Why Anthem should have romance options
“The romantic stuff, we’re moving away from that for Anthem,” said lead producer Mike Gamble about BioWare’s new multiplayer co-op shooter.
Mr. Gamble, you’re breaking my heart. Do games need romance? No. Should they have romance when it serves the story? I say yes.
Romance has always been a part of BioWare games. Their two most notable and current worlds, Dragon Age and Mass Effect, had many profound and beautiful romances (and a few half-baked and stupid ones as well). It’s the first and sometimes only thing I discuss with my fellow fans: who did you romance, and why?
Romance as Roleplaying
How we approach romance in games, particularly in an RPG, gives us another avenue to define who our characters are and what they value. You can approach in-game romance through the lens of playing the role of your character, or simply picking your favorite companion. One of my friends romanced Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins (and later cheated on her with Leliana) because he was playing the Warden as a total bastard. His romantic choices were guided by the kind of character he had decided to play.
In that game I played a female city elf who fell in love with Alistair, specifically because he was the loyal, kind, funny type who didn’t care that she was an elf. He forsook the throne to be with her, and protected her with his sword and board every step of the way, (which in turn let her dual-wield her way to victory over the darkspawn Blight).
I chose Alistair because I found him irresistible (and also because Zevran sounds like Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots from Shrek). But this didn’t stop me from flirting heavily with Leliana, who fell for me and started calling me out, not just because I was being a scumbag, but because Alistair deserved better. And that stung. I felt horrible about what I did, and still feel bad about it to this day. Romance provides a potentially powerful element of RPG storytelling, and BioWare could be making a mistake to leave it behind.
Is romance in games universally a good thing? Of course not. Positioning women as prizes or sex as a reward or source of player advancement can be simplistic, misogynistic, boring, and terrible. Nor should it be shoehorned into a story that doesn’t need it (Lady Ashbury and Jonathan Reid in Vampyr, I’m looking at you). Also, I don’t think that male characters should solely interact with female characters from the point of view of romance. Despite what When Harry Met Sally told everyone, men and women can, in fact, just be friends.
But I would like to see more games handle romance, love, and relationships as they happen in real life. As a married man, my love for my wife has shaped me and vice versa. We sacrifice for each other, we serve each other, and we occasionally struggle and conflict. We stumble through the bad and find our way back to the good.
But games don’t need to begin and end with monogamy. As society progresses, and our ideas about relationships and genders grow ever more extensive and expansive, games can play a vital role in expanding our ideas about what love might look like. Art and culture has always functioned this way - it reflects who we are while also having the power to open our minds.
I see friends balancing competing concerns in polyamorous relationships, and I see them navigating the complexities of romance during gender transition. It doesn’t always end well, but that too is a human story, and can find a place in gaming. There is no compelling human story that could not be told in a game. If That Dragon, Cancer can tell the story of a young child dying of a terminal disease, then there’s a beautiful game waiting to be made about what it takes to keep a marriage running for a lifetime. And I’d be the first person to buy it.
Games are, by their very nature, interactive. They can place us in someone else’s shoes, and show us what it means to live their lives. I believe that well-written games can teach us empathy by allowing us to take on the roles of people unlike ourselves. Heck, you might even find out your avatar is gay.
Romance in a world free from history as we know it
BioWare, in particular, has done a good job of portraying romance, queer and straight, across its myriad fantasy worlds, so it’s particularly disappointing to see Anthem avoiding romance all together. BioWare’s work has allowed players to engage in compelling, complicated relationships, and it’s sad that their new flagship intellectual property won’t allow you to do so.
While you can draw direct lines from real world history to Mass Effect, and Dragon Age is a pretty obvious medieval stand-in, Anthem takes place in a world totally divorced from human history as we know it, created by strange alien gods. How might that change how people relate to one another romantically? How might relationships and families be structured differently?
I’m not saying that the exploration of alternate family and romantic structures should be central to the game. This is a game about people in exosuits blowing up monsters and each other, and I’m fine with that. But by forgoing romance, Anthem’s writers are passing on an opportunity for a fascinating bit of world building. Innovative relationship structures have been grist for the sci-fi mill for decades. Why not now?
Look, all I’m saying is that some of these people should kiss.
Furthermore, I’d love to see the impact that a life-threatening job like javelin pilot might have on a romantic relationship. Your Freelancer work keeps Fort Tarsis safe, but how does it complicate who you love? Real life military couples already have it hard. I think an alien world filled with strange monsters wouldn’t make it any easier, power armor or no power armor.
One of the keys to a compelling story is wants and the obstacles between those wants. How does having a spouse at home change the equation for a character, and the risks you take? How do you balance the love you have for your Freelancer team with the romantic love of your spouse at home? What happens when you have to choose?
When games forsake romance, they’re missing out on one of our most powerful narrative tools. And let’s be real here: we’re going to add all the romance back in via fan fic and fan art anyway. We’re gonna ship it, and we’re gonna ship it hard. Anthem’s writers might as well beat us to the punch.
Will they, or won’t they?
And it seems like they just might. The fan response to the announcement regarding the lack of romance has been massive. In response BioWare General Manager Casey Hudson, and one of the leads on the Mass Effect series, had this to say:
“I think the expectations from a BioWare game—Mass Effect and Dragon Age, they’re quite mature-rated storylines, things like that. That was one framework for what romances were in a BioWare game. So then the question is, are there going to be romances in Anthem? We’ve been saying no, but—the nuance is, of course we do want relationships. It’s just more in an action genre of storytelling.
Of course, like with other games, we just want to see how people respond to that, and then we can build more. You might remember, with Mass Effect, Garrus was an alien that, as we developed the story—he was a kind of birdlike concept art that we eventually pulled together and shipped that game. But we didn’t know what he would really be like and what the reaction would be. It turned out that people loved Garrus so much that they wanted romances with him, so we built that into Mass Effect 2 and people loved it. That same opportunity exists here. If people really like a character and they want to spend more time with them, want a relationship with them, that’s definitely in the cards for the future.”
It’s weird to me that Hudson helped create this expectation and then didn’t expect it to exist for their epic new IP. It feels like BioWare is trying to appeal to the competitive FPS crowd while their hardcore fans are wondering who they want to hug first.
I’m glad that BioWare is listening (though if they were really listening, they’d probably have given us something other than a multiplayer team shooter), but I wonder how good post-release romances could possibly be, especially if the game hasn't been built with them in mind up to this point.
Much of BioWare’s romance is so good because the romance develops over the course of the game. We all love making heart eyes at our favorite NPCs throughout the game. Part of what makes these romances feel real is that they react to what you do and how you do it as you progress through the game's central story.
I wanted to romance Sera in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but once I took a sip out of a magical fountain, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me. It was rough, but it was consistent with her character - she hated magic and at that point she didn’t trust me enough to fall in love with me. Was it what I wanted? No. But it was real. (So I settled for Cullen.)
How impactful will these hypothetical Anthem romances be if they all happen after the main story has passed? Will we have to start a new playthrough to get the full effect? Given that the game is shipping in February 2019, I doubt there will be much time to rush romances out in time for launch.
So here is my challenge, BioWare: if you are going to give us romances in a future DLC, please give us a ton of content around them. If you really know your audience, you know we’re down for this. Don’t give us a quick little flirtation followed by one personal quest and then a bedroom scene. That's not going to be enough. Give us another world event, give us associated gameplay, and give those NPCs a chance to react to our decisions. Give us a chance to flirt, explore, and decide.
We all know you’re up to it!