Gone are the days of “Hot Coffee,” the infamous mod that lets you access playable sex scenes in 2005′s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that users found in the source code. Games today aren’t without their problems, but developers are bringing more careful deliberation and nuance when considering themes of sexuality and love. With bigger games and better stories, romance is finally getting its time to shine. Here are the games that do it best.
The Witcher 3
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
This Polish game series, which casts you as a monster slayer in a high fantasy setting, didn’t always get romance right. Critics took aim at the original game, which awarded players with trophy-like playing cards for engaging in sexual encounters with female characters. And while The Witcher 3 makes many strides, it still includes some questionable moral dynamics (you’re never reprimanded for visiting brothels while in a relationship, even if your primary love interests clearly don’t want you to cheat). Still, it depicts a more realistic romance for its characters.
Released in 2015, The Witcher 3′s two significant romance options (there are alternative, smaller ones along the way, as well as in DLC content) involve sorceresses Triss and Yennefer. Both have history with protagonist Geralt, but you still have to earn their affection. Saying the appropriate thing at the right moment or siding with certain allies can help you gain a sorceress’s trust, and dishonest behavior could leave you with no one.
The Witcher 3′s strength with romance isn’t in its mechanics, but in its writing. Triss and Yennefer feel like real people. They don’t always agree with you. They’re strong-willed, independent and fierce in and out of battle. Seeing them evolve, not just in how they view Geralt but also in how the game’s events shapes them as individuals, is what makes pursuing relationships with them rewarding.
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, PC, iOS, Android
Hundreds of dating simulators flood software vendor Steam’s market. Many aren’t great, marred by poor writing, but some are quality enough to stand out — games like Hatoful Boyfriend, just because of its sheer bizarre premise (it’s about pigeon love), and Doki Doki Literature Club for its excellent twist. Dream Daddy, which is presented as a visual novel, is among the best.
From the title and premise alone, it may sound like satire. At first, a lot of people thought it was. But instead of riffing off the simplistic nature of dating sims, it tackles the genre in a positive light and became a smash hit when it released in the summer of 2017.
In Dream Daddy, you play as a dad dating other dads. You just moved to a new town with your daughter, and you spend time helping her get acclimated to the new environment, neighborhood and school. In your free time, you go on dates. All the dad jokes and puns make for a lighthearted experience on the surface, and your success on dates depends not just on your dialogue choices, but your aptitude in minigames, including one that is visualized like a Pokémon battle as you brag about your kid to another dad.
As you dig deeper, though, Dream Daddy has depth. Characters open up about trauma, divorce or the difficulties of raising a child. Sometimes these dates end happily, while other times they don’t. Even if you play all your cards right, it doesn’t mean the dad of your choice will want to go steady. While it may be frustrating to some, it makes the experience more grounded. The game is less about sexual encounters (and in the rare instance where it happens, it’s off-screen), and instead puts emphasis on the emotional connections of getting to know someone, even if it doesn’t conclude on a happily-ever-after note.
Mass Effect 2
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Saving the universe is important, sure, but that doesn’t mean you need to do it alone. BioWare’s Mass Effect series lets you build a character from the ground up, and recruit crew members along the way (some human, some not). When you’re not busy putting an end to a mysterious series of space kidnappings, you can spend time with your crew mates on your ship. While this is possible in all the Mass Effect entries, Mass Effect 2 provides the best cast for romantic potential.
Getting to know your crew — from an ex-cop who would take a bullet for you to an assassin with a surprising spiritual side — is one of the most engaging parts of the game. You form meaningful bonds by hanging out with them, and every once in a while, those friendships blossom into something more.
Romances don’t appear out of thin air, though. They require work, such as completing a muse’s loyalty quest that sheds light on their past and presents a challenging situation. It also requires patience, as these relationships unfold in time with your overall progression.
But the wait is worth it, especially as you watch these different people (and aliens) change through the story. Not everyone aboard the ship can be judged from first impressions alone. Miranda, for example, appears cold at the start but has more to her blunt personality than you might think.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
It’s no secret that BioWare is one of the best developers when it comes to incorporating romance in role-playing games. The developer is well aware of how seriously fans take their virtual love interests, with writer Patrick Weekes joking in a interview with Game Informer that their games are “dating sims with a small save-the-world minigame."
With Dragon Age: Origins, the first entry in the Dragon Age series, relationships progressed when you’d choose correct dialogue choices and depended on plot decisions that are favorable to who you wish to woo. But there was also a shortcut: gift-giving was an easy way to increase a character’s approval rating with minimal work.
Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third game in the series, introduced a more involved relationship system. As inquisitor, you’re tasked with ending civil unrest in the nation and finding out why mysterious “breaches” — literal holes in the sky — are devastating the land. You recruit followers to aid you, and some of them (just like in Mass Effect) can be romanced. But these characters come with their own political views, morals, cultures and sexual identities that may clash with who you are and what you do. This brings a level of realism to the experience: Just like in the real world, these people have preferences and specific things they look for in relationships.
Depending on how you approach quests and how you treat those around you, perhaps you’ll end up finding love along the way.
The Last of Us: Left Behind
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3
We get to know teenage Ellie well in The Last of Us, as she joins Joel in a journey across the United States, but it’s in the DLC, Left Behind, that we peek into her past. Months before she meets Joel, Ellie lived a somewhat normal life (as normal as it gets in a world ravaged by zombies) and had a best friend named Riley. And while the two begin as friends, there’s a spark there, and the two girls dance around those feelings until they finally come to terms with them.
During Left Behind’s flashbacks, you follow Ellie and Riley as they explore an abandoned mall. It’s a child’s dream come true: They explore the wonders of an empty arcade all to themselves and they ransack a Halloween store without being caught by security. Left Behind is short and sweet. We see Ellie in her prime: when she’s around Riley, she feels happy and carefree, which isn’t something the unforgiving world of The Last of Us lets linger for too long. Back in 2014, the queer romance between these two characters was met with controversy, but it was an important milestone in the industry; the upcoming Last of Us 2, after all, embraces Ellie’s sexuality.
Platforms: Switch, PC, iOS, Android
Introducing romance into games is tricky business. How much should be interactive? How does it mix into gameplay? Florence is a beautiful, interactive graphic novel that seamlessly incorporates a tale of love into the experience by striking a careful balance. You play as a 20-something young girl whose life has taken a turn for the mundane. Every day begins to feel the same — that is, until she meets the love of her life.
But is he really the love of her life? Florence does a fantastic job of portraying the ups and downs of a tumultuous relationship without a word uttered by any of its characters. It relies on evocative music, imagery and short bits of interactivity to artfully blend it all together. The narrative keeps it all level with simple and relatable scenarios that a young woman faces. But we don’t want to spoil too much: It’s best to experience these moments yourself.
Life is Strange: Before The Storm
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, iOS, Android
The original Life is Strange featured a woman-led cast — two teenagers by the name of Max and Chloe — who had a magnetic bond. They start off as friends, but the player can steer them towards something more. Yet it never completely transforms from platonic to romantic in a consistent way, leaving their relationship ambiguous.
Life is Strange: Before The Storm, on the other hand, centers on romance. This prequel released a couple years later, focusing on Chloe and her relationship with a girl named Rachel (who goes missing in the original Life is Strange). The two form a deep friendship and become romantically involved. The progression is natural, tackling teen love’s ups and downs and the insecurities that come with it. Chloe stumbles on her words despite trying to play it cool in front of her crush, for example, and the two find themselves in reckless situations as they fumble through their adolescence together.
Rachel opens up about her family’s woes as the story and relationship progress, and Chloe comes to terms with her grief. Similar to the choose-your-own adventure format of game developer Telltale Games, Life is Strange: Before the Storm’s narrative sways in different directions depending on your choices. Your decisions also affect the relationship; sometimes this is as obvious as leaning in for a kiss, while other times it’s something more subtle like being honest, or listening to music together. Instead of being a side activity like many other games on this list, Before the Storm puts romance front and center, and it’s all the better for it.
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, PC, iOS, Android
Farming isn’t the only activity worth pursuing in Stardew Valley: There’s also the quest for love. Pelican Town has a wide array of interesting personalities and some of them want to get to know you better. Like many things in Stardew, your relationships are measured by a leveling system. To get romantic attention from someone, you have to first become friends with them by giving them the right gifts. These range from cooking recipes to resources you may find while mining or fishing. Everyone has different tastes, but be wary of what they dislike, too, because giving the wrong present could negatively impact the relationship. (Giving them trash is a very bad idea!)
Although Stardew Valley’s relationship mechanics are more simplistic than other examples on this list, they fit the overall experience of the game. Stardew Valley is about farming, yes, but it’s also about escape. It features a gameplay loop that’s monotonous on the surface but wildly addictive because of its superb and balanced progression system. For a game about leaving your worries behind, romance is similarly carefree.
Plus, the insightful writing helps it stand out. Maybe you’ll fall in love with Leah, who owns an adorable cottage by the water, or the flute-playing and video game-obsessed Abigail. Or maybe you’ll woo someone who isn’t instantly likable, like Shane, who keeps people at arms length. Once you get to know him, though, you may start to understand the reasons behind his behavior. This is the case for most of the villagers, who reveal vulnerabilities once you get close to them.
As these relationships progress, available bachelors can be married and you’ll watch a cute wedding ceremony. Finally, your love will move in with you so can start a life together among your farm animals and crops.