Love’s Labor’s Lost

“Here’s the thing: being near you makes me crazy, but I can’t imagine being without you. Not ever.”

—Alistair to Grey Warden, Dragon Age: Origins

“I love Hawke. […] I say it a lot. It makes things clearer, takes away doubt when everything is crazy and people are dying.”

—Merrill to Aveline, Dragon Age II

“It’d be an awfully empty galaxy without you.”

—Garrus to Commander Shepard, Mass Effect 3

BioWare has a special place in my heart due to its combination of the RPG and third-person shooter genres, its story lines, and its devotion to non-player character (NPC) development. Creating my own character or customizing the set player character (PC), choosing their personality and behavior, and being able to replay the games with a different tone or overall outcome each time makes for a personalized gaming experience that helps me connect with the action and deeply feel for the PC as well as the NPCs. I always look for media that encourage intellectual and emotional investment from the consumer. But emotional investment is not always rewarded in the best way.

Naturally, I am talking about the option to romance NPCs. BioWare has earned acclaim for its representation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual relationships in its games, and I applaud the company for its efforts to be inclusive. My heart swells with happiness when I hear the joy in a person’s voice when they discover that they can romance a female companion while playing as a female, or a male companion while playing as a male, or that specific characters can be romanced by a PC of any gender. There is no solid argument against how helpful and validating representation for sexual minorities can be, whether one is talking about film and television, literature, video games, or another form of media; and there is plenty of evidence supporting the importance of this representation to help normalize these marginalized sexualities in the public eye as well as empowering an underrepresented demographic.

However, there is still something common between all of these romantic possibilities: the flirting, the courtship, the intense feelings and declarations of adoration all count as nothing unless the player character ends up having sex with the romantic interest. Upon reading that sentence, many people may be baffled; after all, doesn’t every important romantic relationship eventually lead to one or many sexual encounters?

The answer is “No.” Sexual intimacy is in no way a requirement for a relationship to be both romantic and deeply meaningful. Sex is optional for some, mandatory for others, but it can also be undesired or actively avoided while still operating within the confines of a committed relationship. As an asexual person with no sex drive, I do not look at someone and feel physical attraction, nor do I crave sexual attention from myself or others… but that doesn’t negate my ability to love, to desire someone’s presence and value their thoughts and affection. To see BioWare’s requirement for a romance-related achievements and the completion of romantic subplots be directly linked to sexual activities is disheartening at best, and invalidating and hurtful at worst—albeit unintentionally so.

I chose the quotes above to start this piece because they are words I could sincerely say to my partner. In fact, given that she also adores BioWare, it’s fairly likely that I will quote these lines at her eventually, and I will mean every word. I am personal friends with several married couples who have nonsexual yet intimate, loving relationships. There should be no doubt that it is entirely possible to experience profound love without needing to experience sexual contact, even if it is not the type of relationship that appeals to everybody.

If representation of marginalized sexualities is as important as scholars and people who fall into the marginalized orientations, gender identities, and intersex (MOGII) category agree it is, then the next step is to include more relationship models and gender identities than the formulaic “male protagonist gets the girl” story so many video games present. BioWare was off to a wonderful start with the purposeful inclusion of gay, lesbian, and bisexual romanceable NPCs. It was also a pleasant surprise to encounter the Asari, a ‘mono-gendered’ species in Mass Effect, not only because the concept subverts the gender binary but because of Liara’s explanation of how the Asari experience intimacy and mating.

Shepard: I don’t understand. Your species can mate with anyone?

Liara: “Mating” is not quite the proper term—well, not as you understand it. Physical contact may or may not be involved, but it is not an essential element of the union. The true connection is mental. Our physiology allows us to meld with other beings. We can touch the very depths of their minds. We explore the genetic memory of their species; we share the most basic elements of their individual and racial identities. We then pass these traits on to our daughters.

The idea sounded promising to me: the ability to experience deep bonds with others without the need for physical sex. Sexual contact wasn’t even a necessity for reproduction’s sake. Here was a species practically tailor-made for the inclusion of asexual people as well as nonsexual, romantic relationships—or so it seemed to me! Perhaps it was too much to expect Liara’s explanation to carry through to the actual execution of such a relationship with her… which culminates in-game in an undeniably sexual encounter, after which the Paramour achievement for completing a romance subplot finds its way into the player’s collection.

The moment feels cheap, as though it is pandering towards the ‘exotic blue alien chick’ fantasy—probably because that’s exactly the case. Especially in light of Liara’s insistence that this mental connection is something deeply personal, the fact that physical sex is not optional or even a real point of discussion is rather jarring. “The union is a connection that transcends both time and space,” she says at one point. The assumption that physical sex is necessary to ‘complete’ the relationship is insulting to the concept of Asari melding, and it is insulting to gamers who are desperate for as-yet unachieved representation.

While the Asari seemed to be the perfect candidates for a potentially nonsexual relationship, that doesn’t mean that was the only option. BioWare also introduced an effectively asexual, nonsexual race in the Mass Effect series: the Salarians. They reproduce by laying eggs and having the males fertilize some of them, and all descriptions of how they experience relationships falls perfectly within the parameters for asexuality. However, in removing their sexuality, BioWare also made the choice to remove their desire for romance. The majority of Salarians form close friendships with others but do not qualify their feelings as romantic. It seems that even among aliens, romance and sex are inextricably linked.

And truthfully, it shouldn’t only be the alien races we must look to when it comes to wanting non-heterosexual-normative representation. As there are living, breathing humans who prefer nonsexual romantic relationships, it is reasonable to want such relationships reflected in the media we consume.

Powerful sentiments of affection can stand on their own and do not need to be validated via sex. Though it may be desirable to the majority, it is nonetheless optional. It would be unreasonable to demand all relationships be represented as nonsexual or as sex-optional, and it certainly isn’t something I would advocate for, either. There is a huge variety of relationship models that have yet to be explored and which deserve acknowledgment in video games. But seeing the Salarians and Asari set up as potential asexual and/or nonsexual representation and then having it forcefully ripped away by the writers continuing to embed romance within the context of sex with a “seal the deal” air about it was not only frustrating; it was painfully disappointing.

Love isn’t merely a friendship that ends in sex. Romance is not rendered complete after sleeping together. That can be one way love develops, and sex may be something partners work towards as their relationship develops, but romantic intimacy is separate from sexual contact. Yes, the two can and often do coexist, but making sex mandatory before a relationship can be considered legitimate further marginalizes already underrepresented groups within the MOGII umbrella. I can only hope that someday, BioWare’s lauded inclusiveness that means so much to the queer community will reflect the way I experience relationships, too.

“If we lose hope in love, then we are truly lost.”

—Grey Warden to Leliana, Dragon Age: Origins

 [art credit]

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Delling has dabbled in theatre, children's, and indie game writing and is currently working on a YA novel. They believe video games are an art form and should be hailed (and critiqued) as such.

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