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This year proved that love and romance deserve a bigger role in gaming

Let me smooch all the video game characters, you cowards

Halsin, a handsome elf with dark hair pulled back, chuckles charmingly at something the player has just said. Image: Larian Studios via Polygon
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

This year, players have enjoyed an absolute benevolence of great games from all genres. There’s something for everyone, from inventive indies to long-awaited sequels to critically acclaimed AAA titles. But this year also showed the potential of one major gameplay mechanic that seems relatively untapped in larger games: the ability to romance and smooch the people around you.

Romancing lovable companion characters is undoubtedly part of why Baldur’s Gate 3 has continued to ride a hype train months after release. Fans absolutely love sharing the particulars of their romances with Astarion, Shadowheart, and other members of the game’s excellent cast. Some of the moments in these storylines are indulgent and sweet; others are surprisingly touching. Astarion, for instance, is an abuse survivor, and his struggle to come to terms with loving and being loved in the aftermath of that abuse is a deeply touching and thoughtful story. Baldur’s Gate 3 goes in-depth and focuses on the emotional connection between characters, and it scratches an itch that’s difficult to find in other big video games.

This year, other studios added romance and sex to their games that otherwise didn’t feature those types of gameplay elements. Cult of the Lamb is an adorable action-adventure game with base simulation elements; it’s not the first game that comes to mind when you think of sexy games. And yet, when developer Massive Monster posted a tweet saying that it would add sex to the game if its X account hit 300,000 followers, the account rocketed past that goal quickly, and now sex is coming to the game. It’s not exactly your typical romance game, but fans clearly think that sex is a worthwhile addition — and the developers agree.

The Lamb in Cult of the Lamb ascends in front of their followers Image: Massive Monster/Devolver Digital via Polygon

And then there’s Overwatch and Dead by Daylight, both massively popular multiplayer games with wide casts of characters. The companies behind each of these games released visual novels this year that allow you to date those characters. Both of them are developed in collaboration with Psyop, the folks behind the ironic KFC dating sim. Unfortunately, that same silliness seeps into both Loverwatch and Hooked on You. Ha ha ha, the narration implies, isn’t this ridiculous? Isn’t it so silly and ironic that you’re on a date with the murderous Huntress, or the medically minded Mercy?

There’s a sterility to both games that goes against the romantic thrill of a good RPG romance; characters are flattened to make them more appropriate for a comedy club date or beachside stroll. The writing comes across as amused and slightly incredulous that you’re even playing the game; the game’s narrator usually spends a good deal of the run time joking about how wild and weird it is that you’re playing a dating sim. But in an era where one of the most successful games had robust romance elements, it feels a bit like players were cheated out of something more genuine. I hope the enthusiastic response to both these games helps improve future releases, because there’s tons of potential in the concept — if only they were committed to the core idea, instead of keeping a tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Loverwatch: Love Never Dies art, showing the Mercy and Genji love interests, as well as Hanzo dressed as Cupid Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Sex and romance aren’t exactly unexplored fields in gaming; plenty of developers have taken cracks at the concept in various forms. BioWare RPGs are famous for their romances, allowing players to smooch characters like the charismatic Garrus Vakarian or the stoic Grey Warden Alistair. The new Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader has a few eligible partners the Rogue Trader can seduce. Cyberpunk 2077, another big RPG with a meaty campaign, offers protagonist V the chance to indulge with a partner. Other games host vibrant modding communities, which allow players to add sex to games like The Sims 4 — beyond a discreet and vaguely comical WooHoo — via mods like Wicked Whims.

But it does feel like there’s tons of untapped potential left, and I’m curious to see if other developers take notice of how valuable romance can be in a game’s storytelling, even outside role-playing games. There’s many ways to depict romantic relationships and sex, no matter the genre or art style. It’s possible that, in coming years, we’ll see more developers willing to take the risk.

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