Part nineteen in a weekly(💖) devlog.
Standard development disclaimers apply. This is pre-pre-Alpha
content, everything is subject to change, features may not be present in
the final version, there's a strong chance none of this will ever
be released, etc. etc.
There shouldn't be any plot
spoilers in these posts, but there will be occasional discussions related
to characters, locations, mechanics, and other aspects of my potential
upcoming Shadowrun campaign (tentatively titled "CalFree in Chains").
You may wish to skip them if you'd like to be completely surprised.
I have a standard spoiler disclaimer at the top of each of these posts, but I should re-iterate it for this one in particular. This post is about the design of the romances in CFiC. There isn’t technically any plot information here, but it does talk about the arcs and general content of the relationships, so if you’re going to skip any of these devlog posts, this would be the one to skip. (Assuming you might actually pursue one of the romances, that is. It’s totally safe to read if you aren’t planning on accessing this completely-optional content.)
I've been continuing work on the hub, and this week wrapped up the remaining work on the romance tracks: there's a little bit of romance content on missions (occasional flirting and a few small reactive lines), but the bulk of romance material happens during the quieter down time between runs back at your home base. There is a whole lot of talking and a little bit of action involved.
I wrote at length in my Caldecott post-mortem about developing those romances. It’s now been almost exactly two years since Caldecott was released, and the single greatest surprise to me has been the response to the romances: in particular, the fact that the feedback has been universally positive. I was NOT expecting that at all - I was anticipating a great deal of complaining and negativity. I was prepared to cut all romance content out of the mod, and before release I told myself that, if I got more positive comments than negative, I’d consider it a success.
Of course, this isn’t at all to say that everyone likes it - odds are good that quite a few people dislike them and just kept their thoughts to themselves. But overall, I feel like my design goals have been pretty successful. The gating and on-ramping help eliminate people who aren’t interested in the romance content in the first place, so the people who actually get to that part of the story have, in a sense, self-selected for it. And the feedback has been pretty positive about the various dimensions of those plots: the characters themselves, the actual romance, and the integration with the main story of the game, all of which were important to me.
So, given that (a) I’d really enjoyed writing the romances, and (b) people seemed to be liking them, I immediately knew that I wanted to create some new ones for CFiC. But I wanted to avoid just rehashing the Caldecott system - even though it had worked well, I didn’t think it would be nearly as effective the second time around, and knew that I should do something new to interest players. I also looked at it as an opportunity to stretch myself and try some things that I hadn’t felt comfortable doing the first time around.
One big aspect of this that I’ve thought about a lot is the physical interaction between the player character and the love interest. As I wrote in my previous post, I was a little surprised to discover that accommodating different metatypes was more difficult than accommodating different genders: just working out how two bodies meet in physical space in a reactive environment presents interesting challenges. In that game, my eventual solution was the awesome power of vagueness. I tried to craft scenarios where those differences would become less relevant, add a few specific concrete details to maintain the sense of touch, and write in such a way to make it clear that sexy things were happening without being too graphic about who put what where.
This more or less worked - I was able to write the romance scenes without needing to create ten different versions, and players haven’t seemed to mind the result. But, it’s one aspect that I particularly wanted to revisit. Those romance scenes are some of the purplest prose that I’ve ever written, and my prose is fairly purple to begin with! It also just didn’t seem like a good writing technique in general. When writing, particularly fiction, it’s usually best to draw attention to detail, to make things vivid. Vagueness is kind of the opposite of that. So, I had a new goal: try to create romance scenes that were a bit more explicit - not turning out hardcore smut, of course, but recognizing that, say, this is your petite elven lad or your hulking ork matron in bed, and not just an abstraction.
So, some aspects of this are pretty easy. I’m already using reactive branching dialogue throughout the game: people will respond to you differently if you’re a human or troll or whatever, and that exact same system can be used for more intimate scenes like this. Instead of eliding the differences, I can highlight them, which hopefully will make the experience feel more personalized and real.
However, once I started going down that route, I ran into another complication, this time about sexual roles. If I was going to pull back the curtain a bit on what’s going on, then it’ll also become clearer how things are progressing, and that has some pretty huge implications for roleplaying and players’ self-perceptions.
If this was a game with a predefined protagonist, like Planescape: Torment or Final Fantasy VII, then I’d feel comfortable deciding the character’s preferences and just presenting them: “This is X, and he/she likes Y.” But, that doesn’t feel right for a game like this where players have such a high level of customization of their characters. They can already select their metatype, their skin tone, their hairstyle, their face, their class, and have been developing a personality throughout the dozens or hundreds of small choices they’ve made throughout the game. Given all that, it would feel very jarring if I were to suddenly pop in and say “Oh, and by the way, your character is a top! Have fun!” Why would this one personal thing be predetermined when so many other things have been variable?
People play RPGs for different reasons and have different goals in creating a character. I think it’s very common, particularly among younger players, to try and create someone who mirrors themselves: they’ll try and build a character that comes as close as possible to what they look like in real life, and will use the game as an exercise to see what they would do if they were dropped into this strange situation. Others use it as a fantasy exercise of playing against type, building a character who is as DIFFERENT to them as possible (e.g., an alter-ego who lies and cheats and steals and does all the things you’d never do in real life). Sometimes people like to model their character on another inspiration, like making a “Han Solo type” or “Glory-esque runner”. And finally, some people create truly bespoke characters, following the emergent storyline in the game and their own muse to make a fully original character.
All that to say, I think that presentation of sexuality is especially important for people who are designing a character in their own image. Obviously it will never be an exact match, but it might feel like a sort of betrayal if they’ve already identified themselves with their characters and then find that their character cannot be like them.
So, uh, what do? The superficial answer is “let the player choose”. There isn’t any in-game UI for this, but I’m already doing something kind of similar in selecting romanceable genders via an in-game dialogue, and you can imagine something similar that would delve deeper into preferences.
The more I thought about this, though, the less I liked it. It would feel really clunky and immersion-breaking. Furthermore, it’s a fundamentally open-ended situation, which is really hard to do in a CRPG. I, personally, have an extremely limited range of experiences; I’m aware of quite a few more possibilities, and I’m sure that there are far more that I haven’t even heard of. And, once you start going down the road of enumerating options, it increasingly feels like you’re excluding the ones that aren’t enumerated. If you present, say, a list of seven sexual preferences, and someone is into something that ISN’T on that list, then it feels like you’re purposefully denying them.
Given all that, how to fix? I ended up not following one single solution, but I think that holding the problem in my head while writing these scenes helped me muddle through to some hopefully-decent designs.
First of all, in cases where your partner has very clear preferences, they can make them clear up front, and it’s up to you whether to go along with it or not. This has the benefit of being accurate to real life, where people have agency and aren’t just reflecting your own desires. It also raises themes of negotiation and tradeoffs, which, again, I think are believable: something might not be your favorite, but you might try it anyways if you like the other person enough. Some players won’t go along, which is disappointing but okay: it’s a strong roleplaying choice on behalf of their character, which I think has value as well.
In other cases, it makes sense to make the scene a bit more interactive, with the player character expressing their preference and guiding the action. Again, the goal here isn’t a full enumeration; but this also isn’t a super-explicit scene, and giving the player freedom to set an initial direction will hopefully open up mental space for them fill in the details.
Finally, in some cases I might need to fall back on my old vagueness approach to accommodate a range of possibilities; but this time around, I tried to be extra-careful to provide some meaningful physical details that could apply regardless, which I think helps ground the romance and make it less abstract than in Caldecott.
A closely related topic is that of consent. My thinking on this has evolved since Caldecott. I wrote before about how I wanted to make sure that the player was “on board” with the romance, so the lovetalks are designed around the player saying “Yes” to a series of increasingly intense questions: “Do you like me?” “Do you LIKE-like me?” “Do you like me more than anyone else?”. Once you crossed a threshold, I could assume that you were on-board: you’re locked into the romance and any sexytimes that implies.
I haven’t heard any complaints about this, but since publishing Caldecott, I’ve grown increasingly bummed by my conflation of romantic and erotic love. It’s sending an implicit message that a relationship only “counts” after penetrative sex, which seems like a pretty crappy demand to make. And the more that I’ve thought about it, the less necessary it has seemed. I think I set it up this way because that’s how most video game romances I’ve played have been designed, but, as I reflected on it more, what I really care about from a story perspective is determining whether there is a strong emotional bond between the protagonist and the love interest. Sex can be an important element in establishing that, but it isn’t intrinsically necessary. I mean… it would be different if the plot revolved around you becoming pregnant, or your partner catching an STD or something. But it doesn’t, so it shouldn’t.
Back in Caldecott, I worried about whether the player was really on-board before jumping into the sex scene. I viewed consent as sort of a perimeter barrier around the capstone romance content, a boundary to be breached or a problem to be solved. Now, though, I’m treating it as something integrated into the romance itself. As the relationship intensifies, opportunities will open up, but you retain the ability to guide or selectively turn down those opportunities without necessarily killing the romance. I’m really happy with how this has turned out! I suspect that most players will proceed with the main-line “sleeping together” content, and now that route will feel even more meaningful since they’re actively participating in it; and for those players who aren’t comfortable with a particular interaction, that’s fine: provided there’s a rapport with the other participant, they can discover other ways to express their affection without demanding a specific act.
Oh! One other tangentially-related topic. I wrote above that there haven't been any complaints about the Caldecott romances, but there is one sort-of exception: particularly early on, a few folks were bummed that they didn't "finish" the romance - from their perspective, it just sort of petered out. From my perspective, they failed to cross the threshold for it to be recognized as a "real" romance; due to my aforementioned view on consent, it only "counted" as a "locked-in" romance if they had finished the sex scene by a certain point in the game.
Depending on a character's particular playthrough, though, reaching that point might be challenging. Your potential love interest might be recruited very on, or not until nearly halfway through the game. In the latter case, you would only have a handful of chances to catch up on their romance conversations. I wanted to maintain some sense of realism, so I restricted the number of lovetalks you could have in a single visit; in practice, that meant you would need to enthusiastically flirt as often as possible, and speak to them as many times as you could in each visit, in order to reach the necessary threshold. Players who recruited their partners early could be a bit more leisurely in their pursuit.
I ended up mitigating this in Caldecott by tweaking the companions' conversation trees so that, at the end of every lovetalk, it would return you to their conversation root where you could see other available lovetalks, rather than gracefully ending the conversation. This change was less dramatically satisfying, but seems to have made a big difference in successful outcomes, since the incidence of comments about incomplete romances has dropped way down. But it was another mechanical aspect that I wanted to improve for CFiC.
The change in consent is one big aspect. Even if you don't get through every lovetalk in the game, it will still "count" as a romance so long as you've made your intentions clear and established a mutual relationship. The underlying structure of the game helps, too. There are a few more missions in CFiC and a much more consistent hub experience, unlike Caldecott which included segments in Kora's apartment and after the party that couldn't support romance. Finally, I'm frontloading romanceable characters in CFiC so they're available to the party earlier on, which makes planning and design easier for me and lets players get started on that content earlier regardless of the order in which they choose to run missions.
Phew! I did NOT plan on writing this much when I started the post, guess I’ve been thinking about it too much! This is actually pretty funny, there are way more words here describing my motivations in designing these scenes than there are in the game itself. Anyways… this has been a cool challenge to tackle. I’m sure that I’ve messed up on some stuff, just like I messed up some things in Caldecott, but I like to think that I’m moving in the direction of making better romances for more people to enjoy.