I have spent way too much time thinking about my imaginary sex life lately. Between Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 and the Elder Scrolls VI: Skyrim, it wouldn’t surprise me to know, outside of game-time, I’ve spent hours thinking about who my viking warrior would wed at the temple of Mara, or who commander Shepherd, the proverbial fat lady in a grand, interactive space opera, was going to bunk with.
While both games have similar themes and ideas about player authorship and romance, but only one maintains a deliberate focus on relationship.
The notion of sexual intercourse in a videogame is enough to warrant international bans on the Bioware product, but the real pay-out for the player is relationship. It’s made very clear to the player: Shepherd is no player. Once you lock in a match, it’s to the exclusion of others.
It seems silly at first: two dialogue options, one that will crush any advances and another that gently encourages flirting; even observers are hooked. I was talking to my yeoman and you could tell she was in awe of her commanding officer (I’m the savior of the galaxy, who wouldn’t be impressed?). Short brown hair, smooth and slightly exotic yet untraceable accent, she is adorable in her uniform and just revealed what could be an inkling of flirting in her invitation to play chess. A little embarrassed in front of my wife, I let the question hang in the air as I weighed the two options: “That sounds like fun” or “No, let’s keep things professional”.
As she walked into the room and caught the end of the conversation my wife suggested, “Don’t say keep things professional, that would hurt her feelings.”
That’s just some light flirting. When it comes to making a real commitment, things can get complicated. However, for me, a heterosexual male who is uncomfortable around Ashley’s occasional racism, it was a no-brainer in Mass Effect 1. Given the choice between Kaiden, the human soldier with the personality of a hunk of space rock, the frightening, no-nonsense and sometimes xenophobic human marine Ashley Williams, and the hot psychic blue alien, I chose blue psychic.
I was ready to settle down and make a few blue children when things got complicated in Mass Effect 2. Gone were the relatively two-dimensional guy/girl romance options, replaced with more nuanced characters in the form of genetically perfect Miranda Lawson and her host of daddy-issues, Jacob Taylor and, well host of daddy-issues, and Tali, the formerly minor character from the first game now upgraded to full romance option.
Now I had a real decision to make, between my loyalty to a now absent blue woman, and a very present, very mysterious Quarian who’s face I’ve never actually seen. Eventually the deciding factor came down not to sexual preference, but character. Let’s face it, Miranda is a genetically perfect woman, but I found her cold and boring. Liara is a sensual, but grave alien of an-all female race. Besides being nearly a hundred years Shepherd’s senior, she just didn’t have that spark of life I found in Tali.
It’s commendable that Bioware stresses exclusivity and rewards the player with emotional and relational pay-off. Whether it was through extra dialogue between Shepherd, or the added investment in your loved one’s people, (would I do right by the Quarian people for Tali’s sake?) I naturally found myself evaluating potential partners based on the whole package: family, character and chemistry, rather than just sexuality.
This was nothing like the last videogame I played. Skyrim, while set in your average quasi-medieval fantasy era, also allowed for coupling, this time without the copulating. Instead of the romance pushing and pulling me through the narrative, considering which partner would complete me or which voice and personality didn’t make me cringe, Skyrim’s romance options mirrored life in the harsh northern country the game was set in: cold, brief and mostly lifeless. The marriage proposal simply meant a greeting at the door of breezehome after a long trek of questing. The lady I briefly courted, an upstart merchant I gifted with some beautiful mammoth tusks, (the equivalent of flowers in Skyrim) would sit or walk aimlessly around my house when I came to drop off loot or grab some ore. The few dialogue options she had amounted to nothing more than a regular payout from her merchant side-business. Our romance began with the briefest sidequest and became a dead relationship. Her character didn’t evolve, face crisis’ or fade.
After that failed union I googled a list of the eligible bachelorettes and chose the most attractive female for my second playthrough. She was a warrior Nord with a penchant for werewolves (Which worked out nicely, as I happened to be a Khajit, or anthropomorphized cat). I am not proud of it, but if I was going to marry a mannequin, I wanted the prettiest one.
But what does this say about the player? In Mass Effect I made sure to create a bond between my character and partner, looking beyond the physical to both her character and personality and chose a mate for the long haul. It’s to Bioware’s credit that their creation possesses the realism and nuance to inspire the hours of time I spent thinking about it and weighing my options. Mass Effect encourages the player to think deeply about relationships, and eventually look past the physical to what makes romance last.
That doesn’t seem like such a waste of time.