Bioware Panel Breakdown: Building a Better Romance

Bioware at GaymerX

BioWare held a panel called "Building a Better Romance" at the (AWESOME) GaymerX on Saturday. It's what you expect: awesome information all about creating romances Bioware-style and implementing new techniques into Dragon Age: Inquisition. Let's talk about love. 

The Panelists (left to right)

  • Jessica Merizan (Moderator) - Lead Community Manager
  • David Gaider - Lead Writer
  • Karin Weekes - Lead Editor
  • Patrick Weekes - Writer
  • Robyn Théberge - Development Manager

Making Romance at Bioware

Since Baldur's Gate 2 in 1999, Bioware has blossomed and crushed romances to the behest and agony of many players. While relationships have diversified over time, the way romances are crafted stick to the same guidelines.

The player indicates to the writers who they want to romance. While the friendship arc is already set and establishes the ground work for a player who does not want to romance an individual character, if the player is interested in pursuing a romantic relationship, it starts with a flirt trigger. Afterwards, a number of plot flags are signaled, indicating chances and objectives where the player and the love interest can establish desire for the relationship. Achieving these number of plot flags will shift into the romance arc, where the player and LI are together for the long run (until either the end of the game or a failure state occurs).

Here's the simple version, step by step:

  1. Do you like me?
  2. Do you like me like me?
  3. Are you prepared to like me instead of no one else?
  4. ...
  5. According to Patrick Weekes, "everything spirals uncontrollably into chaos"

One of the criticisms Bioware faces is making romances too "gamey" with "approval coins," where characters are barraged with gifts until "I love you" is said. Although the devs do have to clarify that it is a game and that's why they approached romance in the past as such, it's not to say that they can't do better. Matter of fact, they have shifted away from having romance dwindling into approval and sex. For Dragon Age: Inquisition, it's all about approaching a type of relationship between the Inquisitor and love interest (i.e. a betrayal element) and pacing the game across the story line.

Choosing "Who's Doing Who"

Bioware does not choose who is romanced by some imaginary rubric that requires a pre-determined number of straight/gay/bisexual romances. A common misconception is that the developers go into romances by developing a character based on "this one will be a gay romance". That is not the case and neither is the idea of "well that character looks straight" or a character is gay because they look "pretty gay". Sorry to disappoint.

Discussing sexual preference begins early with the creation of the character itself. Even before the character's visualization, a character is constantly and consistently reworked and changed. In the case of revisiting a character from a previous game, the developers incorporate conversations and discussions on that character from different venues (internally, fan reception, etc) and "weave the threads together" to construct how a character acts, reacts, feels, and thinks.

A writer will initially pitch and write the background for a character, needling in the details like gender preference based on what makes sense for that individual character. However, it's not just one writer throughout the whole process — it's a combination thoughts and feedback from the other writers. In shedding perspective from multiple sources, a character develops its own identity, taking up a new life of their own.

"The character isn't always going to do what we want...the process doesn't always lend itself to that," David Gaider states. Patrick Weekes later added that in the end,It is all about "writing stories that we need to tell...hoping that we have the trust from the players to know that we've hit that pretty rigorously."

Ride the Bull: The Iron Bull is Romanceable

The Iron Bull is romanceable by an Inquisitor of any race or gender. Previously, Bull was meant to be race-gated, due to technical limitations. Only specific races could ride the Bull because of the difference in height between races (Bull is tall and a very, very large man). Bull was also written with lines that explained why he could not romance the Inquisitor. However, thanks to the animation team, as well as John Epler (Cinematic Designer), you can now write your own version of 50 Shades of Bull.


Voice Actors and Characters

"Does it change how they're written? Does it change how they look? Does it change how they sound? [...] Essentially yes," Patrick Weekes stated on voice actors affecting the characters. However, it's not nearly as much as you think. The voice actors bring their own tone and feel to the characters; sometimes, lines are added or changed so the actors can better suit the character. It's a symbiotic draw between the two which produces a great character.

Additionally, actors need to fit the needs of the role and provide variety. In providing different voices, Bioware wants to "hit all over the map" with banter and romance. A lot of voices can sound the same; it is important to have dynamic, distinct sounds.

Open, Consensual Romances

These romances do not exist (yet) in Dragon Age because "scripting destroys you," according to Patrick Weekes. While Bioware has considered implementing polyamorous relationships, it is a nightmare to code. In order to have such a romance, here's what could possibly happen:

  1. Player wants to be with A and B.
  2. A is OK with a polyamorous relationship.
  3. B is OK with a polyamorous relationship.
  4. Player can romance A and B simultaneously. Perhaps...with each other.

"Scripting breaks down every time" and while polyamorous relationships are possible in the future, it's difficult.

Relationship Variety

The current gates for romance are by gender and race. At the end of the day, the problem is figuring out what is characteristically realistic for the environment and narrative the character lives in, while simultaneously providing variance across the board. Players should experience very different romances and interactions with different characters. However, writers are constrained by multiple factors, including (but not limited to): voiceovers, cinematics, and budget. Fully voiced languages are English, French, and German; translations are available in Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, and more. If a character has more lines in one area, other lines will be cut. Cinematics need to be blocked and setup for conversations as quickly as possible. Romantic variance is something that needs to be timely and budgeted, otherwise the game does not ship.


David Gaider notes that the writers at Bioware want to have a proper conversation on how to approach asexuality. While a certain way to approach this is to have a romantic relationship available that does not lead to sex, that may "not necessarily be the most respectful way." The writers want to research asexuality and give it justice within the narrative and for its characters.


Diversified Body Types

The reasons for lack of diversified body types in previous games, such as Mass Effect, lie in time limitations and budget. Animators construct multiple rigs for each individual body type. If you notice in Mass Effect, certain races had only specific genders (i.e no female Turian until Mass Effect 3: Omega). Rigging is cost-expensive and time-constraining; however, because Frostbite is officially the engine for future games, Bioware can have more time to develop more rigs, more customized heads, and more variety for Thedas.

For more Dragon Age: Inquisition, follow me on Twitter @ladyinsanity and check out my Youtube channel to see in-depth coverage and commentary.