(Edit: Made some grammar edits… because no matter how many times I try to edit myself before I publish something, I always catch problems only after I’ve published it.)
One of the reasons I love BioWare games is that they include romance stories. At first, in Knights of the Old Republic, it was a very lame side quest that took up little time, what you did in the game did not really effect the romance story and visa versa. It was there to acknowledge your character and the other characters around you had sexual organs that were functioning properly. In the Mass Effect games and the Dragon Age games, romance became more involved. Who your character was and the choices that your character made effected who you could romance and how these romance stories played out. The best example of this is when my human noble married Alistar and became queen of Ferelden. While there is a lot to praise about Dragon Age: Inquisition in regards to its romance storylines, there is also a lot to be critical of.
First, I feel the need to point out WHY be critical of romance storylines in the first place. Many people, like my father and brother, discredit romance stories because all too often they are exposed to the vast amounts of horribly written romance stories that are little better than literary porn. Its easy to assume all romance novels are that kind of drivel. I admit, there is a lot of drivel but its only because romance stories are probably the hardest kind of story to do WELL. People who actually write good romance stories are few and far between. The only author my mother and I regularly return to is Nora Roberts. Up until a few years ago, Dad and Bear always gave my mother and I shit for religiously reading her books. ‘Bodice Rippers’ they USED to call them. That is, until Sir Terry Pratchett set them strait.
Sir Terry Pratchett came to Seattle, Washington several years ago on a book signing tour. (For those of you who do not know Sir Terry Pratchett’s work… I’m sorry. You are less of a person.) My father went to get his copies of ‘Thud’ signed in order to give them to my Mom on Christmas. When it was Dad’s turn to meet his idol, he asked Sir Terry Pratchett to sign the book ‘I’m better than Nora Roberts – Sir Terry Pratchett’
How did this great man reply to such a request? ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I love Nora Roberts.’
Sir Terry Pratchett signed the copy of ‘Thud’ with ‘I’m as good as Nora Roberts – Sir Terry Pratchett’
My father and brother are too stubborn to admit they might have been wrong. The prevailing culture discounting romance novels is so powerful that if they admitted they were wrong, somehow, apart of their masculinity might be lost. My mother and I used to be teased whenever they saw us reading a Nora Roberts book. He intended to add fuel to that fire but his plan backfired. He gave US a weapon in this argument no one can beat. Nobody beats Sir Terry Pratchett.
I admit, there are a lot of books Nora Roberts writes that are based on a formula. She publishes these books on a regular basis, and while well written, once you read enough of them its hard to discern one story from the other. While she publishes these formulaic books, she also works on the books she actually cares about. THESE books, trilogies like the ‘Sign of Seven’ or ‘The Circle’ are fantastic works of fantasy fiction, deserving of far more praise than they receive. If they were written by any other author, they would probably given a lot more credibility in the geek community. Another one of my favorites is ‘Tribute.’ In this book, the primary male lead is a comic book artist and an active member in the geek community. I find to be ‘Tribute’ particularly fascinating because Nora Roberts is not a geek, but like any passionate author she did a lot of research on the geek community. When I was reading it, I felt like the character she created was apart of my world. She did a fantastic job, and its very interesting to read about my community by someone who has carefully observed it, but is not actually apart of it. It is true that these stories make romance a key part of their construction, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. Romance stories are very entertaining when they are done well.
It is unfortunate that the worst romance storyline in Dragon Age: Inquisition was the one I played first. Solas’s romance storyline is so poorly executed it reminds me of the ‘romance’ from the Knights of the Old Republic games. Most games I play don’t include romance, so if the other romances were similar to Solas’s storyline then this conversation would be more along the lines of ‘what they could do better’ rather than ‘wtf were they smoking?’
Real romances in the real world have three different aspects: intimacy, commitment and physical attraction. Usually to have a good romance story, you need at least two of these three aspects. (Very rarely have I seen all three brought in, and its even more rare to find a romance story that brings all three aspects in and does a good job. Props Sid and Izumi from Fullmetal Alchemist.) Romance requires the writer to get the viewer emotionally invested in the relationship while keeping it entertaining and including at least two of the three aspects of a real life relationship. From what I have seen thus far, Bioware did a fairly good job. You eat cookies on the roof with Sera, you drink with Iron Bull after killing a dragon and you get Varric to write the next edition to the trashy romance novel for Cassandra. You can play chess with Cullen and there is even a scene when you play poker with a group of your friends. These scenes are crucial for any good story about relationships (romance or otherwise). The player involves themselves with their lives, their trials, their failures, their worries and the shit they gotta deal with. Your relationship changes with them based on the actions you take, which is a perfect way of adapting a romance/friendship story to a video game like this. I particularly enjoyed Iron Bull’s story because it delves into bondage. You begin your relationship with him by establishing a healthy master slave relationship. You can keep this casual or you can push the issue and your relationship becomes far more serious. Love blossoms, intimacy is semi established as you are both friends with him and intimately involved. I would say the story is weakest in the intimacy department. Eventually your relationship becomes very committed but in how a Qunari would define the relationship. For a video game, its the best romance storyline I’ve experienced.
Anything you need to know about the Solas relationship story is expressed in the comic. There is no other interaction with him aside from discussing a few stories about his journey into the fade. That’s it. Maybe it would have been acceptable in Knights of the Old Republic, but putting that ‘romance’ story next to other stories like Iron Bull’s? They really thought they could get away with that and nobody would say ‘hey um… you guys realize this romance story sucks right?’
Why does it suck? Well for starters, there is no sexual encounter. While I could theoretically enjoy a romance story without a sexual component, it would have to be very well done in other areas in order to make up for it. Lets face it, we are sexual creatures and sex is entertaining. I’ve read many forums discussing Solas, and lots of people say ‘I don’t need a sexual component for Solas, just a little bit more content!’ I think this is horse shit. I want to see Solas ass. In order to remove the component of physical attraction from the story, you would have to include intimacy and commitment. Commitment can’t be established because Solas must eventually leave the Inquisitor. If there is any commitment to be had, then it has to come from the Inquisitor. As the Inquisitor is a player character, you can’t rely on the Inquisitor to provide a key component to anything. Choice means commitment may or may not be apart of the story. That leaves you with Intimacy. In order to properly establish intimacy, you need a lot of entertaining scenes where the characters are interacting, bonding and otherwise doing shit together. Intimacy is about trust, respect and friendship; all of which Solas could never fully give to the Inquisitor without revealing his true nature. Intimacy at its core, is the ability to talk to your partner without fear of judgement. This requires trust, and trust can’t be formed by keeping secrets. A form of suto intimacy can still be established but, I can’t think of an entertaining way to do it without the sexual component. There is just too much commitment and intimacy missing to leave out sex and still have the story be entertaining. Worthwhile? Maybe, but not entertaining. Not compared to riding the Iron Bull.
Despite its challenges, there is a lot of potential left in the Solas romance. There is a promise of more story involving him at the end of the Dragon Age: Inquisition primary storyline. Bioware has also said they are going to continue to add content.
If I were them, this is how I would do it. Solas is only interested in elven women and the only elves you can play are Dalish. This offers a way to establish intimacy provided the Inquisitor is open and willing to learn from him. They could spend more time in the fade together. Solas could introduce her to his spirit friends, show her his favorite memories and become a teacher if the Inquisitor wants to learn more about her heritage. This provides ways to bond, without revealing much about the man. What keeps the inquisitor and Solas from having sex in the fade while dreaming? Eventually the inquisitor could ask things like ‘why do we never have sex in real life?’ or ‘You show me so much but you never reveal anything about yourself?’ This could, and should, culminate in real life sex between the Inquisitor and Solas. You could make it hard to achieve, only if Solas has a very high approval rating or if you said the right things in all the scenes with him up until that point. This would offer the player a reward, offer choice (which is very important in a Bioware game) and it would give Solas a reason to say what he does in the final break up scene. ‘I’ve been selfish’ means nothing when he and the Inquisitor have done nothing! There was a theory that poised breaking up with the Inquisitor is also apart of his inherent nature as an Elven god, not to control the lives of mortals. He could come to this conclusion naturally, realizing how much love the inquisitor has for him during a culminating sexual encounter in real life. Nothing drives up entertainment in a romance storyline than drama, so lets create some real drama while we are at it. Lets make him leave his friends in the fade too (He already did so with Cole), leaving the Inquisitor with new friends and all of them are feeling his empty presence. Upping the stakes further, lets get the Inquisitor pregnant. Why not? Other Dragon Age male characters have had the opportunity to reproduce, so Bioware could kill two birds with one stone here. Getting pregnant ups the drama (which ups the entertainment value) and it allows a female player character to reproduce for the first time in a Dragon Age game. Enough time can pass between storylines where she can give birth, or you could have a pregnant character adventuring. BioWare LOVES doing things that have never been done before. This would be a perfect opportunity.
This is just my idea of how the romance storyline with Solas could go. So many possibilities are not taken advantage of. This romance plot line sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the other romance and friendship storylines with other characters. Not only are other storylines more involved and entertaining, they introduce concepts and ideas that are controversial. To name a few; Iron Bull introduces bondage and the idea someone can be attracted to anyone, Dorian is gay, Sera is a lesbian and Iron Bull’s second in command is a transgender male (born a female, but really a male). You can’t introduce controversial and diverse stories with other characters and leave it out of another storyline in the same game.
I love the fact that they are adding romance storylines into video games. After I play through these other romance storylines, I intend to criticize each storyline as compared to other good romance. I hope that one day, Romance stories will be seen as important and entertaining aspects worthy of attention, praise and criticism.