Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect 4, and the Business of Video Game Romances

Electronic Arts /Bioware's role-playing games are usually defined by their branching storylines, moral choices, and multiple endings. Yet one quality of their games has constantly stood out from the rest -- their romances.

Ever since Neverwinter Nights (2002), Bioware games have contained a unique element of romance, similar to date-sim games, intertwined with their core adventures. Over time, these romance options became complex and expansive, crossing the boundaries of gender and species in its top franchises Mass Effect (2007-2012) and Dragon Age (2009-2011).

Dragon Age: Origins' romance between the Grey Warden and Leliana. (Source: Youtube)

While gamers loved these romance options, which enhanced the games' replay value, it also sparked a controversy among conservative, non-game playing critics such as Fox News, which made bizarre, erroneous claims in 2008 that the game contained "full digital nudity" and "graphic sex."

Nonetheless, romance options remain a trademark of Bioware's games, and the company's eagerly anticipated new titles, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 4, will continue featuring romantic storylines. However, Dragon Age: Inquisition lead writer David Gaider has hinted at a radically reworked romance mechanic that could spark an "inevitable reaction" from longtime fans of the franchise.

On that note, let's take a look back at how video game romances have evolved over the years, and how Bioware could redefine video game romances in the future.

The Japanese definition of the video game romance

Many gamers remember the 1980s and 1990s as the golden age of Japanese video games. During that era, when Nintendo and Sega ruled supreme, there were very few "romances" in video games.

Most games followed a typical linear path where the stereotypical hero saves the stereotypical princess.

Sony's Playstation, however, changed all that. With the addition of full-motion video and CGI, video games could deliver interactive cinematic stories more similar to movies. One of the highest profile "romance" titles was Square's (now Square Enix's) Final Fantasy VIII (1999), which was based on the "theme of love."

Square's polarizing "romance RPG", Final Fantasy VIII. (Source: Squaresoft)

However, games like Final Fantasy VIII were linear, cinematic tales, and the player had little control over the ultimate outcome of the romance.

In 2009, Konami's dating-simulation video game for the Nintendo DS, LovePlus, changed all of that. The game features virtual girlfriends who the player "takes care of" in a similar manner as the Tamagotchi virtual pet toys.

Although the concept sounds controversial and bizarre, the title was a cult hit for Konami, with the four released titles selling 0.66 million copies in Japan and sparking spin-off comics in five different magazines in 2010.

LovePlus (Source:Konami).

It also boosted tourism in Atami, a coastal resort town prominently featured in the game. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, a LovePlus promotional effort in the city in 2010 attracted over 1,500 male fans of the game, who checked into their hotels with their DS handhelds.

The Western definition of the video game romance

For Western gamers, the first game that generated lots of attention for its romance options was EA's The Sims (2000). The life simulation title, in which players cook, clean, go to the bathroom, and get jobs, allowed players to initiate romances between characters of either gender.

The Sims 3. (Source: Carls-sims-3-guide.com)

However, the open-ended sandbox romance nature of The Sims 2 (2004) was also criticized, just as Mass Effect would be later, by conservative critics such as Florida attorney Jack Thompson, who likewise made false claims that the game included "full frontal nudity."

Of course, those complaints didn't affect sales at all -- across all platforms, the first three titles of The Sims franchise (including their expansion packs) have sold a whopping 74 million units worldwide over the past 14 years.

Like The Sims, the romances in Bioware's titles have been praised for disregarding gender, race, or species -- but they have also been criticized for their simple and obvious mechanics.

In the first Dragon Age, the player can make any character fall in love with them by simply giving them presents to boost their approval rating, after which a "romantic quest" can be initiated. In Dragon Age II, the "romantic" dialogue choices were obviously marked with large heart icons to avoid confusion.

The Mass Effect trilogy had slightly better executed romance plotlines, but the dialogue choices remained just as obvious.

Commander Shepard and Liara, Mass Effect. (Source: Giantbomb.com)

Nonetheless, Mass Effect made up for those flaws with a continuous, epic plot spanning three titles -- in which the player's romantic choices in one game would carry over to the next. That enhanced the longevity and replay value of all three titles.

What do improved romances mean for DA: Inquisition and Mass Effect 4?

Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third chapter of the series, is expected to be released in fall 2014. Mass Effect 4 is rumored to arrive around the same time, although I wouldn't expect EA to release both hit titles at the same time, considering its previous release timetable.

Both titles are expected to be huge hits, considering their past sales:


Initial release date

Total units sold

Dragon Age
(Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age: Awakenings, and other DLCs)

November 2009

4.13 million

Dragon Age 2
(including DLCs)

March 2011

2.26 million

Mass Effect
(including DLCs)

November 2007

3.45 million

Mass Effect 2
(including DLCs)

January 2010

4.68 million

Mass Effect 3
(including DLCs)

March 2012

5.05 million

Source: Vgchartz.com

Dragon Age 2 was lambasted for its repetitive environments and lack of multiple endings, and Mass Effect 3 was criticized for its incomplete ending, which was later rectified through a free DLC.

However, the sales numbers show that Dragon Age: Inquisition has a lot more to prove than Mass Effect, which has enjoyed rising sales figures through the progression of the trilogy.

In both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 4, players will reportedly be allowed to play as several different races, similar to Dragon Age: Origins. Not only will playing as new races allow players to experiment with a wider range of skills, but dialogue and romance options could be radically different as well between playthroughs.

Fan favorite Morrigan returns in Dragon Age: Inquisition. (Source: Bioware)

This means, most importantly, that Bioware is spending a lot more time branching out the games' storylines and relationships. One of the biggest problems with Dragon Age 2 was that it restricted the player to play as three different classes of humans -- a big drop from the six races and three classes in Dragon Age: Origins.

Therefore, romances shouldn't be considered a separate element of the game. In his recent aforementioned Tumblr post, David Gaider called romances a "natural outgrowth" of traditional character-driven storylines.

In other words, the connections that gamers feel to romantic interests such as Leliana (Dragon Age) or Liara (Mass Effect) are a true feat of interactive character development, and not a goofy, arguably sexist gimmick like Konami's LovePlus.

The bottom line

Considering how much romances have improved between Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass Effect trilogy, I'm excited to see how Bioware will improve the interactive storylines and romances in these upcoming games.

What do you think, fellow gamers? What are you looking forward to the most in Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 4? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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The article Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect 4, and the Business of Video Game Romances originally appeared on Fool.com.

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I enjoyed the romance sides in ME2/3. I think my biggest surprise is that my Paragon Shepherd slept with only one character, while my Renegade Shepherd slept with everyone. It was easy to tell the dialogs that would lead to romance, not by being denoted with hearts, but rather with common sense. It completely lends itself to replayability.

I wouldn't play any game that has digitized nudity. The implied act is more than enough for me. I remember playing the original Leisure Suit Larry on my Apple in the *cough* 80's and not wanting to see pixels of nudity. Heck, with the outfits the characters wear already, little is left to the imagination.

I seem to remember FFVII to have been the first real romance option, I romanced Aerith to the point of ridiculousness, just to have her run through with a gigantic sword (that wasn't mine). Then I replayed and focused on Tifa, since I already knew poor Aerith's untimely outcome.

February 04 2014 at 3:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There are a variety of players these days and we all play and enjoy gaming for our own reasons. I love the battles and strategy, however, I look forward to the romancing and cultivation my character's relationships within the game. It is a reflection of my investment to the game and the story I have created for my characters. It's a level of involvement that makes it enjoyable to replay certain games. If I want to buy a necklace, get a spouse and have no character involvement....I could play Skyrim (great battles..terrible story lines and flat characters!) The Dragon Age and Mas Effect games allow me to invest my time, and become a part of the world they created by allowing my character a chance to evolve more naturally. The realer it feels, the more fun it is to play. I love a great battle, and I love to see the reactions of the characters around me in the story line. I don't see why a game rated "Mature" should have to worry about explaining or including a mature level of romance or sexual preference in it. If I get a black/blank screen that I have to assume is my "reworked romance mechanic," then I am going to be severely upset! I don't expect porn, but I do expect an obvious outcome to my character's cultivated relationship(s). If players do not want the romance, then avoid those choices. A lot of people enjoy that option though. As far as, the comments about politicians and their opinions....really?! I think they should get their own sh** straight and stay out of the news with their lovers and sexual infidelities before pointing fingers at the gaming industry. That is a huge laugh there! I don't know about the "Eastern" games, but I buy more if I enjoy more! It's no fun to win the war and end up alone! If I want frustration, loneliness and imaginary trophies....I can get that being married....kidding!

February 04 2014 at 7:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stefan Heisenberg

"Therefore, romances shouldn't be considered a separate element of the game. In his recent aforementioned Tumblr post, David Gaider called romances a "natural outgrowth" of traditional character-driven storylines.

In other words, the connections that gamers feel to romantic interests such as Leliana (Dragon Age) or Liara (Mass Effect) are a true feat of interactive character development, and not a goofy, arguably sexist gimmick like Konami's LovePlus."

But that's what they are. The romances in Mass Effect and Dragon Age are completely optional. So what if David Gaider calls it a "natural outgrowth"? Not one time did he or Bioware make a game whose main storyline deals with romance or was ever about love. Mass Effect was trying to be about choice; and one of those choices (a relationship) is optional. If anything, those relationships were largely a gimmick and tacked on, to the point that Shepard could ***** themselves out to just about as many characters as possible.

Who are you to say that Konami's LovePlus -- or any other type of sim or visual novel style romance games from Japan -- is "a goofy, arguably sexist gimmick"? Have you played those games? How are they less than the romantic feelings one has for Liara? Or is just because they have a more English voice actor and more detailed lip-synched Paul Ekman head? Those have actual conversations, long drawn out conflicts between two characters and their back stories, that actually do involve the main storyline (due to their simplicity, that's how visual novel style romances are, sex visually depicted or no.) Visual novels are very effective for being highly emotional, or dramatic, using romance (the ren'ai or otome genre) and relationships as a main theme, or being the entire point of a game (a dating game.)

The West, and triple-A game developers, if they want to tell a story about love and romance, can learn a lot from the East:

February 03 2014 at 1:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply