There’s a part of me that’s disappointed that Tali can be romanced in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. Particularly in that she pursues a relationship without the armor that prevents Quarians from getting infected. There are a lot of very good reasons for Tali to draw the line, but the probably of her doing so once players had expressed interest in the romance option became effectively zero.
In part because it’s doubtful videogame relationships will ever emulate denial.
As addressed in the the earlier Waifu Wednesday pieces, game relationships are simplified. Part of that simplification is in making sure the player has access to romanceable options, and those romance pathways need to have relatively easy and consistent rules so that players have can choose without fear that their preferred partner is too complicated. If a player wishes to chase down a whomever, chances are the game will have mechanics built-in to give that player a clear path to that relationship. In games like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, it’s gifts and favors. In games like the Persona series or visual novels, it’s often setting aside time for dates and companionship. In games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, it’s taking time between missions to touch base and responding to dialog correctly.
But in all of those is a clear, direct line to making sure the player has the option to pursue their desired romance. Whatever characterization is written, whatever lore or reason behind it, the game will almost always bend, twist, and maneuver so players can ultimately end up able to get the thing they want, regardless of what it is or what had previously been established.
Tali could die, but players want to get under the visor. So, under the visor it is.
Relationships outside of gaming aren’t quite as cut-and-dry. Life circumstances, pre-existing commitments, hundreds of reasons both good and bad come between what relationships are, want to be, or could become. What makes romance work doesn’t necessarily involve just affection, the rest of life steps in and also has its say.
So, in theory, videogames should model this. But they don’t. Which is reasonable, in so far as one believes that games are designed with escapism and fantasy in mind. Why model something that is sad or tedious in life identically in games? Do games benefit from being made less fun in order to be more true to life? If something makes the game less fun, more difficult, or more challenging to cope with, should it be excluded in order to keep the entertainment level high? Or can a game be improved by modeling frustrating elements so that they are honest analogs to life experiences? Experiences that aren’t just possible, but probable over the course of a lifetime of relationships. Is it alright to hit players with a sense of loss or heartache, to let them burn the bridge of a relationship they want, or denying them the relationship altogether because it’s more accurate to how a non-fictional version of the relationship could go?
The question that arises from that is if games that model relationships should just be escapism, or if there should be a sense of reality that means relationships should have stumbling blocks, hardships, and complications beyond the player’s control. Is it fair if a relationship ends through no fault of the player? Should it even be fair? The reality is that relationships, even great ones, have hardships. In theory, to be good simulations, games should have the same hardships and conflicts.
To circle back to Tali, in the lore of Mass Effect, simply being in the Normandy without her helmet on could put her at risk for infection and disease. Add in exposure to whatever additional hazards are introduced by Shepard, the fishtank in Shepard’s quarters, the potential complications of prior romantic partners, and whatever other invisible hazards gives the proposition of Shepard and Tali’s moment of romantic connection risk.
In theory, what if Mass Effect 2 had introduced a risk for Tali to become infected. Too infected to leave the ship, and is therefore absent from the final missions? Could the player press their luck and bring a sick Tali along anyway? If so, that would likely introduce the possibility that any damage in combat could mean, even with medical intervention, Tali could die. What if the risk to Tali was such that she could die, even if the player provided medicine and rest? Would players still risk it?
Would it be worth it to do so?
In order for games to break out of the simple formula they’re already following for romance, it would make sense to introduce complications. Little things that throw curveballs, such that maybe players will be delayed in their romantic interests due to circumstances beyond their control. Or maybe modify romance such that multiple characters pursue romance at once, with or without the player. Or perhaps a developer who looks at a player’s romance option request, and offers a flat “no” both in statements and modeled in-game. Perhaps makes it so that some instances of a game with a romance system may not even allow romance at all. Or what if the romance had dangers?
I can’t help but muse on the idea that perhaps Tali’s romance would be just a little bit more striking for what it couldn’t be. Everyone else on the ship could, given enough time and affection, bed Shepard and share physically intimate moments with Shepard. Something that Tali could perhaps acknowledge. A thing she states she wouldn’t begrudge Shepard for choosing someone else, who could potentially provide what Tali could not.
Would it be worth it to do so?
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and friendship enthusiast. Assuming you want to pursue his friendship, he would absolutely love for you to do so on Twitter.
Special thanks to the strange minds of @pigeon_of_deux, @ZeRootOfAllEvil, and @Lost_inthe_Void for the inspiration of a Waifu Wednesday column.