Bringing Players Agency in Mass Effect: Andromeda’s Romances

How Mass Effect: Andromeda's "organic" romance quest lines might play out ...

One of the greatest strengths of BioWare’s games has always been the characters. From Baldur’s Gate to Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare’s format has let players befriend or woo their cast of companions, giving them something personal to fight for, something to lose. Fan art and fan fiction communities thrive on the romantic relationships between the player character and her fellow heroes (or villains). With the new game bringing new conversation mechanics and narrative choices, what can Mass Effect: Andromeda do to make the relationships shine?

At E3 last year, BioWare creative director Marc Walters said in a conversation with IGN that relationships in Mass Effect: Andromeda would be “more organic” than before, with some changes to “how you engage in those types of relationships and the gating around them throughout the timeline of the story.”

Of course, dialogue within a game is bound to have some limitations. With hundreds of lines of dialogue in as many branching paths as there are characters, the BioWare style is already an attempt at making relationships between characters feel natural. Infinite customization is not yet possible.

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One of the most jarring elements of BioWare romances are the fact that the romantic arcs are generally their own dialogue trees, and don’t have much effect on the plot around them. It could feel especially unnatural to hear a character treat Shepard coldly when they had previously declared their love – the “calibrations” meme was based in part on that jarring reaction, with flirtatious conversation seemingly culled on account of a faulty computer. Walters stated that Mass Effect would be getting some changes to the dialogue wheel in general as well as the romance paths, with a “temperament” system similar to the approval/disapproval scores in other RPGs. Maybe Ryder will be able to have more nuanced approaches this way, too.

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“For me, typically in the trilogy it was a bit formulaic,” Walters told Game Informer back in November. “You’d talk to them and then get to that one point in the game where there was no going back and romance was going to happen. That’s not real life. There should be some people who just want to hop in the sack immediately. There should people who are interested in a long-term relationship. There are people who aren’t interested in romance at all.”

With Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare wants the game’s romantic interests to all want different things. As Walters told Game Informer, romance shouldn’t just be about getting to know someone, saying I love you, and then having sex.

“Just because someone has a romance doesn’t mean they have a longer relationship arc with you,” Walters said. “Think of the relationship moment with Garrus in Mass Effect 3 where you [shoot bottles off the Citadel]. Does it always have to be, ‘Get someone into the bed?’ or can it be, ‘Let’s go have a bros’ moment or a friends’ moment.’ I think once [our writers] started to think in those terms, it expanded what those scenes could be like. But if you want to get down to the sex scene stuff, we got aliens, alien environments…we keep coming up with unique places to have some interspecies relationships.'”

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But providing a diverse cast of characters and lots of different romantic options and sexual preferences isn’t enough to make the game’s romance more realistic. It’s also about how you’re able to approach the other characters.

The dialogue wheel system itself contributed to a lack of nuance in the original Mass Effect games. Shepard did not always say what the player expected. Situations in which neither a fully positive nor a fully negative response was appropriate – good-hearted but unwanted flirtation, for example – could send the player scrambling to try to undo a drastic decision. The original Mass Effect’s tendency to push players into romance lines was especially susceptible to this. Making the dialogue wheel have more options – maybe something like the three different personality options offered to players in Dragon Age II – might make the choices clearer and guarantee that players make the decision they intended to make.

Adding more naturalistic relationships to Mass Effect might also include making them less linear, or entwining them more with the rest of the story. At times, characters comment on which member of the team Shepard has gotten close to – but what if a villain chose the love interest to take hostage, or Ryder’s paramour changed their behavior during combat? Mass Effect 3 toyed a little with this idea, with Shepard’s vision at the end of the game depending on who they had romanced. Dialogue in certain key scenes was also slightly altered so that comrades commented on Shepard’s personal life. Mass Effect: Andromeda could take this one step further by adding in more customized dialogue. The setting could be used to leverage this, too – with Ryder exploring territory largely unknown to the player, romances could be a source of more information or different quest lines. 

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Different collectibles or costume choices could also allow the player to further customize their experience. Could Ryder wear a significant piece of armor or a mark of loyalty that would always be visible?

BioWare’s romances certainly aren’t always straightforward – Dragon Age has its share of betrayals and dead-end romances, while Mass Effect 2 offers the player the (unwise) choice to start (or succumb to) a relationship with the murderous Morinth. There’s a question of whether a satisfying story always equates to a successful romance story. Players are primed to expect the romance as a win, either a culmination of that particular character’s storyline or an unlockable achievement. “Unwinnable” romances, like the one with Morinth, or characters who refuse the player’s advances, can seem like dead-end stories. A relationship just may not fit with what the writers envisioned or planned for that character.

On the other hand, game writers can also be convinced – the Tali and Garrus romances came about after fans showed interest in those alien characters, and became some of the best-known stories in the series. Both Tali and Garrus express support for Shepard and open up about very personal emotions as part of their stories even if they aren’t in a romantic relationship with Shepard. This is especially true of Garrus, whose friendship endeared him to players as much as the romance did.

In fact, if you didn’t romance Garrus, more often than not he still proved to be one of your most meaningful relationships in the game. His loyalty and friendship – and obviously he did care about you – carried as much weight – perhaps more – as taking him back to your room.

There’s an interesting counterpoint to all of this with at least one character in the original trilogy, though. In the case of the ex-convinct Jack’s story, you learn much more about her through the romance storyline than otherwise. She essentially breaks down, admitting a softer side to Shepard – however, this doesn’t change her story in Mass Effect 3. No matter whether her relationship to Shepard was romantic or platonic, she became a more responsible person. Creating an appealing romance doesn’t necessarily require changing the character more than they would have changed otherwise – but it might make a bigger impact on the player character if both learn from each other.

More natural choices could also find their way into gameplay. Maybe Ryder has to talk to one character in order to open up to a third character about how they feel. Maybe romancing one results in a rivalry with another. Balancing these relationships has always been part of the player’s experience on the Normandy or in camp in Thedas.

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An interesting way to immediately open up additional relationship options would be for each character to have a different “friendship” version of their endgame scene – a relationship that locks them into certain dialogue choices with Ryder but isn’t romantic. It could play out similarly to the crew’s last messages to Shepard in Mass Effect 3, with each character reacting differently or revealing something different. The loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2 were based on a similar idea, but were not a replacement for or equivalent to the romance dialogue trees. “Friendship” endgames could give players more options.

When it comes to writing LGBTQ relationships, there are additional factors to consider as well. The first game in the Shepard trilogy kicked off controversy by containing same-sex romances when it first came out, but by the time Mass Effect 3 arrived, the conversation around games had changed largely from a moral outcry from outside the fandom to a political one from within. Fans want to play as characters who reflect the variety of relationships they see around them in the world, including LGBTQ relationships and identities, polyamory, and asexuality. BioWare has offered some of this before, from a selection of same-sex relationships (usually with fewer options than opposite-sex relationships) in Mass Effect to a heavily obscured polyamorous relationship in Jade Empire.

Offering more options like this would allow more players to see themselves in their characters. On the furthest end of the extreme is the type of detailed customization available in Sims 4, with its gender spectrum and gender role customization. Ryder might also fall somewhere other than male or female on the gender spectrum. BioWare is already used to either working around or swapping in different pronouns to refer to Shepard.

Walters made it clear that whatever a specific character’s sexual orientation may be, it has to make sense for the character. He explained that BioWare didn’t approach diversity and inclusivity in a mechanical way, meaning that the team didn’t just allot a certain number of every type of character to appease everyone. Rethinking a character’s sexuality meant rethinking a character completely.

“It has to be a part of who they are,” Walters told Game Informer. “It can’t just be, ‘We need to have three male and three female [options].’ We do look at the balance and make sure there’s good inclusivity, but I’d much rather say if we need to do that then we have to rethink that character.”  

There has been conversation in the BioWare fandom about whether every character in the party might be available for a romance plot with a player of any available gender. The freedom this offered wouldn’t be realistic, detractors said – no one group of people is going to be entirely open to all romantic options.

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Walters revealed that it was tempting for BioWare to make every supporting character in the game a possible romantic interest. But the team knew that wasn’t realistic and would distract the players from having meaningful connections with the characters in other ways. 

“The [characters] that aren’t romanceable should have just as interesting and in-depth an arc as the ones who do,” Walters said. “That’s one thing we did to make it feel more natural. We have to check ourselves because we know the fans want romances, so the obvious thing is to make [everyone] romanceable, but that’s not real. We’re trying to find the balance between ‘yes, it’s a game,’ but we want to make these characters as believable as possible and the situations as believable as possible.”

However, realism is a rocky debate in science fiction and fantasy worlds, and it could be easy to simply make each romance path available to the player regardless of gender. Swapping out storylines would sometimes make sense in the social context of the individual characters, and sometimes would not. But it would make players happy – just like defeating the enemies in the game. The line between realism and social gatekeeping may appear to be a thin one, but it really isn’t – not if the enjoyment of the player is the foremost thing the game designers have in mind.

Mass Effect: Andromeda will surely come with its own fan favorites – everyone already seems really obsessed with the alien Jaal, who’s a member of the newly-introduced Angara species – and endlessly debated choices. When it comes to genre fiction, it’s important for writers to point out that not all stories are happy. Not all relationships work out. But allowing happiness and escapism and giving players the chance to make choices clearly – even if only temporarily – makes a player more attached to the characters and the franchise, and that’s good for business.

Megan Crouse is a staff writer.