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.
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.
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?
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.