Many times, romance mechanics in games can feel a bit like seducing a vending machine. Put enough coins in and out comes the love and affection. At GDC 2022, writer and narrative designer Michelle Clough argued that there's an approach that allows for more flexibility, more player opportunities, and richer storytelling: the chemistry card tower/casino.
This "kindness coin" loop, arguably the most frequently seen method of establishing in-game romance, repays favors, compliments, or general nice gestures with romantic or sexual responses. For obvious reasons, it can feel a little cheap to reduce a romantic entanglement down to "well you said I was pretty 14 times, but if you say it 15 times, I'll fall for you."
Clough argues that the kindness coin approach doesn't build or reflect who the player character is beyond surface-level gestures, while also making multiple characters reliant on the same kind of emotional progression. Perhaps most importantly, it denies NPCs their agency, turning them into the aforementioned vending machines instead of the messy, complicated beings most people are. Using kindness coins can even conflate platonic respect or gratitude with romantic or sexual interest.
Chemistry, as defined by Clough, is anything that inspires non-platonic interest, be it romantic, sexual, long term, or short. This also includes player action and gameplay systems (like how a player fights, how they eat, how they dress), not just dialogue.
Crafting romances that actually feel romantic
"If narrative design is considering how systems can tell stories, then let's use these systems to tell romantic and erotic stories," Clough said. "If you do, it offers more interesting opportunities for character role-playing and character development. So it's not just giving gifts and saying nice things, it's choosing options to define who you are and what your traits are, and those inspire attraction.
Clough uses an example of an NPC who finds "adorkable" people irresistible. Traditionally, a player would game the system by saying and doing dorky things to spark attraction. The chemistry cardtower/casino however acknowledges that people can be attracted to many different things. This asks more of the player, but it's a more inclusive approach, including for asexual or aromantic players who may choose to respond to nothing.
Clough also described a "chemistry card tower" where the player character has multiple traits that attract an NPC, such as appearance, charisma, behaviors and quirks, personality traits, and specific moments or gestures the NPC simply finds hot. These moments and traits build and build and build until, like a house of cards…
"If kindness coins are about saying and doing the right thing until you're rewarded with love or sex, then the chemistry card tower is about being the right kind of person to make the NPC feel that way."
To be fair to kindness coins, their use is mostly a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Clough argues that they do have some strengths. They're easier to program into big open-ended games with lots of roleplaying, and they're generally easier to plot out as a writer
"[Kindness coins] are robust enough to build an entire game by itself, and simple enough to add to a larger project," Clough said. "That's why you see it in everything from Baby's First Visual Novel to triple-A games."
Clough argues further that, considering how much luck and mystery play a role in real-world relationships (a chance encounter, a confession, or just two pairs of eyes making contact across a bar), the chemistry card tower can capitalize on that unpredictable spark. It can also grapple with how, let's face it, many of us are clueless when it comes to romance and don't necessarily know our own feelings.
Randomization can also play a role via the chemistry casino. Take a game like Monster Prom, where you attempt to woo a date to the titular bash in a high school full of flirty creatures and ghouls. RNG in a game like Monster Prom can mean you work towards a goal (in this case, a romance with the monster hottie of your choice), but luck still means a bad roll of the dice might result in you going stag. Meanwhile games like Crusader Kings 3 rely on lots of RNG to paint a portrait of a royal family besieged by romantic plots, backstabbing, and marriages.
Clough argues that the chemistry card tower/casino can still work with simple wish fulfillment stories, but afford NPCs more agency, push away from the use of "niceness" that's so toxic in the real world, and utilize more systems to illustrate romance.