I want to talk about ways of implementing romanceable NPCs in games like CRPGs, gamebooks, visual novels and so forth. There are three main models for romantic subplot that we normally see, and I’ll be talking about two other ways of approaching romances that put greater emphasis on NPC agency. These include a model used in Sunless Sea, and the model I used in my own cybertext recently published by Choice of Games, Trials of the Thief-Taker. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be using the following definition:
NPC agency: The sense that other characters in a game have their own life and do not wholly revolve around the player character.
The Gift Model
Give the object of your affections enough gifts to raise their romance meter high enough to unlock the romance option. This can be gamified by having gifts worth different things to different subjects (as seen in Fable), or adding a randomised chance of rejection in any given interaction (as seen in The Sims). This model has the benefit of being easy to adapt into a mini-game. It has the drawback of reinforcing the toxic idea that romantic relationships are a deserved reward for gifts and acts of kindness.
The Conversation Model
In a conversation or series of conversations, say the right things to unlock the romance options. This is the most common way of implementing romantic subplots in rpgs and can be seen in everything from Mass Effect to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. On first blush it seems like a good implementation: the romantic partner chooses to submit to the player character’s amorous advances based on what they have to say. But functionally, the player knows that they are unlocking a romantic path (except in those awkward cases where the player stumbles into a videogame relationship just by choosing the most friendly or sympathetic conversation options). This foreknowledge transforms the interaction into an act of manipulation. The player is tailoring their character’s responses in order to win the conversation by presenting themselves in the way they believe the NPC would best respond to.
The Self-Improvement Model
From what I understand of dating sims, it is most common to discover what stats your romance option values and then grind them until you meet their exacting standards. Some games hybridise this with the other approaches: in Dragon Age, you can improve the romance meter by giving gifts, saying the right thing, and acting the right way in front of your chosen one. In a certain sense this respects NPC agency as it shows that other characters have their own tastes and interests and will only accept a romantic partner that meets their conditions. On the other hand, because the player knows this, they are able to change their character into what they imagine the NPC desires. They play-act as what they think is their target’s ideal partner, engaging in a bad faith masquerade where their improvements are purely instrumental.
The most common models of romance in games are all terrible insofar as they follow the pattern of terrible mistakes in relationships. Whether that be expecting sex in exchange for gifts, or proceeding just by saying what you think the other person wants to hear, or transforming your whole self, Sandy-in-Grease-like, to meet someone else’s ideal form. The above three models are most common but also most prone to a sense sleazy manipulation. What can be done? Here are two other possibilities:
The Quest Model
Some games, like Sunless Sea, require you to go to some extreme length before unlocking a romance option. Sailing to the four corners of the ocean to piece together the various MacGuffins in Sunless Sea takes time, thought and will. This forces the player to commit to their decision to pursue an NPC in a way that stockpiling silver necklaces doesn’t. Having the knowledge of what it would take clearly presented to the player allows them a sense of there being options. Some NPC agency can be added here: the NPC has their own goals and furthering your relationship with them is only possible to the degree to which you accept taking on those goals as your own, often to your great inconvenience. Functionally though it’s not particularly dissimilar to the Gift Model especially in that often you’re getting actual stuff for the NPC. Perhaps this is defensible as all you’re unlocking is a characterful tryst.
The Already Too Late Model
What if romance in games was a bit more like how it normally is in real life? By the time you have the opportunity to be in a relationship with someone, you’ve already become the person that you are and unless you engage in chameleon self-deception there’s nothing that you can say to the other person to convince them that you’re actually the sort of person that they desire if they don’t already desire you. This is more honest and less sleazy, but it’s not what people who play games for romance subplots really want. It’s the approach I tried to follow in Trials of the Thief-Taker, which I’ll now discuss.
In TTT there are three possible romance subplots: the rival thief-taker Nia Maddox, the burglar and serial escapee Jack Cyrus, and the social climbing lady of court Nancy Featherbrook. Maddox and Cyrus are both antagonists at the beginning of the game but they can be befriended. By the time the player who does befriend either of them realises that there is a romance option, they have made dozens of unrelated choices that have set in place their personality and place in the world. If the player at that stage isn’t what Maddox or Cyrus are interested in, or if they have committed acts that the other finds completely unacceptable, there is no romance possibility and only when it is too late will the player know what they did to shut off that avenue. This is the Already Too Late Model.
The romance with Featherbrook is similar but works a little bit differently. Featherbrook is very forthcoming about what she wants in a partner: she is interested in marrying into the nobility. The player of course only learns about this after they have already chosen their gender and social standing. At this stage though, the player character has the choice of lying to her if they aren’t the son of a baron or if they are the daughter of a baron in disguise as a man. They can jump through the other hoops of presenting themselves well at the masquerade ball and so forth until the proposal scene where their lies are undone (for, of course, Featherbook must eventually meet the family). The player is given a final chance to succeed in the relationship by presenting their establishment credentials as a replacement for nobility. But of course, by that stage it’ll only work if they have such credentials. They only know what they need to do when it is already too late.
In this subplot, the manipulation is blatant and the player knows that their character is engaged in a deception (and indeed there are many such characterful opportunities for lying in the game). While they may be consciously deceiving another, they are not deceiving themselves. Here the player knows that their character is acting dishonestly, whereas the norm in game romances is for the player to roleplay someone who is deceiving others while deceiving themselves that they are acting in earnest.
Commercially this model, at least as I implemented it, is a failure. As far as I can tell from very brief app store reviews, most players didn’t realise that there were romance options, and most of those that did realise still found it impossible to unlock them. It may have been honest and less unintentionally slimy, but it isn’t what the market wants. Most gamers have quite straightforward demands revolving around wish fulfilment. Such are the waters we swim in!
Next up… expectations of agency.