I am not the first person to notice that “romance” and “adventure” are two story flavors that naturally compliment one another. A pure romance story with no adventure can be kind of dull and talky. An adventure with no romance can feel sort of emotionally empty. But by blending the two, both ideas get the extra punch that gives them mass appeal. The pressures of the adventure can shove our oil-and-water leads together, giving us lots of character-revealing conflict and meet cute banter. Later the adventure can tear them apart again just as their romance blooms, in order to maximize the sexual / romantic tension.
You can see these forces at work in classics like The African Queen. You can see how the idea solidified into a genre in films like Romancing the Stone. Today the “action romantic comedy” is a staple of Hollywood releases. Now the studios cynically design films by mixing guy-friendly action with female-friendly romance to create ideal date-night releases. You can argue that Hollywood is perhaps too simplistic in their assumptions about what men and women want, but you can’t argue with the mountains of cash they make with this thinking.
I’m sure BioWare was thinking of exactly this sort of synergy when they designed their character romances. You can look at the romances in Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and see the Han / Leia influences in their execution. The romances flowed with – and emerged from – the events of the story. They unify the overall story arcs with the individual character arcs to give a more potent emotional payoff. Were they written broadly? Yes. Were they filled with cliches? Sure. But one of the appeals of adventure romance is how they can take a cliche plot between broadly written characters and sell it anyway. As long as the leads are likable, the audience will cheer for them, even if they can feel the story ticking through the clockwork motions of the classic three-act story structure.
On top of these romance plots, KOTOR also had “friendships”. These were pretty shallow compared to the romances. They never impacted the main story and they never advanced when you were out on a mission. To advance the friendship with one of your friends, you just had to visit them between missions. They would then tell you a bit of their backstory. The writing in these parts was excellent, but they were all flavor and no plot.
At some point between KOTOR and now, the romance angle became unmoored from the plot. The romances became disconnected and eventually isolated from the world in which they took place. Instead of joining with the main plot to form a cohesive whole, they became these optional little side-stories, like the friendships.
I don’t think this change was deliberate. I doubt the BioWare writer ever sat down and said, “You know what our games need? More scattered and unrelated elements!” Instead, this is a result of an aspect of the story being promoted to a feature on the back of the box. The same thing happened with choice: Something that once arose naturally from the needs of the story grew into something was was imposed on the story for the sake of gameplay and a feature list.
In Star Wars, the romance of Han and Leia was woven into the story. The main plot didn’t pause to give the two of them time to flirt, but instead their relationship was one of the driving forces in the plot. Sometimes they were forced together, other times they were torn apart. Sometimes they bickered and sometimes they aaaaaalomost kissed. But whatever they were doing, their relationship was relevant to everything else that was going on. If you wanted to match Leia up with (say) Lando or pair Han up with (say) Mon Mothma, then it would either require a major re-write to properly integrate those stories, or you’d have to leave the plot the same and the romances would became an extraneous distration from the story. And if you wanted the viewer to choose which romance they saw? Then you’d have no choice but to cut the romance plot out and leave it as a parallel but unconnected series of events.
What happened here is that the romance concept was changed from something in service of the story to being in the service of the player. Once that happened, the designers were pushed into the long, thankless, expensive, complicated task of trying to give everyone as many options as possible. If the romance exists for the player’s gratification, then they will naturally want options that reflect their preferences and tastes.
KOTOR had two romances: One between the male player and Bastila, and another between a female player and Carth. Now check out the options in Mass Effect 3:
Heterosexual Female: Kaiden, Garrus
Homosexual Female: Liara, Kelly Chambers, Diana Allers, Traynor.
Heterosexual Male: Liara, Ashley, Tali, Miranda, Jack, Kelly Chambers, Diana Allers
Homosexual Male: Kaiden, Cortez.
We went from two romances to fifteen. (Although a lot of those overlap, just swapping out one gender for another.) And yet people are still unhappy. They didn’t get enough choices. Or the character they like is the wrong orientation. Or someone else got more choices and that doesn’t feel fair.
Not only do these romances take place apart from the story, but they limit the writer’s ability to design interesting teams. What if the writers want add a character who would be inappropriate as a romance option? Perhaps someone old, or underage, or celibate, or faithfully married, or grotesque. They’re already having a difficult time pleasing everyone, and every un-romanceable character makes the job that much harder. This would naturally push the character designs towards a “Fast and the Furious” approach, where everyone on the team is young-looking, sexy, and available. That runs counter to the sci-fi theme of strange aliens and characters from all walks of life.
This also pits the fanbase against each other and breeds animosity. After all, the characters are all made from the same finite game budget, so having one more option for straight ladies means one less option for straight dudes. If lesbians make up 2% of the player base, then it might seem unfair to some people that they get a third of the romance options. But if you’re in that 2%, then it probably seems pretty damn unfair that straight guys get so many more options than you do. People on all sides can feel frustrated and to them it feels like BioWare could make it all better with just a slight change in their favor. So BioWare ends up with everyone demanding they do contradictory things, and the only way to solve this is to spend less on the core game and more on these side-romances that only a tiny fraction of the players will see.
While it’s easy to blame BioWare for this mess, it’s worth noting that they got here simply by giving fans what they asked for. I don’t think anyone is in the wrong here. Everyone is just saying what they would personally like from the game, and our preferences are inherently incompatible. A gay man and I can both enjoy another zone where we shoot some more bad guys, but we don’t both benefit from the option of romancing Tali. The content in the main story is ostensibly there for the benefit of everyone, but romance options only appeal to a sub-section of the audience, and therefore exclude everyone else.
Personally I’d gladly give up romance options aimed at me if it meant that we could return to the days of having romance plots that meaningfully connected with the main story, but I know I’m in the minority.