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Using rivalry and respect to push video game romances forward
Using rivalry and respect to push video game romances forward
March 18, 2014 | By Mike Rose

March 18, 2014 | By Mike Rose
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    10 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, GDC



For Chris Dahlen of Mad*Pow, romances in video games are great and all... but what if we explored relationships that didn't exist within a single integer?

On the Narrative track at GDC today, Dahlen noted that most romances within video games occur on a 1-to-maximum scale, where 1 is meeting the person, and maximum is the score necessary to have them fall in love with you. Take Persona 4, for example, or a BioWare game like Mass Effect.

"It gives you the idea that you just want to be really nice and tell people what they want to hear," noted the writer. "But life doesn't work that way... You're gaming the character instead of engaging with them."

Instead, he reasoned, what if we approach video game romances from a two-integer angle? He put forward the notion of ranking romances in games by both "rivalry" and "respect."

At the beginning of the game, the person may feel like a rival to you, but as you both go through specific scenarios, you slowly find respect for each other and the rivalry dissipates, allowing the potential for attraction.


"You can't just have a love interest who is always, 'Oh my god you are the greatest.'"
What this means is that, rather than just doing good things to your potential romance interest to make them fall in love with you, you might choose to go against their wishes at times in order to later gain their respect through your decisions.

This also provides the opportunity for insulting and taking cheap shots at your potential love interest as, rather than putting them off as in most games, you end up stoking the rivalry and it may pay off in the long run.

"You can't just have a love interest who is always, 'Oh my god you are the greatest,'" reasons Dahlen. "So one slider doesn't seem to do it."

Story elements that revolve around themes like teamwork, surprise and choice can help to push characters towards varying conclusions, he reasoned. And Dahlen also discussed character creation as a way to push video game romances forward. Usually we're able to create our own character, but rarely can be choose what the NPCs look like.

Dahlen argued that allowing players to choose what your romantic interests look like may well lead to better story arcs in game, if we find ourselves caring about them more. "Let people choose what the person looks like through character creation," he said. "Let them pick it out."


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Comments


Maria Jayne
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The problem with video game romances is that the "goal" ends up being measured by a numerical win value. Then because it's a game this is shown on some kind of meter or number in a statistic somewhere. Either intentionally or revealed via data mining in a guide somewhere.

A real relationship has no statistic you can measure it by, there are no steps to repeat in order to achieve success. It's organic and fluid, changing with the mood and whim of both parties and prone to outside influences.

How do you translate the myriad complexity of an actual relationship into a binary sum? That requires a reliable outcome to understand it is working as intended.

You suggest starting off as rivals but I immediately translate that into starting at -100 on the "like" scale instead of 0. With the objective to reach like set at 100. As with most bioware games that 100 equals a win condition. Yay let's copulate to an awkwardly wooden animation cut away etc..

I feel like having no statistical representation in game or possible to data mine would make a truer representation of an actual relationship. Making unbalanced, sometimes confusing outcomes as you fumble between like and dislike more guesswork and uncertainty orientated (again like a real relationship).

However I suppose many people would hate the lack of true definition to their actions and seek to turn it into a formula. I just can't help feeling the only way we can represent a more diverse type of relationship is if we stop giving ways for gamers to measure it via an achievable score.

Jake Forbes
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I liked Chris's suggestion of measuring rivalry and respect as a foundation for a sparks-flying rom com. It seems like something that would work best under the hood, especially, as Chris talked about in his panel, a good romantic arc isn't measured by linear progress, but faces a crisis before it gets better. If you surface the system, either the drama becomes disconnected from the stats -- as in stats say you're on the right track, but for the sake of story, we're going to tell you there's a crisis, so just bear with us -- or else the player needs to accept that the stats can ebb and flow and that's all right, which is a little weird and fighting against the stream of expectations. Probably best left in a black box. Chris mentioned he's working on his romance using Choice Script which allows you to surface or hide stats -- curious to see which stats gets surfaced.

You're absolutely right that games need more messy relationships. If a love story is a side plot to a 30 hour space opera, sure, keeping it low-risk as a way some spice and personal expression is great. But lets also see games that ask players to be vulnerable, to bare their hearts and risk rejection, to see romance as a journey and not a puzzle with a prize. I'm guessing we'll find more success there with sandboxes and simulations, which needs a lot more stats than just rivalry and respect, and the results will be messy (like a real relationship). As Chris used as his icebreaker, right now we can ask our fellow gamers, "who did you romance?" and if we say the same NPC, chances are, we had a pretty similar "courtship." I'm looking forward to more conversations about the crazy/tender/heartbreaking experiences that make each player's experience unique.

Dan Fabulich
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I'd say that the whole point of the talk is that you don't use a "like" scale. In Chris's model, you're still attracted to your rival even if rivalry is extremely high; sparks are flying. It's explicitly not the player's objective to decrease rivalry in order to increase attraction/"like."

William Johnson
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"...what if we approach video game romances from a two-integer angle?"

@Maria, What you say makes sense but from the above statement I got that he didn't want a linear path either 0 to 100 or -100 to 100. He appears to be suggesting that you have two variables. Rivalry & Respect. A certain cocktail of the two, depending on the character you're attempt to hit on, MIGHT yield a relationship.

I agree that relationships are messy and rarely make sense. Translating a "real" feeling relationship would be hard to do unless the storyline was already there for them to fall for you in the first place. For them to fall for you based on your actions makes things complicated but I feel that the idea of a two variable method might make it more realistic feeling than "if i worship them and do what they want from me then that will make them want me and they will be mine" which is typically a huge turn off for most of the opposite sex. They want a challenge not a puppy dog.

If I might suggest something else to add to the mix, a third variable which is simply a random number that continuously changes to represent the spontaneous/sporadic element of falling in love. It could be a high point for you two, getting along well & challenging each other at the same time but that doesn't mean that you'll fall in love. In my opinion, this would be the closest to realistic a relationship in game can be.

I'll leave you with this: Is being that realistic fun/worthwhile for the player?

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Bart Stewart
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"But life doesn't work that way... You're gaming the character instead of engaging with them."

Which is precisely what most players of games want and expect.

Relationship play needs some internal structural rules, otherwise it's just random. Those rules don't need to be super-simple (and thus obviously gameable), nor do they always have to insure the possibility of a "win" state. I'd personally enjoy seeing that form of simulated relationship play.

But that's not what most of today's gamers enjoy. I'm pretty confident that these folks will not understand, appreciate, or say kind things about a game whose rules for success are not obvious and that does not guarantee the chance to win by "getting" any romantic target.

What I'm saying is that I support the idea of having some games that make relationships messier and deeper and more emotionally satisfying as a result. Just don't expect such games to appeal to the majority of today's gamers. I'm not saying they should -- I'm saying they won't, and that game designers should not expect deeper games to be appealing to the mass audience for whom "fun" requires clarity of rules and the certainty of winning through persistent effort.

William Johnson
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"What I'm saying is that I support the idea of having some games that make relationships messier and deeper and more emotionally satisfying as a result. Just don't expect such games to appeal to the majority of today's gamers."

I agree. Dating sims and rpgs, which are typically the genre where this topic would be relevant, are niche' to begin with. Not to say Mass Effect, with it's rpg elements, is a niche' title because it has the option to "woo" specific characters. My point is this, the type of player that is looking to play a game for this type of a system would most likely enjoy the notion of a more realistic simulation of wooing other characters. Grant it, would it be fun remains to be seen. I'd like to see something like this in a game to see how it would play out. Definitely an interesting concept when thinking about relationships between characters, romantic or otherwise.

The writer's notion of giving the player the option of creating what the npcs look like is also an interesting idea. I can definitely see people wanting to create their dream girl(who might be modeled after some love interest of theirs) and sim that. To go on adventures with the woman you love/like but can't reach in real life but might be able to woo in this....sounds like the basis of roleplaying and I think might do surprisingly well if done correctly.

Jake Forbes
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Lt. Barclay can vouch for that approach.

Luis Guimaraes
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Agreed.

If one's making a Dating Sim, not putting a lot of resources and thought in the design of the Dating Simulation makes no sense at all.

Josiah Manson
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Why stop at 2 variables and why make them integers? This post says that the typical model of relationships in games is too simplistic, but suggests a replacement that almost equally simplistic. I can respect a rival independent of my attraction to them. As others have said, a linear plot could simply be written better with dips and turns, whereas a dating sim needs to be more complex.


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