It's Getting Hot In Here: Karin Weekes and Michelle Clough Talk Romance In Games

Two developers talk about romance in Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and beyond

At the Game Developer’s Conference last month, I spoke with Karin Weekes, the lead editor at BioWare, and Michelle Clough, Chair of the International Game Developers Association Romance and Sexuality Special Interest Group (what a mouthful!). The two helped organize and host the first-ever IGDA Romance and Sexuality SIG Roundtable during the conference in an effort to generate interest in Romance and Sexuality Special Interest Group. Evidently a hot topic, the roundtable reached full capacity well before it was scheduled to begin and even made its way into a spillover room, making it possibly the most popular roundtable at the conference, to the best of my knowledge.

Fortunately for me, I got the opportunity to talk with Karin Weekes and Michelle Clough about their experiences with and thoughts on romance and sexuality in games before the roundtable. Our discussion was insightful and a lot of fun, and--if we’re all very lucky--a sign of things to come.

Most people are familiar with the work that game writers do, but the work of a game editor is lesser-known. “At BioWare, specifically, we do have very story-driven games. We have a lot of writers and a lot of things to keep consistent, so one part of our job is probably what you would think of as stereotypical editing,” Karin explained. In addition to keeping things like flow and character voice in check, editors like Karin are responsible for maintaining continuity across entire IPs. This, of course, includes the many character romances found in BioWare games. “We literally make charts that we call ‘Who’s Doing Who’ once we have it all figured out, and we need that chart.”

Krem, the transgender man from Iron Bull's mercenary band in Dragon Age: Inquisition Krem, the transgender man from Iron Bull's mercenary band in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Having worked on both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises, Karin told me how romance is something that has consistently been present at the beginning of the development process, and despite technical and financial limitations, BioWare has made some big strides over the years. “We added a transgender character for the first time in Dragon Age: Inquisition--not a follower, but someone you hung out with. It was fascinating, just to see the very binary way that our tools built characters. [...] And it was great, it was a time I was very happy to be working there, because every single person we talked to in the art departments, they were all like, ‘Oh, that’s gonna be tough, but we can totally do that.’  And everybody wanted to do it well, but it was very interesting to see.”

When asked how she came to be the the Chair of the IGDA Romance and Sexuality SIG, Michelle regaled me with stories from her youth. “When I was a teenager, that was kind of when video game marketing started turning toward very gendered, very sort of masculine, very, ‘boys play video games,’ [...] and I started feeling like, ‘Well, I guess video games aren’t for me and they aren’t for people like me,’ but then I played Final Fantasy VII and I got the biggest, giant crush on Sephiroth immediately.”

More recently, she was discussing the sexualization of women in games with friends when she had a revelation: “I was like, ‘Well, you know, frankly, what I would like to see more of are games that actually realize that I have tastes and interests along those lines too. Is there anything like that for me?’” So Michelle gave a talk on the subject two years ago, and a similar talk last year. After that, she was approached by Heidi McDonald, a fellow game designer and writer, and together, they co-founded the Romance and Sexuality SIG.

“I want what we all want: to have more of those sorts of conversations in the industry,” Michelle said. “We want to see more romances, more depictions of sex, sexuality, sex appeal that are not just for one, specific audience, but for lots of audiences--straight women, gay men and lesbians, asexuals, bisexuals, people of all genders and sexualities, ‘cause I think it’s completely valid to want to evoke feelings of attraction or romance or just that connection with a character, we just need to go about it thoughtfully and we need to do it for more people. At the moment, it tends to be one model, which comes in a chainmail bikini and large breasts and all that kind of stuff.”

I asked both of them if they thought that player romance made games more appealing to newer audiences. “I certainly think it adds variety to what’s often considered traditional gameplay,” Karin answered. In the ten years that she’s been working at BioWare, she’s noticed an increase in the accessibility of game-making tools, which has resulted in “these diverse, interesting games that don’t represent what is traditionally considered mainstream.”

Additionally, Karin believes that people are starting to pay attention to the amount of money that video games generate and the potential for reining in new types of players, with varying genders and sexualities. Beyond that, she thinks that there’s already sufficient demand for more romantic and sexual exploration among gaming’s existing target demographic: straight males. She went further, explaining how most mainstream games emphasize action and destruction (or as she puts it, “smashing things with a hammer”) to the exclusion of things like romance or relationships. “In the same way that it excludes women, it very much defines for the guys within that target audience, ‘Well, if you are here, this is what you will like,’ so it kind of limits everyone.”

“As Karin says, there’s nothing wrong with the wish to have a giant hammer and go around smashing people,” Michelle added, “but there’s so many other fantasies that could be being fulfilled, and I get frustrated when people say, ‘Shallow fantasies are stupid!’ I’m like, ‘No, they’re not.’ Sometimes, particularly for young people, shallow fantasies can be an incredible refuge and something you can explore parts of yourself, that way.”

She’s found that the gaming community has been quick to scoff at wish-fulfillment that caters to people who aren’t straight men. “I kind of like to joke, ‘Where is our Twilight? Where is our Fifty Shades?’ I’m not saying that I particularly like them, but I sort of feel like we should be looking at those because from a money perspective, oh my god, they make so much money, and also from a cultural perspective, it’s saying women and other audiences, all kinds of people, are actually kind of hungry for this kind of content, for romance and sexual content,” she explained. “Frankly, I think games could do it better because there’s the interactivity and the immersion. [...] This is a whole new market we should be looking into and I’m honestly confused as to why we’re not or at least why AAA games and mainstream isn’t.”

Going into battle with characters you've romanced adds new context and stakes for the player. Going into battle with characters you've romanced adds new context and stakes for the player.

As far as “smashing things with a hammer” goes, I mentioned during our conversation that in my experience, romance had given even conventional action-oriented games more impact (I’m looking at you, Kaidan Alenko). “Well, it’s fun to be able to weave that together. It’s exactly what you said. Ideally, that relationship affects the gameplay and they work together and they’re not two totally separate things and they support each other,” Karin responded. Laughing to herself, Michelle went on to explain that she thinks of her multiple play-throughs of BioWare games not in terms of major plot points, but in terms of who she decides to romance, and how she creates entire narratives around the tension of those romances.

Both Karin and Michelle agreed that what they were looking forward to the most in regards to romance and sexuality in games was more diversity and inclusivity. “More choices, more opportunities, more representation,” was Karin’s verdict. “I would love to make a game where everyone is available for everything and whoever, you can do--sorry, be with--whoever you want to be with...well, maybe a little doing, but tastefully, of course.” Michelle chimed in: “I think also, in terms of larger culture, I’m hoping to see more shifts there. For example, having more people of all backgrounds and identities being willing to come out and say, ‘Hey, I like this thing,’ and not feel ashamed for it. When I gave my talk at GDC two years ago, I genuinely thought I was destroying any chance I’d ever get in the video game industry because I was getting up and admitting, ‘I like pretty men in games and I like them not in a platonic sense.’” She also acknowledged that this task was probably going to be left up to indie and AA games. “I understand that a large company is probably going to look at something along the lines of Titanic and be like, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to lose millions and millions and millions of dollars.’”

“I think it’s very apt but also kind of funny that you suggested that a game like Titanic would fail when that’s one of the highest-grossing movies ever made. I think that kind of says something about the differences between the game and the movie industries,” I commented. “I know,” Michelle continued, “...there’s this attitude that, like, the sorts of women who like Titanic don’t play video games, but if there was a Titanic--well, firstly, wrong, and secondly, if there was a Titanic of video games, don’t you think that would attract women into playing it? [...] So yeah, I think it is kind of weird that we have presupposed that a Titanic video game would fail and yet, we’ll never know if we don’t try.”

Lastly, I asked Karin and Michelle what their favorite game romances were, because how could I resist? Karin’s favorite to work on was the raunchy Iron Bull romance in Dragon Age: Inquisition. “You know, I’m in my mid-40s, I have two kids, I’ve been happily married for 15 years, and I’m at a different place than someone in their teens who’s just looking for the romance, and I was there, that used to be me, I loved it then. But I’m just in a different place and it was neat to get to talk to some other people who are also in that place and go, ‘Yeah, holy cow, that would be super hot! When it’s five o’clock and I’m at the end of a long day on Friday, yes, that is how I want to spend my time!’” Michelle gave Garrus from Mass Effect an honorable mention before declaring a three-way tie between Kaidan, Thane, and Fenris from Dragon Age II, despite his more questionable personality traits. “He’s got the silver hair and the black armor and the big sword and I love that aesthetic. He’s got anger management issues and if I met him on OkCupid, I wouldn’t return his calls because anger management issues, but you know what? This is a game!“

Ain’t that the truth?