Choice of Romance is a piece from the Choice of… series: not exactly new, but I’ve been too busy to look at it until recently.
I wonder a bit about the marketing strategy of calling the stories “Choice of [blank].” It makes the stories sound more generic than they actually are, especially when the thing that goes in the blank is as sweeping as “Romance.”
In this case, the title is deceptive. “Choice of Romance” isn’t a generic romance story. On the contrary, it (like Choice of Broadsides) is set in a slightly alternate version of a historical setting, designed to allow the player to play as either gender, seeking a partner of either gender, and to give players with female characters the opportunity to exercise more agency than would otherwise have been available.
“Choice of Romance” puts the hero or heroine in an alternate version of Spain, one preoccupied with wealth, borders, and court politics as well as affairs of the heart. It also adds magic: the great houses include “life mages” (concerned with growing things and healing stuff) and “death mages” (lightning and the odd fireball). Despite the action-packed opening in which your magical powers can come into play, the magic mostly isn’t that significant through the rest of the game; it is more interesting for how it affects the political situation than because it solves very many problems for you. The overall effect is reminiscent of The Three Musketeers — set in faux-Spain rather than real France, to be sure, but focused on royalty and nobility, court advisors, the king’s illicit love affairs and illegitimate children, and the odd battle.
But plenty of romances and romantic adventure stories are set in non-generic worlds. What puts “Choice of Romance” in a different category is the nature of the choices offered to the player.
“Choice of Romance” does ask the player about her feelings and intentions more often than her actions, in contrast with what I recall of “Choice of Broadsides” and “Choice of Dragons.” However, in both of my full playthroughs (one as a politically ambitious female mage who marries for money but sleeps around on the side, consolidating her power ruthlessly; the other as a handsome, charming gay man who marries for love) the conflict and thematic interest centered on my own agency vs. authority, my ability to stand up for myself vs. the pressures being placed on me from outside. You can choose to have your character be politically aware or obliviously obsessed with love, but of the two, the politically active options are more complex and engaging, more richly drawn. A burgeoning love affair may be threatened by the disapproval of your family and the lack of money rather than (at least in the parts I saw) the intrinsic conflict between the protagonists that I tend to think of as the core of romance plotting.
This isn’t a complaint. I enjoyed being able to play a character who has ambitions that go beyond being passively courted. Moreover, with a few false starts (the opening of the game gives entirely the wrong idea of what the rest is going to be like), I felt like I understood in advance what kinds of opportunities might be waiting for me down the line — so that when I began laying plans to marry one man for money but stay politically active in court, I was correctly convinced that the story would allow me to complete my scheme.
“Choice of Romance” could have done better with exposition and set-up. The political passages require a lot of explaining in order to make the player’s actions feel meaningful in context. The authors are more or less forced to tell rather than showing the development of a border conflict, because to do otherwise would have vastly expanded a part of the game that was of no interest to a non-political protagonist. There were many times when I felt the need to play wish-fulfillment for the player (by allowing you to craft any type of protagonist you want) conflicted with the need to provide a well-paced, compelling narrative arc. “Choice of Romance” would produce better stories if it funneled the player even more than it does, committing fully to the idea of being a court intrigue with some action and romance sequences and then deeply exploring the ways protagonists with different commitments and priorities might struggle in that environment. That would also make it a substantially longer story, in all likelihood. But, again, more showing and less telling would have considerably strengthened the emotional moments.
Despite all that, I found “Choice of Romance” the most coherent and compelling of the “Choice of…” games I’ve played so far: the themes are clearer, the writing tighter. It can end on a “to be continued” note, which is mildly annoying, but I didn’t feel like the piece I got had let me down particularly.
But it’s also not remotely what I thought it was going to be from the outside.
(Tangential note: if you’re interested in the portrayal of romance and romantic storylines in interactive media, the Digital Romance Lab blog is worth a look.)