We play video games for fun, obviously, and part of the fun is the emotional response a game can elicit. That response can be anything from the pain we feel at the death of Aerith Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII to the thrill of killing your first boss in Elden Ring. Historically, role-playing games in particular have relied on a potent blend of evolving stories and player agency to create a connection between us and what’s happening on screen. Increasingly, that connection has been strengthened by the most powerful human emotion of all, love.
Romantic options in RPGs seem to be in greater demand than ever before. The moment a new game is announced that includes customizable player options and a huge storyline is also the moment gamers start asking if it will let them seduce their favorite companions. When they find out they can’t, their disappointment is vocal and unavoidable. Just ask fans of Marvel’s Midnight Suns: a Marvel strategy game with RPG elements that excels at building connections between your character and famous superheroes but stops short of letting you smooch those heroes on lonely nights.
You may think that the cries for seduction sidequests are based on…certain obvious and powerful desires, and they sometimes are. As time goes on, though, it’s becoming clear that the relationship between romance and RPGs is a powerful connection that has come to separate the very best role-playing experiences from the rest of the pack.
I Want To Know What Love Is
Romantic scenarios are something tabletop gamers have long been familiar with. Tabletop players across the decades have woven tales of NPCs falling in love with their characters, and they have even found real-life love with each other.
However, it’s difficult to pinpoint the first role-playing video game that intended to emphasize its players’ romantic options as a mechanic. Sure, the Leisure Suit Larry franchise was a thing way back in 1987, but that’s not the best example of the search for a relationship in a true RPG. Earlier JRPGs often used romance as a plot device, but those love connections weren’t always in the player’s control.
The earliest keystone in bringing dynamic romance options to video game RPGs seems to be 1992’s Treasures of the Savage Frontier (one of the last Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs in the “Gold Box” line). A simple bit of AI in that game’s code tracked your lead character’s gender and decisions as you played. One of two NPCs, the female Siulajia or male Jarbarkas, could fall in love with you and join your party based on the choices you made. Of course, Treasures of the Savage Frontier‘s greatest contribution in that area may be the ways it laid the groundwork for the real watershed moment in RPG romance: BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate series.
BioWare was a fledgling studio when Interplay set them loose on the Dungeons & Dragons license. Baldur’s Gate was certainly a technological accomplishment for such new developers, but it’s the game’s characters that resonated with fans most. From fan-favorite cameos from the likes of Drizzt Do’Urden to introducing parties to the now-legendary Minsc and Boo, gamers had dynamic reasons to care about keeping their party happy while they trudged towards their destiny. The value of being able to truly influence the relationship between you and your party members was a lesson that BioWare took to the next level when designing their follow-up, 2000’s Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn.
Baldur’s Gate II increased the stakes for the player’s character and their party members by making the outcomes of a good or evil-themed playthrough more distinct and dynamic. A big part of that approach involved being able to not just fall in love with your party members but form an intimate relationship with them that affected the game.
Baldur’s Gate II featured four potential lovers (three female and one male). Their romantic stories unlocked new lore, alterations to the ending of the game, and even bigger reasons to care about how you treated your digital companions. With love on the line, it was hard not to take the machinations of Bhaal personally.
That renewed focus on your party helped Baldur’s Gate II earn even higher critical acclaim than its predecessor (which already broke 90% approval ratings). It was an incredibly early version of what we now think of when we think of the ability to romance your companions in an RPG, but it clearly demonstrated that the relationships such games already expected us to form were only enhanced by the ability to take them to the next level. Of course, BioWare itself would soon take its ideas to the next level in ways that would rock the industry.
The Power of Love
With their next major RPG releases, BioWare would continue to improve their romance formula and the love potion it yielded. It turns out that those hugs and kisses that elevated Baldur’s Gate were just as powerful in the Star Wars universe, the mythical wonderland of Jade Empire, and BioWare’s next fantasy franchise, Dragon Age. Yet, BioWare’s most ambitious take on the power of love in gaming came in their most ambitious RPG project up until that point: the Mass Effect franchise.
Mass Effect provided a variation on that kind of deep story filled with twists based on who you befriended and loved that BioWare had become known for. Yet, it expanded upon nearly every element of that concept through its more complex (and more frequent) romantic relationship interactions and possibilities. It also offered a kind of endgame for RPG love we hadn’t quite seen before.
Mass Effect certainly drew hoots and hollers by allowing players to have sex with their companions. Yet, that mechanic soon proved to be so much more than a novelty. Mass Effect took a refreshingly mature approach to sex in gaming by treating sex as the healthy result of an intimate connection while acknowledging the desires of the LGBTQ+ community. Other games allowed you to have sex, but Mass Effect was unique in the ways that it acknowledged the power of sex while still looking at it as something fundamentally human.
BioWare even responded to fan feedback in Mass Effect 2 by adding both the soft, poetry-loving assassin, Thane, as a potential partner and the ability to woo Garrus Vakarian: the breakout cutie for many a gamer. It might not sound like much, but taking the time to give people the desired partners they suddenly realized they wanted made fans feel seen in an area that other games tried to hide from or otherwise mishandled.
Compare Mass Effect‘s approach to love and sex with the romance options seen in a game like 2004’s Fable. That game played with the idea of mixing its open world with a personalized storyline, but its emotional trappings were too thin to engage most players. You could woo almost any NPC, marry them, and then kill them off within an hour (once your stats were strong enough). Coupled with a clear preference for NPCs with stronger personalities, like Lady Elvira Gray, Fable would become a valuable lesson for other games looking to understand exactly what kind of connection gamers wanted with their characters.
The gaming industry, which still sometimes treats romance as a niche thing better left to visual novels, was forced to acknowledge what BioWare had revealed. Some companies even found ways to put their own spins on BioWare’s approach.
Bethesda, for instance, had previously played with the idea of incorporating sex into its Elder Scrolls games, but those early Elder Scrolls titles offered limited options when it came to romance, sex, and the relationship between those concepts. However, 2011’s Skyrim added special romance options for a series of potential NPC mates. Its initial romance offerings were still somewhat slim, but the game’s Hearthfire DLC experimented with something even BioWare hadn’t tried yet: marriage. It was a traditional (but, in terms of gaming, untraditional) way to examine the happily ever afters, complete with a home, a partner, and a family to care for.
At a time when two of the biggest names in video game RPGs were exploring and expanding dynamic romances as an essential part of the role-playing experience, the future of the concept seemed secured. However, that love that seemed destined to last through the ages soon proved to be closer to a summer romance.
Let’s Stay Together
RPGs that followed the Mass Effect/Skyrim era (like The Witcher 3, Stardew Valley, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and Cyberpunk 2077) would offer their own forms of romance mechanics, but the overall decline in BioWare and Bethesda-like RPGs meant the decline of the kind of dynamic romance options had suddenly become accustomed to.
Other games (including many indie titles) emerged to pick up the slack, but those constant cries of “Is there romance?” that accompany so many new releases speak to both the power of that concept and the expectations of a generation that now sees the absence of such options as a major missing feature. Just look back at the Midnight Suns kerfuffle!
Of course, the call for romance in video game RPGs isn’t limited to those who witnessed the peak of such concepts among mainstream games. It’s a desire that runs much deeper than that.
The need for connection is one of the most foundational parts of humanity. The best stories and the best experiences (not just in video games, but in our lives) acknowledge that. With social media rapidly replacing in-person experiences, and catastrophic global events like pandemics keeping us further apart than ever, it’s not necessary to read a Ph.D. thesis (but it helps) to figure out we need ways to simulate and stimulate those parts of ourselves. It’s even possible to use these fictional connections to help ease low self-esteem (a key takeaway from those long D&D sessions) and practice social interactions.
Maybe such games aren’t a full substitute for the human touch, but the ways in which the best romance systems can remind us of the power, potential, and necessity of that experience have allowed the games that feature such systems to seduce players into their worlds. Love is something the best RPGs can’t afford to ignore. Even if a direct romance doesn’t come to the foreground, a good story doesn’t work without acknowledging the full potential of life, be it heartbreak, casual sex, or marriage and a home. A hero’s journey is something special, but to us, it doesn’t feel like it matters if you have to always go it alone.