This is my follow up to ROMANCING THE BEO Part 1. Previously, I considered how my playthrough of Dragon Age Inquisition (DA 3) was similar to Extra Credits’s critique of the romantic narrative in Witcher 3.
In their rather wonderful video, ‘Romantic Dilemmas – How Witcher 3 Builds Character through Choice’, the Extra Credits kids posit that playing as Geralt is a more compelling experience to playing as so-called blank slate characters, such as those we get in Bioware games. They argue that limitations imposed by playing as fully pre-designed character make for more meaningful romantic questions. They posit that the player is obliged to choose for the character, not for themselves. It’s a good, short, video and well worth a watch, but here’s a quote:
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. . . . 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.
So this got me thinking. How much of the romantic narrative arc in games is really character building? And how much of it is player wish fulfilment?
In my previous post, I waffled about the experience I had in DA 3, making the choices which felt right for my character, and the trouble that caused.
I disagree that DA 3 gives the player a blank slate. Instead, I’d call their character design ‘bespoke’. You’re given a very limited set of facts to choose from and, instead of building your character from the ground up, you have the chance to make canon certain aspects which you find the most interesting – as opposed to the great unknown quantities about Geralt which the player either guesstimates or ignores. For example: backstory. We know very little about Geralt’s past and next to nothing about his childhood. There are clues, narrative breadcrumbs dropped along our path; we know he would have joined the Witcher school at a young age, probably as an orphan. We can begin to make assumptions about his past life which both colour our understanding of his current life, and can use his current life to estimate pieces of his past. But we just don’t know much.
Alternatively, we’re given certain, set, histories to choose for our DA 3 character – before we even meet them. In this way, we start playing the game with an arguably more complete and whole character than in Witcher. The great difference, of course, is that throughout DA 3 (and Bioware games in general) we’re given multiple opportunities to construct what our character is like. Although, it’s probably better to think of these opportunities as developing the character, because we already know who they are, we’re just seeing them react to new dilemmas. And if we’re being pernickety here, which I am, this happens a lot in the Witcher games, too. The Geralt I ended Witcher 2 with was markedly different than my husband’s Geralt . . . and much better, hah!
It was limitations of my character, Beothor, within his world of DA 3 and within the narrative which helped me grow to love him. I empathised with Beothor, because of a combination of good writing and my own involvement, but I did not recognise myself in him, or any other characters. Nor did I want to, that would have jarred me out of the fantasy so well-realised by the creative team.
Consequently, I can and do argue that the romances of Beothor weren’t wish fulfilment. The romances I pursued for/with him stemmed from the game’s inherent storytelling, the development of the world of Dragon Age, and from my own curiosity: what actions lead to what consequences. I – the player, not the character – want to know what will happen (the curiosity) to my protagonist (for whom I have empathy), who I navigate through the constructions of the game (the narrative development). My empathy and enjoyment helped me fall in love with my character and his respective romances, but I did not consciously select those romances for my own personal wish fulfilment. My wish fulfilment was the wish to see my character have a happy ending, in whatever way was most organic for him.
I’m convinced that I’ve convinced myself that my navigation of Beothor’s love life wasn’t my own wish fulfilment. Largely, because it didn’t go according to plan. I made Beothor’s decisions on his behalf, and existed in his muddied present, not in the omnipotent player’s space where I could have steered a more problem-free and satisfying path for him. But, I feel that the problems and bitter-sweet outcome are more satisfying, ultimately, because they’re more real and less ‘game like’. And that’s pretty exciting.
This conclusion leads to another point: romances are a drop of ink in the crystal clear waters of narrative. They’re messy, chaotic, unpredictable (hopefully, if written well) and provide the player with maybe the deepest kind of character creation we have. When writing about society’s relationship with sex and sex depiction in games, designer and writer Ernest Adams said:
Powerful, unpredictable and resistant to reason, sex is most noticeable in history as a destabilizing influence. . . . Games, especially simulations, tend to have nice, neat rules: maximize the right variables and you win the game. If you don’t introduce a destabilizing influence, you risk frustrating the player.
Amen. We like drama, we can’t help ourselves. I suppose it’s because human’s are hardwired to find patterns in the world around us, patterns which, when assembled, give us the tools to survive whatever happens to us next. Drama, surviving it, evading it, is all about pattern spotting; it’s a great, if unpleasant, learning tool. And fictional drama is the fun version of this. So if a game creates a situation which we historically associate with pattern recognition, such as a romantic relationship, but makes the situation too easy, we’re denied the satisfaction of applying our pattern spotting. And if we can’t apply our pattern spotting, we can’t learn anything. And if we can’t learn anything, we’re not very well prepared for the next life adventure. What we entered into as an unconscious, safe and fun learning aid, becomes a waste of our time. All of this is to say, it’s easier to ‘like’ a messy romance in a game than a straightforward one. A little romantic chaos is the spice of videogame life.
Romances work best, or perhaps even exists, to flesh out the playable character and the narrative of the game. It’s possible to argue that the gameplay is actually at its best when the hero’s journey and their romance are at odds. The overcoming of that obstacle makes the hero and their storyline even more compelling still, because audiences will always route for the problem solver, we just can’t help ourselves. This new appreciation for the hero deepens the player’s love/empathy for them even more, thereby strengthening the impact of that character’s romance.
I’ll end with another quote from Ernest Adams, because it’s a good’un:
Art with a capital “A” serves to illuminate the human condition in all its manifold circumstances, and that includes sexuality. Many art forms (painting, sculpture, literature) are easily capable of this; others (flower arranging, macramé) not much so, or at least not very accessibly to most observers. Until interactive entertainment is capable of saying something meaningful about sex – not just showing it, but commenting on it, inspiring thoughts and feelings about it – we’re still down there with macramé.
Note: you can listen to the full podcast this relates to, here.