Happy Dragon Age Day! Let’s Talk About Love
I wonder if BioWare developers sometimes regret the day they started down the path of in-game love interests. Sure they add rich texture to the stories of each game and give Bioware RPG’s that extra edge, but when you consider the processing power, man-hours, and fandom scrutiny I would understand if they were ready to boycott the very concept of love and romance by the end of each development cycle.
But then, you can’t induce multiple fandom communities to create annual holidays in honor of your games by playing it safe, so I’m sure all the trouble is worth it. Shout out to the Dragon Age Day team and the N7 Day rabble!
Recently, David Gaider, co-founder of the newly minted Summerfall Studios and former lead writer for the Dragon Age series participated in a panel at PAX Aus called Falling For Bioware: Love Interest Battle Royale which seemed like a rollicking good time. As an ardent Bioware fangirl, I have my own favorites. Some are good because they tell a compelling love story. Some are good because of their impact on the main story. Still, others hint at greatness but are too underwritten to reach their full potential. After years of contemplating BioWare romances, carefully turning over the character beats, story progression, and the ratio of sexiness, angst, and shmoop, I am now able to boil down my favorite five BioWare Boudoir Buddies.
Sky – Jade Empire (2005)
The follow-up to seminal RPG, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a bit shorter and instead of being set in the usual western European-like fantasy realms, Empire was set in a fantasy Japanese setting. One of the things that made all of the relationships pretty vibrant in this title is how communicative everyone was about their feelings in this game. There are long processing talks about how the characters feel about themselves, each other, and the mission. The facial animations were leaps and bounds better than KOTOR’s as well.
What made Sky such an impactful romance was a few things. First off, this marks the first time Bioware had same-sex romances. He (along with the female character, Silk Fox) could be wooed by either male or female player characters. This came at a pivotal time in my own coming out process so I reveled in both same-sex romance options back then. Another reason he rocks as a love interest is his personality. The handsome grifter is very charming and self-assured but he’s also quite sensitive too. There is a point where you can spell out your feelings for him, and he definitely receives it well, but he needs time to think about it before pursuing anything. Overall Jade Empire was nice because you could influence your love interest’s worldview along the way. It really added an interesting dynamic to the romance.
Liara T’Soni – Mass Effect Trilogy (2007- 2012)
This is the most comprehensive romance on this list, and perhaps the most comprehensive of the studio. Liara is introduced early in the first game, is attracted to either male or female Shep, and is calibrated in such a way to be amenable to whichever kind of personality you chose for your Shepard. She finds herself flustered and awkwardly flirting with the heroic paragon Sheps and the brash renegade Shep’s alike. She was clearly the love interest that the narrative supports the most, particularly when you figure in the stellar “Lair of the Shadowbroker” DLC, which is enhanced if you are romancing her. There’s nothing like getting into an emotional shouting match with your ex love interest after a pulse pounding car chase.
We see Liara go from a naive and bookish sort to a dangerous combat-ready ally with immense power and resources. There is real angst and pain and guilt and love between her and Shepard that spans half a decade, but lingers on the mind for far longer.
Isabela – Dragon Age 2 – (2011)
Isabela is a bawdy pirate from Rivain. She’s super confident, free-spirited, and down on her luck when you meet her in Kirkwall at the Hanged Man. Because Rivain has almost the opposite relationship to magic, the Qun, and elves than everywhere else in Thedas she has some really interesting things to say about most of Kirkwall’s socio-political shenanigans when she’s pressed for comment (more often than not by Anders). She’s down for a bit of fun, especially if that fun involves her nethers. So again, she’s easy to start a romance with and as with all other DA2 love interests she’s player-sexual so you could engage in either homo or hetero hijinks . Hmm I’m seeing a pattern with my favorites.
What makes her romance more than a good time is how she reveals some nice vulnerability to you as Hawke experiences depressing loss after depressing loss. She’s fun, and free but you can court her and make things exclusive. As a bonus, you can fight the most unintentionally hilarious boss battle for her honor. Perhaps “fight” is too strong a word. You can flee from a very sexy and very enraged qunari Arishok whilst taking well-timed pot shots at him until he falls and your lady love is safe.
The Iron Bull – Dragon Age Inquisition (2014)
Bull is a Ben Hasrath or secret agent for the qunari. He doesn’t really acknowledge your flirting but he picks up on it like he picks up on all kinds of things he pretends not to notice. Then when his approval and the story progression are right he gains access to your bedroom and lets you know he’s available. (Pro Tip: Slaying a dragon together is the surest way to get Bull to come-a-calling.)
What makes this romance worth pursuing besides it being with the best character in all of Dragon Age, is the uniqueness and versatility of the relationship. It starts off as a BDSM power exchange designed to relax the Inquisitor. It can either stay there, end abruptly with no hard feelings, or grow into a full-blown relationship if you go through the steps to court him. The depth of this relationship is what surprised me. The Iron Bull is just a good guy, full stop. He’s the most accepting of your companions and the most on the up and up. He even tells you he’s a spy as soon as you meet him. I can’t speak to whether the racier elements feel authentic; I’m as vanilla as they come, but the love story is surprisingly tender and well thought out from beginning to end. It also contains the most humorous love scene from any of the games.
Plot bonus: In the finale DLC, “Trespasser” there is a way you can create a horrifically tragic ending for your romance if you made a certain decision in the main game. Oh the angst of it all!
Solas – Dragon Age Inquisition (2014 – ???)
This romance is unique in that it owes its favorite five status almost completely to the meta context of it. Solas is mysterious and intriguing but also fairly antagonistic and condescending toward so many fellow Inquisition members. I can’t help but like him despite that because I sympathize with a world-weary person who longs for a time when his oppressed people had full agency over their lives. Same, Solas. Same
Also, he is voiced beautifully by Gareth David-Llloyd. I enjoyed his dulcet Welsh tones while he played Ianto on Torchwood so Solas already had an opened invitation to my heart. I credit his voice for how attractive I find my shiny-pated paramour. I can’t even imagine the levels of obsession that would have befallen me had he been rendered as hot as his concept art.
Liam Kosta – Mass Effect Andromeda (2017)
One of my favorite elements of Mass Effect Andromeda is the romance between Sara and Liam. First of all, he’s a cutie. Second of all he is painfully earnest if a bit brash. He believes in the Andromeda Initiative and wants to make the best out of a pretty dismal situation even though diplomacy isn’t exactly smooth between Team Milky Way and their ostensible allies, the angara. As such, Liam elects himself to occasionally grease the wheels of bureaucracy so that he can be of most use to the Pathfinder. This can lead to some friction, which is always an opportunity for dynamic character interaction.
The courtship was written well. You can have a little tryst with him then move on, or you can take it into commitment territory. As a boyfriend he’s really sweet. You meet while plummeting to our near-deaths on Habitat 7, so for his date, he takes you to the improvised human settlement, Eos and does a controlled fall off a cliff using a modified jump jet so that “when we’re old and people ask us how we got together, I want you to smile.” Swoon. This is the perfect YA romance for Sara Ryder.
At their best, Bioware romances add entire layers of depth and pathos to games, give us fun banter and animations, and stay with us long after the credits roll. There are so many more good ones who didn’t make the list, and there’s stellar canon pairings that don’t involve the player character at all! Stand outs in this category are The Iron Bull/Dorian and Isabela/Fenris. Whether you favor a somewhat forbidding scholarly elven mage or a friendly wandering rogue with a tragic past looking to avenge fallen loved ones, there’s probably someone to tickle your romantic fancy in a BioWare game.