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Romance In Dragon Age

by Kimberley Wallace on Aug 28, 2013 at 09:00 AM

Romance is only a shred of BioWare's sprawling storylines, but to some fans, it's the focus of their journey (whether BioWare intends for it to be or not).

Picking your one-and-only isn't easy with all the eclectic personalities in the Dragon Age universe, especially if your beau has opposing views. How does BioWare make these romances so appealing? Are they planning changes in Dragon Age: Inquisition? Find out why selecting romance candidates are never cut-and-dried, and how BioWare attempts to bring out a different side to a character during courtship.

Picking The Woo-Worthy

Love isn't decided right out of the gate. BioWare builds its characters before even thinking about the romantic content. "If you build the temptress or something like that, you're going to build a cliché," says creative director Mike Laidlaw. "You need to make sure they're a real character and a person first." Once BioWare forms the history and motivations, the writers sit down to address how many romance options they need, and begin dissecting their characters.

"We'll talk about what the romantic arc is and what that character's story can tell as a romance," says lead writer David Gaider. "Because there's more than insert coin, get sex, right? There are different types of romantic tales and romantic archetypes. I know people can water it down and say they're all the same, [but] no they're not, there's a different story that can be told." This can be seen with polar opposites Morrigan and Leliana in Dragon Age: Origins. Leliana provides a traditional romance arch; you had to build up her trust and then she starts addressing you lovingly. Morrigan's is more about reading between the lines and not giving up on getting into her heart. "You could almost sleep with Morrigan immediately — before you even got to know her at all — and that was part of her thing," Gaider says. "She expected that and right afterwards it'd be over, but you could then scratch beneath the surface and break through her armor."

Giving players a variety of romance arcs is something the writers address by making sure they have the right people in place for the role. "When we're talking about what these romantic arcs are going to be, we're trying to figure out if we're going to provide choice for a player, what [styles of romance are you choosing between], and seeing what we have," Gaider says. "If we have no variety, then maybe we have to move back more towards content." Laidlaw adds, "Or do we need to take another character and say, 'You know what? Guess what? You're getting in the big leagues.'"

But characters aren't necessarily axed from the paramour role if they're not working. Sometimes, BioWare has to look at a character in a different light to cast them as a unique and viable romance contender. "Trying to figure out what the romance is...sometimes it requires you to sit back and think about the character a slightly different way because you've always thought about them [one way]," Laidlaw says. This is exactly what Gaider had to do when he wrote Morrigan's romance. "Morrigan initially was not supposed to be a romance," Gaider says. When the decision came to put her in that role, Gaider had to think long and hard about the character he created. "I had to change the way I thought about her," he says. "[I saw her] as her having built up this sort of armor around herself — that there was a different person underneath. One that she purposely had to squelch because she thought that [it] was weak, because that was what she had been taught. Suddenly when I thought about that, it was, 'Oh, that's an interesting place to go.'"

BioWare also has to make sure they've looked at a relationship from every angle. This forces the team to look beyond just the premise and into what implications it presents. "Are there issues of feminism or other problematic elements? What are we saying about this character we aren't intending to?" Gaider says. "We have to think about all those issues first and try to distill it down into a set of stories that we want to tell and feel good about telling."

Up next: Romance challenges and changes for Inquisition...

Meeting BioWare Halfway

BioWare has to scale back on the time spent on the romances in the grander scheme of the project. "The follower characters in general are enormously complex," Gaider says. "They're a massive investment in terms of gameplay and storytelling."

"We try to push ourselves," Laidlaw adds. "We try to do things we haven't done before. We try to explore characters we haven't done before, but there comes a point in which you can afford only so much crazy."

The team often has to reel themselves in, and they're well aware of criticisms about fans wanting more detailed, realistic romances. Still, these aren't the main focus of the game. "We could make relationships more detailed," Gaider says. "We could add a lot a more nuance and stuff, but really it's a question of, 'How much content do we want to put for something that's essentially optional?' It's not a romantic adventure. It would be cool to do, but in this case, it's something the player pursues because they're interested, and it's not really the point of the game."

Senior writer Luke Kristjanson agrees. "The player has to meet us halfway," Kristjanson says. "If they're going on an adventure with a love interest in the story, again that entire adventure is part of their romance, whether we label it romance or not."

Another tough question the team tackles is integrating this content seamlessly into the plot to where the game still feels cohesive. One answer is to make them grow naturally. "Our romances tend to grow out of a friendship, out of necessity, almost more than anything else," Gaider says. "We want a player who isn't romancing a character to still get a sense of who that character is and feel like they have a relationship. You're going to walk the same path, but then at some point, you're going to grow into the romance, and that's going to be separate content."

BioWare is looking for more answers to balance the romance extras with Dragon Age's core experience. "We still want the heart of that character to be available to anyone," Gaider says. "So for us, it's, 'How do we make that seamless?' And if it's seamless, the player isn't going to be able to distinguish between those two paths necessarily." That's the biggest challenge BioWare is tackling: Finding a way to make the romance content feel unique while still allowing players to get to know a character even if they aren't wooing them. The new seamless approach the team is working toward for Inquisition may be just what the franchise needs.

Romance In Inquisition

What it comes down to is BioWare deciding on the story they want to tell with the romances and making sure they don't double up on any similar narratives. The team is constantly asking itself what territories have remained uncharted. "We're doing a few of those things in Inquisition, trying to tell some romances of a style that we have not done previously," Gaider says.

Criticisms regarding stock romances and approval ratings dictating relationships have been looming. Fans should be happy to know that approval ratings are playing a different role this time around. "Previously, we had a lot of the follower content gated by your approval rating. Whereas what we're doing now, we're having a lot more of your content event-driven," Gaider says. "The approval you're at informs the nature of the conversation."

That means you shouldn't have to agree on everything to befriend or romance another character. "They're like, 'Yes, you've chosen a thing that I disagree with, but we're good friends,'" Laidlaw says. "So that's going to change the color and tone of [those interactions], so [they're] more nuanced. I think that's going to take them beyond what's been done in the past."

However, that's hardly the only portion that's changing. BioWare is striving to make the whole cast more interactive and aware of what's going around them, including the choices you make as Inquisitor. This allows for realistic reactions to what's happening at a given moment, whether it's in relation to the mages, Templars, Chantry, or a bigger threat.

"Your interactions aren't just, 'Hello, I'm here by my tent waiting for you,' but instead something that feels like an outgrowth of all your adventures together and the kind of things that you've been doing," Laidlaw says. "In my ideal scenario, your interaction with the character isn't just about having interacted with them; it's about your interaction with them in relation to the whole game that you've chosen to play. So if you make really sweeping decisions in other parts of the game, that may actually change the nature of those interactions."

BioWare isn't elaborating any further on the romance front for now, but it appears it is considering feedback and trying to make it better mesh with the storyline. For now, we'll just have to wonder who is taking on the role of our Inquisitor's number-one squeeze, as BioWare has not announced any of the characters that can be romanced yet.