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

Here’s where it gets complicated. Or… well, more so.

This post is a companion to Writing Romance in (non-Romance Games): Linear Romances. You’ll find a number of assumptions about our overall topic outlined there; they still hold true, and I encourage folks to start with that post before jumping into this one. Here, we’ll cover three overall subjects: branching romance fundamentals, linear techniques in branching games (where we’ll revisit some of the approaches discussed in the previous post), and “casting” a variety of romantic interests in a branching game.

Branching Romance Fundamentals

The Witcher 2When I talk about “branching narratives” I’m referring to games in which the player can make significant plot choices (whether inside or outside of dialogue) and, in the context of romance, choose whether to pursue a potential partner and how to treat that person during the relationship. Games in which the player has a choice of potential romantic partners but no decisions in the relationship itself fall into a gray area between branching and linear–the posts on both topics should prove applicable. For a more thorough treatment of branching dialogue generally, see this series.

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

Is this really a good idea? “Players love romance!” is not a great reason to implement romance subplots in your game. Consider instead questions such as:

  • Do the overall themes of the game lend themselves to romance (and if so, what kind of romance)? If a subplot doesn’t support, subvert, comment upon, or otherwise relate to your game’s primary focus, then it’s just diluting your strongest element. The answers here might not be obvious–one game about the importance of building relationships and alliances in service of a larger goal might be strengthened by the inclusion of romance, while another similar game might be weakened by losing its laser focus on platonic friendships.
  • Do the circumstances of the plot support the development of romance? If you’ve got a game that takes place in (for example) an exceedingly short timeframe, there’s probably not a lot of options for naturally developing romance subplots. Look at your pacing, your cast, whether your player character would reasonably get a chance to initiate anything romantic, and judge appropriately. Check, too, whether there are romantic relationships between NPCs of importance–if they’re a major part of the story, it may feel tonally strange (in some circumstances) that romance can’t play a role in the player character’s own life. (The converse is also true–if I don’t see any romances in the world, their absence in my life feels less like an omission.)
  • Does the player character’s sexuality matter? While the player character in a branching narrative game may not have a clearly defined personality, his or her character traits still exist within a range defined by the writer (Mass Effect‘s space marine Commander Shepard is never a pacifist). Regardless of whether you implement romance subplots in your game, know the romantic “range” you want to permit the player based on your range of player character archetypes. A coming-of-age story with a teenage protagonist will lend itself to obvious romantic options more than a military and political story starring a seventy-year-old veteran (which isn’t to say you couldn’t push either in another direction).
  • Do you have the resources to do your vision justice? You only have so much time and money, after all. Are romance subplots the best way to spend your resources?

Depending on the answers to these questions, you may find yourself with a game where eschewing romance subplots feels unnatural, even if you don’t particularly want to support such stories. (If you’re writing a James Bond-style spy in a Bond-style story, it’s hard to justify not letting him or her try to seduce an asset.) Or you may discover that, despite the sparks a romance could add, it ultimately drags down your narrative more than building it up.

Give it the weight it deserves. There are lots of different ways to inject romance into your game if you determine it’s appropriate. You could allow the player character to casually flirt with dozens of different NPCs but never develop those “romances” any further; you could present a handful of potential love interests but leave the relationships largely subtext; you could present short optional romance subplots serially, in different areas of the game world, none of them lasting beyond the scope of their side quests; you could track long-term relationships with major NPCs, chronicling developing friendships, first kisses, and going all the way to wedding bells and beyond.

Figure out the scope of your romance–whether a line here and there or something hefty and pervasive–and make sure your scope is in line with your vision. It’s okay to have a pleasant flirtation that never “goes anywhere” if that’s what fits best, so long as you’re not promising the player more than you can provide.

A romance subplot’s “weight” ought to affect its integration into the overall story structure, too. If you do have a long-running, start-to-finish NPC relationship, try not to sequester the romance content in discrete scenes–weave the romance into the main plotline at appropriate moments. Let the player character talk about his or her love life with platonic buddies. Have decisions unrelated to the romance bring out references and consequences in the romance plot. (That’s not to say romance-exclusive scenes are bad–but if you want your romance to be “important” then they shouldn’t be the entirety of the subplot.) The more separate the subplot is from the rest of the game, the more players will treat it as a minigame of sorts–a minigame whose themes and expectations may not carry over to the broader narrative.

Know what sort of relationship stories you’re telling. Based on the overall themes and sensibilities of your game, do you want operatic romances often doomed to end in tragedy or betrayal? Do you want fantasy fulfillment romances, in which all problems can be eventually overcome through mutual understanding and where blissful coupledom is the natural end? Do you want a naturalistic romance, where problems and misunderstandings accrue, couples can fall apart over time, and the future is always uncertain and relationships always evolving?

You can have some variety, of course, by utilizing different romantic interests and different branches based on player choices. But you’ll want to make sure everything fits with your core “feel.” You’ll want to teach the player what to expect as early as possible (preferably before the relationship even begins), at least in a broad sense–don’t let the player go into a romance expecting the love interest’s flaws to be treated as charming, romcom-esque fodder when you’ve written a cerebral exploration of emotional abuse.

Star Wars: The Old RepublicHow do you indicate to the player what to expect? If your romances are in key with your larger themes, some of the work should be done already. You can also show examples of other characters in relationships to help nail down the tone in the player’s mind and use NPCs to call out expectations directly (“Are you sure you want to get involved with him? He seems funny, but also mean.”)

I advise against attempting a bait-and-switch to surprise the player regarding the general tone of a romance–rather than being awed at the narrative twist, most players will simply become frustrated with the game (and its writers). That doesn’t mean you can’t have surprises, but they should be the kind of surprises a player might expect–if my romcom-style love interest turns out to be married and many misunderstandings and hijinks ensue before the happy ending, great; if my apparent fantasy romance involves the slow deterioration of the relationship because the love interest is wrestling with deep-set problems totally beyond my control, then not-so-great. (I discuss player expectations and theme a bit more here.)

Be especially careful with fantasy fulfillment romances, even in games that are, broadly speaking, power fantasies. A romance that comes without sacrifices, that results in what’s by most definitions a “better” end for the player character, becomes a sort of trophy–and once you start offering up trophies, it’s hard to present not having a trophy as an equally viable option. If your game has the tacit assumption that ending up coupled is always superior, then you’re putting yourself in a position where either a) you need to provide a particularly wide variety of romantic interests to accommodate every taste; or b) you end up encouraging players to romance NPCs they don’t actually like, just to get the “good” result. “A” is a massive pain for the writer. “B” is awful for the player. This isn’t to say that power fantasies are bad–they can, in fact, be empowering–but know what you’re getting into.

Allow multiple entry and exit points. One of the joys of branching narrative is that it allows player characters to change over time. In recognition of this, try to give the player multiple chances to begin or end a given relationship.

Entry points are largely a matter of convenience and a means of reassuring the player that, if a given moment doesn’t feel like the “right time” to start a romance, it doesn’t have to be. Exit points are more important–if the player feels trapped in a romance about which he or she has doubts, that resentment will very likely grow stronger. Simply by presenting an escape route, you acknowledge the player’s doubts and misgivings about the relationship and assure the player that, no, the relationship isn’t intended to seem perfect–there are real problems here, and it’s totally up to the player if he or she wants to try to make it work or to part ways.

Encourage a give-and-take. As with non-romantic relationship-building, make sure that (if your game has branching dialogue) player characters are given opportunities to talk about themselves and their feelings. It’s easy to write an NPC who talks at length about his or her background, relationship with the player character, hopes, fears, and so forth–but to help create a real bond, the player character needs to be able to express the same sorts of things and feel heard.

Allowing the player character to express his feelings about the relationship doesn’t need to be limited to the relationship itself, either. Why can’t the player character’s sidekick (or best pal, or therapist) ask how the relationship is going? Let the player complain or not complain; either way, it helps build up the relationship’s narrative within the player’s mind.

Don’t make assumptions about player reactions. The love interest you intend as charming may come across to some players as sleazy; the love interest you wrote to be shy make come across as frustratingly oblivious. That’s fine–different players should bring different interpretations of the narrative to the table! But make sure you give the player plenty of options to express dislike, disenchantment, or offense at the actions of (potential or current) romantic partners–limiting a player’s options to insist that she like a character tends to change the player’s dislike for a character into a dislike for the game in general.

(Allowing the player character to react negatively can also allow you to change course, if need be; maybe the “charming” love interest turns apologetic when called on his sleaziness and tries to mend fences with the player character. Or maybe not.)

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

Don’t let the complexity of your romance subplots dwarf the rest of the game (or just accept that you’re writing a romance game, not a game with romantic subplots). Make sure that you’ve got a plan for dealing with all entanglements that fit the personalities of all characters involved and doesn’t leave you overworked. If that means finding ways 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 that means establishing polyamory as universal in your game setting with some quick and awkward exposition, do that; if that means reducing the number of romantic interests so that you can have a branch-heavy, nuanced set of interactions between them, go for it! But have some sort of plan.

Build equally strong non-romance content. The more substantial and pervasive your romance subplots, the more important it is to have equally compelling exclusive content for players who choose not to engage in a romance.

Why? Not out of any sense of “fairness,” but because you’ll want to persuade players that they don’t have to engage in a romance to get the game’s full experience. Fail to do so, and you’ll get a lot of players angrily taking up romances they don’t like. This isn’t such an issue if your romance subplots are relegated to small scenes and sidequests here and there, but if they’re heavily integrated into your main plot, this is an issue you should consider.

So how do you build compelling non-romance exclusive content? The most obvious way is to find a different tack to approach the relationship with the same NPC–to develop a platonic friendship or rivalry that’s interesting and rich in its own right and opens up a side of the NPC the romance-involved player never sees. You could acknowledge the player’s choice to not engage in a romance, having other characters questioning that decision and allowing the player to express her reasons. Maybe engaging in a romance blocks off certain other paths altogether–an intense relationship causes the player character’s non-romantic relationships to suffer, say. Anything that reveals a meaningful path in opposition to the romantic choice will feel rewarding to the player.

Try to make it clear to the player that exclusively non-romantic content is exclusive, as well–that the choice not to pursue a romance led to a certain point. Otherwise, the player may still erroneously believe that romance content is an extra, not an alternate path.

Take care when attaching mechanics. Attaching any sort of game mechanics directly to a romantic relationship–anything from a friendship meter to a need to grind content to unlock new relationship “stages”–can be risky. On the one hand, doing so can nicely integrate the relationship with the fundamentals of gameplay. On the other, such mechanics can provide a clear goal and “win point,” strongly encouraging players to push forward regardless of their feelings about the relationship. (Personally, I’m a big believer in using visible mechanics to augment narrative, but be aware that players tend toward optimization!)

Signpost choices and consequences. It’s always wise to signpost branches–to make it clear to the player what sort of choice she’s making before she actually makes it–and with romance subplots, players may be especially frustrated if they inadvertently move down an unintended path. If a player has an option to start flirting with or otherwise pursuing an NPC, make that choice unmistakable; if the player can break up with a love interest, make that clear, too. (I talk more about signposting here.)

Making the intent of an option clear doesn’t mean that the ultimate outcome needs to be obvious. It’s fine for aggressive flirting to turn off a potential love interest while friendly conversation makes the NPC more receptive; but such friendly conversation shouldn’t “activate” a romance without the player making a clear and deliberate choice. (If it leads to the NPC seeing interest where none may exist, that can make for interesting and awkward drama–but then you need to give the player the option to express surprise at being misinterpreted.)

More than anything, avoid leaving the player confused about the status of a relationship, wondering “Why does the game think X?” If the player character is meant to be confused, allow the player to express that confusion.

Don’t try to please everyone. We’ll touch on this more below, but really–don’t. If you want tragic romances in a game where they make sense, run with them and accept that you’ll have a small number of players who simply want a different game. It’s okay not to make a game for everyone–so long as you make it clear early on what game your players are getting.

Linear Techniques in Branching Games

In our last discussion we ran through a long list of techniques for romances in linear games. Let’s review a few of them and whether and how they might be applied in a branching context.

Establish the romance as part of the story’s background. Tricky, but not necessarily a bad idea. This narrows the spectrum of potential player characters considerably, of course, but if the player is given proper exposition and context then there’s no reason he or she won’t willingly buy into the relationship. You just need to show the player that she doesn’t have full ownership of the player character, but rather a small variety of options as to how to play him.

FirewatchYou’ll need to contend with the nature of the relationship itself being indefinite early on, in the same way that a player character’s personality is indefinite before the player has made a good number of choices. You’ll want to use other linear techniques to try to establish the plausibility and likability of the relationship, too–you can’t expect the player to much care about her love interest in this scenario without a good bit of work, and the player may revolt if the love interest isn’t sufficiently compelling and believable. (In other words, don’t expect the romance to matter to the player just because it matters to the player character; you still need to earn it.)

Make the romance engaging and enjoyable and don’t make the romance an obstacle. You’ve got more flexibility on these points in a branching narrative, largely because your player (presumably) chose to get involved in the romance and can back out if it becomes too unpleasant. Making the romance into an obstacle sometimes can add real nuance and test the player’s dedication and willingness to sacrifice.

Nonetheless, if you want the romance to be generally a positive experience, these points should still generally hold true. And if you are going to make the romance into an obstacle, make sure it’s the right kind: Forcing me to, e.g., grind for gift objects in order to maintain my loved one’s affection doesn’t add any narrative depth to the relationship; but dealing with my loved one’s frustrations about whether and how I keep working alongside my ex could strengthen or break the relationship in a story-appropriate way.

Integrate the romance into gameplay. Just as true in branching narratives as in linear ones. If your game has branching dialogue or a similar system, that is gameplay, so you’re probably a step ahead already. But… don’t forget the rest of your gameplay, either.

Make it a one-way street. This is a difficult approach to deploy effectively in a branching narrative–if an NPC is mooning after me, why can’t I just “go for it”? Even if you believe that you’ve established all viable variations of the player character as too shy or obtuse to respond to an NPC’s interest, you’re still setting up a situation where the player gets frustrated by her own character and by the game’s lack of options. Be careful of having any NPC flirt or otherwise express interest in the player character without allowing the player to respond in kind!

(As always, I’m sure there are ways to brilliantly subvert this–maybe you want a game about self-loathing, in which the lack of player options and ensuing frustrations are intentional–but know the risks you’re taking and how horribly wrong things could go.)

Make me feel my romantic interest’s absence. This one’s harder in a branching game, since most players will likely be running through the same scenarios regardless of whether they’re in a given romance or not. But by emphasizing positive, unique traits in the romantic interest you can still make his or her absence felt by separating the player character from his loved one.

The relationship is what you show. Still totally true. Keep in mind, however, that the player is also constructing a parallel narrative of the relationship in her head based on what you show–all the player character’s complicated feelings are in the player’s hands, not yours. Treat that variable with care and respect, and avoid assuming the player is on the page you want her to be.

Remember what your game is really about (not romance). As we’ve discussed, building your romances in the context of a larger story remains vital.

Go vague and archetypal. Sure, why not? It’s your weird game!

Casting for Branching Romances

The Bachelor: The Videogame“Casting” isn’t the right word, but I don’t have a better one. Assuming you want to provide more than one romanceable NPC in your branching game (common but not necessary–there’s no reason all romantic elements couldn’t be placed on a single character), how do you determine what sort of love interests are available? Whether you’re creating NPCs with the intent of making them love interests or figuring out who in an existing cast of characters should have a romance branch, you’re going to need to make some difficult decisions.

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

You can approach this question from a few different angles. You can take a purely meta approach and figure out what sort of characters your players might want to romance–considering your target audience, looking at popular pop culture romance characters, and so forth. This, however, doesn’t guarantee you’ll get anything particularly relevant to your story and themes. Conversely, you can approach the problem from the story side, trying to find relationships and character types that make for particularly interesting drama. Lean on this approach too hard, however, and you may end up with romances that players aren’t interested in actually playing.

Somewhere between these two approaches is one focused on the player character. If you’re writing a branching game, it’s imperative to understand the range of player character personalities you’re permitting and to have an idea of what personalities players are most apt to gravitate toward. These player character archetypes should be appealing in their own right (there’s little point supporting a player character personality that no player will end up role-playing); therefore, if you create romances that appeal to your different player character archetypes, they should (in theory) also appeal to a variety of players and naturally be well-integrated into your themes. Look at your player character possibilities and find relationships that are both attractive and challenging–build love interests that certain player character types would gravitate toward, and that have the potential to bring new depth to your story.

But here’s where we hit a problem: In most games, your cast of characters will not be genderless blobs. If you’re allowing the player to determine the player character’s gender and sexual orientation, then your life gets a lot more difficult.

To an extent, the more your game is interested in exploring gender and gendered relationships as a theme, the easier your job gets. If you’ve got a branching modern-day military RPG that’s deeply engaged in questions of military culture and masculinity, then you’ll probably find that your love interests (of whatever gender and orientation) sort themselves without massive difficulty–their personalities, backgrounds, and subplots will be tied to your core themes and you’d be hard-pressed to easily rewrite, for example, a gay male love interest subplot into a bisexual female subplot in this kind of context. Or imagine a branching game invested in questions of women’s power in 11th-century Germany–again, your love interests are going to have relatively clear thematic roles exploring these ideas.

On the other hand, the more you make gender a nonissue in your world and your central themes, the more your romanceable characters’ subplots may become detached from gender and orientation. If “wisecracking rebel” is a prominent player character archetype for my cyberpunk game, I may decide that “by-the-book member of the establishment” makes for a strong Romeo-and-Juliet-esque romance choice; but should that love interest be male or female? Gay, straight, or bi? Trans or cis? There’s no obvious “best fit” here the way there would be in our medieval German game (where if I want a romance subplot emphasizing male-female cultural power differentials, I’m not going to put it on a gay male love interest). But we need to pick something–or else build multiple love interests who are all pretty much identical, or find a way to procedurally generate the NPC based on the player character, or find some other high-risk or expensive solution. Multiply this out by several different player character archetypes and their potential matches (I need an establishment love interest for the rebel archetype, a cynic for the idealist / reformer, and so on…) and the more you have a challenge.

And of course, the player first creating a player character won’t have any idea what romances may be available in your game–it’s never great to have a player think, “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 problems. There’s no easy solution. Here are a few options to consider:

Achievement Unlocked: So Much Smooching!As discussed previously, beware “trophy” romances without alternatives. If romantic subplots are treated as rewards and sufficiently rich in exclusive content to be superior to non-romantic alternatives, can you blame the player with a lesbian player character for being irritated by the lack of a variety of lesbian or bi love interests? If romances are treated as a thematic or gameplay “win,” creating a world in which straight male player characters (for example) are most likely to achieve their goals (by virtue of having more and more varied love interests) probably isn’t your intent (unless, again, that’s one of the themes you’re going for!) Finally, the more your romances are fantasy fulfillment, the more likely it is that your players will want love interests of their preferred sex (rather than their player characters’ preferred sex).

Reduce the “weight” of the romances to a degree you can support. Maybe you can’t budget 20,000 words apiece for multiple NPCs of every possible variety, but you can budget 2,000 words apiece. This means a very different role for romance in your game, but is that necessarily bad? If you’re not making a romance game and you’re spending disproportionate resources on romances, is that the best use of your time?

Make your non-romance options rich and interesting and full of exclusive content in their own right.

Accept imperfection. Earlier I wrote “Don’t try to please everyone.” This includes you. Your romance subplot casting will probably not have all the variation and diversity that you’d ideally like. On the other hand, your game is not the only game in the world. It probably won’t even be the only game you ever make. Get it right over the long term, and do what you can in the short term.

Consider your target demographics. This is a sensitive topic, and one that requires a more lengthy discussion than I’m prepared to go into here–objectionable use of (often inaccurate) demographic data has done terrible damage to the games industry. That said, it’s always worth considering your content in the light of who’s actually playing your game and what their interests may be, as well as who you want playing your games in the future. When it comes to romance, consider also whether the players most interested in romance subplots form a distinctive demographic in their own right (not just in terms of age, gender, and so on, but also in regards to why they come to your game).

Knowing your audience doesn’t require catering to your audience’s whims. But ignorance of your audience won’t help you reach anyone (old or new).

Restrict player options upfront. If you can’t actually support the variety of player characters you allow the player to make, maybe you need to reduce that variety. If your plot only has one significant NPC and you want romantic tension between that NPC and the player character to be a major source of drama, well… maybe you just don’t let me make a player character who doesn’t fit the plot’s ideal gender and orientation. (Firewatch is a good example of a non-romance branching game that restricts player options in this way.)

Even in a branching game, there’s nothing wrong with telling the player upfront, “For this story to work, you need to play a lesbian” (or a straight man, or a gay man, or whatever); just be sure both parts of that statement are actually true.

Cheat. For games and characters where certain questions of social dynamics are largely pushed aside, there are ways to “cheat” by dynamically adjusting the gender or orientation of NPCs. In a branching dialogue RPG with voiceover, a given love interest is probably going to sound (thanks to the voice actor) male or female, but could have a variety of alternate lines to support his or her identity as gay, bi, or straight, depending on the player’s own choices. In a game without voiceover, text could be dynamically adjusted to result in a whole spectrum of NPCs from one baseline personality.

Of course “cheating” in this fashion has a number of downsides–in addition to the difficulty of implementation, it does make it hard to create NPCs with personalities shaped by the intersection of their culture with their sex and sexuality. For some games and some NPCs, this may be fine; for others, it could be problematic.

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

(Thanks to Andrew, alias Anndru, for the Star Wars: The Old Republic screenshot!)