bill, that’s all you’ve got?

If you want to talk about games that handle player “romance” in a way that doesn’t make you cringe, for my money, BG2 is the poster child. (Disclaimer: Given how long it’s been since I actually played the game, I may have the whole rose-colored glasses thing going on.) More after the jump…

No High Scores

Ah, Jaheira, you saucy minx. You complete me. (No, not really.)

In all seriousness, you have to grade on a curve when it comes to romance in games. I think the so-called romances in Baldur’s Gate 2 worked, in part, because nobody really knew they were there. You were playing the game to play it and not to see which characters you could “score” with, so if your character ended up going down a romantic path with a party NPC, it was unexpected, and therefore more genuine, and not because you kept reloading dialog sequences until you found the one that worked.

In the case of Jaheira, I recall spending half of this gargantuan fantasy RPG just trading dialog about friendship and the nature of loss; she had, after all, just lost her husband at the start of the game. And because it was a much more primitive game by today’s standards, the romance was entirely about the dialog, rather than getting to the “steamy” cut scene showing characters with uncanny valley eyes uncomfortably doing stuff that may or may not resemble a PG-13 sex scene. Your relationship with Jaheira, should you choose to pursue it, builds gradually, as you travel the world, completing quests and the main storyline, and it unfolds in a way that can be meaningful if you’re the type that can put yourself in the shoes of your character.

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People seem to be fairly divided when it comes to the question of whether or not games should incorporate romantic elements. Many justly think that if you can’t do it well, don’t do it and I think we can all agree that the vast majority of games are unable to handle such encounters in a way that would hold up to similar relationships in a novel or movie. That said, I don’t think it’s a mistake to incorporate love and adult relationships into games. If a game is trying to tell a story with some emotion, to exclude love from the equation, because you can’t represent it as well as can other forms of media media, is pure surrender. If it fits in the context of the story the designers want to tell, romance can absolutely add to a game. It is, after all, a fundamental part of the human experience and, where games are unable to accurately reflect said experience, I’m more than happy to do the heavy lifting of connecting the dots in my own mind. Just give me the dots.

When it comes to romance in video games, I’m fond of saying that you tend to get out of these games what you put into them. If your only goal is to get with every possible character and you always choose dialog options to that effect, you’re going to get a more juvenile result. You are, after all, behaving like a juvenile. (And that’s fine. I imply no judgment in that.) But a game like Dragon Age typically offers you the opportunity to play it with at least a relative amount of sincerity. For example, I actually liked the way Bioware handled the character of Morrigan because the game’s writers put an arc in for her that meshed well with the way I wanted to play my own character.

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Morrigan, for all her power and intellect, is a child when it comes to understanding people. Her entire life she’s existed outside the fringes of society. She has not been taught to value life and she lacks any understanding of what it is to exist within the framework of organized society. People are a mystery to her and, convinced of her own superiority, not one she cares to solve. If you, as I do, like to play The Big Damn Hero archetype, you can, over the course of the game, evolve her perception of both people and love. True, some of the silly junk you have to do (gifts) and say to raise up her preposterous approval meter does break the immersion, but I found it worth overlooking because the result, the obvious inner conflict she endures and ultimately finds herself unable to truly succumb to, is done reasonably well. It will be interesting to see if anything becomes of her character when the sequel arrives next month. More interesting will be seeing if, and how much, Bioware is able to grow in terms of providing a romantic option for your new player character. The company loves to talk up how important story is to their games and why romance is such a critical part of that, so if that aspect of DA2 turns out to be all about getting to the inevitable sex scene then I will be disappointed. I think they can and will do better.

Back to the actual podcast. I was whipped from traveling this week and some other events that were going on. With very little free time this weekend, I took the cheap and easy route and again edited using the Pamela feed. With only a three-person show this week, it’s still much easier on the ear than last week’s show.

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Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and proceeded to spend over 16 years as a development editor for Pearson Education, publishing books, videos, and digital learning products under the Que and Sams Publishing imprints. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd has also been a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ubrakto or check it out his website at ToddsFoolery.com.

One thought to “Writing About Talking: Jumping the Shark #56”

  1. I think what we should take away from this is that many games could save themselves the awkwardness of romance by simply putting less focus on it. DA and ME kind of tie the romances into the end game and make it almost as important as the finale itself. It doesn’t feel like a natural progression of the relationship. Morrigan is a bit of an outlier, as she will already kiss you an hour after you meet her (while Alistair whinges about it).

    I thought about PoP: Sands of Time and the back and forth between Farah and the Prince. I think that worked really well as a light romance and it also shows that they don’t have to sleep with each other in the end.

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