Innovative Origins, Playersexuality, & Complex Inquisition The Evolution of Relationship Mechanics in Dragon Age
Alexandra M. Lucas
From the release of Dragon Age: Origins in 2009 to 2011’s Dragon
Age 2 through to the third and most recent major installment, 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare’s medieval fantasy Dragon Age series has set a high standard for romance and affection in digital roleplaying games (RPGs). Focusing on cultivating character depth, providing a variety of romance options, and replicating realistic friendships, Dragon Age helped establish expansive expectations for modern relationship-focused RPG players. Through BioWare developers’ experimentation, iteration, and willingness to leave less effective mechanics behind, in-game relationships in the Dragon Age series evolved across the three main games to better mirror reality, promote diversity, and offer more compelling rewards for getting to know party companions, both romantically and platonically. Not only have these changes often enhanced relationship authenticity and promoted the engagement of many different types of players with the Dragon Age series, but they also have established a precedent for the expected romance options and social impact of future RPGs.
THE EVOLUTION OF REWARDS AND APPROVAL EFFECTS
In order to communicate relationship progression, all installments in the Dragon Age series provide rewards of varying types, including bonuses to non-player character (NPC) attributes, unique conversation options, and intimate cutscenes. To earn such rewards, the player can give gifts to party members in all three main Dragon Age games, although gifts function differently in each game in notable ways. In Dragon Age: Origins (Bioware, 2009), the player must simply guess which gifts each NPC would like, with NPC gift preferences only becoming truly apparent after some trial and error and after unlocking character codex entries. The first “correct” gift is worth maximum approval points (+10), with diminishing returns with each successive correct gift (e.g., +9, +8...+1). Some special gifts award +15 approval and can only be given to specific NPCs. Negative approval also reduces the effect of gifts, so less friendly players often still need to garner NPC approval through their actions and dialogue choices. The player can also sell gifts in Origins to merchants, a marked difference from future installments.
The gifts in Dragon Age2 (DA2) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (Inquisition) are far less flexible than the inventory fillers in Origins. Instead, in DA2, the acquisition of a gift adds a related quest associated with a specific NPC to the players journal. In order to give the gift, the player must go to the NPC’s “home” to present it to them, which advances the associated quest as well as enhances whichever relationship type the player has already begun with that NPC (in DA2, friendship or rivalry). By removing monetary value and the possibility of giving gifts to the wrong NPC, DA2 the sometimes-tedious guesswork of gift-giving and instead attaches clear, direct meaning to each gift. The gifts in DA2 are perhaps more memorable and emotionally resonant because they are immediately associated with a specific companion and their personal quest, such as Varric Tethras’ “Tethras Signet Ring” and Isabela of Rivain’s “Rivaini Talisman” (Dragon Age [Gift Origins], 2019).
Inquisition reduces gift-giving to a purely romantic endeavor; generally, gifts only materialize once the player has progressed in a romance with an NPC and are only sometimes tied to personal quests (Gifts Inquisition, 2019). In some cases, as with Cullen, the NPC actually gives the player the gift themselves, removing player error and agency. Instead, players must earn companion approval (particularly platonic approval) almost exclusively by getting to know each individual, making choices with which the NPC agrees, and selecting dialogue options that best correspond to each NPCs personality.
Often in the Dragon Age series, NPCs are at odds with one another, so to maximize approval, players also are sometimes tasked with picking sides as well as anticipating the quests in which each NPC would most enjoy or dislike taking part. For example, the mage v. templar conflict is central throughout all three games, and in DA2, anti-mage NPC Fenris will outright leave the party if the player sides with mages a few times too many while Fenris is present in the party (in addition to a few other special circumstances). DA2 also reflects an understanding that some players prefer antagonistic relationships with their companions, as evidenced by DA2 s unique concept of “rivalry.” To gain rivalry with a party companion, a player must make choices of which the NPC disapproves, and doing so unlocks unique ability options, offers different dialogue choices, and creates discord within the relationship. However, an NPC at full “rivalry” (that is, maximum disapproval of the player) will not necessarily leave the party, unlike in Origins, and the player can even still romance some full-rivalry NPCs.
Unlike in the previous two games, the player cannot view a literal approval meter in Inquisition; the player only receives pop-up notifications noting an NPC’s approval or disapproval after the player makes a key decision or concludes a notable conversation. Approval becomes hidden information that the player must gauge based on either meticulous extra calculation or social instinct, by way of interpreting the changing tones of NPC greetings and their reactions to different situations. This obfuscation potentially supports deeper immersion and escapism; as Dragon Age series executive producer Mark Darrah said in an interview about Inquisition, “I think it’s important for people to play the characters that they want to play, that we give choice and that we try to allow escapism” (Clark, 2014). Either way, Inquisition forces the player to interact with NPCs more like real people who are changeable, fluid, and do not usually come with their own approval meter, rather than characters who can easily be manipulated across a visual, quantitative slider.
In addition to gifts, conversations, and the friendship-rivalry meter, sex scenes have played a pivotal role in the evolution of relationship mechanics in the Dragon Age series, illustrating different kinds of possible sexual relationships as well as emotional relationships that are generally positive and healthy. As former BioWare senior writer David Gaider stated in his 2013 Game Developers Conference lecture, “Sex in Games,” “[e]ver since Mass Effect, we’ve included a sex scene to one degree or another...And were not alone. The industry has entered the place where video games don’t only have the technical ability to show sex scenes, but the willingness to include them” (Plante, 2013). Sex scenes in the Dragon Age series range from the implied to the racy, although character genitals are generally not visible, and sex doesn’t mark “...the end of your relationship with the people in Inquisition...it makes romance and sex seem less like it’s a reward for getting to know the characters” (Hernandez, 2014). By giving the sex scenes meaning, variety, and different tones—ranging from the sweet innocence of Josephine’s leg-lifting kiss to the relatable silliness of being walked-in on while having sex with the BDSM-friendly Iron Bull— BioWare provides a mix from which different types of players can choose.