I have always loved romance in video games. Ever since I discovered Natsume’s Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life for the Gamecube and read that you could get married to one out of three romance options and raise a child, I was hooked. It was an amazing experience to woo one of the women and live the rest of your life with her and a son, who grew up according to how you and your wife raised him. Though not a game big on stakes, the charm was in appreciating a simple, tranquil life with the love of your life.
As my video game preferences became more refined, I realized I loved replayability in games where the storyline branches and no playthrough is exactly the same. Of course, one of the most common (and one of the best!) ways to achieve that is by giving the player romantic options that progresses as they play the game. Since I always loved seeing how different relationships reacted under different circumstances, it was more appealing to me that I had a lot of romance options instead of only one or two. Recently though, I’ve had a change of heart upon reflection after playing a game that asked me a question I’d never been asked before. It was about consent.
Can an NPC truly give consent when a player romances them?
A text-based game called Creatures Such as We by Lynnea Glasser brought up this notion of NPC (non-player character) consent as I was romancing one of the game’s NPCs. Ironically enough, the game is a dating simulation (which is why I wanted to play it at first), but also a meta commentary about the video game industry and video games themselves.
I had never thought about NPC consent before; I only thought of myself and assumed the NPC was enjoying it. After all, aren’t they programmed to enjoy it? Aren’t they programmed to love you if you want them to? Those questions scared me because I realized I didn’t see NPC romance options as real; I saw them as a vehicle for my enjoyment. This wouldn’t have been such a problem for me if I hadn’t articulated my thoughts on censorship and treating in-game choices as seriously as possible. Don’t NPC relationships deserve the same courtesy?
Rethinking my romantic experiences
After playing through Creatures Such as We, I reflected on my romantic experiences in games that deeply emphasize player choice in choosing an NPC as a romantic partner. I wanted to focus on how consensual the relationship felt, and if I felt the NPC contributed to the “relationship dynamic” without the player demanding it.
The first game I thought of was Atlus’s horror-romance puzzle game Catherine. In the game, you play a predetermined protagonist named Vincent, who is already in a longterm relationship with his girlfriend, Katherine. He gets into an affair with another woman named Catherine, and finds he has better chemistry with her. Depending on player choice, Vincent can choose to be with Catherine or Katherine, or reject both of them. The interesting thing about this game is that I felt the consent issue was more on the player instead of the NPCs; many events with the two women are unavoidable and they frequently push Vincent to cater to one of them. Because the player is playing someone specific to the NPCs, they willingly engage with the protagonist and put the burden of consent onto the player. When I first played the game, I chose Katherine for Vincent because I was focused on him finding purpose and responsibility in romance. However, I chose neither woman for Vincent at the end of my most recent playthrough, finding the fulfillment of his own dreams more rewarding than a romance with a woman who forced events upon me. The ending is even referred to as “True Freedom” , but this reversal of the consent dynamic shook my perspective of NPC/Player romance.
But what about games where the player chooses who the protagonist is? BioWare’s games mostly fall into this category, especially the Dragon Age series. I specifically want to discuss Dragon Age II though, as the vanilla game (original game without downloadable content) offers four NPC romance options who are all bisexual. While not a problem on its own, the game’s NPCs are not given any other preferences, making them unrealistic and pandering to players who do not want the confines of sexual orientation to hold them back from romancing an NPC. I like to call this “player-sexual”, as their romances exist only for the player’s benefit, not their own.
While the game’s romance didn’t bother me as much on my first playthrough, I replayed it again recently and chose to romance Fenris, an elven slave who escapes the confines of his mage masters. Fenris hates mages because of this, and his experience becomes an essential part of his development as a character later on. In this playthrough I chose my player character to be a mage, and naturally he disliked her. However, when I chose to romance him the animosity rapidly melted away, despite his established prejudice. Fenris’s attitude towards mages can be changed at the end of the game, but the romance arc concludes before that. It feels as though the prejudice against the player character has no impact on the romance at all. Unlike Catherine, the player is free to choose who their protagonist’s character is and therefore it can be difficult to establish a believable relationship with the romanceable NPCs. The burden of consent falls onto the NPCs instead of the player, and the NPCs in Dragon Age II always oblige, regardless of even their steadfast prejudices.
So what’s the right approach to romance?
Playing Creatures Such as We opened my eyes about romance in video games, especially in terms of consent. An NPC having preferences to who their romantic partner is and consenting to a player because of or despite those preferences only serves to strengthen the romance. I had to rethink romances that I previously enjoyed in Catherine and Dragon Age II because I realized the NPCs and players should both have a say in who is going to be their partner. A game providing that not only makes the romance more real, it makes a player’s choice in pursuing romance all the more meaningful because just like in real life, love exists when both parties care about the other’s happiness more than their own.