Romance: Power Fantasies or Reality?

A few weeks back, during the release of Mass Effect Andromeda, the Waypoint crew (or maybe it was Idle Weekend) were talking about the relationship options and how poor they were for if your character wasn’t straight. I know that’s a really poor summary. But I think @danielle made a quick comment about how she wants to be able to romance any and every character. Her argument being it’s the future, so why would everyone still hold to our antiquated views.

And that got me thinking, is that idea that you can romance anyone realistic? Or is it a power fantasy? Or because it’s a game and a work of fiction it’s something we should simply brush aside because there’s no need for it to hold to current notions but can be used as a way to show a better future?

If realism is important, than should the ability to romance a character go beyond mere gender? Should other factors like appearance and actions outside of conversations with that particular person affect one’s chances for romance?

If it’s a power fantasy, then what really differentiates the choice of who you romance? Can you as the player really feel like you’re roleplaying when the systems behind the NPCs you can romance make it so they have no choice?

Sorry for all the questions, but I’ve been wondering what works for other people when it comes to the romance and realism in games.

I’ve seen criticism of video game romance in general as being problematic (or even dangerous) because “push x to win romance” is an unhealthy template for real life relationships, but… I don’t know that I agree. I feel like when you’re imagining a story within the framework of a game narrative, romance is totally fair game, and it’s fine to use existing RPG structures to access that content.

I’m a straight woman who pretty much always plays female characters when I have the option. I think it’s completely unfair that in most games, I have more romance options compatible with my real-life sexuality than players seeking m/m or f/f romance. I want everyone to be able to romance characters to whom they feel a connection… to feel like they’re the main character who might have a love story.

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The major concern I have around gamifying relationships is…

“Collect all 5 precious stones and give them to X to buy some sex and then move on to the next quest in the game.”

“The right answers to get the sex is option A, C, and then F.”

There is a serious discussion to have around sex worker rights and how capitalism is coercive and puts a price on everything (off-topic: listen to current sex workers, decrim is the answer) but that is not something that is going to come out of a AAA RPG which includes romance and so this gamification is gross and supports patriarchal social norms.

Doing this right is incredibly hard and it’s ridiculously easy to bake in some terrible lessons that wouldn’t look out of place in a trash PUA book. Do you want to sleep with someone who you have control over at work, well Mass Effect can offer you that exact fantasy!

I prefer games that define the characters before you play (not “playersexual”). I also know that representation is both terrible at portraying the reality where I actually am and that in order to avoid stereotypes destroying characters you can’t have a game where someone in the main cast is “the only gay”. So even if it wasn’t “realistic” then I’d expect a far flatter Kinsey scale than maybe many people expect exists (inside their heads).

I think it’s good when relationships are dealt with realistically and so clearly that will involve some stories of two people who don’t both feel the same way. Everyone should get a chance to experience these things both playing inside their sexuality and exploring a different path. Some stories will be about a very specific character (and so their sexuality will be defined) while other stories will have a less detailed template of the character and so offer that as a player-insert option.

I don’t have a great design doc for exactly how I’d build into this space and avoid all the issues (but there certainly isn’t just one “right” way of doing it). But I find it impossible to overlook how badly this is often done, even in games that are otherwise good.


The idea of “it’s the future, everyone should be able to kiss everyone” definitely holds some truth, but I think it’s more complicated because these narratives are rooted in “our” world - the 21st century, so these fictional worlds are never going to be devoid of influence of current-day issues, prejudices, and social concepts. If characters are made available to romance characters of any gender, I want this aspect to play into their personality or their story somehow.

That said, I’m afraid this approach to romance in games will eventually erase gay and lesbian folks.


Relationships in games are tough. I think Firewatch is an excellent example of how to have a romantic relationship in a game. However, player choice doesn’t decide the outcome. I think the best games about relationships (love or otherwise) are ones where players don’t get to choose who the characters are interested in. Night in the Woods I think is another great example on how to handle friendships in games.

Game often times want you to be good at them and I think games about dating should look outside of that space. People are bad love in real life. Most of us are really bad at it. And that’s okay because it’s apart of learning and growing as a human. Sometimes we chase after people who aren’t interested in us and sometimes we get into relationships that aren’t healthy. These are things that are difficult, but not impossible, to put into a video game; especially a mainstream one.

I think when looking for games about real relationships or love you’re better off looking at games that are further out on the fringe. I just don’t think you could convince publishers and execs to put the time or money into good realistic relationships in the AAA space.


A romance I really liked that subverts the whole “pick this dialog get a romance” was Cassidy in Fallout: New Vegas.

If you use her as a follower you’ll eventually see a dialog option to do the whole rpg-follower-romance shtick. And that’s it, nothing ever comes of it. In the epilogue it basically says you had a missed connection and in the great celebration at the end of the game she went and shacked up with someone else.

I later learned it plays out this way because her romance option was cut for time/budget sort of stuff which is a little disappointing because I thought it was cool that you don’t just get to fuck whichever person you chose and pressed A at.


This is an interesting concept. I haven’t seen the story so I’m not sure how accurate this is, but I honestly find it a little uncomfortableness to suggest that because it’s the future, everyone should be pansexual. At least in humans, sexual orientation is a thing. I’m more comfortable with characters who have a fully realized sexuality that exists with or without your character, because that’s what real people are like. Why would sexual orientations stop existing 200 years from now? Maybe some non-human races have different constructions of sexuality, but I’m comfortable with human characters having defined sexual orientation.

I happen to be bisexual, but I don’t think people who are straight or gay or lesbian are less advanced than me


This is something I have dealt with in raising a daughter, and initially being anti-princess/romance/etc, with the idea that it was limiting in some way. You are correct to note that this is a power fantasy of a sort, but power fantasies / play are useful in that basic sense that it is a way to learn about yourself and others; how it feels to wield power, and how it feels to have power wielded against you.

I think romance in games runs into a map / territory problem though, when it comes to trying to capture the immense scope of human relationships, where the ‘mini-game’ of completing character dialog trees threatens to subsume the game itself. We accept a certain part of elision in the action / adventure sequences of games that is harder to pull off when it comes to characters developing relationships that feel genuine and organic.


I think it is a bit reductive when critics complain that all games are “press :x: to fuck” (besides Saint’s Row IV, at least). It’s gamified, but it’s unfair to the writers to ignore that pressing a button, in this situation, is having a heart-to-heart conversation with someone with shared trauma, or having a fun date cut scene with jokes and playing footsie under the table, or whatever it is that initiates the affair. On paper, it might read as ‘pick the paragon option at this question to get a smooch’, but that dialogue option is still comforting or complimenting a character you’ve established a nice, healthy friendship with that you’re taking to the next level.

Don’t get me wrong; a lot of it is still very badly written and hardly more compelling or romantic than the cheap harlequin novels they sell at the grocery store checkout. But a basic dialogue tree of a few options and quests to endear yourself and get close to the character of your choice is hardly the worst way to gamify relationships.

Most compelling alternatives are limiting in ways that cannot be addressed by all genres, or cannot be addressed simply by talking about video games. The ease with which one can blow through a romance using a strategy guide could be tackled in a game that dedicates a lot of time to the romance system, dating sims perhaps. I don’t know if any game has done this, but I’d be curious to see procedurally generated romance. A short game, perhaps only an hour, with hundreds of potential lines that the player would actually have to read and consider in order to figure out the ‘correct’ way to romance someone. It would, at least, engage the player and invest them in the romance beyond the hope of seeing some tatas.

And certainly, I could do with fewer games relying on gifts as a way to achieve romance, but I think that is more of a writing issue than anything. After all, the quest you go on to find a book for your love could just as easily be a quest to go out on a date or meet their sister or something. Change it from ‘the only copy of this tome is in a cave occupied by bandits’ to ‘on the way to Parilien, our carriage was attacked by bandits’ and the gameplay of it is going to be identical.

The basic premise of “You can make any sexual relationship work, as long as you put in the correct simple string of button presses” is inherently a massive power fantasy beyond the concerns of gender and sexuality. I feel like these kinds of systems inadvertently reflect very pickup artist-y worldview despite the best intentions of the writers, where people can be easily “solved” like a rubik’s cube, you just need to know the trick. This is exasperated by sex often being treated as the implicit win state of the relationship; the last box you tick off before you’re finished.

I feel like, at the very least, a romance system less based on power fantasy would require your potential sexual partners have the ability to say “no” in a meaningful way that couldn’t be circumvented by just looking up a guide.


I feel like there CAN be a way to romance characters in games, but I feel that when the “endgame” of the relationships is sexual, that can be super problematic, in addition to most relationship systems where saying the right thing makes people like you more. I find that to be really weird in games like Persona 4, where the main character just seems like the reason he says what he says is to make people like him rather than any kind of camaraderie.

In a somewhat unrelated note, but also related, there’s a pretty cool game about it called Kindness Coins, which speaks more to dating sims rather than Mass Effect, but it’s a pretty cool game nonetheless.

this is complicated but I feel like both predefined orientations and the Everyone’s Pan approach have potential merit to be mined out of them.

But frankly a lot of my annoyance with romance in BW games comes from what feels like an unresolved tension in those games’ writing re: whether they want to be player power fantasies or not. the aspiration to tell a realistic story with fully realized characters with deep inner lives that don’t revolve around the player character is clearly there but like… that ain’t the story and/or characters on the page most of the time.

it feels like the games are 99% about player agency which makes the moments it slaps you on the nose and says “nah ah!” feel out of place, especially if certain players (like, say, queer women) get singled out for those moments over and over again across the series


incidentally one good way to make your game both with characters w/ explicit, well-developed, queer sexuality and without arbitrarily blocking players from certain routes based on the same is to have a predefined character who fits all your potential romantic partners’ interests.

good examples include the recent Ladykiller in a Bind and the upcoming Who We Are Now, written explicitly as f/f and m/m romance games, respectively

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Dragon Age: Inquisition got a bit closer to that, there was at least one romance that had no sex scene and several where the player could back out of sex, but ultimately that was still about player choice, for people who aren’t interested in sex. Still, I did like that the romances could branch a bit with regards to sex, and I’d like to see a romance where the NPC had a more dynamic ability to consent or pace the relationship.

Another thing Bioware is on the cusp of but not quite achieved is the ‘approval’ system and how it relates to romance, where there’s more to romancing a character than just their own dialogue trees, but also your actions in the larger story. But they mess that up, too, in particular I didn’t care for Dragon Age II letting you romance people when you ‘rivaled’ them. It’s gross as hell to date Anders after you’ve told him you think mages should be locked up or killed. :unamused:


Ye, definitely. Although in LKiaB… I got the complicated feelings about The Boy.

And the whole issue around subsequent edits and removing certain scenes from the game that didn’t fit player expectations (of a purely lesbian story) - don’t think there’s huge value in completely opening up that debate again but there’s clearly a cautionary note attached to how that all happened.

This is a great conversation! I’d love to play more games that engage with the power relations immanent in the act of ‘seducing’ a character.

I feel like Journey sort of does that, in its way. I’ve heard a few people say that they didn’t know that they were playing with another person until they’d already spent some time with that other person. Some of them have described this realization as being a radically abrupt recontextualization of the emotionality and care that had been present in (or absent) from their relationship with the (N)PC they’d been traveling with. They’d thought that the mutuality that they’d been experiencing had been explicitly programmed and therefore somewhat trivial or artificial; learning that the other person was real, and feeling like their affection and trust was suddenly legitimized or actualized by being connected to a real person rather than a program designed to elicit empathy, was energizing (or, in some cases, invasive)!

It’s maybe a bit of a side tangent in a conversation about navigating the relationships one forms with hard-coded characters by way of prefab dialogue trees, but thinking about the people that actually are on the other side of that relationship—the writers, the programmers, the artists—can undermine the affection one does feel for characters, and maybe make any emotional connection to a game’s story feel like manipulation. Which might itself be more or less titillating to the player than the idea of a power fantasy independent of another party.

That said, I have been struck by how discomfiting romances can feel in games that seem to encourage the player to engage with them uncomplicatedly and enthusiastically. Stardew Valley, despite its very charming art direction and mood, had a relationship system that consisted entirely of cracking people’s preferences and throwing gifts at them, and it felt a little twisted. Or, to dovetail with the ‘horny discourse’ thread, mods that are about instantly & magically turning any game character into a willing and enthusiastic participant are consistently pretty off-putting to me, and I’m surprised by how eagerly that’s sometimes played for laughs.


Wait, was Danielle referring to pansexuality or polyamory? I seem to remember her saying “poly” during that discussion. Was she saying she wanted to be able romance all the characters or romance all the characters at the same time?

I honestly don’t know! I haven’t seen the original content and am basing my comments off my possibly erroneous understanding of how someone summarized it! I tried googling for it but didn’t have any luck.

Like a few people have mentioned, I think that video games are just bad at modeling human interaction. So when thinking about how games portray relationships, I find it hard to fault things like Mass Effect because at least they’re making you put in some effort. (Though it’s hard to get invested in a relationship where the other person is theoretically just a few “correct” answers away from jumping into your arms cough Persona 5 cough) I don’t believe that video games will ever be able to fully capture the full range of human interaction and communication, but I think that games with a more narrow focus might be able to do a better job at capturing a slice of it, if that makes any sense?

I think games do a better job at modeling longer term romances simply by the way their systems are designed, and that might contribute to a surplus of what are considered more stereotypically “stable” het relationships. Hopefully as more and more attention is paid to games by LGBTQ developers we can get over bad stereotypes like that. Come to think of it, is there a game that actually does something with one night stands, or has a main character who just sucks at relationships? Or divorce, or breaking up? I really appreciated Firewatch because it told a story about a relationship that was falling apart at the same time a new one was forming, which was a really fresh and striking story for a video game.


I’m slightly hazy about any specific references but I’m almost certain @danielle has talked about a desire for both poly in games (which almost never happens) and universal bi/pan romance options to avoid being blocked from queer relationships.