If you're like me, you're not playing Dragon Age to save the world. You're playing Dragon Age to get to know some buddies, and maybe even to smooch someone.
I've largely praised the way Bioware handles romance and sex in Inquisition — the characters are nuanced, complex and titillating. And, unlike many Bioware games, where sex is presented as the reward for completing a romance/getting to the end of the game, relationships in Dragon Age: Inquisition are more natural and ongoing.
The character I chose to romance, Josephine, didn't stop developing as a person simply because I got to make out with her. Getting to that point was a start — much like a real relationship. From then on out, not only did I get to meet her family, I also got to know more of her history. The game gave me the option to whisk her away for one-on-one time whenever I liked, or gave me special options during missions related to her. Gamified romance? Yes — but that's unavoidable to some degree, and it didn't feel gross. Instead, Josephine felt human.
Last night my romance story took a turn. You can see this in the video by Nibzzu above if you'd like but, basically, the context is that Josephine's family has fallen from grace. They used to be esteemed merchants with a trade fleet, but now they're barely making ends meet. As a means of elevating their status, the family promises Josephine to a man she's never met. The man is from a good family, and he has money. The arrangement would have been fine with Josephine... had she not fallen in love with my character.
Naturally, the only choice my character is left with is to duel with the man for Josephine's affection. Yeah, I know. Weird way to handle someone who is supposed to be a person to me, right? Shouldn't she be able to choose who to be with, or what to do in response to this particular love triangle? But, those are the customs in this world: you can do things like duel someone for someone else's affection. Also, I sort of went behind Josephine's back to do it — she wanted to handle it her way, but that might've taken years. I couldn't risk it. But if I was being an arsehole in doing this, it was a choice — not something inherent to the game's design. I could have waited and let her handle it, but I didn't.
In any case, since my character chose to duel, the game presented me with a very dramatic scene full of rapiers and lots of shit talking. Midway through the battle, Josephine actually showed up. She asked me to stop. I'm too important to the Inquisition to endanger myself like this, she said. Why am I doing this, she asked me. That's when the game presented me with a prompt: do I break it off right there, and admit that what I'm doing is crazy? Or do I say I'm doing it because I love her?
Romantic that I am, I said I love her. And the second I selected this — the second that I pressed 'X' to tell Josephine that I love her — the game gave me a trophy. You can't see this in the footage above (which isn't mine, though Nibzzu makes the same choice I made in my playthrough) because the PlayStation doesn't record the trophy pop-up, but that's what happened. In my own playthrough, heard the PlayStation trophy chime at the exact same time I heard my character say I love you. In that moment, everything that Bioware had built up felt like it had crumbled. Oh, right, I thought. I'm playing a video game. In video games, romance has a reward.
I'm not shocked. This is how video games normally handle not just romance, but everything. You sometimes get achievements or trophies for pressing start, for crying out loud. I'm so resigned to trophies and achievements being a thing, that I would have been fine with getting one for telling Josephine I love her after the scene was done, when the little trophy pop-up couldn't interrupt what was happening. Instead, I saw that I won a trophy for saying 'I love you,' and it made me stop paying as close attention to what was happening in the scene. If the trophy was supposed to make me feel accomplished, it failed — the scene that followed, where I kissed Josephine, stopped being a tender one. I was distracted thinking about how much trophies can pull you out of the experience.
While getting a trophy cheapened my romantic experience in Dragon Age, it's actually part of a larger trend. As Jason Schreier noted to me in a conversation, pop-ups have the capacity to ruin a lot of moments. Imagine you're playing The Last of Us, for example. "You're in the thick of this emotional experience, and suddenly in the right corner: 'bonerdude is online'," Jason posed. It's the sort of situation that happens all the time too.
Games want us to take them seriously. And if they want to accomplish that, maybe it's time to reconsider how they notify players of their accomplishments. Hell, maybe they should trust that doing something should be its own reward sometimes.