Romance in (unromantic) games: linear plots

Here is a translation of the article by Alexander Frid "Writing Romance in (non-Romance) Games: Linear Romances" (the first of two). The author is a game designer, writes novels and comics. By the way, now he is working on the novelization of Outcast One, and his track record includes the position of lead screenwriter at BioWare ( Star Wars: The Old Republic and Shadow Realms projects ).

A few notes:
  • The lack of a unified terminology in game design is in some way a fact, because where it seemed to me necessary, links to sources of words are indicated. Separately, in terms of narrative design terms, there is a good translation of an article by Thomas Gripe.
  • Links to other articles from the Frida blog are saved.
  • The choice of pictures is on the conscience of the author of the article; I just put on them links to the games themselves for the curious.
  • The article itself is somewhat confused, but those interested in game scripting, in my opinion, will be useful.

Oh, this romance!

Love lines have always been difficult to describe. If we talk about their relevance to linear media - just think how many excellent films and novels have suffered from the unconvincing, weak or even unnecessarily romantic component in everything else? Add to this the complexity of implementing an interactive narrative - and it is not surprising that romance is constantly doing poorly.

But all this is not a reason to abandon the romantic storylines in general, and it is obvious that the real gold mine is hidden here. So what should we, as game writers, think when introducing an element of romance into projects? What pitfalls await us, and what specific game problems will you have to solve?

I will divide this into at least two parts: first, I will analyze games with a non-branching plot, and in the next article I will concentrate on the love line in the branching narrative (perhaps in the interval I will focus on some other points). However, before we get to all this, let's clarify the context a bit ...

I didn’t notice the elephant

All this is a huge layer of material, and we only touch on its parts.

Leisure Suit Larry 5Namely, we are interested in games, the main focus of which is not on romance . Many of the tips below do not apply if you are writing an adventure game with a plot about the development of specific romantic relationships, a party organizer simulator, where creating couples is the main mechanics, dating simulator or any other game where deleting a love line will deprive you of an essential part of the rest of the plot and leave almost no gameplay. True, many tips can still remain useful in such cases - just be sure to consider everything in the right context.

I also suggest that you want to see a romantic relationship as a meaningful and carefully crafted part of the narrative (and if your conceived love line is tantamount to the relationship between Mario and Princess Peach, my advice is unlikely to be useful to you). And yet you should be able to describe something romantic in more traditional formats. If you still do not know how to solve the main problems - how to set the pace of relations, how to give an object of romantic interest an attractive and convincing character, how to create a romantic dialogue, how to avoid gender stereotypes, and so on - then this article will not help you. We will only consider the romantic relationship between a player’s character and non-player characters. If you are considering how to clearly show the romantic relationship between the NPCs, then this is a worthy task,any relationship between two NPCs - because the player looks at all the romantic relationships with his own eyes. The main thing is how these relations relate to the protagonist. Perhaps this is worthy of a separate article.

We will not discuss in detail the audio, visual or technical aspects of the implementation of romantic relationships in a narrative, although we will touch on all this in several places. This is also an interesting topic for discussion (you can easily write an article or two about character design as objects of romantic interest - both for players and their characters, and so on), but not today.

We will not talk specifically about sex. Since games focused on filing love lines do not interest us, and since it is assumed that you can write well and have good taste, filing sex scenes should be the easiest part compared to everything else.

We will talk about romantic storylines of all stripes - not only about "fantasy" love. Delicate, complex, and even disastrous relationships are all good as a complement to a good storytelling, and we will highlight a few problems that are characteristic of unhealthy or simply non-superpositive love relationships.

The main idea that we will come back to again and again isuse a romantic relationship just as you would use any other important topic within a larger narrative . The difference between embedding elements of romance and embedding elements of horror in your military shooter is not so significant. Nevertheless, the players expect a lot from a romantic relationship, and react strongly to them, which raises the stakes - and the probability of derailing the entire narrative.

Games with a non-branching plot

Realizing a romantic relationship in games with a non-branching plot is easier than in games with a branching plot. But “just” does not mean “easy,” and there can be many problems.

Sid Meier's Railroad TycoonPlease note that I use the word “non-branching” instead of “linear” in order to include, for example, open-world games that do not have branching storylines. One can argue whether Assassin's Creed or Grand Theft Auto are games with a linear plot, but if they do not have many different story lines, they relate to games with a non-branching plot.

In the world of AAA games, non-branching stories have a very poor reputation for filing romantic relationships. Very often, the whole love line comes down to “you killed my dog”or the battered “obligatory romantic Hollywood plot,” and none of this adds realism to what is happening or the depth of character of the characters. These are not the approaches that you can easily get rid of just by making mental efforts, but let's assume that you still have ambitions and you tried to avoid all this.

But let's get down to business.

Make sure this is definitely a good idea.

First of all, the risk of including romantic relationships in a game with a non-branching plot is as follows: the narrative in the game is most powerful when the player’s motivation and emotions are synchronized with the character’s motivation and emotions ; while love and attraction are difficult to adequately reproduce for the players.

It’s one thing to make me (as a player) determine whether I like a non-player character or whether I hate him, but it’s quite another (and much more difficult) to make me feel attractedto someone (assuming that I am generally attracted to individuals of the same gender as this NPC). My ability to empathize with the protagonist’s relationship and the ability to enjoy the flow of relationships from an exciting drama (for example, when reading a book or watching a movie) is less important in the game than my ability to penetrate the character’s head.

If you fail to adequately include a romantic line in the plot - and risk that the player will be disappointed and distance himself from his character. “Why is this,” our hypothetical player asks, “ does my character spend so much time chasing this type that is definitely terrible (or just not my type)?” I do not want to do this. I want to shoot aliens again. ”

If you think that adding a relationship element to your plot is worth the risk, there are ways to avoid such problems or at least mitigate them. In this case, you do not need to use all the tools listed below. Most likely, you will not want to. But each individually is a way to smooth out such situations.

Create a strong personality for the player character

Very often, a game narrative “captivates” a player by setting certain expectations in the early stages. If you are going to put the player’s character in a romantic situation, make sure that the player understands from the very beginning - he will not be able to project his own personality and motives on the character. That is, that the personality of the player’s character is largely predetermined, and that the player does not so much enter the character as accompanies him. The more control a player has (as it seems to him), the more he will be disappointed if the character does something uncharacteristic for the player.

And make sure that the personality of the player’s character looks good not only on paper, try to make the details as clear as possible! That is, players will less resist the love line for a player character like Nathan Drake (a person with a well-defined character) than for a character like Gordon Freeman (silently and entirely projected by the player onto himself). Nevertheless, we will talk about truly vague or passive protagonists in the section “Follow the One-Way Road Principle” below.

Uncharted 4The more power a player feels over his character (and, if you expand the concepts, over his romantic relationships), the more likely he will be unhappy at those moments when a romantic relationship develops without his control (“I don’t evenlike - why are we kissing? ”). Of course, there is a downside to reducing this power. Power is a powerful and valuable tool to enhance player engagement. When changing something, make sure that the game is worth the candle.

Create a strong personality for an object of romantic interest

This item is inextricably linked to the previous one. To achieve this goal, you need to convince the player that his character and the object of romantic interest should attract each other - because of the characteristics of their characters. In this case, the situation makes sense , even if the player does not like it. If a player has ever asked the question “What did my character find in him / her?”, Then you have serious problems.

You may not be able to create an emotional connection between the player and his character, but at least you can hook the player on an intellectual level (which, in turn, can lead to audience sympathy for the protagonist - this can be found in traditional art forms). This works well for complex or doomed relationships - if the attractiveness is obvious and convincing, the player will be more inclined to agree with the plot than to be disappointed in it.

How to arrange all this in practice? Great conversations will help. If good-natured jokes look funny and read easily in the event of a conversation between the player’s character and his romantic interest, and not between anyone else, or if the player’s character and his passion share special interests that no one else has, then this can be started. Do not rely on appearance, or some vague charismatic “feeling”, or mystery - if you can’t look at the dialogue and finally say: “Well, maybe I personally don’t like this choice, but it definitely suits the hero!” - then you tried not enough.

Make the love line part of the story background

Shadow of mordorThe statement that the player’s character was already involved in some kind of relationship with the object of his romantic interest before the start of the game can help bribe the player. He may not like what is happening, but he will not ask questions about the choice of the character - unlike the case when the relationship begins already during the game.

It is worth noting that this is not a reason not to do the preparatory work. You still need to convince the player that these characters are really perfect for each other. This method just makes the persuasion process a little easier.

Make the love line attractive and enjoyable

Is this really necessary to say? Yes need. The more the love line resembles something that I want to see, the more fun, heart-warming, burning in all this (however, be careful here, given the diversity in the orientation of the players and their interests) and the like, the more captivating are romantic relationships, and the sooner I agree to accept them as part of the story. Make me grin when two characters joke with each other. Make me smile when two shy characters flaccidly flirt with each other. Make me chuckle nervously - in horror, looking at the antics of two in love villains. If it amuses me, I will consider that it amuses also my character, and I will give him more freedom.

It is here that many games failed, representing potential lovers tragically separated, or giving relationships extremely difficult, and even in stressful, stressful conditions. This will not make the player positively relate to the love line as it is - at best, he will only want to alleviate the character’s pain. If your goal is to make me want romance, make it something worthy of desire .

There is talk of “bad” romantic relationships, this method has its limitations. When a relationship has significant flaws and is doomed from the start, you cannot truly make themwelcome. But this can play an important role in emphasizing the positive side of the situation. Bad relationships without any compensating features are not too believable or interesting.

Make an object of romantic interest one that you cannot help but love

candy Crush SagaI personally don’t like this technique, but it can work : clean out all the roughnesses of the object of romantic interest, make sure that he or she constantly supports the player’s character (but does not suffer from excessive servility and lack of sense of humor), give this character a sparkling, but harmless sense of humor, and never let seriously argue, lie or put your interests above the interests of me as a player. Make this character attractive and don't give the player the slightest chance of not loving him.

The problem with this approach is that in the end you will not get a particularly interesting character, and you unwittingly got rid of most of the potential to create a brilliant emotional drama. You give the player sweet cotton candy, and this rarely affects the plot, which has some kind of meaning.

I will not lie: people love sweets. But you are above that, aren't you?

Do not make the love line an obstacle

On the other hand, you need to be extremely careful when turning your love line into an obstacle - well, an obstacle in front of anything a player might want. Little is more annoying for a player than an obstacle in his way. Does this impede the progress of the storyline (mission in which I must save my love instead of killing the alien leader)? Does it distract me from the gameplay (long romantic cutscenes that do not directly affect the plot, or an object of romantic interest that wants to protect me from danger)? Does this introduce elements of despondency into my gaming experience (escort missions!)? When you turn your love line into an obstacle, you run the risk of irritating the player with romance as a whole due to a discrepancy with the narrative.

The rescue of princess blobetteAnxiety, no matter how significant it is outside the game, is another hurdle. In addition, it is difficult to file it properly - and it is extremely difficult to make the player and his character dry by the NPC or suffer together from the loss of lovers. And it is not easy to give the player the opportunity to do a lot in such cases. Games are an active experience, and while the emotionally suffering characters of the player as a whole are in order, you can easily find what to do with the player, show in which direction to move him.

I do not want to say that you can never give a love line as an obstacle. But it works best when the player is already bribed by the idea. If I am forced to go astray in order to save my object of romantic interest, it is worth making mereally interested in this character. And this is not so much about the player’s character, but about the player himself.

Integrate the love line into the gameplay

This is closely related to the previous paragraphs (see also the section “Remember what your game is really about” below). If your love line does not affect gameplay, it is by definition an obstacle to the main gaming experience.

However, “integration” and “impact” can mean many things. The player’s character’s romantic interest object is a helpful helper whose presence is pleasant and logical throughout the game. Is a character's passion a voice giving advice or instructions? Funny adversary to fight with? Do different levels of gameplay demonstrate aspects of the soul of an object of romantic interest? “Relationship mechanics” is built into the gameplay, and the more specific actions a player performs (protects his assistant, who is simultaneously an object of romantic interest, picks flowers, and so on), the stronger the relationship becomes and the more bonuses the player’s character gets?

Be very careful when using a romantic plot as a contrasting element to the main plot of the game, and as a result, consider romance as a passive gaming experience that the player addresses between the “real” parts of the game. Try not to make a speed bump out of romance. If you want my tough player to return to his spouse between missions, do not make passive cutscenes from this - find a way to captivate the player and make this experience relevant to the rest of the game.

Follow the One-Way Road Principle

Or ... do things differently. This works well with the relatively vague player characters - the silent protagonist and the like - and it becomes incredibly awkward the more the character and personality develops. An object of romantic interest that adores a player’s character can be a powerful detail - players tend to respond well to flattery and admiration, and to feel welcome , even if they don’t really want it. I will probably sympathize with a well-written and interesting character who is clearly (without horror elements and without excessive secrecy) in love with me.

Of course, you will need to explain why the player’s character does not respond to these feelings (neither accepts nor rejects them). For silent protagonists who are in an elusive relationship, everything is fine, but in the case of more active characters, you may need to put a real barrier to communication (the relationship is literally one-sided, and the object of romantic interest can talk to the player’s character, but not vice versa).

As mentioned, you need to be really careful to avoid feeling terrified when using this method. For this reason, I highly recommend not trying to invert the situation - the adoring player character and the passive / silent / dead object of romantic interest will most likely lead to a feeling of painful dominance.

Make you feel the lack of an object of romantic interest

Love is tension. If you want to convey this tension, make sure that the player feels when the player’s character and the object of his romantic interest are apart.

Max payneIf we assume that romantic relationships are presented in a positive way, then emphasize the positive moments when the object of romantic interest is present, and the negative ones when it is absent. For example, if I have a companion that is an object of romantic interest, and the relationship is based on passion and rivalry, make sure that the missions that I go through with this companion are incredibly exciting and generally the best, and those without it are somewhat dull, the character feels lonely or forced to act cautiously. Make sure that many of the best moments (no matter how you define the word “best”) go exactly together with an object of romantic interest, so I will always want to return to him or her. You do not need,

If the relationship is extremely painful, go in the opposite direction: no matter how good life becomes in the presence of an object of romantic interest, I should feel better when this character is not nearby.

Relationships are what you show

If you show only disputes, nagging as a relationship, or if one of the partners is in trouble and disappoints the other, then these are the moments that will determine the relationship. You cannot express a healthy, vibrant, warm relationship if most of the time two characters show completely opposite things. Make sure that whatever the nature of your relationship is, it will be the highlight in most scenes.

Remember that credibility is not a panacea

Let's go back to what has already been mentioned several times: even if you convinced me that the relationship between the player’s character and the NPC is believable , this does not mean that I will like this relationship or the object of romantic interest. You still need to convince me that I can like any character, regardless of its credibility. The development of character, behavior and ability to like, by itself, does not become less important in relation to the character already in the relationship.

If you are trying to create a “bad” relationship, be careful and don't reduce it to annoyance.. You probably want the player to suffer, not being sure if he wants to be in this relationship to the end. In this case, you most likely will still need to emphasize the positive aspects of the situation so that they prevail over the negative ones (both in the relationship as a whole and in the object of romantic interest) - because unlike in real life, the relationships in the game “turn sour” quickly . The player has not invested so much in their development - why cling to something bad?

Remember what your game is really about (not about relationships)

If you are doing a first-person shooter, your game is most likely about violence. If you are doing an RPG, your game may be about exploration or the pursuit of power. Your game is about what the basic mechanics that you have chosen are seasoned and guided - or limited - by your narrative. More often than not, this means that your game is not about romance.

Therefore, make sure that adding a romantic relationship to your game fits well - and is an auxiliary element - in the main topics. The idea “the power of love defeats everything” at the end of your shooter, most likely, will not take off. After all, you just created 10 hours of gameplay stating that the power of shooting at people defeats everything, and then you added a third-party romantic plot - and you expect me to be concerned about this as a player?

For whatever reason you include romantic relationships in your game, you need to put them in the appropriate place in your narrative. Do not invest in this idea more than it can give, and remember that the “exhaust” is determined mainly by the integration of the idea into the gameplay (as mentioned above).

Use vagueness and archetypes

PassageAre you looking for a way to ignore almost all of the above and still successfully integrate the love line into the game? I am sure that there are ways. Perhaps you should play on the power of archetypes - a game like Passage still evokes emotions, despite the lack of crutches like the "actually existing" characters. Or you can rely on symbolism. Perhaps your “romantic relationship” is entirely hidden in the subtext, and the text itself allows you to give a completely platonic definition of the relationship between the player’s character and the NPC. Or maybe procedural generation and smart mechanics can create a compelling love line in the context of a roguelike game!

The article devotes a lot of time to examining examples of the traditional love line in games with the usual course of narration. But there are probably many more unreasonable ways of plot presentation - maybe it is in your project that you should try to create something new?

In the end, add a choice

And finally - as a saving straw: even in a game with a non-branching plot in all other cases, nothing prevents you from making the love line optional. For example, giving the player the opportunity to "agree" or "abandon" the relationship in any way appropriate to the gameplay. Of course, this does not mean that you do not need to make a romantic relationship convincing, but simply allow your players to avoid the part of the plot that is not suitable for them (at least until you have connected the love line with exclusive content or significant advantages).

Such romantic relationships, of course, cannot play a significant role in your narrative - otherwise they could not be made optional. And we will consider all the features of much more complex branching relationships - for example, what various options for romantic relationships should be used, how to manage the player’s expectations, and how to offer non-romance content as a reward for this, but another time.

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