Rated M for Mature

Rated M for Mature
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me

Chris Dahlen | 2 May 2006 12:03
Rated M for Mature - RSS 2.0

Compton and his colleagues are taking their experiences to a game of their own - The Broken Hourglass, which they're developing as Planewalker Games, LLC, and which will include some romance. And the team wasn't afraid to hack Baldur's Gate II's design: For example, the recent "NPC Flirt Pack," extends the original romances from Baldur's Gate II, adds more lines of dialogue and more explicit scenarios - like an R-rated bath scene with the dark elf Viconia. But more significantly, with the flirt pack, players can keep flirting with the NPCs even after the original romance has run out.

"You can run out of the love talks, but even still, every 45 minutes the character will stop and give you a pat on the butt, or give you pieces of chocolate or whatever," says Compton. "A lot of players respond to that, because [they think], 'Oh yeah, this character is still thinking of my character.'"

And the player can also initiate a flirt instead of waiting for one. Compton's code logs the number of times a player flirts with the NPC, and "when people sent me their saved games for debugging, I could see just how often they were using the flirt options. Hundreds of times, it turns out, in some cases."

***

Of course, romantic NPCs were never written to give the player cuddle time; they were meant to add suspense and tension to the story. But arguably, the flirt technique was already running out of surprises. For a tactic that counts on suspense and guesswork, the romance storylines have become predictable and, in some cases, stale. Veteran players could see them coming from a mile away in Jade Empire. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II had romantic elements, but it emphasized an "influence" system that affected all of the characters, whether or not they thought they wanted to get inside your Jedi robes; and while Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion boasts a vast NPC AI system that powers over 1,000 independent agents, it doesn't let you sleep with any of them.

But that doesn't mean the demand for flirty NPCs has dropped. While most of the online sex games slated for the near future expect the players to keep each other busy, there's likely also a demand for erotic experiences with artificial intelligences and fictional characters. Some players want the kind of companionship and high romance you'd get in a novel, instead of the confusing, hormone-addled relationships we get from real people, in-game or out; they don't (just) want cybersex, but the tense exchanges, sweaty palms and high drama of a full-blown - and perfectly choreographed - romance.

But the flirting mechanic has value beyond NPC relationships: you could apply the same ideas and the same tactics to any long-term experience that has no purpose but to pull you deeper into the gameworld. Imagine if more games offered side exercises that players would just enjoy for their own sake - and we're not talking about cordoned off mini-games, but experiences that are woven into the regular game, and that only reveal themselves after hours of play. Most games chain you to a task list or pull you along a rail from the first cut-scene to the last boss fight. How often do they flirt with something greater?

Chris Dahlen also writes about technology and culture for Pitchforkmedia.com, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, where he is games editor.

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