In some much-fun research for our podcast on romance in video games, I watched ‘Romantic Dilemmas – How Witcher 3 Builds Character through Choice’, by the Extra Credits team, James Porntnow, Daniel Floyd, Carrie Floyd and Scott DeWitt. It’s a really good video with a lot of insight for 6 minutes. Please do check it out. They made some good points, and earned my undying affection by sharing their love for the Witcher and Bioware. But that’s not to say I agreed with all their points. Specifically, I had a very different reaction to Dragon Age Inquisition (and Mass Effect, though to a lesser extent) than they discussed. Of course, games are deeply personal; you get out of them what you put in them, which is largely why I love them so. So while I want to point out my very different take on Dragon Age Inquisition (DA 3), it’s in the spirit of adding something to the table, not in bickering.
Basically, Extra Credits are making the point that playing Geralt in Witcher 3, a predefined, comparatively limited character in terms of player design, allows for a more impactful romantic narrative.
In the Witcher 3, the player is choosing which love interest is right for Geralt based on who we’ve seen him ‘be’ during our gameplay. So far, so agree. The good folks at Extra Credits state:
Choosing which of these relationships to pursue isn’t simply about what I want as a player, but instead, on some level, it’s a question of Geralt having to choose between who he is and who he thinks he wants to be. . . . We get a deep and meaningful insight into Geralt and, perhaps more importantly in a game, we as players get to make a profound decision about who this character really is. . . . By having a purely blank slate to start from, as is the case in many of the Bioware games, where you even choose the character’s back story, you may actually limit the narrative situations it’s possible to present the player, and thus limit the narrative choices you can give them. I can’t put a character in a situation where they’re torn between choosing the love for who they are or the love for who they want to be unless the character not only has those aspects of themselves somewhat defined but is also the sort of character who would care about such things . . .
Oh ho! Can’t you? I did. First, I’ll recant the storyline of my play through which leads me to disagree with some of the points of Extra Credits. In a subsequent blog, I’ll try to analyse my actions and reactions a bit more. Although I’ve had a similar experience to the following in various games, including Mass Effect and replays of DA 3, this felt like the most momentous . . . and juicy.
I played as an upper class human male rogue. Socially speaking, my character had the ‘easy’ setting in life. I was able to choose these aspects of his back story, which informed my approach to the game and my understanding of the character. My character, by the way, had the most ridiculously awesome name ever: Beothor. In a fairly early dialogue option with Josephine, I choose to say something about how my character didn’t get along with his family. I can’t remember how much was actually scripted, and how much was personal embellishment (which is telling) but I, the player, discovered very early in the game that, although Beothor was born to privilege, he rarely felt privileged. He was the black sheep of his family, for a number of reasons, and this began to colour the way I chose to navigate Beothor. It was also sometime around this conversation that Josephine and Beothor realised they had mutual acquaintances and had frequented the same soirees, but never actually meant. I immediately began to like Josephine in a way I wouldn’t have if I’d played as another type of character; she represented a piece of Beothor’s puzzle. Learning about her gave me insights into Beothor. I warmed to her, because it was practical to. It’s not hard to imagine that in due course, Beothor began courting Josephine. I liked her, I could imagine Beothor, based on who I believed him to be, liked her. It seemed like the thing to do. And the courtship was interesting and enjoyable and unique, which made me like the option I’d chosen all the more, which made Beothor more ardent, and so on. All was going well. All was easy.
And then, one dark and snowy night, I met Dorian. He was just so . . . interesting, both for me and for Beothor. In the world of DA 3 Dorian’s a fairly unique, openly gay, sassy, irreverent, mage. In the world of video games I’ve played, Dorian’s a fairly unique, openly gay, sassy, brilliantly written, designed and acted NPC. It was all very . . . interesting. Longer story slightly shortened, Beothor went through an ‘experimental phase’ and slept with Dorian. This is interesting here: I didn’t really woo Dorian, not like I’d chosen to woo Josephine. The game had basically written in a high attraction between the playable main character and Dorian, so that I could choose to have Beothor hop into bed when the moment arose (rude!). Remember how I’d established that Beothor was a black sheep? Based on clues given during the gameplay and my own desire to embellish, I’d determined that Beothor was a bit ‘alternative’. This is IN NO WAY saying that being gay, LGBT, or interested in gender and sexual issues is ‘alternative’. I am saying, that I chose to have my character ‘feel’ alternative, alternative to what he thought was the status quo of his life (the life I’d picked out, admittedly). And some of that status quo which he was alternative-ing against was being straight and courting the lovely Josephine. Curiosity led me and Beothor to pursue sex with Dorian. I say this, not to distance myself from playing as a gay character (Maker’s breath no. Actually, I’m convinced beyond all doubt and contrary to Witcher canon that Geralt’s true love wasn’t either Yennifer or Triss, it was Iorveth), but to set the scene: you see, Beothor was still falling in love with Josephine, and what she represented. But we was desperately attracted to Dorian.
And then it all turned in a messy soap opera which I’m still reeling over. Dorian asked Beothor where their relationship was going. Le gasp. I didn’t have a clue what felt ‘right’ for Beothor, so I was noncommittal. Josephine was a key to the door of high society that had closed to Beothor. She represented the fancy-pantsy life he (I) decided he couldn’t have. She was fun, she was sweet, she was easy. They had so much in common! But Dorian was passion. He felt right in the moment, but I couldn’t see the character of Beothor I’d created having a long lasting future with Dorian. I could see Dorian settling down in some grand estate with Josephine, being the kind of people who actually write thank you notes and have their own stationery. But I couldn’t see Beothor being happy with her in the now. I’d spent 30 hours or so of the game learning to love Beothor as a friend, as a brother-ish, above all else, I wanted him to be happy, and I didn’t know how to give that to him.
Finally, pushed for an answer by Dorian, I gave the best answer I could which represented the turmoil in my darling Beo: ‘meh’. I choose to say something about what fun it was, but who knew what the future held. Which was absolutely true, given the limited dialogue options I had. Dorian was, understandably, hurt and nipped our relationship in the bud. Then, then, I realised how perfect Dorian was for Beothor. Grand estates and personalised note cards be damned! It wasn’t ‘a phase’ Beothor was going through, it wasn’t an act of revolt before settling down with sweet, placid Josephine. The unknowable future with Dorian was the future Beothor wanted, the one he needed. He was the gorram Inquisitor, not some poncy Sloan Ranger. I had Beothor break up with Josephine. It was horrible. She did not take it well. There was yelling and tears and, uhg, I shouldn’t have let it get so far. I picked up the pieces and returned to Dorian, my heart on my nug skin sleeve. But no! Alas, he was a closed book to me. I had dallied with the affections of too many for too long. The romance option was closed. Which, considering it all boils down to codes and maths and dialogue trees, felt exactly right, if awful. Over the years of the in-game narrative (DLC included), Beothor and Josephine became friendly again and Dorian and Beo became BFFS, but it wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t what Beothor’s heart wanted . . . it was, however, exactly the story should have happened.
I sincerely believe the choices I made were the best choices for who I understood Beothor to be and in turn, the dilemma he faced between who he felt obligated to be (with Josephine), and who he might become (with Dorian). They weren’t the fun choices for me, or the sexiest ones for me, they were the most authentic – for Beothor. And the way the game matched my commitment to character authenticity is astounding and precious. It was a deeply moving experience precisely because it wasn’t cathartic, it wasn’t wish fulfilment. It was damn good story telling.