The history of virtual romance is a pretty brief one, but there’s been a lot of evolution in the last couple decades. What began as the hero wordlessly rescuing the damsel in distress and maybe getting a kiss for his trouble after spending countless hours fighting and dying has since become an often long-and-involved wooing process between comrades in arms with fully-realized characters of both genders and various sexual orientations combined with interesting and charming personalities.
As video games strive more and more for artistic integrity and the caliber of talent involved in the industry continues to grow, the line between casual fun and realistic immersion starts to show itself. Back in the day, gaming was all about kicking back and living out your boyhood fantasies of being the studliest stud ever to stud, but lately, the former casual distraction had been striving for art. No longer limited to children and basement-dwelling man-children, gaming is for everyone. Video games can be used as a medium to explore mental illness, heartbreak, and advanced space-time physics just as readily as it can have you jump over a bunch of barrels or kill a thousand bad guys. They can even make you fall in love.
But that brings back the old divide. Traditionally speaking, when love and sex make their way into video games it’s like the ’60s all over again; free love and good times for all. You meet a series of lovely ladies over the course of your adventure, and you bang them all. Maybe you choose one you like more than the others at the end and everybody’s happy. But should it always be that easy? Do we want our in-game waifus to be just friends with benefits or are we willing to seriously commit?
Video games have often been kind of a safe place for we nerd boys. A place where we weren’t judged and could be as awesome (or stupid) as we want to be in a world we command with no fear of social rejection. With the right combination of inputs any challenge could be overcome. Real people are so much more complicated, unpredictable, and… unsettling. Yet art always strives to speak to (if not reproduce) real world experiences, and to do that properly, we’re going to need some more realistic romance with genuine consequences for our actions.
However, there should always be room for casual fun too.
Final Fantasy has long made romance a typical aspect of its plots, but it’s always on rails. The player is a spectator to the love between the leads, but never really a participant. How many of us were forced to date Aeris just so Sephiroth could kill her and make us hate him when we always kind of liked Tifa more and had to watch Cloud’s ass mope while his lovable childhood friend pined away for him? Not saying that’s not legit storytelling, but we can get that in movie, books, and television. To really invest the player beyond what you can get from traditional media, games need to involve the player in the characters’ romantic choices.
BioWare has made a lot of headway in the video game romance department, evolving heavily over the years to include gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters as well as consequences for unfaithfulness. Over three Mass Effect games I cultivated a relationship with Liara T’Soni as an ideal romance for my FemShep (since Tali never came around) only to throw it all away on a spontaneous shower tryst with that cute comm jockey, Samantha Traynor. Never could resist a lady with an accent.
Probably should have saved beforehand, but I kind of assumed they’d go the traditonal “hit on everyone you can and then choose between them” route. It’s not like I expected to put one over on the Shadow Broker, but the conversation where Liara told me she wasn’t interested in games anymore and broke it off has bothered me ever since. And that’s great. Genuine feels attained! I felt better about it after the Citadel DLC showed that Sam is a WAY better dancer than Liara (and crazy nerdy to boot), but still. Well played, BioWare.
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed games as a way to be a vicarious man-slut. It’s a direct contrast to my ‘real life’ personality, where I’ve been happily married to the only girl I ever kissed for fifteen years, but you know what? I’ve earned a little fictional sexual irresponsibility. Nobody gets hurt for real in video games. There are games like Alpha Protocol where you can pretty much have sex with every woman who shows up in the story without them ever finding out or caring and the Fable games where you can get away with marrying a different person in every town (but if two of them ever meet, you could be looking at a public scene). Fable 3 even kept track of how many STD’s you contracted in your journeys.
I have to admit, I enjoy the option to live carefree and skanky. Slutshaming is for sad, repressed prudes, and doubly so in fictional settings. But at the same time, I feel that these games are often missing genuine investment. True love is throwing yourself into another person until you can’t even see yourself without them. Video games should represent that aspect as well for the true romantics out there. Like I said, gaming is for everyone. There’s always a fair balance.
And that brings us to the game that inspired this article, The Witcher 3. Past games in the franchise gloried in making the title character, Geralt, a megapimp who was irresistable to just about all of the women he met in his travels. And that still remains more or less true in the third game since there are multiple sex and romance options, but at the end of the day it does boil down to choice and consequence. Not groundbreaking at all, but interesting in a different way.
Spoilers in the next two paragraphs.
Geralt’s two “true” loves in the series are the sorceress’ Yennifer and Triss Merrigold. Yen was in the first game, Triss in the second. In the third game, the ladies occupy two different continents and you get to spend sexy time with each in turn if you play your cards right. But eventually, the magically-inclined heroines will tire of Geralt’s cavalier ways and if you’ve led them both on too long, they lure you into a bait-and-switch threesome and leave you tied to the bed with the nastiest case of blue balls in video game history, later assuring you that the new galpals are no longer interested in Geralt of Rivia. It’s cold, but kind of awesome.
That is one time I was glad to have something accidentally spoiled ahead of time since it will hopefully help me get a better ending (TRIIIIISSSSS!!!), but at the same time I’m kind of impressed with CD Projekt Red for respecting the characters enough to pull out the classic trope of the women joining forces to give the philanderer his just desserts rather than fighting over him like schoolgirls or sharing him because he is just so goddamn manly.
So The Witcher 3 seems to have struck a pretty good balance between playing as a traveling monster hunter/sex machine who is free to play fast and loose with the ladies as he pleases, but not without consequences. The most satisfying romantic endings appear to be reserved for gamers who play it conservatively, while those who just want to bang hot chicks have plenty of chances for that. Both the choices and consequences are yours, just as they should be.
As game stories become more and more emotionally engaging and the characters more fully-formed, it’s natural that they’d start treating their love interests more like real people instead of simple devices to fuel the players’ adolescent harem fantasies. On one hand, it’s fun to engage in the escapism of consequence-free fun, but on the other, we crave more feels and immersion in the gaming world and you can’t really attain that when the entire thing revolves around fulfilling your every base wanton desire. It starts to feel like you’re being patronized after a while.
As always, a good balance is necessary to give everybody what they want and it looks like gaming is well on its way to giving us digital romance options that will satisfy everyone. Variety is the spice of life, but to unlock the full potential of a relationship, you’ve got to commit yourself to it first. The Witcher 3 appears to be pointing the way forward in those respects and other devs would do well to study its lessons.