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Writing Romance in (non-Romance) Games: Branching Romances

Right here’s the place it gets difficult. Or… nicely, more so.

This publish is a companion to Writing Romance in (non-Romance Games): Linear Romances. You’ll discover numerous assumptions about our general matter outlined there; they still maintain true, and I encourage people to start out with that submit earlier than leaping into this one. Here, we’ll cover three general subjects: branching romance fundamentals, linear methods in branching video games (where we’ll revisit a number of the approaches mentioned in the previous publish), and “casting” quite a lot of romantic pursuits in a branching recreation.

Branching Romance Fundamentals

Once I speak about “branching narratives” I’m referring to video games in which the participant could make vital plot decisions (whether inside or outdoors of dialogue) and, in the context of romance, select whether or not to pursue a potential companion and methods to deal with that individual through the relationship. Games in which the participant has a selection of potential romantic partners but no selections in the relationship itself fall into a grey space between branching and linear–the posts on each subjects should show applicable. For a more thorough remedy of branching dialogue usually, see this collection.

Let’s run down some high-level challenges and approaches for branching games.

Is this really a good idea? “Players love romance!” shouldn’t be an excellent purpose to implement romance subplots in your recreation. Think about as an alternative questions akin to:

  • Do the overall themes of the sport lend themselves to romance (and in that case, what sort of romance)? If a subplot doesn’t help, subvert, remark upon, or otherwise relate to your recreation’s main focus, then it’s just diluting your strongest factor. The answers here won’t be obvious–one recreation concerning the importance of building relationships and alliances in service of a larger aim may be strengthened by the inclusion of romance, whereas another comparable recreation may be weakened by dropping its laser concentrate on platonic friendships.
  • Do the circumstances of the plot help the development of romance? For those who’ve obtained a recreation that takes place in (for instance) an exceedingly brief timeframe, there’s in all probability not a variety of options for naturally creating romance subplots. Take a look at your pacing, your forged, whether or not your participant character would fairly get an opportunity to initiate anything romantic, and decide appropriately. Verify, too, whether there are romantic relationships between NPCs of importance–if they’re a serious a part of the story, it might really feel tonally strange (in some circumstances) that romance can’t play a task in the participant character’s own life. (The converse can also be true–if I don’t see any romances in the world, their absence in my life feels less like an omission.)
  • Does the participant character’s sexuality matter? While the player character in a branching narrative recreation might not have a clearly defined character, his or her character traits nonetheless exist inside a variety outlined by the author (Mass Effect‘s area marine Commander Shepard isn’t a pacifist). Regardless of whether or not you implement romance subplots in your recreation, know the romantic “range” you need to permit the player based mostly in your vary of player character archetypes. A coming-of-age story with a teenage protagonist will lend itself to obvious romantic choices greater than a army and political story starring a seventy-year-old veteran (which isn’t to say you couldn’t push either in another path).
  • Do you might have the assets to do your imaginative and prescient justice? You solely have a lot money and time, in any case. Are romance subplots one of the simplest ways to spend your assets?

Depending on the solutions to those questions, chances are you’ll end up with a recreation the place eschewing romance subplots feels unnatural, even in case you don’t notably need to help such stories. (In the event you’re writing a James Bond-style spy in a Bond-style story, it’s exhausting to justify not letting her or him attempt to seduce an asset.) Or you might uncover that, regardless of the sparks a romance might add, it finally drags down your narrative more than constructing it up.

Give it the load it deserves. There are many alternative ways to inject romance into your recreation in case you decide it’s applicable. You might permit the player character to casually flirt with dozens of various NPCs however by no means develop these “romances” any additional; you may current a handful of potential love pursuits however depart the relationships largely subtext; you can present brief optionally available romance subplots serially, in totally different areas of the game world, none of them lasting beyond the scope of their aspect quests; you would monitor long-term relationships with major NPCs, chronicling creating friendships, first kisses, and going all the best way to wedding ceremony bells and beyond.

Work out the scope of your romance–whether or not a line right here and there or one thing hefty and pervasive–and ensure your scope is in line together with your vision. It’s okay to have a pleasing flirtation that never “goes anywhere” if that’s what matches greatest, so long as you’re not promising the player greater than you possibly can provide.

A romance subplot’s “weight” should have an effect on its integration into the general story construction, too. For those who do have a long-running, start-to-finish NPC relationship, attempt not to sequester the romance content in discrete scenes–weave the romance into the primary plotline at applicable moments. Let the participant character speak about his or her love life with platonic buddies. Have selections unrelated to the romance convey out references and consequences in the romance plot. (That’s not to say romance-exclusive scenes are dangerous–but if you would like your romance to be “important” then they shouldn’t be everything of the subplot.) The more separate the subplot is from the rest of the sport, the more players will deal with it as a minigame of types–a minigame whose themes and expectations might not carry over to the broader narrative.

Know what kind of relationship tales you’re telling. Based mostly on the general themes and sensibilities of your recreation, would you like operatic romances typically doomed to finish in tragedy or betrayal? Would you like fantasy achievement romances, in which all issues could be ultimately overcome by way of mutual understanding and the place blissful coupledom is the pure finish? Would you like a naturalistic romance, the place problems and misunderstandings accrue, couples can disintegrate over time, and the longer term is all the time unsure and relationships all the time evolving?

You possibly can have some selection, in fact, by utilizing totally different romantic interests and totally different branches based mostly on participant decisions. But you’ll need to be certain that every little thing matches together with your core “feel.” You’ll need to train the player what to expect as early as attainable (ideally before the relationship even begins), no less than in a broad sense–don’t let the participant go right into a romance anticipating the love interest’s flaws to be handled as charming, romcom-esque fodder once you’ve written a cerebral exploration of emotional abuse.

Star Wars: The Old RepublicHow do you indicate to the participant what to anticipate? If your romances are in key together with your larger themes, a few of the work must be achieved already. You can too present examples of different characters in relationships to help nail down the tone in the player’s thoughts and use NPCs to name out expectations instantly (“Are you sure you want to get involved with him? He seems funny, but also mean.”)

I counsel towards trying a bait-and-switch to shock the player relating to the overall tone of a romance–moderately than being awed on the narrative twist, most players will simply grow to be annoyed with the sport (and its writers). That doesn’t imply you possibly can’t have surprises, however they should be the type of surprises a participant may anticipate–if my romcom-style love interest seems to be married and lots of misunderstandings and hijinks ensue earlier than the completely happy ending, great; if my obvious fantasy romance includes the sluggish deterioration of the relationship because the love curiosity is wrestling with deep-set issues completely beyond my management, then not-so-great. (I talk about player expectations and theme a bit more right here.)

Be especially careful with fantasy achievement romances, even in video games which are, broadly talking, energy fantasies. A romance that comes without sacrifices, that results in what’s by most definitions a “better” finish for the participant character, becomes a type of trophy–and once you start offering up trophies, it’s arduous to present not having a trophy as an equally viable choice. If your recreation has the tacit assumption that ending up coupled is all the time superior, then you definitely’re placing your self in a position where either a) it is advisable present a very extensive variety of romantic pursuits to accommodate every style; or b) you end up encouraging gamers to romance NPCs they don’t truly like, simply to get the “good” end result. “A” is an enormous ache for the author. “B” is awful for the player. This isn’t to say that power fantasies are dangerous–they will, in reality, be empowering–however know what you’re moving into.

Permit multiple entry and exit points. One of many joys of branching narrative is that it permits participant characters to vary over time. In recognition of this, attempt to give the player multiple possibilities to start or end a given relationship.

Entry points are largely a matter of convenience and a way of reassuring the player that, if a given moment doesn’t feel just like the “right time” to start out a romance, it doesn’t should be. Exit points are more essential–if the participant feels trapped in a romance about which he or she has doubts, that resentment will very doubtless grow stronger. Just by presenting an escape route, you acknowledge the participant’s doubts and misgivings concerning the relationship and assure the player that, no, the relationship isn’t meant to look good–there are real problems right here, and it’s totally up to the player if he or she needs to attempt to make it work or to half ways.

Encourage a give-and-take. As with non-romantic relationship-building, be sure that (in case your recreation has branching dialogue) participant characters are given opportunities to speak about themselves and their feelings. It’s straightforward to put in writing an NPC who talks at size about his or her background, relationship with the player character, hopes, fears, and so forth–however to assist create an actual bond, the player character needs to have the ability to categorical the same types of things and really feel heard.

Permitting the participant character to precise his emotions concerning the relationship doesn’t have to be restricted to the connection itself, either. Why can’t the player character’s sidekick (or greatest pal, or therapist) ask how the connection is going? Let the player complain or not complain; both approach, it helps build up the connection’s narrative inside the participant’s mind.

Don’t make assumptions about player reactions. The love curiosity you plan as charming might come across to some players as sleazy; the love curiosity you wrote to be shy make come throughout as frustratingly oblivious. That’s superb–totally different gamers ought to convey totally different interpretations of the narrative to the desk! However ensure you give the player loads of choices to precise dislike, disenchantment, or offense at the actions of (potential or current) romantic partners–limiting a player’s choices to insist that she like a character tends to vary the participant’s dislike for a character into a dislike for the game in common.

(Permitting the participant character to react negatively may also can help you change course, if need be; perhaps the “charming” love curiosity turns apologetic when referred to as on his sleaziness and tries to fix fences with the participant character. Or perhaps not.)

Sunless SeaBeware the triangles. Are there love triangles in your story? Do NPCs get jealous? Does it solely occur if they’re actively in a relationship with the participant character, or can they get jealous in the event that they’re not in a relationship? Does serial monogamy have consequences? Are any of the love interests polyamorous? Are only a few of the love pursuits polyamorous?

Don’t let the complexity of your romance subplots dwarf the rest of the sport (or simply accept that you simply’re writing a romance recreation, not a recreation with romantic subplots). Just remember to’ve acquired a plan for dealing with all entanglements that match the personalities of all characters involved and doesn’t depart you overworked. If meaning finding methods to geographically separate potential love interests, do it (“My first wife lives in New York; my second lives in Hong Kong. They don’t know about each other.”); if meaning establishing polyamory as common in your recreation setting with some fast and awkward exposition, do this; if meaning decreasing the variety of romantic interests with the intention to have a branch-heavy, nuanced set of interactions between them, go for it! However have some kind of plan.

Construct equally robust non-romance content material. The extra substantial and pervasive your romance subplots, the extra essential it is to have equally compelling unique content for players who select to not interact in a romance.

Why? Not out of any sense of “fairness,” however since you’ll need to persuade players that they don’t have to interact in a romance to get the game’s full expertise. Fail to take action, and also you’ll get lots of players angrily taking over romances they don’t like. This isn’t such a problem in case your romance subplots are relegated to small scenes and sidequests right here and there, but when they’re heavily integrated into your important plot, this is a matter you need to contemplate.

So how do you build compelling non-romance exclusive content material? The obvious means is to find a totally different tack to strategy the relationship with the identical NPC–to develop a platonic friendship or rivalry that’s fascinating and wealthy in its own right and opens up a aspect of the NPC the romance-involved player by no means sees. You possibly can acknowledge the participant’s option to not interact in a romance, having different characters questioning that decision and permitting the participant to precise her causes. Perhaps partaking in a romance blocks off certain different paths altogether–an intense relationship causes the player character’s non-romantic relationships to endure, say. Something that reveals a significant path in opposition to the romantic selection will feel rewarding to the participant.

Attempt to make it clear to the participant that solely non-romantic content material is unique, as properly–that the selection not to pursue a romance led to a sure level. In any other case, the participant should erroneously consider that romance content is an additional, not an alternate path.

Take care when attaching mechanics. Attaching any type of recreation mechanics on to a romantic relationship–anything from a friendship meter to a have to grind content to unlock new relationship “stages”–might be dangerous. On the one hand, doing so can nicely integrate the connection with the basics of gameplay. On the opposite, such mechanics can provide a clear aim and “win point,” strongly encouraging gamers to push forward regardless of their feelings concerning the relationship. (Personally, I’m an enormous believer in using seen mechanics to reinforce narrative, but remember that gamers tend toward optimization!)

Signpost decisions and consequences. It’s all the time sensible to signpost branches–to make it clear to the participant what sort of selection she’s making before she truly makes it–and with romance subplots, players may be particularly annoyed in the event that they inadvertently move down an unintended path. If a participant has an choice to start out flirting with or in any other case pursuing an NPC, make that selection unmistakable; if the participant can break up with a love curiosity, make that clear, too. (I speak extra about signposting right here.)

Making the intent of an choice clear doesn’t imply that the last word end result must be apparent. It’s nice for aggressive flirting to turn off a potential love interest whereas friendly dialog makes the NPC extra receptive; but such friendly dialog shouldn’t “activate” a romance with out the participant making a clear and deliberate selection. (If it results in the NPC seeing interest where none might exist, that can make for fascinating and awkward drama–but then it’s worthwhile to give the player the option to precise shock at being misinterpreted.)

More than anything, keep away from leaving the participant confused concerning the status of a relationship, questioning “Why does the game think X?” If the player character is supposed to be confused, permit the player to precise that confusion.

Don’t try to please everyone. We’ll contact on this more under, but really–don’t. If you would like tragic romances in a recreation the place they make sense, run with them and accept that you simply’ll have a small number of gamers who simply need a totally different recreation. It’s okay to not make a recreation for everybody–as long as you make it clear early on what recreation your gamers are getting.

Linear Methods in Branching Games

In our final dialogue we ran by way of an extended listing of methods for romances in linear games. Let’s assessment a couple of of them and whether and the way they may be applied in a branching context.

Set up the romance as part of the story’s background. Tough, however not necessarily a nasty concept. This narrows the spectrum of potential player characters significantly, in fact, but when the player is given proper exposition and context then there’s no cause he or she gained’t willingly buy into the relationship. You just need to point out the player that she doesn’t have full possession of the participant character, however slightly a small variety of options as to the best way to play him.

FirewatchYou’ll have to cope with the nature of the connection itself being indefinite early on, in the same approach that a participant character’s character is indefinite earlier than the participant has made a very good number of decisions. You’ll need to use different linear methods to attempt to establish the plausibility and likability of the relationship, too–you possibly can’t anticipate the participant to a lot care about her love curiosity in this state of affairs with no good bit of work, and the participant might revolt if the love interest isn’t sufficiently compelling and believable. (In other words, don’t anticipate the romance to matter to the participant just because it issues to the participant character; you continue to have to earn it.)

Make the romance partaking and pleasurable and don’t make the romance an impediment. You’ve received more flexibility on these factors in a branching narrative, largely because your participant (presumably) chose to become involved in the romance and may back out if it becomes too unpleasant. Making the romance into an impediment typically can add actual nuance and check the participant’s dedication and willingness to sacrifice.

Nonetheless, if you would like the romance to be usually a constructive expertise, these points ought to still usually hold true. And if you will make the romance into an impediment, be sure that it’s the proper: Forcing me to, e.g., grind for present objects in order to take care of my beloved one’s affection doesn’t add any narrative depth to the connection; however dealing with my beloved one’s frustrations about whether and the way I maintain working alongside my ex might strengthen or break the connection in a story-appropriate approach.

Combine the romance into gameplay. Simply as true in branching narratives as in linear ones. In case your recreation has branching dialogue or an analogous system, that’s gameplay, so that you’re in all probability a step ahead already. But… don’t overlook the remainder of your gameplay, either.

Make it a one-way road. This can be a troublesome strategy to deploy successfully in a branching narrative–if an NPC is mooning after me, why can’t I simply “go for it”? Even when you consider that you simply’ve established all viable variations of the player character as too shy or obtuse to answer an NPC’s interest, you’re nonetheless establishing a state of affairs the place the participant will get annoyed by her own character and by the sport’s lack of choices. Watch out of getting any NPC flirt or otherwise categorical curiosity in the player character with out allowing the participant to respond in variety!

(As all the time, I’m positive there are ways to brilliantly subvert this–perhaps you need a recreation about self-loathing, in which the shortage of participant choices and ensuing frustrations are intentional–but know the risks you’re taking and the way horribly improper things might go.)

Make me feel my romantic curiosity’s absence. This one’s more durable in a branching recreation, since most gamers will doubtless be operating by way of the same situations no matter whether they’re in a given romance or not. But by emphasizing constructive, unique traits in the romantic interest you’ll be able to still make his or her absence felt by separating the player character from his liked one.

The relationship is what you show. Nonetheless totally true. Hold in mind, nevertheless, that the player can also be developing a parallel narrative of the relationship in her head based mostly on what you show–all of the player character’s difficult feelings are in the participant’s palms, not yours. Treat that variable with care and respect, and keep away from assuming the participant is on the page you want her to be.

Keep in mind what your recreation is absolutely about (not romance). As we’ve discussed, building your romances in the context of a bigger story remains very important.

Go obscure and archetypal. Positive, why not? It’s your weird recreation!

Casting for Branching Romances

The Bachelor: The Videogame“Casting” isn’t the fitting phrase, however I don’t have a greater one. Assuming you need to present multiple romanceable NPC in your branching recreation (widespread but not vital–there’s no cause all romantic parts couldn’t be positioned on a single character), how do you identify what kind of love interests are available? Whether or not you’re creating NPCs with the intent of creating them love interests or figuring out who in an present forged of characters should have a romance branch, you’re going to wish to make some troublesome selections.

For the moment, let’s focus simply on character varieties. We’ll get to questions of gender and sexual orientation after.

You’ll be able to strategy this question from a number of totally different angles. You possibly can take a purely meta strategy and work out what kind of characters your gamers may need to romance–contemplating your audience, taking a look at common pop culture romance characters, and so forth. This, nevertheless, doesn’t guarantee you’ll get something notably related to your story and themes. Conversely, you’ll be able to strategy the issue from the story aspect, looking for relationships and character varieties that make for notably fascinating drama. Lean on this strategy too arduous, nevertheless, and you might find yourself with romances that players aren’t interested in truly enjoying.

Someplace between these two approaches is one targeted on the participant character. Should you’re writing a branching recreation, it’s imperative to know the range of participant character personalities you’re permitting and to have an concept of what personalities gamers are most apt to gravitate towards. These participant character archetypes ought to be interesting in their very own proper (there’s little point supporting a participant character character that no player will end up role-playing); subsequently, in the event you create romances that attraction to your totally different participant character archetypes, they should (in principle) additionally attraction to quite a lot of gamers and naturally be well-integrated into your themes. Take a look at your player character prospects and discover relationships which might be each engaging and difficult–construct love interests that sure participant character varieties would gravitate towards, and that have the potential to convey new depth to your story.

However here’s where we hit an issue: In most video games, your forged of characters won’t be genderless blobs. For those who’re allowing the participant to find out the participant character’s gender and sexual orientation, then your life gets a lot more troublesome.

To an extent, the extra your recreation is in exploring gender and gendered relationships as a theme, the better your job will get. For those who’ve acquired a branching modern-day army RPG that’s deeply engaged in questions of army tradition and masculinity, then you definitely’ll in all probability discover that your love pursuits (of no matter gender and orientation) type themselves without large problem–their personalities, backgrounds, and subplots can be tied to your core themes and also you’d be hard-pressed to simply rewrite, for instance, a gay male love curiosity subplot into a bisexual feminine subplot in this type of context. Or imagine a branching recreation invested in questions of girls’s energy in 11th-century Germany–once more, your love interests are going to have relatively clear thematic roles exploring these ideas.

However, the extra you make gender a nonissue in your world and your central themes, the more your romanceable characters’ subplots might turn into detached from gender and orientation. If “wisecracking rebel” is a outstanding participant character archetype for my cyberpunk recreation, I’ll determine that “by-the-book member of the establishment” makes for a robust Romeo-and-Juliet-esque romance selection; but ought to that love interest be male or feminine? Homosexual, straight, or bi? Trans or cis? There’s no apparent “best fit” right here the best way there can be in our medieval German recreation (where if I need a romance subplot emphasizing male-female cultural power differentials, I’m not going to place it on a gay male love curiosity). However we need to decide one thing–or else build multiple love pursuits who are all just about similar, or discover a method to procedurally generate the NPC based mostly on the participant character, or find another high-risk or costly answer. Multiply this out by several totally different participant character archetypes and their potential matches (I want an institution love curiosity for the insurgent archetype, a cynic for the idealist / reformer, and so on…) and the more you could have a challenge.

And of course, the player first creating a player character gained’t have any concept what romances could also be obtainable in your recreation–it’s never great to have a player assume, “Well, if I’d known a love interest with that personality was around and only interested in women, I’d have made a female player character!”

So, yeah. Those are issues. There’s no straightforward answer. Listed here are a couple of options to think about:

Achievement Unlocked: So Much Smooching!As discussed previously, beware “trophy” romances without options. If romantic subplots are treated as rewards and sufficiently wealthy in unique content to be superior to non-romantic options, can you blame the player with a lesbian player character for being irritated by the shortage of quite a lot of lesbian or bi love interests? If romances are handled as a thematic or gameplay “win,” creating a world in which straight male player characters (for instance) are most probably to realize their objectives (by advantage of getting increasingly assorted love pursuits) in all probability isn’t your intent (until, again, that’s one of the themes you’re going for!) Lastly, the extra your romances are fantasy achievement, the extra possible it’s that your players will want love interests of their most popular intercourse (somewhat than their player characters’ most popular sex).

Scale back the “weight” of the romances to a degree you possibly can help. Perhaps you’ll be able to’t finances 20,000 phrases apiece for multiple NPCs of every potential variety, however you’ll be able to finances 2,000 words apiece. This means a really totally different position for love in your recreation, but is that necessarily dangerous? Should you’re not making a romance recreation and you’re spending disproportionate assets on romances, is that one of the best use of your time?

Make your non-romance options wealthy and fascinating and filled with unique content in their very own right.

Accept imperfection. Earlier I wrote “Don’t try to please everyone.” This consists of you. Your romance subplot casting will in all probability not have all of the variation and diversity that you simply’d ideally like. However, your recreation isn’t the one recreation in the world. It in all probability gained’t even be the only recreation you ever make. Get it right over the long term, and do what you possibly can in the brief time period.

Think about your goal demographics. This can be a sensitive matter, and one which requires a more prolonged discussion than I’m prepared to enter here–objectionable use of (typically inaccurate) demographic knowledge has executed terrible injury to the games business. That stated, it’s all the time value considering your content in the sunshine of who’s truly enjoying your recreation and what their interests may be, in addition to who you need enjoying your video games in the longer term. On the subject of romance, contemplate additionally whether the gamers most in romance subplots type a particular demographic in their own proper (not just in phrases of age, gender, and so forth, but in addition in regards to why they come to your recreation).

Understanding your viewers doesn’t require catering to your viewers’s whims. But ignorance of your viewers gained’t provide help to attain anybody (previous or new).

Prohibit participant options upfront. In the event you can’t truly help the variety of participant characters you permit the player to make, perhaps you must scale back that selection. If your plot solely has one vital NPC and you need romantic rigidity between that NPC and the player character to be a serious source of drama, properly… perhaps you simply don’t let me make a player character who doesn’t fit the plot’s perfect gender and orientation. (Firewatch is an effective example of a non-romance branching recreation that restricts player options in this manner.)

Even in a branching recreation, there’s nothing incorrect with telling the player upfront, “For this story to work, you need to play a lesbian” (or a straight man, or a homosexual man, or whatever); simply be certain both elements of that assertion are actually true.

Cheat. For video games and characters the place sure questions of social dynamics are largely pushed apart, there are methods to “cheat” by dynamically adjusting the gender or orientation of NPCs. In a branching dialogue RPG with voiceover, a given love interest might be going to sound (because of the voice actor) male or feminine, however might have quite a lot of alternate strains to help his or her id as homosexual, bi, or straight, relying on the participant’s own decisions. In a recreation without voiceover, textual content might be dynamically adjusted to outcome in an entire spectrum of NPCs from one baseline character.

In fact “cheating” in this trend has various downsides–in addition to the problem of implementation, it does make it exhausting to create NPCs with personalities formed by the intersection of their culture with their intercourse and sexuality. For some video games and a few NPCs, this may be high quality; for others, it could possibly be problematic.

Say, “Screw it, I’m making a pure romance game.” If that’s where your heart takes you, then go for it!

(Because of Andrew, alias Anndru, for the Star Wars: The Previous Republic screenshot!)