[Bioware] Comparing DA and SWTOR to KOTOR - Romance
The post that sparked my interest in this topic was Azuriel's "The problem with Romance", which was more concerned with the suspension of disbelief required to roleplay the opposite gender in romance situations, whereas what I thought about when reading it was of the romances themselves and what was lacking in them that was present in KOTOR -- and why.
The topic on romances is related to my previous post of why companions are marginal to the plot, which I summed up as a consequence of structural feedback and disconnection from the main story, which in turn are consequence of the trend towards a sandbox RPG, one which allows many choices, and allegedly profound consequences, but which cannot work as well as a fixed story (or semi-fixed, like KOTOR), as the "do-it-yourself story" requires many more resources, development time and writing competence. Now, these companions which are marginal to the plot are sometimes thought of by some players as optional content -- When, in which piece of literature, has it happened that characters are secondary? Isn't art a reflection of human (universal) emotions? Characters shouldn't be dismissed so quickly.
But the truth is, how can we take them seriously, especially when romance comes into the mix, if they are alienated from our story, interchangeable, and, on top of that, burdened by terrible and troublesome romance "mechanics"? This was precisely what I wanted to discuss, the mechanics of gift-giving and acquiescence.
In the first Dragon Age title there were only two factors you had to keep in mind when wooing your lady, or your lord: you had to agree with him/her on everything, and you had to give him/her gifts. Of course, everybody knows that real life doesn't work that way; how scary would that be. But there is some dangerous reading into this that many people, particularly young men-children, have made: gifts are proper substitutes of real tokens of affection, and, as long as you are nice, you will get the lady. There are many more factors that contribute to the Nice Guy culture, but certainly games add to this.
In Dragon Age II, what we had was a system in which you could approach a character either by friendship or by rivalry, which is a much more neat approach that recognizes that relationships of any kind are not solely based on agreement and sympathy. Still, I would have liked to see a divergent path for those who pursued the rivalry option, instead of a rephrasing of certain lines. They needed to recycle content in order to meet the release date and all. And then, they took a step back and based the SWTOR romances on the DA system, which the same gift-giving deal and forced roleplaying of your actions to conform to your partner.
In KOTOR 1, the best interactions that you had with your crew were grounded on conflicts: Bastila when displeased by your ways was always much more interesting than in meek acquiescence; and disagreeing with her often led to discussing your conflictive points of view, sometimes arriving to an understanding. I wouldn't dare challenge Morrigan in Dragon Age, she would, O the horror, "disapprove -5!" I remember fondly the constant whining of Carth Onassi, and my ability to tell him to shut up, hairless wookie, ungrateful monkey-lizard. Sometimes he played along, sometimes he got genuinely upset, but there were no consequences of a bit of elegant teasing or serious disagreement, it was even more rewarding that drone-like assent: "So, Morrigan, you're a misanthrope? What a coincidence, I am too!"; "Oh, Alistair, you being a virgin at 25 is perfectly fine and adorable"; "No, Zevran, I'm not worried at all that you might assassinate me as you were hired to do."
If there had been a "positive" outcome from your disagreeing with the Dragon Age characters, similar to the DA2 rivalry system, it would have made sense that you would be interested in pissing them off. What is the point of being hated by Morrigan, if her only lines come through friendship, unless you are roleplaying in your head that she is frothing at the mouth in ire whenever she sees you. As it is, it is just a game within the game, and a gateway system that would prevent you from triggering all the conversations at once. Being able to see how high your standing with somebody is, or how they took that line about their mother, is even more damaging to the experience, as it makes the system stand out in its artificiality.
In SWTOR they took the first approach to romances as a convenience. People comment on how they use the gifts system to get their standing up when their companions haven't been taken out in a while. And how they choose their responses (ironic or earnest, light or dark side) according to what their companion might approve. What a horrendously unrealistic system.
With a semi-fixed story like KOTOR we have characters that you might not be able to kick out from your ship (some of them you will), but we have a more stable system that allows the characters to perform as characters, ingrained in the story and sticking to you no matter the petty disputes and name-calling, because that too constitutes affection.