I’ll open this with an invitation for GMs to post their own examples of how they inserted romance in their own role playing games. I don’t mean two players already married; that’s a cop-out. I’m talking about a human player developing a relationship with a non-player character.
It appears easier than you think. I’ve tried time and again, and each time it felt forced. And often unwelcome. In the first game where I attempted this, I created an NPC as a trophy relationship for a player, something I would never do again. The player fumbled through it so badly, I couldn’t in all honesty allow it to continue. In the end, that NPC actually got stolen by ANOTHER player who acted like a decent human being and eventually won the affection. None of the other players pursued any relationships in that game. A later campaign began pre-loaded with a PC married to an NPC. Beyond that, few new relationships began despite peppering the landscape with potentials.
The important point to remember is to not load your game with pre-destined romance. Seed the game with several prospects and allow the players to pursue or not to pursue. My last game followed this formula. I created numerous characters my players could interact with. One NPC was an ex-girlfriend of a PC who ended up treating her so badly, she eventually left to be never seen again. Further on the game, I had a dragon riding princess (I know how that sounds; work with me here) develop a relationship with another player. Later, I found to my surprise, after the couple became separated by game events, the player maintained his loyalty. He pursued no one else for eighteen months. I finally had to orchestrate a reunion where they’d be able to consummate their relationship.
Yeah, about that, sex. Most players are adults; they can separate fantasy from reality. They know television isn’t real, and those characters are actually actors. So if two grown men, surrounded by other like-minded adults, playing characters wishing to have a relationship (PC to GM-controlled NPC), and if everyone understands that this is a game, and not representative of reality…none of that really matters; it’s really uncomfortable. As the scene played out, eventually someone snapped, “AND THEN WE FADE TO BLACK!” and the scene changed.
The player character maintained his loyalty until the end of the game, where they were finally reunited for a happy ending. None of the other players threw themselves that much into the part. Another relationship between an NPC winged-elf and a PC heavy weapons specialist (just go with it) made more progress when the player wasn’t present. The player returned from a missed session enjoying the results without having to do any work.
Like real relationships, characters need time to understand their affection. It can’t just be a pretty face, especially given that role playing games have no visuals, forcing players to look upon the overweight, unshaven face of the GM (unless the GM is a girl, in which case, cool), though of course, that’s only in my situation. I’m sure if I had voice surrogates and artwork, it would allow easier suspension of disbelief. That still doesn’t remove the responsibility of making relationships in your game actually believable.
That’s the problem with video game romances. If the relationship isn’t pre-loaded from the beginning, it’s very difficult for a player to gain legitimate emotional attachment to the romance his character is supposedly drawn to. Many video games offer only a linear narrative, one romantic relationship regardless if the player finds the target attractive or not. When games offer choice (rare in games, rarer with relationships in games), the process can be downright painful. I hope no GM ever includes a rule mechanic for his romance. There should never be a likeability meter or a compatibility score. OKCupid’s match percentage is proof that these values mean absolutely nothing. Including them in a game is clumsy, often inserted because either the art of conversation is beyond the skill of the writers or there’s simply not enough time or room in the budget to do it justice. I purchased Star Wars: The Old Republic because of its support of single player content. You’re given companions which can be allies or even lovers. You unlock conversations by increasing your affection score. This occurs occasionally by having your companion present in conversations, but more often it occurs by offering gifts, a clumsy mechanic carried over from Dragon Age.
Yes, Dragon Age, where one of the achievements was romancing every available non-player character. It didn’t matter if you had any attachment to any of them. I never did…Morrigan was close but only because she was voiced by Claudia Black (though aren’t they all nowadays?) and because I stumbled into the relationship by accident. It wasn’t that much better with The Witcher, which gave you a “sex card” each time you bedded an available female, like trading in Pokémon cards (gotta bed them all…yeah, that was weak). It didn’t get that much better with The Old Republic, as most of the relationships felt forced, especially when required to employ gifts like swiping a credit card down the cleavage of a pole dancer. I ran three characters in TOR, a trooper, a Jedi knight, and a sith warrior, and of all of those, can you believe the sith warrior was the only one with a relationship I thought was even slightly believable? I played him on the light side, and my first companion was a slave I quickly liberated. My sith, Grimaldi, spent more time with “Vette” than any other. Being the first companion, she had all the side missions, and more unlockable conversations than the other companions acquired later.
However, none of this compares to what Bioware pulled off with Mass Effect. Let’s ignore the ending and praise what they accomplished everywhere else. The first game introduced three love interests, all of which felt somewhat forced (though still miles ahead of every other game). What the developers discovered through surveys and feedback was that despite these relationship options, the most popular characters were two non-romantic side characters, Garrus and Tali. The reasons were complicated and partially based on the game’s mechanic. Most players entered the game as a soldier or biotic, and in order have a fleshed-out party, it was vital to not replicate that choice with your teammates. With computers scattered about, you needed an Engineer on hand to access them, ergo Tali. As a biotic, you needed someone with heavy weapons, ergo Garrus. Fast forward to the second game, and the developers decided to expand your prospects. You could, of course, carry the torch from the first game, but you now could romance virtually any of your teammates (split between playing as a female or male) as well. Garrus and Tali were appropriately selected as the only characters carried from the first game that you could select as teammates, and as such were both romantic options.
Not only were you given the choice to pursue romance several characters, but two of them were “friends” carried over from the previous installment. This wasn’t an imposed relationship required by the format of the game but an optional one with characters you’d invested dozens of hours into, surely longer than several dates. This made the romance with these characters realistic, dare I say, authentic. And having the capacity to insert an authentic relationship in a game is extremely difficult. Like real life, it can’t be forced, and most players are not willing to put the time required, especially if they have their own to contend with.
I won’t end this without a disclosure about my personal choices in Mass Effect. Like A LOT of people, I romanced Liara in the first game and Tali in the second. I found Tali far more interesting, even in the first game when she wasn’t a romantic option. Even in retrospect, I like the idea of not offering her or Garrus as a relationship in the first game, as it allowed a realistic relationship to develop in the second. Given the events in the third, I can see the argument of continuing the relationship of Liara, but when I played ME3, I stayed loyal to Tali, and found that relationship fulfilling. Unlike my friend, who resumed his romance with Liara and had to explain himself to Tali later…uncomfortable.