Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as lessons learned from ten years of development with Ingress engineering director Michael Romero, how legendary Dwarf Fortress programmer Tarn Adams updated the game for its official Steam release, and how architect and solo developer Jack Strait made an entire horror game in PowerPoint.
In this edition, Amanda Gardner, narrative director at The Deep End Games and writer of Romancelvania, walks us through the thought process behind writing original takes on iconic character types and how that added flavor and drama to the irreverent title.
A wise sage once asked a timeless question: "What is love? Baby, don't hurt me." Indeed, Haddaway, what IS love? And, more importantly, how can answering this question enhance in-game romances in a familiar but refreshing way?
I'm Amanda Gardner, narrative director at The Deep End Games and writer of Romancelvania, and today, we're going to talk a whole lot about love—what works, what doesn't, and why there's no real answer to the aforementioned question. Love is different for everyone, and it takes all kinds of flavors to find that individual sweet spot.
And that's why I both honor and subvert romantic tropes.
Romancelvania, in short, is The Bachelor, but starring Dracula. When I approached writing this game, I felt a bit daunted—how was I going to write a dozen love interests that were distinct, interesting, but also relatable? Luckily, the answer came by simply examining what we were parodying—reality show tropes and the archetypes of romance novel love interests.
If you've ever watched The Bachelor, or, even better, the early 2000s trainwrecks like Rock of Love et al., you'd know that there are typical characters on these shows. There are characters that are genuine, characters that are sleazy, characters that are catty, and of course, a few wild cards. Audiences love watching the drama unfold and how the brilliant editing paints the cast as either villains or ship-worthy partners. Different shows also highlighted different personality types, even non-dating shows such as Survivor and Jersey Shore, and I used a number of these as well. In Romancelvania, Brocifer is a great example of this. An incubus with only one thing on his mind, Brocifer easily falls into a few key categories. He's not a challenge to win over, he's sleeping with half the cast, and if he's not ripped straight from the beaches of Atlantic City, I don't know who is. This "reality show trope" was a great jumping-off point for beginning to assemble this cast.
The Monster Smash
Next up was examining something that was near and dear to my heart—the different types of frame-stories in romance novels. There's "enemies to lovers," which pits the couple against each other; witty banter nearly always ensues, and there's always tons of delicious unresolved sexual tension here. A big fan favorite is also "friends to lovers," where the characters have known each other platonically, and then "something" starts to happen between them that leaves the audience swooning. Taking a look at what's keeping the characters apart here is what is key. Ask: why aren't they together yet? Then, boom, there's your trope. Are you dealing with a broody hero that can't be hurt again? A heroine with a flighty attitude because she doesn't want to settle down? One of the characters of Romancelvania who highlights a well-chosen trope is Van Helsing, who is the typical "enemies to lovers" choice. Van Helsing is the reason Drac is in this rut! Why on earth would Drac want to date a mortal enemy? UNRESOLVED SEXUAL TENSION. They threaten. They banter. They tease. And it's hot. Eventually, depending on the player's choices, Van Helsing opens up, and we see a whole new side to the monster hunter. This is what's exciting about this trope—the progress you see!
The next series of archetypes I studied were monsters. What does a zombie really want (other than brains)? What do people associate with vampires? What does a typical werewolf like or dislike? When I began to look at motivations, things started to fall into place. The genie, Vess, just wants something for herself for once (see: "hard to get" and "everybody's friend" tropes). Our mummy, Nefret, has been cooped up her whole life, so she wants to be wild and free in her afterlife (see: "afraid of commitment" and "wild card" tropes). Here is where the fun began. By combining these tropes, I started to envision three-dimensional and fully fleshed-out personalities. In particular, Sol, the vampire, is a good case study. On the surface, Sol is Drac's rival. He's young, hot, and the next big thing. Sol is also aloof and cool around Drac, which is both mysterious and infuriating...and very typical of the vampire mythos. Once I was able to see past that and into the character, I saw a great way to subvert the trope, which led me to my next step: flip the script.
We, of course, are more than the sum of our respective traits. This is why subverting tropes is so important. Archetypes are a great place to jump off, but they can't take you all the way. Taking a twist on a familiar story takes it to the next level, so as these characters were starting to form and marinate, I began thinking of how they could be more different. Fenton, for example, began as the werewolf trope. He's also the "overly-cautious noncommittal" and "sophisticated contestant" archetypes. But here is where the subversion starts to come in. First, Fenton isn't exactly a werewolf—he's a fancy manwolf. What do I mean by this? Fenton's good side is his wolf-half. His darker side is Sully, a rude and obnoxious human. So, we flipped the switch. How else did Fenton break out of his mold? It's not the moon that makes him change, it's alcohol. Fenton loses himself when he drinks, and "Sully" comes out, who is nasty and vulgar. This humanizes Fenton, as his struggle is one as old as time. So here we have this sophisticated scholar who loves exotic cheeses and lengthy book series, but he has a problem when it comes to drinking. He just happens to be a wolf, and it all comes together. Going back to Sol, I took the vampire script and flipped it. He's not ancient, he's not all-knowing, and he doesn't think he's better than that. He's young, inexperienced, and absolutely intimidated by Drac, which is the reason for his reticence and coldness. We think of vampires as these very cultured and sophisticated beings but in reality, they can be so much more if we step outside of what's expected.
And next is the character that puts "sub" in "subversion"—P.S. Elle. Now, Elle is anything but a stereotype. Can you name any kinky pumpkin witches in any other media? But, at her heart, she's got a lot of archetypes going on. In many kink communities, switches are often depicted with an air of distrust, as they are neither strictly dominant nor submissive. P.S. Elle discusses this frustration. She's also seemingly hexed, which makes Drac want to avenge her...but is that what really is happening here? There are a lot of layers to this perky little gourd that I can't get into for spoiler reasons but suffice to say, she flips a number of things on their heads. Puns absolutely intended.
Finally, the character that was the most fun to examine and subvert tropes and expectations was Medusa. We, collectively, know Medusa. She's an evil Gorgon who lost her head to Perseus in ancient times. When thinking about what that must have been like for her, I started to imagine her personality. She's a little cranky after having to watch numerous civilizations fall and be completely helpless to do anything about it. Medusa, in our story, is also Drac's ex. She, however, does not fall into the typical "exes to lovers" trope exactly. Those are usually fueled by resentment and bitterness, but Medusa sort of just shrugs it off: at the time, they had fun but weren't right for each other. I thought this was a refreshing take and twist on the "exes to lovers" story. She's bitter but moreso about how the past few thousand years have gone. It's not Drac, who she sort of treats as an afterthought. I sort of loved that she was dismissive of Drac, which makes the player want to impress her a bit. From a reality show perspective, I see Medusa as a "Survivor." She's tough, and she's scrappy, but her difficulties haven't diminished her lust for life (and other things). In this case, I asked myself a series of "What ifs" about the mythical Medusa and let my imagination and several literary schemas fill in the rest. The result? A relatable and yet very new take on Medusa.
Vess, the genie in the game, is a bartender who knows exactly what's going to quench an individual's thirst. Now, I don't have this magical ability, but I tried my best to create a dozen delectable dateables that should satisfy many types of players. Like Vess, I started with the standard bases and recipes, knowing full well what flavors worked well together, but then added interesting twists and garnishes to make a familiar but satisfying experience. Throw in a few inappropriate puns, and well, "Bottoms up!" I may not know exactly what love is, but I'm certainly hoping what I served up was refreshing.