I remember playing Planescape: Torment, the cult classic roleplaying game from Black Isle, a few years back. The game matches you with a handful of companions, including a woman with crazy hair, a Scottish accent and a gigantic flesh-toned tail. Partway through the game, she started flirting with me in an edgy, uncommitted way: She would start a conversation and then confront and light into me, and I knew if I responded poorly, she’d laugh in my face. I got sucked into roleplaying against her, and it wasn’t my imagination or the one-and-a-half-inch tall image of the character on the screen that drew me in so much as the knowledge that I had to make the right decision to see where this could go, and the wrong decision would derail whatever was happening between us. It was fascinating to have a game put me back on my heels, not with a blow-out combat scene, but just with a conversation.

Romance drives many game stories, but often it feels like windowdressing over a simple, goal-oriented experience. Dating games end when you get a date, as surely as a shooter ends with a boss fight; hentai games are the same, but more explicit. And sex games often settle into a linear bump and grind, as a status bar measures your progress toward climax. Take away the context and you may as well be running a race or filling your gas tank.

But a number of single-player roleplaying games – specifically, the last five years’ worth of titles from BioWare, Interplay and Black Isle – put an intriguing spin on romance: They invite the player to flirt. As a gameplay mechanic, flirting is more complicated, more engaging and far more suspenseful than an outright “save the princess” romance – and some players fall deeply under its sway.

The process is simple. All of the NPCs who follow you through the game engage you in conversation to further the plot, or discuss tactics, or simply to swap backstories with you. But once in a while, you’ll find a character – mostly, but not always, of the opposite gender – who starts flirting with you, whether it’s Silk Fox, the bristly mystery woman in Jade Empire or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic’s Carth, who treats female characters to his awkward advances. You know something’s up when it starts, but you have no idea how far the game will take it; your partner alludes to an entanglement without promising it’ll happen, or even admitting that he or she’s inviting it.

If you play your cards right, the object of your affections will join you in an open confession of love and sometimes, off-screen nookie. Jealousies and romantic triangles crop up if more than one NPC has an eye on you, but if you keep missing your chances or behaving offensively, the relationship fizzles.

The flirting technique still has several shortcomings. Your partner’s lines are scripted, which means they end where the writer did – and after you hit the end of the romantic story, you may never hear about it again, no matter how many times you try to strike up a conversation with your new girlfriend or boyfriend. Also, the gender balance is off: Men get far more suitors than women. And for better or worse, flirting and romance rarely impact the main game. I was so caught up in the give and take with Annah in Planescape, I didn’t notice the payoff for winning her affections was a slight boost to her ability scores. Technically, that makes the Annah romance a “sidequest,” but improving an NPC’s stats hardly seems like the point. You do it to enjoy the experience.

***

BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate II set the bar for RPG flirting, with four complete romances spanning dozens of hours of gameplay. But in its early days, the technique was controversial, as lead designer Kevin Martens and senior writer Luke Kristjanson recalled in a recent e-mail interview. “When we first proposed player/NPC romances as a feature for Baldur’s Gate II, there was a great deal of distrust on our forums toward the idea,” recalls Kristjanson. “Players imagined everything from forced soap opera cut-scenes to NPCs simply throwing themselves at you.

“We went forward with the concept because, during Baldur’s Gate I, many players assumed such romances were already in place. After adventuring with characters like Imoen for hours on end, the perception that relationships were forming between members of the party just seemed to be natural. We wanted to explore that without obstructing the importance of the main plot.”

It also wasn’t cheap. “A follower who has a romance is typically about twice as expensive as a basic follower,” explains Martens. “There is a significant amount of testing, [voice-over], scripting and, of course, writing in order to do a romance properly. Despite this cost, I wouldn’t call the romantic storylines extremely expensive, because we often get more player experience out of them than what we actually write in. The goal of a romance is to add a layer of immersion beyond the moment-to-moment gameplay, and this tends to lead to emergent storytelling that the player writes him or herself. In the feedback that we get from players, they fill in a larger experience or personal story with the romantic character beyond what we’ve written.”

Martens and Kristjanson say it enhances the experience of roleplaying in the game. “Romantic plots, whether a player goes all the way through them or not, tend to add to the world or game experience by offering a deeper level of interaction,” says Martens. “If you can get a player to be more invested in the fate of his followers, then you can underline the seriousness of the decisions that the player makes, because they will be more personal.”

“From a structure standpoint, we view the romances differently than other side-plots,” adds Kristjanson. “They are not so much riddles to be completed, as stories to explore. The rewards are often not as tangible as a typical quest, so to make them compelling and rewarding, we try to tie them into the world as much as possible. While a romance can’t interfere with the main plot, it needs to reinforce why that character is on the journey, and perhaps alter the player’s perception of the world as a whole.”

Baldur’s Gate II offered four very different love interests – and yet, many players weren’t satisfied. Female characters could only woo the Paladin, who was widely considered a schmuck; and while the guys had three choices with very different personalities, all three were high-maintenance elves. To fill the gap, modders started adding their own romantic storylines to the game; some of them even created completely new characters.

Before he became a Baldur’s Gate II modder, Jason Compton of the Pocket Plane Group was just a huge fan of the game. But after reading criticisms about the lack of male love interests, he decided, “I’d heard people complain about it long enough, and I wasn’t a fiction writer, but I thought, ‘I could probably do this, and I enjoyed the romances in the game, so sure, I’ll give it a shot.'”

That led to Kelsey, a red-haired human Sorcerer with killer cheekbones. “Kelsey was more of a regular guy than the player. The player in the game is this spawn of a god that came down to Earth … and Kelsey was like, ‘Yeah, that makes you really cool, but I’m just a guy.’ People liked this idea – ‘This character loves my character even though he’s afraid of her in a way, and doesn’t really understand her. But that’s OK, he’ll hold her and understand her anyway. She’s cooler, and he’s not competing with it.'”

The project was a huge success for Compton and the Pocket Plane Group, a modding label with under a dozen members. With help from a couple of other modders, Compton finished Kelsey – a fully-functional NPC with a portrait, voice-overs, and 3-4,000 lines of dialogue – in about a year, and in the first year Kelsey was available, he scored over 20,000 downloads.

While Pocket Plane offers a range of mods, Compton says the romantic enhancements get the most traffic. “Most players of these CRPGs … want this character to be special in some way. So whether that means they’ve got the best weapons in the world, or everybody wants to get in bed with them or whatever, it’s all coming from the same,” says Compton. “You can win the game without the +12 hackmaster, you can win without sleeping with Jaheira – but if you can have both? Or all three? Then great. That’s part of the appeal.”

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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