At a talk all about BioWare's in-game romances at GaymerX2, David Gaider joked that the company's games were "romances with a small, save-the-world mini-game." Though how much of that is a joke to the fans is a good question, there was an admission by the writers that the Dragon Age series was much more socially-driven than plot-driven.
Gaider, BioWare's head writer, and community manager Jessica Merizan were joined by Development Manager Robyn Theberge, Lead Editor Karin Weekes and Writer Patrick Weekes on a roundtable discussion titled "Building a Better Romance." The jovial tone that they imparted was infectious, and the BioWare panels at GaymerX are some of the most fun and informative that I've attended at any con.
In terms of the general nuts and bolts, Gaider and Patrick Weekes broke down the basics of how the romances are constructed. It's based around a series of what are known in game writing as "conditionals." Conditionals are if/then statements where, when certain conditions are present, opportunities become available for the player in the game. Conditionals are a part of basic quest structures as well, helping for the kind of multiple choices and different outcomes that BioWare games are known for.
Romances start with player/NPC friendships, and as the friendships deepen, the player has the option to flirt with the follower. When enough flirting has happened, this creates the conditional "gate" for the player to "opt in" to the romantic relationship. "Gating" was an important feature that both Weekes and Gaider discussed, as they can be not just be conditional to the character, but to how far along the player is in the game. Certain romantic options may not be available until further in the game, in order to keep pacing strong and even.
When asked in the Q&A whether they had thought about polyamorous or open relationships, Gaider said this had been an impossibility in the past because "the scripting destroys you." They tried before, but it became too difficult on a technical end to make multiple relationships work at the same time. He did discuss the possibility of a polyamorous relationship in the future, in which an existing relationship might be able to add another romantic partner, but it would have to be specific to that prior existing relationship choice where polyamory was part of the baseline romance. Similar questions were asked about asexual romances, and Gaider indicated that it could happen, but he wasn't sure what that would look like in the game.
This lead into a discussion of Dragon Age 2 and its limited set of relationship options. Since they knew they were going to have only four relationship options, they chose to make the characters bisexual, which Gaider said he regretted because he didn't think, as far as gameplay is concerned, that "bisexuality is a great compromise because bisexuality is not a compromise." In general, BioWare attempts to create the individual characters without dictating that they want a particular pairing with the character, until the character's innate sexuality dictates how it can go, and these could be dictated by other reasons than just the character sexuality, like the race or other background elements.
Rather, from earlier in the talk, there was a great indication that the characters and their development came first, and their potential sexuality grew out of their personalities and arcs. This happens even before the visual development of the characters and directly affects it. There were a few jokes about having to cajole certain character artists who would explain that "no one's gonna wanna kiss that!" Though Gaider did indicate that he believed if it were possible for players to romance a mailbox, some people certainly would. I probably would, just to see how a character would respond to its inactivity—Would they feel scorned? Neglected? Quietly loved?
Patrick Weekes, writer for the one-eyed Qunari Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition revealed that he would be a character that could have romantic relationships with any player configuration. At first this wasn't the case, and that the character had a descriptor that he would be up for it with anyone he wouldn't break—in voice-acting sessions with Iron Bull voice actor Freddie Prinze Jr., he was directed for some lines with "Fifty Shades of Bull!" However, an industrious animator put in extensive hours to make sure that every character race and gender would work in context with the character romantically. Weekes suggested the twitter hashtag, #RideTheBull.
While there were still issues that the fans at GaymerX2 would like to see BioWare address in future games, like those involving asexual and polyamory, in general everyone was very pleased to be able to talk about the history of Bioware's romances, and to get this brief glimpse of where they are going in the future.