[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Branching Narrative and Story Frameworks]
In the book, How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design, by Professor Katherine Isbister, discusses the dating sim Love Plus at length as an example of emotional design with non-playing characters (NPCs). Love Plus traces the journey of a budding romance, but unlike in real life, there's no fear of actual rejection. The player will always end up "loved" because the NPCs, even when snippy, are always in love with the player. As in romance novels, lovers rejoice after many trials and tribulations.
The player has a choice of 3 different girls, who will react differently according to their personalities. During the initial phase, the Friend Zone, there may even be Jealousy Events as 2 girls discover they both share affection for the same person, the player.
Alas, this brings us to that popular conflict in the realm of romance, the love triangle.
Within the mindset of "a series of interesting choices," we wouldn't want each potential lover to be the same. We want a fulfilling love but not the same one. Each branch of the narrative should lead to love, but because of who we are and our personalities, the journey is not the same. I wrote about this relationship distinction in Interchangeable He And She when discussing a hypothetical change to replace all female pronouns with male ones to include a gay romance option. If the story doesn't lead to love, then it's a tragedy, but one that should be brought forth by clear decisions driven by character traits.
Otherwise, the ending feels forced. The author hadn't taken the care to find a logical means for breaking up the love triangle without making someone act out of character or become a sudden, unmotivated asshole. In the world of linear storytelling, I feel cheated out of a good story when the prince who had been such a caring and devoted childhood friend suddenly becomes a backstabbing fiend so that the girl can fall in love with that other guy in the last 10 pages of the novel.
I find the most interesting love stories are when I'm not sure where the story will go. Both potential lovers are good choices and therefore, it's a very hard choice for the protagonist. I'd be equally happy with either choice as long as it's understandable.
That's often the problem with OTP (One True Pairing) stories. There may be a love triangle, but there's no comparison to the OTP. The other person is such a bad, bad choice that who in their right mind would prefer that person? We start to wonder what's wrong with the protagonist that he or she can't see the obvious. By recasting the protagonist as player, it's easier to see that we would want each potential love affair to be a serious potential love affair.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.