Romance Subplots: An [Un]necessary Evil?

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Whether we like it or not, romance subplots have been a part of roleplaying video games for a while now.

Before we get too involved, however, allow me to define “romance subplot” in order to clear up any potential confusion. For the purposes of this article, a romance subplot is when, during the course of an RPG, the protagonist can make an active decision to pursue a certain NPC (or multiple NPCs if you’re that kind of player) in order to enter into a relationship with them and possibly receive some kind of in game benefit as result. From an objective standpoint, pursuing romantic subplots (as with any quest) usually earns you experience, and many also offer other additional rewards on top of that (Lady Grey’s dowry, anyone?). Additionally, the completion of romantic subplots often award the player achievements (the Paramour one in the case of Mass Effect, for example, or the infamous kinky playing cards that reward your bedding of various wenches in the The Witcher). But are the benefits always only in game?

I see what they did there.

Back in the day, the culmination of romance subplots was pretty tame. In Baldur’s Gate 2, for example, if and when your chosen love interest propositions you there’s a chaste fade to black and the same cut scene you would get during any night time rest sequence. In the somewhat more recent Morrowind there were a few NPCs you could pursue (do you really want to marry a khajiit though?), but there was never really any inkling of a titillating payoff at the end. However, more recently romance subplots have become pretty much synonymous with the promise of a sex scene (or scenes) at their conclusion.

Think back to the scandal surrounding the first Mass Effect’s release. Not only was there Fox News’s sensationalist report decrying its alleged full frontal nudity and graphic portrayal of sexual intercourse, but also Kevin McCullough’s ludicrous claims that “Mass Effect can be customised to sodomise whatever, whoever, however, the game player wishes… With its “over the net” capabilities virtual orgasmic rape is just the push of a button away.” While, of course, nothing featured in any of its games ever lived up to the latter two descriptions, Bioware has arguably become somewhat infamous for its awkward depiction of sex scenes (clipping around a campfire in ugly – and, in some cases, inexplicable – underwear, for example). But can sex scenes in video games ever be anything but awkward?

Of course, there will always be someone who finds laying Morrigan down by the campfire deeply erotic, but equally there will always be someone who far prefers using a seemingly utterly inconsequential (and non-sexually portrayed) NPC to fuel their private fantasies instead. Such is the world we live in, but hey: if it’s not illegal then they may as well just be left to it.

Gender and sexuality are also issues that have become increasingly prominent in the romance subplot sphere.  In the past it was generally assumed that gamers would be male, and as such potential relationship options would reflect this (for example a generally male heterosexual protagonist would be given the option of getting involved with a heterosexual – and often stereotypically weak – female character). Even with the passage of time, options for female player characters (once they eventually became more prevalent) were generally comparatively limited. Returning to the example of Baldur’s Gate 2, for instance female player characters only really had the option of Anomen as a partner, whereas male protagonists had several to choose from. Choices are similarly limited in one of Bioware’s more recent titles Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. However, while you couldn’t pursue a proper relationship with her, female Cathar Juhani was shown to have bisexual inclinations, expressing interest in both male and female protagonists. Interestingly, this bisexuality was actually a bug, a patch later correcting her to her rightful sexuality as a lesbian. Indeed, Juhani  is especially significant in that she is the first lesbian character to be portrayed in the Star Wars universe. Bioware has continued to offer such elements of romantic diversity in its games, its latest video game franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age notable in offering the player romance subplot options encompassing a variety of genders and sexualities.

Not your average catgirl.

Romance subplots, if done well (because any kind of plot is at risk of falling victim to bad writing), arguably do add depth to stories they feature in. While some RPGs do seem to tack them on as an afterthought (perhaps with some cheesecake art or pixellated side boob as an incentive), often such plots do unfold gradually, thus allowing the player to experience some interesting character development they otherwise might not have seen. As for whether the sex scenes themselves are necessary, it’s really up to the game developers and, in a way, the player. Games that feature graphic material are always given appropriate ratings (if you’re looking into buying Uncharted 3, for example, you’re well aware that the game is rated as being appropriate for teens and not anybody younger); if parents decide to give their kids a game they’re too young for or if a player is too puritanical to handle the suggestion of sexual activity, it’s ultimately their own problem.

And, at the end of the day, it’s not like any of the NPCs are going to jump your bones against your will.


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About ECMSquared

MA student and copywriter with an incurable video game addiction. Also likes tabletop RPGs, films, comic books, anime, blogging and writing short stories. More crazed ramblings can be found on Twitter.