The acknowledgement that many games feature romantic sub-plots of some sort also comes along with the harsh reality that, a lot of times, the choice for love interest can be absolutely brutal to the player. A number of the Japanese RPGs I've played in recently years have, to be honest, kind of all melted together into one anime-esque blur, but I know that in at least a handful of those I've utterly detested the character that the game's creators pre-determined I would like. With video game storylines already far too often teetering on the border between being acceptable and downright embarrassing, there's nothing better (and by better, I mean worse) than having to bear through a ridiculously vapid storyline while being forced to help your character get busy with the most obnoxious moeblob the game could muster up.
If optional romantic progression did nothing more than give me the choice to purposely avoid giving the time of day to the saccharine-infused magic-using nymphet a game's developers cruelly decided would be the perfect main heroine, then I'm already on board with this idea 100%.
Maybe the problem many have with player-controlled options for romance in games is some feeling of being required to actually find attraction in the mating choices a game presents us, or the belief that such options exist only so that the developers could have an excuse to test their skills at rendering naked boobies. Instead of just seeing these kinds of options in a game as a set of paths that lead to a few quick cut scenes where we can giggle while imaging two polygon-created character models bumping uglies, however, let us actually appreciate what they can offer us: an additional means of true and honest character development.
Though their means for doing so and final results were quite different, two sets of games in recent years have ended up really standing out for their strong pushes in the way of character interactivity: the aforementioned Mass Effect 2, along with its previous chapter, and the dual-demonic combo from Atlus, Persona 3 and Persona 4. Both of these groups of titles put importance not only into the teams that you brought together around your main character, but also in what their relationships with that main character were. The strengthening of bonds with teammates like Grunt in Mass Effect 2 or Chie in Persona 4 weren't just handed to you at regular intervals; you had to actively seek out their time and attention. By putting forth the effort to know more about them, not only would you end up with a richer understanding for the overall narrative itself, but a stronger sense of appreciation for the characters around you.
The reason for this is also the reason that the ability to pick and choose your romantic interest can improve and enhance your appreciate for a game: because they are choices you yourself make. Well, okay; let's not have any confusion here. Choice in video games, even in titles like Mass Effect or Persona, are never real choice, but instead the illusion of choice as the developer has seen fit to present to the player. If my Commander Shepard decides to spare a rogue Salarian instead of blasting them to bits, both of those options were pre-determined and offered up to me via a small set to choose from. Even so, at that moment, I feel like I am in command far more than other games, because the actions Shepard takes in that moment only play out according to what I myself chose.
For those who find the idea of getting their virtual groove on to be of absolutely no interest, the wonderful side to all of this is that you never have to. But for those of us longing for something more from our games, that possibility existing - even if our selection of possible prospects is rather limited - just adds another layer of depth to a game that understands that the more we care about what's going on in the lives of the characters involved, the more we'll care about the game.
Let me give you a good, real-life example that I personally encountered.
Had Persona 4 been crafted the "traditional" way, I have no doubt that the game's main female - the kung-fu-movie-loving goofball Chie - would have been the top choice for love interest for the protagonist. Yet, the more encounters I had with Chie, and the more I came to know her as a character, the more I came to realize that I saw her relationship to my avatar as more of a best friend than a love interest. Normally, I would have been forced to romance her through the natural progression of the storyline, even though that wasn't how I wanted my connection with her to play out. Instead, because the game did indeed give me that choice, she ended the game as just that: my main character's best friend. (Meanwhile, of course, I was off playing kissy-face with the red-haired J-pop idol.) Because of this option to alter the course of my character's life in this regard, I felt like I had more influence over how the game was playing out, and through that, more of a personal connection to the game as a whole.
Relationships, when done in this way, are just another set of choices we have. They can be subplots that can be ignored because the mission to save the universe is far too great to have any distractions, or they can be extra elements of storyline that draw us closer to a particular character in the game and, through them, our own digital selves. They are not, and never will be, any sort of replacement for real human interaction serving as an escape for those who can't find love in the real world. They are real, substantial, and powerful elements of storytelling, ones which, when used properly, can help strengthen an even more important relationship: that of the gamer and the game they are playing.