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Game Theory

Starfield needs to fix one Mass Effect flaw to be the best space RPG ever

Romance is a must in any space opera, but how do you do it right?

EA/BioWare

BioWare’s Mass Effect Trilogy and Bethesda’s Starfield are two of the gaming industry’s most high-profile space opera RPGs, so it goes without saying that you’re about to start seeing lots of comparisons between them. Especially since the latter title seems primed and ready to make its big debut at E3 2021, we’ll all be watching closely to see which major studio is best able to fulfill gamers’ Star Trek fantasies.

Comparisons will likely be made between both games’ mechanics, features, and core concepts once we’re able to get a better idea of what Starfield is all about, but what if we told you the upcoming game’s success could potentially rely on its careful execution of a single aspect?

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Excellence in combat, traversal, and system depth are all necessary ingredients for a solid RPG, but it's perhaps character development, and romance specifically, that serves as a key area where Starfield has a chance to punch above the competition.

There’s no mistaking that Mass Effect earned its reputation in large part due to the series’ emphasis on a carefully crafted cast of romance options. In fact, the ability to have interstellar intercourse with the likes of Kaidan, Ashley, or Liara became such an attractive selling point for BioWare’s franchise that most modern character-driven RPGs can’t get by without including a chance at love. When even action-focused titles like Assassin’s Creed offer their own slate of companions with each entry, it’s no secret that BioWare pioneered for something special and super sexy.

If ‘Starfield’ truly intends to be better than ‘Mass Effect’ it must have stellar interstellar romance.Bethesda Softworks/Microsoft

Yet, as entertaining as it may be for gamers to pursue their object of affection, the reality is that romance options in games are starting to feel more stale and stilted than ever before. After digging back into Mass Effect Legendary Edition earlier this year, for example, it became abundantly clear just how forced and cheesy that past pairing up was. Simply select a few dialogue options in the right order, and you have a chance to sleep with a small group of men, women, and/or aliens within your social circle.

Love isn’t supposed to be robotic, but, when each personal relationship revolves around three or four specific dialogue selections in most games, it starts to feel that way.

There has been so little mechanical evolution in this area over the past decade, so Bethesda has a unique opportunity to make Starfield a better game by focusing on love. Perhaps the best way to change things up from a features perspective is by making one’s list of potential suitors slightly more procedural. Love in the real world isn’t dictated by selecting a single mate from your five closest friends, and, if done right, Starfield’s romances could reflect that truth. Maybe there are opportunities for love with a shopkeep that’s only relevant at one specific moment. If the player is attracted to any given NPC, maybe they have an option to go on a date and see where the rest of the night takes them?

‘Mass Effect’ pioneered RPG romance, but it can be so much better in the modern era.BioWare/EA

No doubt a feature set on this scale would be extremely complex to implement, but, given advancements in procedural generation tech, it’s not entirely unfathomable. We live in a world where No Man’s Sky can spawn a living, breathing universe out of a single equation, so it’d be awesome to see some of that legwork applied to NPC interaction. If that intricate level of customization can’t quite be achieved, then Starfield can still impress players by having a robust enough companion lineup to feel more true to life.

With those benchmarks set, the next step would be to ensure the romances the player selects lead to interesting story and gameplay developments. At a time when the scope of RPGs has ballooned exponentially, why do we still have romance offerings that lead to nothing more than sexy cinematics? Mass Effect had the right idea with the addition of Loyalty Missions later in the series, but enough has grown within the genre that we should be able to blow out that concept into something that feels substantially more organic and involved. When each new partner opens up a vast number of quests with several branching paths, the real emotional bond you form with them grows deeper. Perhaps best of all, it also makes everyone’s playthrough feel more unique.

To those unacquainted with the roleplaying genre, asking for extensive romance options may come off as a sly plea for explicit thrills. But, those who’ve played through Mass Effect to completion know how impactful these connections can be. Perhaps more so than any other bond with an NPC, the attachment to the character one chooses to romance offers the most intimate source of narrative development one can possibly have. And, when it comes to Starfield, if those emotional underpinnings are working as fully as they can be, this game might just match the lofty expectations of fans.

In the most mature sense, players flock to RPGs to feel something for the characters. If its romantic love doesn’t feel real, how else can Starfield truly succeed?

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