Dialogue Trees, Mass Effect, and Romance
Video games have a romance problem. I’m just gonna put it out there. It’s not that they are necessarily representationally bad (though they are) or even bad in writing (though they are, as well). I want to talk about the simple fact that I think games are approaching romance in the wrong way.
Mass Effect is a beautifully realized space epic, complete with Star Trek-esque mini-quests and Star Wars-esque giant battles and good & evil analogues. It’s a great game (even if the third got some well-deserved scorn for having a cop out ending, but that’s a post for another time). I would easily put it in a list of my of my favorite games ever.
The game also makes some very interesting strides with the depiction of love and romance. It allows the player to make a character either male or female, and (starting in Mass Effect 2) have gay or lesbian romantic options depending on your choices made in conversation.
Mass Effect is primarily known for two things- having a very detailed universe and having the primary method of character-to-character interaction happen in the form of a distinctive ‘dialogue wheel’ where the player can choose from up to 6 dialogue options in conversation. This creates the typical video game dialogue tree organizational structure- a format whose popularity first came to prominence within the adventure games of the 1990s.
So let’s talk about dialogue trees for a moment.
The dialogue tree system is where the issues of video game romance start. By creating a ‘pathway’ system of dialogue (where one can memorize the right ‘path’ to getting the desired outcome of a dialogue and therefore obtain the correct ending no matter what), romantic conversations turn into strange exercises of manipulation and coercion, the path to a sexual outcome (usually the ‘winning’ path) is determined by little more than picking the right responses to questions. It’s a flawed and extremely simplistic abstraction of human flirtation.
From a (very, very, basic) computer science standpoint, it’s often the most logical way to handle things. Computers are exceedingly good at linear thinking- they can work off of patterns, equations, and instructions very well. It is much more difficult to teach a computer to think in an open-ended manner. This is why a true artificial intelligence is so difficult to create- you have to trick a computer’s linear thought patterns to approximate a more ‘human’ creative brain.
In video games, or more specifically video game romance, this creates a problem in design. When the player has access to multiple romantic options, the game has to work around those options. Because of basic logical rules around design systems, for each new option you multiply the number of endings (in a tree-shape visualization of possible choices) by an exponential amount. In a very simple sense, one choice can yield two endings. Two choices can yield four endings, three choices can yield 27 endings, and so on.
But each choice-consequence requires creating at least some bespoke content. This is why games with higher numbers of choice-consequence results tend to be simpler in other regards. For an extreme example of this, Dwarf Fortress has extremely branching ‘choice trees’ in terms of object-to-object interactions, but very few graphical representations of these interactions. Simply put, it would be a gargantuan effort to illustrate each of these interactions. The design choice is usually between “less interactions, more illustration of interactions” or “more interactions, less illustration of interactions.”
Romance, specifically romance in the Bioware sense, often deals with the intricacies of human emotion, but only approaches them from a path-based, dialogue-tree methodology. So if you play the game ‘correctly’, you can sleep with a target character- if they are designated as a character you can sleep with. This isn't inherently bad, though it carries some unexamined questions around character and player agency.
Because the romantically-available characters will sleep with the player character based on the condition that the player character chooses the right dialogue paths, it creates a universe where the player character is so sexually desirable that certain outcomes are, for lack of a better term, ‘destined’. The Asari researcher Liara will always be down to sleep with the player character. The assassin Thane Krios will always harbor a potential interest in the (female) player character, and so on- provided the player makes the right dialogue choices in conversation.
The game, then, predetermines certain characters (based on the chosen gender of the player character) as romanceable, and those who are romanceable are able to be romanced via dialogue-path choice. It means that you can memorize how to seduce someone, how to deposit ‘kindness coins’ until sex happens. Approaches like this are looking at free choice romance wrong. Flirting becomes a gamified mockery of its real-life counterpart.
Among other problems, this begs the question of consent. By setting up a universe where the player is the sole actor in romantic relationships, the question of consent is avoided. This isn’t a problem unique to Mass Effect, though it is one the series has exemplified.
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the Bioware/kindness coins model- except that it’s nothing like real life. I loved my experience romancing Liara (my preferred romantic interest) in the Mass Effect games, but I wouldn’t say it happened ‘naturally’. I made a choice to romance her, and I chose the dialogue options that I believed would best further that relationship. Since I’m decent at video games, this wasn’t terribly difficult.
The model is intrinsically flawed. It doesn’t approximate real human emotion. As a gamified notion of romance, it is decent. As an abstraction of human contact it is miserable.
In contrast, written, more linear romances also exist, such as in the 2013 game The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog) DLC Left Behind. In the expansion to the critically acclaimed title, the game delves into the history of the secondary main character, a young girl named Ellie. Through the events of the game, Ellie falls for her traveling companion and partner, Riley.
The Last Of Us does not pride itself on its player choice like Mass Effect. The game is fairly linear, and the most impactful player choices are more relevant to the game’s action sequences, not the overarching story. The game’s strength lies in the framing of story and writing prowess as opposed to the explorative story nature of a more freeform game.
This manifests in the romantic nature of the game in a more traditional sense. Because the game does not have to push toward a player-defined narrative and can instead solely show a single story, the romance in Left Behind feels a lot more natural. It moves slow and awkward, and feels far more realistic than the paper-thin “niceness + gifts = sex” scenarios of Bioware’s Mass Effect. There are advantages to a single-vision narrative, primarily in the attention to detail.
In games with a larger choice-consequence spread, the ‘endings’ are often less fleshed-out, for practical reasons. The three romantic characters in Mass Effect 1 all have identical romantic endings- sexual contact. This trend continues in each of the Mass Effect games, effectively having a sexual encounter be the ultimate reward for completing the ‘romance quest’ of navigating the dialogue tree toward the good ending.
It’s a badly designed approximation of human interaction, no matter how many dialogue choices you have. At the end of the day, to romance a character, you pick the ‘right’ options until they fall for you.
I don’t want this piece to be me ranting against Bioware’s romantic gamification. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just not particularly interesting from a design standpoint. The romance subquests (that is what they really are) are designed identically to any other subquest- do the things in order, get the reward. The primary difference is that instead of shooting things, you’re navigating a dialogue tree.
In a greater societal context, this does present problems. Reinforcement of a dominant narrative of sexual contact being for and by the acting party is indicative of a dedication to a romantic notion of deserved sexual contact. It presupposes consent without ever naming it.
The main character deserves sexual contact because they have chosen to make it so. Liara will never refuse the player if they play the right choices. Thane will never refuse the player if they have chosen the right dialogue choices. They are not people in this view, they are options. They do not make any choices, they simply exist for the player’s benefit.
Games aren’t going to be perfect simulations of human interaction anytime soon, but we can do better. Give your characters backstory, give them reasons to turn down the main character. Real people change their minds, have demands, compromise and communicate. Incorporate active consent into your romantic arcs. These aren’t insurmountable problems- they’re just tropes of video games that we’ve internalized into ‘good design’.
When we give characters romantic and/or sexual purpose in a game, we are then seeing them as romantic/sexual options. At some level, that becomes representative of their character. As developers, you are creators of worlds- and those worlds respect the roles and rules of characterization. The aspects and details of characters you choose for your game will determine how they are received and viewed in the public space.