What Is Love || A Game Romance Case Study || Part I
Updated: Feb 16
I’ve played a lot of games with romance options — it feels like every other game released has a romantic subplot now — and there are very distinctly good romance mechanics and bad romance mechanics throughout different games. Still, I’ve never been able to pin down a rhyme or reason as to what differentiates them. I want to find that difference, not because I’m dead-set on writing trashy romantic visual novels (though we all secretly enjoy the occasional trashy visual novel), but because I think it will help me understand how to make my games better.
Romance is universally engaging, and I think looking at how it's portrayed in games can help me create intriguing and real-feeling characters as well as discover new ways to use narrative to engage players. Through this series of blogs, I'm going to do just that: dissect romance systems in games to better understand what about them motivates players.
What am I researching?
The parameters of my research can largely be narrowed down to “games that allow the player to romance NPCs.” I’m specifying that these are games that include romance mechanics and not “romance games” because there are a lot of good romance mechanics out there in games where romance is not the selling point. I’m choosing to judge those games by the level of agency the player has in romantic interaction, the depth of romance options, and player reward for pursuing romance. To clarify those things a bit and explain how they will be useful to my study:
This is how many options the player has. Are there two romanceable characters, or twenty? Do dialogue options boil down to yes-no answers, or does the player have opportunities to drastically change the course of an interaction?
How impactful is the romance in the landscapes of narrative and mechanics? Do gameplay decisions outside of dialogue play into romance, and vice-versa?
What incentive does the player have to pursue romance options? Is the narrative that springs from it rewarding in itself? Are there mechanical benefits to romance, or choosing to romance specific characters over others? Does it all just lead up to an awkwardly animated sex scene?
I think these criteria are a good place to start in terms of weeding out “good” romance. At the very least, choosing to research games that have at least some element of agency, depth, and reward will get me closer to understanding romance mechanics than games that don’t.
What I'm not researching...
I’m going to be excluding visual novels and puzzle games like HuniePop (Hunie-likes?) from my research. Both of these types of games technically allow the player to experience some form of romantic interaction, but the player has little to no agency in how this plays out.
While the quality of the experience of a visual novel stems directly from the writing, there just isn't a depth of choice present in most that I feel would benefit me to explore. That being said, there a lot of games — specifically, many RPGs — that have visual novel elements to them. Those are still fair game, as the aspects of gameplay that fall outside of the narrative delivery devices can range wildly and offer a large breadth of experiences.
I’m choosing to exclude vaguely sex-themed puzzle games for the same reason. The gameplay in HuniePop largely consists of impressing anime girls with your Bejeweled skills until their clothes come off, and there is no significant interaction the player can have with the characters that does not involve or prepare them for the puzzle game. I don’t believe there’s anything I stand to gain from studying match-three games for their narrative depth.
What to expect...
My goal is to explore the topic of romance systems in non-dating sim games through a series of semi-regular blogs. I'll be diving into the history of romance in video games, playing staples of the genre, and dissecting everything I find until I'm able to come to an answer to the burning question:
What drives romance games beyond the illusion that a human being loves you?