Multiplayer Romance: Gaming While Polyamorous

Dragon Age: Origins

I am the kind of gamer who loves building relationships with fictional characters. While I am easily drawn into a well-written story based in a detailed and expansive universe, my attention is always kept there by the smaller, more intimate stories therein. This is a direct reflection of my IRL personality: I am often drawn to group activities because of my interest in the event itself, but it is always the individuals in attendance who keep me coming back for more.

Mass Effect
To say nothing of dat ass.

The number of games out there that allow me to satisfy this craving for building relationships is staggering. My adoration for companies like Bioware knows few bounds, because their believable character arcs and relationship dynamics are second to none. I’m definitely not alone in my desire, either: there was much elation about Skyrim’s built-in marriage system, and the Fable series has always been celebrated for the increasingly diverse romance options that are available to the player. Indeed, if a gamer wants an element of romance—or really close, unique friendships—added to their adventure, there is no shortage of options.

This, however, has given rise to a very interesting set of problems. I can create characters who are spitting images of my IRL self, from the color of their eyes (hazel-green) down to the decisions they make (Alistair approves +10), but I always seem to have an awkward time of creating characters who experience relationships in the same way I do. This is because I’m polyamorous—that is, I have multiple loving, committed relationships at the same time, with the consent and knowledge of all people involved—and the default relationship structure in our western society is monogamy.

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Designing Romance: In-Game Marriage Mechanics

Mass Effect, Liara, Commander Shepard

Mawige! Mawige is what bwings us togtheh today!

But yes, marriage and romance are what I’m going to talk about today, so it is fitting. A number of RPGs have a built-in mechanic whereby the player can establish a romance with a non-player character that may or may not affect gameplay. I first noticed this particular relationship mechanic in Final Fantasy VII. This romance subplot was first brought to this country in Japanese RPGs thanks to it being a feature in a number of their own games. In FFVII, depending on conversation options chosen and who you had in your party the most, you could go on a date with either Aerith or Tifa when you reached The Gold Saucer. Now, if you ignored both girls equally through the game, then you could go on a date with Barrett. Fun stuff—and it didn’t really affect gameplay other than who was with you in the cut scene.

That humble beginning has taken us to where there is a whole genre of relationship/romance games in Japan, some of which are more sex-based as opposed to romance-based. Also, due to the success and popularity of some of the games with this in them, Western game designers have added romance elements into their games. In some games, a relationship you can’t affect is the motivating factor for play, such as you need to save someone who you don’t actually interact with. I far prefer when you can interact with the NPCs and create a reason to care about them.

Three games I have played with very different mechanics to bring these relationships/romances about are the Mass Effect series, The Elder Scrolls: V Skyrim, and Dragon Age: Origins. These three show vastly different methods of creating relationships/romance in-game and provide an interesting commentary as to how game designers view relationships.

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That Time Dragon Age Made Me a Feminist

Morrigan, Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware

It’s hard to believe it’s only been five years since my ‘feminist awakening’ so to speak, but then again, I was still posturing as a straight woman back then. I guess the core of one’s self-identity really can change in a small amount of time. Is it all circumstance? Did Bioware help push along what I already knew to be true, but just couldn’t accept? If that’s true, I owe a lot more to the franchise than just my money (but you can continue taking that too, please and thanks).

Come with me back to 2009 when Lady Gaga was just hitting the music scene and the Twilight craze was reaching its zenith. Now, this was around the time I was watching 4PlayerPodcast (now known as 4PlayerNetwork) almost every day. They were, as far as I could tell at the time, one of the only male-centric Twitch channels that weren’t laden with misogynistic and otherwise unsavory commentary, which made watching a painless affair. It was with them that I began my journey into Thedas, and subsequently, my second introduction to RPGs: Dragon Age: Origins.

As any avid Bioware fan and initiate into the wide world of character creation, I spent an embarrassingly long time shaping my Cousland to suit absurd expectations. (I’ve restarted the game so many times I can recite Duncan’s speech verbatim. “The Chantry teaches us that it is the hubris of men which brought the darkspawn into our world …” C’mon, I know you know it.) The start of the game went as expected—insofar as my Cousland was surrounded by men (with the exception of Wynne, who I wrote off immediately as a grandmother figure) and all the men commented on the fact. “You know … It just occurred to me that there have never been many women in the Grey Wardens.” No shit, Alistair.

For all intents and purposes, I’d settled into my play style secure in the fact that I (Cousland) was being permitted into a male space primarily due to necessity and circumstance (all other Grey Wardens were presumed dead) and that the women I’d meet along the way would fit neatly into the usual brand of virgin/whore subset.

And then I met Morrigan. That’s when things started to change.

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