Everybody seems very interested in who or what I decide to have sex with these days.
When I tell my friend that I’m about 20 hours into Fire Emblem: Awakening, the first thing he asks me is who I decided to have babies with. Then we spend the next hour talking about how Nowi and Gregor were made for each other. The same thing occurs when I talk to my roommate about my first play-through of Mass Effect. I tell him I chose to sleep with Liara and stick with it until the third installment, and he criticizes my decision with a look in his eye that says I might regret it later. Even though I’ve been in a steady relationship for years, my love life has never been more popular.
There’s a problem with these kinds of relationships, though, and it’s not that they aren’t real. Although they’re often the most appealing part of a game (or at least the most entertaining aspect of a game’s conversation), they are also the most unrealistic. In order to get into the pants of one of your crew members in Mass Effect, all you usually have to do is say the most flirtatious things to build up a sense of trust that can lead to a happy ending. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, pairing up opposite sex party members in battle is beneficial for stats, but also can result in babies. Romancing a human being is way more complex than just saying the right things at certain points or being there for someone in the heat of battle.
Chris Dahlen drives this point home in his GDC talk “Love/Hate Relationships: New Approaches to Game Romances” by taking the romance aspect completely out of the equation.”It gives you the idea that you just want to be really nice and tell people what they want to hear,” he said. “But life doesn’t work that way… You’re gaming the character instead of engaging with them.”
These pairings that we create in games aren’t done out of a desire to find love or to connect with a fictional character. They’re done for the sake of a code-based necessity to enhance the experience, whether it’s to actually further the plot or not.
Dahlen continues in his talk about designing relationships on more than one scale, because having a relationship exist on a spectrum ranging from hate to love doesn’t cut it. “You can’t just have a love interest who is always, ‘Oh my god you are the greatest,’” reasons Dahlen. “So one slider doesn’t seem to do it.” You can have fun with videogame romances, but they’re not complex or real enough to truly satisfy.
Then why is it that I can spend hours trying to romance that special somebody? When I don’t get to have sex at the end of Mass Effect 2 after romancing the wrong people, why does it feel like a personal failure? While I understand the importance of trying to stop the war that’s apparently going to throw the world into chaos in Fire Emblem: Awakening, why do I spend most of my time trying to figure out who will make the best couples?
Because in the end, even trying to create a relationship is a game.
In Fire Emblem: Awakening, a Chrom relationship is the only one that is necessary for the plot to move forward. The introduction of his daughter Lucina establishes the time travel device and brings in the theme of destiny that creates the central narrative. Of course, that means before this reveal, Chrom has to be married in the present. For the dozen or so other characters, marriage is optional, but it works to enhance the foundations put into place by Lucina. Certain established characters get children that come back from the future with Lucina, but for their own reasons, which usually entail some unfinished business with parents who died during the dark future that needs to be changed. Interactions between Nah and Nowi, for example, are heartbreaking because you find out that Nah was left alone in a world that didn’t accept her being half dragon after her parents’ deaths. You learn more about why Nah is the way she is and it brings more detail into the depiction of this awful future that you are trying to prevent. Besides the fact that matching up Nowi and Gregor is adorable, it creates an optional but touching story.
Unlike Fire Emblem: Awakening, the romances in the Mass Effect trilogy aren’t that significant from a plot perspective. The main story remains the same no matter who you choose. The game doesn’t get any noticeably easier if you decide to have sex with one specific character. In Fire Emblem the people you can recruit to your team all depend on who you romance. There are some preconceived characters that will join your team no matter who you pair up, but the implications of marriage and reproduction put greater stakes on the couples you create. Each battle gives you the opportunity to build supporting relationships that boost your couple’s stats and provide distinct advantages in battle. Mass Effect’s relationships don’t have this kind of strategic advantage and are more based on player preference. The romances are of little consequence, but it’s something that everyone who plays the game engages in and discusses. Mass Effect can generate a bunch of discussion about choices and gameplay, since everybody’s game can turn out different, but whose pants I decide to get into always are first priority.
Chris Dahlen’s comments about videogame romances are accurate, but only in the sense that you are looking for a three-dimensional relationship. Based on the foundations of the games mentioned here, which kind of coming down to boning, getting this kind of meaningful relationship seems impossible. Mass Effect is more overt about this fact than Fire Emblem, if only because you see the actual act. It’s only implied in the latter title. Characters get married and all of a sudden a kid shows up. In Mass Effect the reward for flirting correctly is the sex you get to have right before the final battle.
These relationships are mini-games in themselves, utilizing game mechanics to get the person you want and have sex. You create a relationship and, in a way, you level up. Fire Emblem: Awakening’s couplings reward you with more party members and better stats in battle. The sex in Mass Effect is less tied to strategic advantage, but when you get to have sex before the big mission with the person you’ve been trying to flirt with for 20 hours, it’s an achievement for both the player and for Commander Shepard, in terms of building character. In the sequels, this becomes more important, as establishing loyalties with characters gives them special abilities and a cooler outfit. In both of these games, the player has more pragmatic motivations for having sex and it adds something to the playthrough.
If that’s the case then, why would people care so much about who I have sex with? I can give them some excuse like “I really liked Liara’s skill with biotics,” but it never ends there. There are a dozen different levels my romantic choices can be judged on, even if there is some game-based strategy I was going for. Was I going for a queer Commander Shepard? Was my avatar in Fire Emblem male or female? Did I do the newbie mistake and go with the first person who made a pass at me or did I explore my options? For something that’s supposedly so one-dimensional, people seem to let it hold more weight. It’s a discussion that could start at strategy, but mostly goes towards romance. When we start discussing which pairs in Fire Emblem were made for each other, it’s not about which classes work best together, but rather the personalities the story creates. In Mass Effect, where there is less logic to pairings, it’s even less so. By the time you’re completed your narrative in the third act, it’s no longer something you think about. You are Shepard and this is your favorite crewmember on the Normandy.
Whether or not the relationships are built into the main quest itself or if they’re just an optional side mission meant to expand the player’s understanding of the game world, it’s sometimes just more fun to start coupling characters up. My boyfriend might have to deal with our relationship falling to the background for this one.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.