by Kristin Bezio
I recently completed a re-play-through of all the Dragon Age games and their downloadable content (DLC), and it has me thinking in particular about the way in which BioWare has adapted one of their most well-known (and loved/hated) mechanics: the friendship-rivalry mechanic and its intersection with “romance” in the games. I’ve written elsewhere – and at great length – about the Friend-Rival mechanic in Dragon Age II (specifically, in a chapter entitled “Friends & Rivals: Loyalty, Ethics, and Leadership in Dragon Age II,” in Identity and Leadership in Virtual Communities: Establishing Credibility and Influence edited by Joe Essid & Dona Hickey for IGI Global in 2014). It’s under copyright, so I’m not going to provide you with a link, but I’ll explain the basic premise here.
The mechanic first appears in BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, and has undergone an evolution from that version to what we see in the most recent Dragon Age: Inquisition – a version that I not only think is much better mechanically, but is much more relevant to the overall purpose (at least, in my interpretation) of the friendship-rivalry-romance mechanics in the DA series as a whole. DA games – and BioWare in general – have come under fire from a variety of sources for their progressivity in offering romance options with characters of all stripes, genders, and orientations. But the mechanic is more complex than just “will it sleep with me?”
First things first – a brief introduction to the mechanics. In DA games, players accrue a set of companion characters (I call them NPCCs, or Non-Player Companion Characters) in a variety of sizes, genders, colors, species, and classes. There are warriors, rogues, and mages; males and females (and a golem of fluctuating gender); elves, dwarves, humans, and qunari (very large horned people). The player, whether as the Warden in Origins, Hawke in DA2, or the Inquisitor in Inquisition, establishes either friendships or rivalries with all “collected” NPCCs (some of whom the player can never recruit or can ask to leave the party). Having an NPCC in the party adds background conversation, additional “companion” quests, and other content to the game only available if the NPCC is present. Friendship or rivalry can also do this: if the player-character has high enough approval (friendship) or disapproval (rivalry), NPCCs might add further content and/or gain bonuses to attack or defense in combat. Some of these NPCCs can also be “romanced,” which unlocks additional conversation and cut-scene content, some of it “sexy.”
“Romances” in BioWare games are almost notorious, not because they are particularly salacious in content (although they are a little bit racy, they aren’t full-on p$rnography), but because fans become incredibly attached to particular NPCCs and particular player-character and NPCC couples. This is also where DA has caused some consternation among more conservative players who are upset that an NPCC of their player-character’s gender might be attracted to and flirt with their player-character. I’ve talked about this before, and explained how the developers are uninterested in catering to players who aren’t open-minded. This will be important a bit later in my argument.
In Origins, Friendship and Rivalry aren’t labeled as such (the labels first appear in DA2), but there is a little approval bar at the bottom of each NPCC’s statistics and gear in the menu. It shows an X on one end and a heart on the other, and as the player-character interacts with each NPCC, they respond with either approval or disapproval, moving the marker correspondingly in either direction. The key is that different NPCCs respond differently to the player-character’s actions, depending on their own politics. Morrigan approves of magic, for instance, and flouting the rules. Alistair does not. So the player-character can find him or herself struggling to balance the affections and hatred of the NPCCs in the party.
In Origins, there are a lot of items labeled “Gifts” that the Warden can essentially use to bribe NPCCs into liking him/her. If the player is paying attention to the conversations had with NPCCs, they will express preferences for specific items (Leliana likes blue shoes, Zevran Antivan boots, etc.) or types of items (Oghren likes booze), and these will earn more friendship points than generic gifts or gifts given to the “wrong” NPCC.
There are gifts in DA2, as well, but far fewer of them, and each one is its own specific quest. For instance, the story of Shartan is a book Hawke picks up from the Alienage in Act Two and can only be given to Fenris as part of a specific quest. These gifts earn either Friendship or Rivalry depending on which direction down the track that NPCC has already gone, and how Hawke handles the conversations. This is a change from Origins, where gifts always earn approval. Ostensibly, this change happened to facilitate the direction of Hawke’s relationship with the NPCCs – if you’re headed down the Rivalry track, you’d hate to mess it up by giving Merrill a toy Hala.
Because there are far fewer gifts in DA2, the player’s friendship status with the NPCCs is much more based on actions rather than gifts. The key to managing friendship in DA2 comes with managing the party – NPCCs will only respond positively or negatively to a quest if they happen to be taken along on it. So if the player wants to help mages flee the circle but also be friends with Fenris, the player just has to not take Fenris along for those quests. This often means that a player trying to maximize friendship or rivalry with all the NPCCs will have a “mage-quest” party, a “slaver” party, an “illegal things” party (without Aveline and probably with Isabela) and so on.
Friendship and Rivalry are also much more important in DA2 than in Origins or Awakening (although there are a couple companion quests in Awakening that can’t be completed without high enough friendship). In DA2, some companions will be lost altogether without high enough friendship or rivalry: Isabela at the end of Act Two is the most obvious, although Sebastian, Merrill, Aveline, and Fenris can all be lost at the end of Act Three without high enough friendship/rivalry quotients. However, once an NPCCs track is maxed out – in either direction – they are locked in to that position, and Hawke can’t change their opinion, no matter what. This can be useful when trying to manage conflicting viewpoints – for instance, if Anders is maxed out, it doesn’t matter if Hawke then needs to placate Merrill by agreeing with her about demons, Anders’s opinion won’t change, even though he might comment on it.
Inquisition, however, refuses to allow the Inquisitor the luxuries of party-management or maxed friendship/rivalry. In fact, Inquisition doesn’t have a visible approval track at all, although the game does pop up notifications that the Inquisitor has earned or lost approval when s/he takes certain actions. Present or not, party members respond to all the Inquisitor’s actions – and there are quite a few choices which are going to upset someone.
There are still quests triggered based on approval, and romances still appear to be tied to approval levels (in DA2, an NPCC has to be a certain level along friendship or rivalry to become “romance-able”), but where an NPCC falls on that trajectory is completely opaque. At first, as a player I found this very upsetting. How was I supposed to know how mad Cassandra was at me if I couldn’t see her approval bar?
The feedback-monger in me is still a bit flustered by the lack of transparency surrounding the friendship mechanic in Inquisition. The critic and story-lover in me, however, loves it.
You see, the people in Inquisition are much more people-like because I can’t just go check their friendship status. I don’t know how angry Dorian is at me for getting him the amulet relative to how happy he is to have it back. I don’t know whether Vivienne is snippy at me because she hates me or because that’s just how she is. I don’t know if Cassandra is going to ever speak to me again after I told Varric she likes his books.
And that’s the way real people work. We don’t come equipped with friendship meters that run from “Nemesis” to “BFF.” We have to guess with people based on how they talk to us, what they say about our choices, and whether they choose to seek us out. And in Inquisition, the Inquisitor has to guess this stuff, too.
In Origins, it was easy to tell that Zevran liked my Warden because the little heart-meter said so. In DA2, it was easy to tell that Hawke had made friends with his companions because the little wings icon would glow blue and he’d get a bonus to attack or defense. In Inquisition… my Inquisitor was just as clueless as me. I’d get a sense of relief when one of my NPCCs would ask for help with something, because that was an indicator that they didn’t hate me.
Normally, I’m a fan of transparency. I like to know how well I’m doing with things. But I really enjoyed the immersiveness of not knowing in this case. The NPCCs felt more like people and less like objects to be managed, and I think that’s what the developers were going for. But it does change how the mechanic makes the game feel, especially in the case of romances.
Which brings me to the other key aspect of Dragon Age romances. The player-character does not come with a default sexuality setting. Whatever the player chooses to do is pretty much okay – although the NPCCs might not respond to it. There are some characters in each game that aren’t romance-able at all: Oghren, Sten, Winn, Shale, Carver/Bethany, Aveline, Varric, Vivienne, Leliana (in Inquisition).
That leaves the following:
- Origins: Alastair, Leliana, Morrigan, Zevran
- DA2: Anders, Merrill, Fenris, Isabela, Sebastian
- Inquisition: Josephine, Cullen, Sera, Bull, Dorian, Cassandra, Blackwall, Solas
But that isn’t to say that all the characters are romance-able by all the player-characters. For instance, in Origins. Alastair is straight and can’t be romanced by a male Warden. Morrigan can’t be romanced by a female Warden. Leliana and Zevran can be romanced by anyone. In DA2, Sebastian can only be romanced by a female Hawke. Interestingly, Hawke can flirt with Aveline, but can’t actually pursue the romance.
(Note – I have played a male Warden, romanced Zevran; female Warden, romanced Alastair; male Hawke, romanced Fenris; female Hawke, romanced Isabela; male Inquisitor, romanced Dorian)
Inquisition makes things much more complicated. Solas, for instance, can only be romanced by a female elf. Cullen only by a female elf or human. Sera and Blackwall can only be romanced by a female Inquisitor. Dorian and Cassandra only by a male Inquisitor. Bull and Josephine can be romanced by anyone. Again – as with friendship – Inquisition reflects much more of the complexities of the real world and the very finicky real people in it. Although DA2’s plethora of romance options permit players to engage in whatever fantasies they wish, Inquisition’s limitations produce a scenario much more like that of real people.
When I started playing, I picked a male Qunari as my Inquisitor, not knowing that this automatically meant that everyone except Cassandra, Bull, Josephine, and Dorian were going to be off limits… sort of. As with Aveline in DA2, the “flirt” options are still available in conversations with other NPCCs, even those who aren’t interested in the species and/or gender of the Inquisitor. And if the Inquisitor pursues them far enough with high enough friendship, these choices lead to what some players have described as “heartbreak.”
This is one of the most amazing responses I’ve read, in which the author – who played a female Inquisitor – attempted to romance Dorian, and got turned down. And while this has caused quite a bit of upset (and one mod to change the sexuality of the NPCCs), it is also one of the most profoundly real things about the NPCC relationships in the game.
Here’s the thing: people aren’t going to be what we want because people aren’t fantasy objects. In DA2, players got spoiled because almost every NPCC could be romanced, whether they were friends or rivals. It was easy to choose which fantasy you wanted. In Inquisition, you can get “friendzoned” by over half the NPCCs, if you don’t happen to be a female elf. And that’s what makes the game so brilliant when it comes to NPCCs – they aren’t there for your wish-fulfillment in Inquisition.
If you do manage to romance Dorian, for instance, he tells you at the end that he’s going to leave to go back to Tevinter, and that it’s something he has to do on his own. Talk about a slap in the face. The Inquisitor is quite possibly the MOST IMPORANT PERSON ever, and even that isn’t enough. And Dorian’s insistence on independence is one of the things I admire so much about him – he doesn’t want to end the romance, but he knows what he has to do in order to respect himself. The game doesn’t – thankfully – actually put you through that, but it doesn’t give a promised happily-ever-after ending, either. Because that’s not what people are like.
People are difficult. They’re complicated. They’re hard to read. They aren’t ever going to be 100% what we want them to be because they’re not fantasies constructed in our heads. But they will make us better people. Make us consider our actions and words, think about the consequences that come from the things we say and do. They will break our hearts. They will mend them. They will give us reasons to fight with them, and fight for them. We love them because they are not what we think we want – which is exactly what we really need.