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April 25
2013

Dragon’s Dogma Made Me Do Something Terrible – Why Developers Shouldn’t Skimp on Romance Mechanics

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A little while ago, as part of my series on gay portrayals on the community blogs for Destructoid, I wrote a post lamenting the fact that developers seem all too content to provide plenty of reasoning and justification for who the player character might kill or wish to kill, but very rarely seem interested in actually providing reasoning or justification for whom the player might love. Gaming protagonists commit murder for reasons reaching from self-defense, to bloodlust, to revenge. They can be conflicted or gleeful in the violence they commit. But if the playable character has a love interest, it’s usually brushed away with “they are your love interest. You love them. Now save them from a monster or something, shit.” If the game includes some sort of romance mechanic, wherein the player chooses someone to love, the means of courtship and bonding will rarely extend beyond “buy them gifts and maybe let them follow you around if you want.” It invariably feels weightless, pointless, tacked on – which is a shame, as who we love and why tends to be such a large part of human identity. Not just that, but a lackluster romance system can negatively impact the way we view the rest of the story, our characters, or their place within it. Which brings me to the subject of Dragon’s Dogma.

In honor of the release of Dark Arisen, I’d like to share a story with all of you. A story about how half-assed game mechanics lead to the creation of something terrible. A cautionary tale about how freedom of romantic choice, without any substance to back up that freedom, made me into a monster. The story of how Dragon’s Dogma turned me into a pedophile.

Now, keep in mind that this story will feature heavy spoilers, at least as far as the game’s romantic angle is concerned, so if you still haven’t gotten around to giving the game (which is more fun than many give it credit for) a try, I would recommend you do that. I won’t go into anything too extreme on the actual plot, but you’ve been warned anyway.

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I’d like for all of you to meet Symone. Symone is a spoiled monster-child. But at one point in the game I was expected to earn her favor in order to assist in the earning of her father’s. I knew that the game had a ‘gift’ system wherein in one could press a button to pop up a menu during dialogue and give gifts to an NPC. I figured – sure, why not buy my way into this little brat’s heart? So I gave her presents. Lots of presents. Several thousand gold worth of presents. She was satisfied. Her father gave me a golden idol. I thought all was well. I was wrong.

See, Dragon’s Dogma is a game wherein the romance mechanics are designed to give the player a great deal of choice. You want to romance the fat, dwarf-like shopkeeper? Go for it. The old fish-wife? Bam, done. Dragon’s Dogma is so oriented towards freedom, in fact, that nearly all of the NPCs you encounter can be made into a love interest. And, like an even shallower version of the Fable courtship system, all that one has to do to earn love is to give presents. Lots of presents. I think you see where I’m going with this.

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So, my Arisen, his pawn, and the two dullards that tagged along with them, had fought a grueling uphill battle in pursuit of the game’s ending. We’d slayed giants monsters, dragons, powerful sorcerers, and more. We’d endured. And we’d finally found the dragon that had ripped my Arisen’s heart from his chest. We tracked him to his lair, only to discover that he had a trick up his sleeve. He claimed to have captured my Arisen’s beloved. “Who could that be?” I wondered, naively. Perhaps the hunky guard to whom I’d given a few flowers, on my way in and out of the city. That would be a rather unique story, actually – my willowy, elf-like mage having to rescue his hunky guardsman boyfriend. I got a little excited. This was going to be a new kind of experience for me, in gaming. Turns out I was right. Out runs Symone, visibly horrified. We shared that in common for a moment. Perhaps, I thought, the dragon means simply the person that I care about most. Okay, that’s fine. I had accidentally given that impression, but no big deal, I could change it on new game plus. So I slew the dragon. I emerged alive and victorious.

I stepped out onto the plains of Gransys with newfound freedom, and lightness in my step. I found Symone on the edge of the wreckage. Even if she was a brat, I was glad to find her unscathed. I decided that I’d take her home to her father, before returning to my own hometown for some much needed rest.

Except this happened:

Replace the grown woman with the picture above.

The horror. The humanity. I was a monster. I was disgusting. In Post-Game, I found that Symone had moved in with me, like some sort of horrific child-bride. I couldn’t bare to look at my Arisen, whose feet shuffled with shame and whose gaze avoided not just the townsfolk’s but those of his own pawns as well. Even they, in their soulless simplicity, knew what he’d done and were disgusted. And who could blame them?

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I’m actually rather eager to get my hands on the game’s new expansion Dark Arisen. Dragon’s Dogma is an excellent, imaginative game. And when you know what you’re doing, you can create some really interesting, unique stories with its mechanics and a bit of imagination. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more perfect example of my point. If you remove all the personal aspects of sexuality, all the depth, in the pursuit of lazy “freedom”, than those choices become devalued. If every romanceable character in Skyrim is flatly bisexual, with no preference or baggage to speak of, then it ignores the experiences and emotions specific to the experiences of being gay or bi, cheating itself from some really potentially powerful stories. Dragon’s Dogma, too, cheapens itself of so much potential by having every character romanceable in the exact same way, experienced in the exact same way. And it’s not even content to leave it at this lost potential – instead pushing things into full-blown horror.  I hope developers will take notice, and perhaps work harder to create deeper and more interesting romance mechanics. Until that time comes, I’ll be in the shower trying to wash the shame away.

For my Destructoid series on gay gaming protrayals, click here.

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About Trevor Smith

I am a 22-year old college graduate, currently trying to figure out what the hell I'm going to do with an English Writing degree. So far, the answer seems to be "play a lot of video games, sleep, and slowly starve to death." I love RPGs, Rogue-likes, and Horror. I write screenplays on the side.

15 Responses

  1. avatar crackedbat says:

    You’re not a monster… but just to be sure I will have to call social services on your willowy elf like mage.

  2. avatar Hernan says:

    I actually couldn’t agree more on this. I play a lot of Harvest Moon. Now, this isn’t a franchise that’s known for its innovation with each iteration, so romancing an NPC is painfully easy. Alls you gotta do is give them a fish/crop/cupcake every day until they love you. But you can only give them a present once a day! That’s the challenge… I guess.

    • avatar Acou says:

      I could never play harvest moon for more then a in game month. However I did play 4 rune factory games and even though it suffers from the same problem. It did have one character that made sense. Bianca. to get her as your love interest, you had to talk to her everyday. Items did nothing but piss her off since she was rich.
      However I still picked Annette on the wii version and Rosetta on the DS.

  3. avatar HeatherN says:

    Frankly the whole “give gift, receive romance,” set-up has always seemed pretty sexist to me. It plays right into the whole “if I bought you enough things, then you should love me,” mentality about relationships…which is like, totally screwed up and is part of rape culture. Not that I think game developers do this on purpose…I think they just don’t consider how screwed up it is to treat romance as a reward for giving gifts…

    Kind of like, I bet no one on the development team even stopped to consider what would happen if you gave Symone a bunch of gifts here.

    • avatar October says:

      In Dragon’s Dogma, Harvest Moon, Rune Factory, and many of the other games I’ve played in which gifts = romance, it’s always a two-way street. Give gifts to a boy, he loves you. Give gifts to a girl, she loves you.
      That’s not sexism, it’s dehumanization of characters in general.

  4. avatar CPFace says:

    I think the big problem is, we know how to program combat. You give a creature a number, and that number goes down when you hit it. When the number goes all the way down, it dies. It’s not very realistic either, but we’ve come to accept it as “realistic enough”.

    We don’t really have a satisfactory model for personality and social interaction. We try to apply the same model – a character has a number, and giving them a present makes it go up – and we can feel the dissonance right away. To make a truly satisfying romance option, you have to make it a part of the character and the story. And if the player just doesn’t like the option(s) given, well, they’re left out.

    Tricky waters.

  5. avatar Christian says:

    I think Mass Effect 3 did improve a little the romantic aspect of the game. For starters not everyone is bisexual, and depending on the character there were certaing things you had to do in order to have a romance with that particular character. And for the first time they had exclusive same-sex options for both female and male same sex relationships. It was not perfect but I think it was an improvement over the rest of the games of the saga, as well as over other games with romance options. Since RPG rely a lot on your decisions and interactions it would be good if all of them would relay on them for the romance aspect of the game as well. Haven’t played Dragon’s Dogma yet, but I read that some people had accidentally started a same sex relationship even when they didn’t want to, so I guess this game’s romance mechanics are particularly screwed up.

  6. avatar Julie says:

    Good to see I’m not the only monster here. I didn’t know about the relationshipstuff until right now. I thought the game was sick, sick, sick at the end when I suddenly slept with a blonde 10 year-ish old girl.
    Now that I know it was me all along, I feel ashamed and terrible. Fml.

  7. avatar ElViCi says:

    Just laughed my tea all over my keyboard. Brilliant article (and great analysis of the half-arsed RPG romance model). Kudos!

  8. avatar Lee says:

    Idk why the fuss about this? Remember this is the medieval age let alone fantasy. In medieval times, child marriage was very common especially girls around the age of 16 or younger. Think of it like a historical cultural difference. I don’t see any problem especially when sexual content is not even in the game period. Just suggestive dialogue time to time but not really at the children themselves. Nowadays we push it as distasteful and immoral but its been pretty big in the history and still harbors today in some places. Just think nothing personal of it. Only the lewd would be fully ashamed of such little things. That means, if your not really having perverted thoughts about the kid, then really you shouldn’t be really bothered about this. Remember there are more sicker people out there actually having child-adult relationships and games like Skyrim had mods that uh yeah. Nuff said.

  9. avatar CharbyWaltz says:

    I haven’t gotten to the end of the game yet, but my boyfriend warned me about the end-game beloved after I started flipping out over the Duchess getting lusty on my Arisen. I still need to work on lowering her affinity and raising someone else’s so I won’t be upset with the ending…

  10. avatar Jottan says:

    this almost happened to me, symone had that chime sound and the pink glow behind her, thankfuly i discovered this before defeating the dragon and i scared her by unsheathing my weapon.

  11. avatar Random McRandom says:

    Incredibly late in regards to the initial post, I’ll just point out that while from the perspective of an “adult” Player Character the romancing of Symone is pretty bad, it’s entirely possible to create children characters using the games character generator system. So, technically speaking, this isn’t so much the game developers not thinking things through and more a case of people being selectively biased in their opinions.

    After all, if you styled your main character to appear as a child and then romanced an adult NPC, wouldn’t that make the adult NPC also a pedophile? You can’t have it one way after all, it’s either a problem both ways or a problem neither way. Though, obviously, given the subject it’s pretty clearly bad both ways.

    In this regard I think it is more accurate to say that the game developers weren’t lazy for the inclusion of Symone as a love interest, so much as they were extremely lazy in that they never bothered to explain that a “beloved” mechanic existed in the game in the first place. It’s literally something you have to read a guide about if you want to know about it before it’s too late.

  12. avatar October says:

    To be fair, and as mentioned before, you CAN play as a child as well. So imagine how awkward it was for me to be playing as a 10-12 year old and get that ending scene of my adorable little child character going down on an 80-plus year old man.

    However, considering the time period, I guess that type of romance wouldn’t be inaccurate (though no less horrifying).

    Although I appreciate the diversity of the romance system, I think a “big brother/big sister/little brother/little sister” dynamic could have been included for the kids.

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