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.)
27 thoughts on “Choice of Romance”
By making the romances completely determinable by the player it actually makes the stories a-gendered. I cannot see this as a triumph for women in literature.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all literature should work this way.
Nonetheless, in this particular case I did welcome the challenge to standard expectations about male and female roles. What stood out to me was that the authors went beyond saying “okay, the player has to be able to play either gender and be gay or straight” and asked themselves what kind of society might support that kind of freedom while still in many other respects retaining traditional social roles from historical western Europe. So instead of a male/female division, they come up with a young-trophy vs. older-powerful-person division: if you have money and power and age, you get to do the courting, while younger people of both genders become commodities jealousy guarded by their families. Your reputation can be damaged and you can cause a mini-scandal regardless of which gender you are, for instance. “Choice of Romance” may not meaningfully depict the historical experiences of women (or men, or non-straight people), but it does explore the ideas of social expectation, stereotype, and freedom from its own angle.
Personally I would have enjoyed seeing this bit of world-building go even deeper and be explored more thoughtfully — maybe at the expense of the strand about magic, which seemed thematically insignificant.
I’m not sure that I agree that the story is non-gendered.
There was an interesting blog post a year or so ago (which I can’t quite find now) about playing Fallout 3 with a female character, and how jarring it felt because everybody seemed to be reacting to you the allegedly-blank-slate player character as if they were a man. I think quite a common problem in games where you get to choose your character’s gender is that the story often feels like it’s written with the assumption of a male protagonist (for example, I’m currently playing a multiplayer NWN game, and despite the fact that my character is female and not – as far as I’m concerned – a lesbian, most of her interactions with female NPCs wind up sounding quite flirtatious because that’s the way the dialogue is written).
What I thought was interesting about CoR is that it feels like it’s written with the assumption of a female protagonist (the central “arc” of the main character is basically the life of Anne Boelyn – right down to some quite specific details, like their seducing a married monarch who is frustrated by their spouse’s inability to provide an heir) and that those assumptions don’t change even if the character you play happens to be male. In that sense, I found its portrayal of gender quite interesting and rather subversive.
The Fallout 3 gender issue is something I talked about in my column and I linked over to another review about it — maybe you’re thinking of one of those?
What I think is different about CoR is that, while it’s true the protagonist’s role can feel quite feminine by the standards of our own society, this is something that the authors have clearly thought about and explained through world-building: power structures are different, young/poor nobles of both genders have to be courted and protected by their families, and so on. It’s not an accident resulting from their failing to allot enough time to think about how a non-default protagonist might experience this story.
I agree it does feel a little bit subversive, though.
“the intrinsic conflict between the protagonists that I tend to think of as the core of romance plotting.”
This reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Sarah Bird’s “The Boyfriend School”:
“Then there were the conflicts the Cameo authors used to keep the
young breeders from fulfilling their titanic impulses shortly after
page one. I’d noted repeating motifs there as well. She’s a forest
ranger, he rapes the land. She’s an archaeologist, he rapes the dig
site. She’s a shepherdess…”
(Bird is a master of plot and a hell of a writer — also very funny. Well worth reading for both study and pleasure).
I’m not from the IF community, so it’s interesting to hear the opinion of someone with an IF background, writing about the Choice Of… games.
I tried Dragon, Broadsides and Vampire, in that order. Dragon seemed like a whimsical bit of fun, so I actually quite enjoyed it. Broadsides was quite amusing too, but only because I played as a woman, and it didn’t really seem like they’d done much more than a Find/Replace on all the male/female references. Vampire dropped the reader/player in at the deep end with the historical references. And to tell you the truth, I found the vampire theme a bit tiresome, and didn’t really feel much empathy for the characters.
Given your recommendation for Romance though, I might give it a go!
I _think_ I agree with you on the marketing of the name – it certainly sounds generic. However, I can’t help but notice that I probably wouldn’t have stopped to read this blog post had it not been for my recognition of the “Choice of” brand. It reminds me of reading the Adventure series (African Adventure, Underwater Adventure, etc) by Willard Price when I was a kid – I must’ve burned through around 10 of them. From a business perspective, it certainly helps if you can generate repeat sales!
Oh, sure — I wasn’t arguing they shouldn’t have branding! Just having doubts about the particular approach selling short the content of individual pieces.
I had played and quite enjoyed Choice of Broadsides when it first came out — enough to dump a few dozen hours into making a game using their editor, before giving up midway through. So I was very enthusiastic when I saw this post and discovered not one but two new games, one of which you liked so much.
Surprisingly (given that generally I agree with your recommendations), I found Choice of Romance worse than Choice of Broadsides (and Choice of Vampire worse still). For all the vaunted “Choice,” the game felt strangely railroaded to me — that was also true in Choice of Broadsides, I suppose, but I didn’t notice it as much, perhaps because the action moved at a much better clip. I think part of the railroading resulted from the disconnect between the abilities and the genre; in a court romance, there is no use for booksmarts or magic except where the plot is forced to contort to justify such abilities. Having non-romance stats pushing you to play the game in a non-romance way — in other words, to court power, to win the king/queen, etc. (Indeed, that is obviously the “canonical” ending, since it leads to the sequel.) Once you realize that, every scene has a pretty clear ideal path, and it’s hard to justify straying. For example, the only time I seemed to get to use my booksmarts was to trump up charges against the Queen’s Consort. Also, “reputation” didn’t seem to track what one would think.
I don’t know. Maybe at the end of the day I was just too much of conservative man for the game, or something, but I just felt like the game never gave me options to do the stuff I really wanted — combing through the royal libraries, arguing a law case, winning someone’s heart (not merely his/her libido) — and generally seemed to respond randomly to the choices I made in a way that made it seem like there was never a “wrong” option except at highly unpredictable times. Thus, for example, you get majorly docked for asking whether the subjects are fooled at all by the queen (which seems like a legitimate gossip item among lower nobility), but if you go into the joust with a low magic score, you just win the queen’s love all the same.
At the same time, the genre didn’t work for me. I think the problem is that ALL of the Choice of X games (maybe not the Dragon one, but it’s debatable) are romance stories. But they’re “romance plus.” This is pure romance. It could have been “Choice of Magic” or “Choice of Intrigue” or “Choice of Court”; but it’s not, it’s just “Choice of Romance.”
To me, though, their romance is just barely good enough to get by as a B plot in their other games. As an A plot — indeed, as the only plot! — I don’t buy it. I particularly don’t buy it because, as others have noted, by de-gendering the sexes, the game has yanked away any connection to the romance as we actually know it. Wooing doesn’t feel right, nor does being wooed. Add all sorts of stuff doesn’t really make sense: they need a deus ex machina (or infans ex magicka?) explanation for same-sex children; illegitimacy by a female monarch seems less plausible to me as a problem (how would anyone know?); if inheritance is sex-neutral, then marrying off your oldest to gain social standing doesn’t quite fit; I’m not sure if the game has an explanation for how old women are fertile (probably more infans ex machina, I guess), etc. It *sort* of works if you play as a woman, but even then, not really. Maybe chicks who read romance novels enjoy this (though I’m skeptical; my understanding is that those are typically HIGHLY gendered), but I didn’t much care for it.
De-gendering sex is pretty bad, but maybe even worse is de-Catholicizing Spain; indeed, de-Hispanicizing Spain. Choice of Broadsides was about “an England that never was,” but it got 19th century England’s key institution of the day — its navy — close enough to right that at least for a casual occasional O’Brien reader, it didn’t jar. But 14th century Spain wasn’t ANYTHING like this. It didn’t have a “season” (as far as I know?), it was pretty austere, and it was dominated by religion and religious war. The whole Sahra/Moors thing is a superficial nod to the latter, but it frankly feels stupid. Why not just set this one in Albion again? As others have noted, it’s got an Ann Boelynish arc, anyway. The de-gendering taking place in an analogue to a highly repressive peninsula (albeit one that did have a prominent queen) seems especially off-putting.
Anyway, that’s my long rant. FWIW, I think Choice of Vampire is even worse; it’s sprawling and tedious and none of the options really feel “chunky” enough for me.
I suppose my feeling about most of these remarks is “yeah, but I thought that was part of the point.” This *is* Choice of Palace Conspiracies, even if they didn’t label it as such; it doesn’t have the level or detail of romance content I was expecting, but I enjoyed the alternative. And I pretty early on moved away from trying to map the social interaction to real Spain. (I can also say, having played through a couple of times, that there are multiple ways to make things come out; I don’t think the scenes are railroading you to the degree you suggest. If anything I would have gone for more constraint in a couple of places, because it’s possible for the player to try to play as a politically unengaged character and then miss most of what is actually the heart of the game.)
Agreed, though, that not all of the stats seemed equally useful or interesting to cultivate. Being an expert mage did very little for me, which made me wonder why this possibility had been provided at all.
by de-gendering the sexes, the game has yanked away any connection to the romance as we actually know it. Wooing doesn’t feel right, nor does being wooed.
Well, two points here. Again, I agree that romance is not actually the focus of this game, largely because it doesn’t base its main conflicts and climaxes around the romantic partner(s).
(Tangential contentious opinion: games with a choice of romantic partner are actually not all that romance-like, because genre romance tends to focus on one relationship or maybe one relationship with a jealous third party adding conflict; they’re almost never “which of these 3-8 suitors interests you?”)
That said, though: the social changes and the differences to romantic behavior were a large point part of the point. So what you call “infans ex magicka” and the related tweaks to reproductive possibility didn’t bother me so much, because they seemed like part of the core premise of the game, not a tacked on device at all. Much of the point seemed to be “let’s consider what it would be like if there were a level playing field between the sexes on these matters — but that everyone started off with the limited privilege of a woman in a historical society.” Which is interesting! Many stories that try to explore gender equality come at it from the other angle, by imagining a society in which men and women alike enjoy the freedoms traditionally accorded to men.
Instead CoR gives us elements of what I’ve sometimes seen called the Heroine’s Journey. The Heroine begins from a position of minimal privilege, but has some powerful goal or passion. She may then take on a mentor or helper to assist her in her attempt to escape her traditional role and do what she wants in life. Along the way, she rejects or loses a “typical” romance with a man who wants to protect her but who would stifle her. She undergoes further trials in the attempt to establish herself; if she does marry/become romantically attached, it’s much later in the story, after she’s distinguished herself as an individual and met someone who is willing to regard her as an equal. Alternatively, sometimes she ends up alone but self-realized to some degree. (Examples: Eowyn. Harriet Vane. The Julia Stiles character from Ten Things I Hate About You [which is not really The Taming of the Shrew at its thematic heart]. Arya in “Game of Thrones,” at least so far.)
What it seems to me CoR is doing is imagining the Heroine’s Journey as something that could be undertaken by a person of either gender, assuming a world with appropriate ground rules to make that plausible.
So, yeah. If by “the romance as you actually know it” you mean this isn’t genre romance, you’re right, and that was a large part of my original point. If you mean “this doesn’t resemble romance in the real world,” that’s a different kettle of fish — romance in the real world takes many different forms, with many different power structures and types of gender performance.
If your point is “this makes me uncomfortable because it doesn’t let me act the way I would prefer to perform male gender and romantic pursuit” or “because this isn’t normative for our world” or “because I feel like it’s advocating for a gender relationship that real world human biology doesn’t allow,” those are all interesting responses, but I’m not sure they actually undercut the story at all.
A couple added thoughts, not entirely responsive.
On stats, I had thought “subtlety” was “cunning” (Greek “metis”), but in fact it appears to be “discretion”; a negative ability (“don’t speak up!”), which is totally lame. I mean, Odysseus got to give speeches when necessary without sacrifices his cunning talents, why can’t I? And “reputation” seems like it should function like it does in RPGs (the more prominent you get, the greater it gets), but it doesn’t; it really means “perceived chastity.” But then, it seems like it should be a kind of limiting resource (like radiation sickness in a post-apocalytpic game, hunger/humanity in MotB or a vampire game, cover in a spy game, whatever), but it doesn’t quite work that way, either. I didn’t see any gameplay consequences to blowing reputation, so conserving it seemed silly.
On story, I think we’re actually talking past each other. I think the game IS about romance — it just is a bad romance story. The palace intrigues are a subplot, at best, and even less plausible than the romance. The notion that a few days after arriving in court you’re steering national politics is laughable at best, no matter how philandering the monarch. The player has no stake in the first political issue (the war), and the option of unseating the consort seems totally forced and without adequate justification — there isn’t enough time for the relationship between the king/queen and protagonist to seem like anything more than infatuation (no romantic justification), there isn’t a chance of producing a viable heir (no patriotic justification), and both the plots seem pretty stupid, risky, and rushed (no cunning justification). It’s just powergaming. And, as you point out, for at least one major character type (the romantic) and two major choices (the merchant marriage or the marriage for love), court intrigues are secondary or irrelevant. So I don’t think the court intrigues save or justify the story.
The game fails at the heroine’s journey (which is not really gender-specific; many fantasy novels follow that arc, too, with male protagonists) because the player doesn’t spend enough time as a person of low status, there’s never any real sense of vulnerability, and the player surges to prominence far too quickly and too easily for it to be satisfying.
At bottom, I think you’re right that the game was basically prompted by the designers puzzling, “How can we do a romance story where we’ve de-gendered the sexes*?” (Or is it de-sexing the genders, as I think about it, since reproduction and testosterone seem totally absent?) It’s just that I think the answer is, not well. The characters don’t behave in a way that seems human to me, the way sex works in the game doesn’t jibe with the institutions in the game. LeGuin played with the same idea in Left Hand of Darkness, and realized you needed to thoroughly rework human institutions for things to make sense; even the far lesser Melanie (sp?) Rawn seemed to get that in her Exiles series. Here, though, the institutions are largely unchanged. Why would we have single-partner, cross-sex marriage as the norm if you can make babies out of thin air and there’s no gender division of romance?
And, as a I noted, lots of little details don’t make sense (illegitimacy of an heir to a queen is an easy example). To pick another, a male character who has a midnight assignation with the queen can assure his uncle that he’s done nothing to compromise his honor. When a woman said that in medieval society, it was a provable claim — if her hymen was intact, she could prove she hadn’t had vaginal intercourse. (The opposite isn’t true, of course.) But how would a man prove it? And since he can’t prove it, if male virginity were prized, midnight assignations would be ruinous whether consummated or not.
You write “I pretty early on moved away from trying to map the social interaction to real Spain” but that seems to me a cheap response to my point — you don’t set a story in pseudo-Spain and then have it nothing like Spain. That’s bad writing. It’s like having a fantasy world filled with eight-foot-tall cowardly “dwarves” and blue skinned telepaths with big heads called “elves.” Why do that, other than to confuse and frustrate the reader?
As a last note, I think you’re somewhat mistaking my point, which isn’t that it makes me uncomfortable or advocates a position with which I disagree. I just think it’s a stupid form of story-telling to pick a genre (romance) that trades on our understanding of human relationships, and then make those relationships bear little to no resemblance to how we understand them. I’m not saying you can’t have a romance where sperm and eggs aren’t necessary to make babies, where there is no sex hierarchy, where men and women view intercourse and romance the exact same way, etc. I suppose it’s possible (see, e.g., Left Hand of Darkness). But it requires a deftness that these authors lack. And even then, it may be a story about a romantic relationship, but it is not a Romance, any more than a story in which spies don’t hide or discover secrets and there are no national rivalries can be deemed a Spy Novel.
I think the game IS about romance — it just is a bad romance story. The palace intrigues are a subplot, at best, and even less plausible than the romance.
Rrm. The conflict almost all comes from extrinsic issues: wealth, politics (including the Life Mage/Death Mage business), relative standing and alignment. Almost none of it comes from actual conflict with the other character(s) you choose to become involved with. Indeed, those characters are very instrumentally presented.
As I argued in the original post: I think they called this a romance and thought of it as a romance, but it’s not a romance really because the conflicts center on other things; however, they don’t have enough time to develop the court intrigue and politics properly because they are trying to allow for some players not to be terribly interested in those things. This is a problem because it means the player is allowed to play this game without connecting with (what turns out to be) the potential source of plot; it also means that if you *are* interested in court intrigues, what you get isn’t nearly as in-depth or plausible as you would probably like. I think we’re actually mostly agreeing here, with the chief difference being that you’re categorizing the work in terms of what the player is forced to encounter (the romantic themes are not optional) and I am categorizing it in terms of what is actually the driving aspect of the story (the intrigues are more interesting and important and bear out the player’s agency more fully).
Why would we have single-partner, cross-sex marriage as the norm if you can make babies out of thin air and there’s no gender division of romance?
…but we don’t, in CoR: they establish really early on that homosexual marriage is an option, and a frequently-practiced one. They will then offer your character choices that reflect the gender preference you set at the beginning — but there’s discussion of both gay and lesbian marriages right at the outset.
You write “I pretty early on moved away from trying to map the social interaction to real Spain” but that seems to me a cheap response to my point — you don’t set a story in pseudo-Spain and then have it nothing like Spain.
I don’t want to climb too far out in defense of this, because it’s not necessarily the choice I would have made — and as I’ve said from the beginning, I would have liked more and deeper world-building, and I personally would have wanted to go deeper into the implications of this odd reproductive system (for instance).
However, I think this decision does dovetail importantly with a couple of other aspects of the piece that you also objected to: namely, the idea that sexual access to a young, low-agency person (of either gender) is something that is controlled and parlayed by that person’s family as a means to social advancement. “Reputation” is important not only because it establishes that you’re not cuckolding a future husband (as in the case of women’s virginity historically); it’s also a sign that you are allowing your family to control access to your favors rather than bestowing them here and there yourself — that you’re playing within the rules and therefore behaving as a tradable commodity. (Also, here are plenty of cultures in which an overnight assignation for a woman would indeed be/have been ruinous, regardless of what physical proof she wanted to try to offer about her activities.)
So to an extent borrowing some of the trappings of historical Spain as a way to brush in the idea of a tightly chaperoned society with extensive intrigue and family obligations makes sense because it provides exposition-free clues about what to expect. Then the authors can paint their society by laying out the key differences between the imagined Iberia and real Spain, rather than building it all up from scratch. This they do in the first few scenes of the game: families have magic, heterosexual marriage is not universal, being a young person of either gender is like being a woman in the real world, etc.
I might not have done this the same way, but I don’t think it was necessarily a pointless decision.
I just think it’s a stupid form of story-telling to pick a genre (romance) that trades on our understanding of human relationships, and then make those relationships bear little to no resemblance to how we understand them. I’m not saying you can’t have a romance where sperm and eggs aren’t necessary to make babies, where there is no sex hierarchy, where men and women view intercourse and romance the exact same way, etc.
I hope it didn’t sound like I was saying you were definitely uncomfortable with it — I just meant I saw several possible reasons for you to have said this.
With proper development, I think a romance can be about all sorts of characters whether or not they are true to gender stereotypes and standard institutions or not; what’s important is that the reader/player believes that these particular people would act this way. (Otherwise, you just have a big three-scoop Gender Essentialism sundae with Smoochie Fudge Topping.) F’rinstance: I had mixed feelings about the heterosexual relationships in “don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story” but found the lesbian interaction completely plausible within the parameters of the game world, and the gay relationship surprising but not inconceivable.
Possible we’re not really disagreeing much here either.
And even then, it may be a story about a romantic relationship, but it is not a Romance, any more than a story in which spies don’t hide or discover secrets and there are no national rivalries can be deemed a Spy Novel.
Right, well, we’re back to agreeing. I’ve been saying the whole time this wasn’t a genre romance and that it was misleading to bill it as one.
The game fails at the heroine’s journey (which is not really gender-specific; many fantasy novels follow that arc, too, with male protagonists)
…complete with rejecting the “safe” marriage/lover because s/he would stifle or overprotect the hero? I’m not sure I’ve run into that much, but I’d be interested to hear of examples.
Anyway. There are a lot of respects in which I think Choice of Romance could have been stronger: better world-building, clearer recognition of what the key themes were, more focus on those themes rather than unsuccessful variants, more attention to day-to-day life. But those are issues I’ve had with all of the “Choice of…” games so far, in part because the emphasis on rapid movement and important choices prevents the player from really soaking up the details of the world and coming to understand it fully. There are choices, but not enough texture. I think Dan Fabulich would probably counter this by arguing that they are leaving out the mundane bits; but I generally feel that I need some down time, some time that is not a big dramatic scene, in which I can absorb knowledge about how this world works and test it out for myself through gameplay.
If I squint hard enough, I can see the protagonist’s path in the Soldier Son Trilogy as a “Heroine’s Journey,” at least as you describe it. (What I could find online about it didn’t really form a coherent picture. This was an interesting discussion, though. )
I’ve read quite a lot of fantasy, and that was about all I could come up with.
Tangential contentious opinion: games with a choice of romantic partner are actually not all that romance-like, because genre romance tends to focus on one relationship or maybe one relationship with a jealous third party adding conflict; they’re almost never “which of these 3-8 suitors interests you?”)
Tangent from this tangent: I think here you’re mistaking a feature of non-interactive fiction with a feature of the romance genre. Romance (in my limited experience) only works if you really *buy into* the relationship – if you come out out of the other side saying “wow, those two people made a terrible couple and were terrible for each other” the romance has essentially failed. In a linear narrative, the way you make people invest in the relationship is by putting all your efforts into making that single relationship as real and compelling as possible, because if you spend any time developing alternative romantic interests you run the risk of your readers saying “hey, why isn’t she with that guy, he’s way cooler than the hero.”
In an interactive medium, though, you’re working with a different set of expectations, and unless you’re working with something like a visual novel (where you expect choices to be limited), nothing is going to put a player off a relationship faster than feeling forced into it.
To put it another way, I think you’re right that a key part of romance is that it’s about the development of a single primary relationship, but I think it’s quite important that in an interactive medium, the player should be the one to decide what the primary relationship is.
I think you’re right that a key part of romance is that it’s about the development of a single primary relationship, but I think it’s quite important that in an interactive medium, the player should be the one to decide what the primary relationship is.
Mmm, I don’t agree. (And I say this having played quite a few visual novels with a dating theme. Those are sometimes interesting, but I find them the opposite of romantic: the format encourages the player to try collecting the whole set, which suggests that no individual relationship matters all that much.)
In a linear narrative, the way you make people invest in the relationship is by putting all your efforts into making that single relationship as real and compelling as possible
I wouldn’t say that’s quite it. There are lots of romances where the relationships are implausible or the characters stylized but unrealistic. What matters is that the plot is designed to ratchet up the reader’s/watcher’s investment in that relationship by making it the center of plot conflict.
Pride and Prejudice: the characters are at odds because of their titular flaws. You’ve Got Mail: the characters are natural antagonists in business. When Harry Met Sally: the characters clash because of their conflicting ideas about friendship and romance. Etc. Sometimes the source of the conflict is extrinsic — these characters are natural enemies for some reason; sometimes it’s intrinsic, an emotional incompatibility or perceived incompatibility.
If you’re trying to write a story to accommodate many possible protagonists, it’s pretty hard — maybe impossible — to do that in a way that allows any of the available suitors to become the driving force in the plot. (It depends on how procedural/dynamic your interactive system is, I suppose, but you’re maximizing your effort here without necessarily making the story any better at all.) The most successful and compelling romance-themed interactive pieces I’ve seen are the ones that have a predefined pair of protagonists, but give the player choices that pit their own in-game goals against those of the romantic lead they’ve come to like. Those moments feel like they matter. If you’re worried about the player being forced into “feeling” something, you make the protagonist a character who is obviously distinct from the player and who comes with his/her own feelings. Indeed that’s probably a good idea anyway, because a romance plot is going to feel a lot more compelling if it’s about two individuals rather than about one individual and one faceless avatar.
By contrast, if you’re offering the player a huge buffet of different romantic leads — and especially if you furthermore let the player customize a protagonist/avatar — what you’ve got is typically not an interactive romance but a widget-driven daydream simulator. There may be some interesting things that that type of interactive story can achieve, but they’re not really genre romance goals.
I can’t figure out how to reply in the thread.
Bottom line is, we clearly got different things out of the game. Maybe our tastes are just different, but I think to a large degree, you’re just being more forgiving than I am. The game set out to be a romance, and failed (I think we agree on that). You’ve made a qualified defense of it as a court intrigue game, but do you really think it’s defensible? Or do you think that because the court intrigue was a surprise, you’re more forgiving of it — the way we’re more likely to find jokes in Iron Man II funny than we would if the movie were called The Trouble With Being Rich and cut out the superhero stuff.
As I tried to explain above, the court intrigue doesn’t seem particularly good to me; it’s far too easy, it’s not actually “intriguing” (either in the sense of being interesting or in the sense of involving cleverness), the factions are so thin as to almost not exist, the goals are too vague and unsympathetic, etc. The player gets involved in the intrigue because it’s an opportunity to powergame — and to have some kind of conflict — but it’s not involving as a narrative. So I don’t think Choice of Intrigue would’ve been a better game than Choice of Romance, nor do I really think it would’ve been a more apt title.
As a final qualified defense, it seems like you’re saying the game deserves points for its setting. But I don’t think Choice of De-Gendered Sexes is a good game, either generally speaking or in this particular case. There’s the old joke about Henry Ford saying you can pick any color as long as it’s black; here, it’s a bit more like you can pick any color in a pitch black world. The “choice of sexes” and sexual orientation is no choice at all because it is utterly inconsequential.
As a feat of world-building, I also think it’s singularly unimpressive. It’s an effort to build a world around an a priori bad game design choice (“We want all sexes and sexual orientations to play the same way”), which is — again — a bad idea in general. (“Let’s come up with a fantasy world where elves, dwarves, and orcs are all the same! Wouldn’t that be awesome!?”) But, again, it’s also a failure on its own terms. As I explained below, there are at least two major things that don’t make sense: (1) illegitimacy from a female monarch (how can anyone prove it? see, e.g., Prince Harry); (2) a chaste male being able to partially defend his honor by saying that the sex act wasn’t consummated (again, unprovable). Illegitimacy from a male monarch makes sense; a partial defense of honor by a chaste female makes sense (my point before wasn’t that it always works; only that it is WORKABLE; it’s unworkable for a male character). Even with its infans ex machina and grand contortions, the game still can’t explain two of the plot points that were central to my first playthrough of the game.
Coupled with that is the setting in Spain, which is inscrutable. You say it justifies a “tightly chaperoned society with extensive intrigue and family obligations.” But Spain doesn’t conjure these things for me at all. It’s true that post-Reconquest Spain, like every other society of the time, had chaperones. But what great novels or plays set in Spain — or what great historical episodes — can you think of that turn on chaperoning or family obligations? I can’t think of any. Spain is defined by religion, religious strife, tempestuous passion, blood feuds, etc. Not the same thing at all. The qualities are more associated with England, or Italy, or even Japan, than Spain.
Finally, though I didn’t carefully peruse the game’s text, I don’t remember chaperoning being that big a deal. There was the vague uncle and aunt hovering in the background, but I feel like a lot of the scenes — the phantasia, the joust, the ambassador’s arrival, the midnight assignation — were surprisingly liberated. Indeed, liberation and decadence — not stifling chaperonage — was the mood I got.
As a last note, I may have just been confirming my own biases, but the main relationships I saw in the game were heterosexual, I thought (king/queen; aunt/uncle; I thought mother/father for the main character). Are those gay if you choose to play as a gay character? (I never did.)
(1) I think Don Carlos by Schiller might have a duenna involved, and is obviously set in Spain. So I overlooked that one. (It’s also set substantially after the Reconquest, of course, while Choice of Romance appears to be set about 100 years prior to the Reconquest.)
(2) One point that I’m not sure I ever articulated well is that for all its permission to choose your sex and orientation, I felt that the game didn’t come close to letting me play a heterosexual male character who felt anything like a heterosexual male character, except maybe the kind of imaginary gigolo that flirts through premium cable and Hollywood from time to time.
(3) I’m not sure that your description of the age-based sexual hierarchy is even correct. I’d have to go back and replay the game, but I’m pretty sure it makes clear that wealthy youngsters are allowed to be lovers, rather than merely beloveds. And I’m not sure how the game’s sexual hierarchy would work in practice; maybe I missed the ages . . . . Okay, I went and loaded it up, and here’s what it says:
“One either courts or is courted. A youngster of sixteen or so is courted, generally by an well-established adult of twenty-five or thirty. Among the nobility, an eldest child is likely to have his or her own household, and seek to bring a husband or wife into it. Younger children are courted by others. There are exceptions, of course: wealthy parents may be able to provide all their children with sufficient inheritance to set up households, and poverty-stricken families–like
yours–cannot even do it for their eldest.”
So it’s not actually old vs. young. It’s just a slight exaggeration of the existing regime where older, established men prey on younger, more attractive women.
But the thing is, I don’t understand how the system would actually work if it were (a) universalized and (b) coupled with a strong norm against promiscuity and (c) enforced with a taboo that you’re an “old maid” if you’re not married by 20 or whatever (I can’t remember the cut-off they give for the “marry for love” character).
It wouldn’t be old vs. young. It really would be more like a cycle, where one generation is beloveds — eternally, since the age gap with their spouse isn’t so great as to make remarriage likely — and the other is lovers. After all, generation A hits 25, marries up all the 16 year olds in generation B. Now there are no 25 year olds to marry generation C, so they grow up chaste and unloved until 25, at which point they go after generation D. Etc.
The game doesn’t really explain how that would work, though, and I can’t really see it. . . .
You’ve made a qualified defense of it as a court intrigue game, but do you really think it’s defensible?
I think we’re again agreeing more than you think. What I said was: not really a romance; world-building and exposition needs work; court intrigues more of a center of conflict and direction than the not-that-romancey romantic bits; game would have benefited from being more tightly constructed around the intrigue (and the request I made for better exposition might have addressed the concerns you cite); but, finally, I still liked it better than the other two Choice of… pieces I played. I was entertained by it, and it did a couple of surprising things that interested me, but that was not an unqualified rave.
Possibly the miscalibration of our responses here reflects the fact that you liked Choice of Broadsides more than I did? I thought Choice of Broadsides was better than Choice of the Dragon, which I considered a disorganized mess as stories go, but in my opinion both pieces could have been better structured and that the prose quality was merely serviceable. Choice of Romance had a story arc; it had multiple characters that were memorable enough for me to call them to mind a few days later; the text was of higher quality on a line-by-line basis. It produced an interactive experience that made me think about specific thematic questions. Even if the execution was imperfect, my sense is that Choice of Romance is trying for more artistically interesting interactive storytelling goals than Choice of Broadsides, which felt to me more like “alter ego in the British navy”: a toy rather than a story with something consistent to say.
That said, “is this defensible?” suggests a critical approach I almost never take unless I think a piece is actively bad in a moral sense. The Fountainhead is not defensible. Nazi propaganda films are not defensible. Other projects are more or less effective at achieving more or less ambitious, interesting, innovative, entertaining, etc. goals, and in that case I think it’s more useful to talk about what the goals were and what the effect was than to do a thumbs-up/thumbs-down review.
Finally, though I didn’t carefully peruse the game’s text, I don’t remember chaperoning being that big a deal.
Hm. I several times ran into situations where I had the opportunity to behave more or less wildly and escape/not escape the people with me, with corresponding hits to my reputation stats (not just the king’s “visit me in my chambers” thing). So possibly this kind of element came through more in mine?
But the thing is, I don’t understand how the system would actually work if it were (a) universalized and (b) coupled with a strong norm against promiscuity and (c) enforced with a taboo that you’re an “old maid” if you’re not married by 20 or whatever (I can’t remember the cut-off they give for the “marry for love” character).
Young people get married as trophy spouses, or don’t; if they don’t, they become old enough that they’re no longer eligible to do so (the “old maid” thing), but it is possible they will make their fortune in some other way — or perhaps they had a fortune all along — and so it’s possible for them to cross this barrier again. I don’t think this has to wind up quite as ludicrous as you suggest.
As a final qualified defense, it seems like you’re saying the game deserves points for its setting. But I don’t think Choice of De-Gendered Sexes is a good game, either generally speaking or in this particular case.
Okay, let me take one more run at explaining what I did enjoy about this, and then I’ll let it go.
This isn’t praise for the setting per se — I’ve said over and over that I think the world-building could have been better and further mentioned that world-building in CYOA often feels thin to me compared with the richly textured stuff provided in games with a simulated world. But my initial experience was of being thrust into the position of a powerless character, being told by the adults around me to marry for money and behave myself, realizing from the context that I had other options, and choosing to pursue those options. I discovered a route to liberation and then came to wonder, after I’d taken it, what the social costs of that choice might be.
Choice of Romance doesn’t deliver on this experience as powerfully as it might have done, no. But it’s an interesting effect, one that partly recapitulates the themes in the story through the player’s experience (did I really want to become part of this plot to destroy the Queen? etc.). And in that context choosing to make that experience universal to every gender/sexuality means the player can’t really escape the experience that’s intended — and is more likely to think about that experience in detail because it isn’t simply a recapitulation of cultural norms he’s already familiar with.
Which gets us to
One point that I’m not sure I ever articulated well is that for all its permission to choose your sex and orientation, I felt that the game didn’t come close to letting me play a heterosexual male character who felt anything like a heterosexual male character, except maybe the kind of imaginary gigolo that flirts through premium cable and Hollywood from time to time.
No, I got that. My point is that I think that’s intentional and part of the core of the experience; by removing the possibility of starting as a privileged, dominant character, they confront the player more aggressively with questions about the justice of such a system.
This is not directed at you personally, but I admit that my Schadenfreude gland reacts with “oh, a game where you didn’t get to perform your gender/sexuality in a way that felt natural to you? Welcome to my entire universe.” Almost every big mainstream game I play does this to me — by offering only male protagonists; by offering only an oversexualized, objectified female avatar; by letting me play as a woman but making it obvious through the dialogue and assets that they assumed a male character and customized almost nothing. 99% of the time, the industry definition of “strong woman” means “woman who wears a catsuit while kicking someone in the head” as opposed to merely “woman who wears a bikini while being tied to a chair.” I used to think this was quaint and mildly annoying; these days it’s white-hot rage territory for me, because I’ve had a chance to see the institutional reasons this is perpetuated and the inane excuses that people come up with to keep doing it.
I realize your point is more like “this felt alien and wrong to me and further broke my engagement with the story” rather than “my feelings were hurt because I wasn’t catered for”; but I bring it up because this context also helped inform my reaction to Choice of Romance. Possibly I’m more inclined to be interested in pieces that challenge our expectations about gender because I am starting from a position of very deep frustration and sometimes anger about the status quo in the art form. And I think that Choice of Romance does — or at least can — challenge the player a little in this sense, if you’re looking not just at “what is the text doing? does it make sense? would I like it as a piece of static literature?” but also at “how is the game interacting from moment to moment with player expectations?”
Aside: Many West-African cultures expect(ed) a man to marry several wives way younger than they are. In a growing population that works, because younger generations are more populated than older ones. With the advent of monogamy comes necessarily a shift to roughly-same-age spouses.
[i]99% of the time, the industry definition of “strong woman” means “woman who wears a catsuit while kicking someone in the head” as opposed to merely “woman who wears a bikini while being tied to a chair.”[/i]
You mean you don’t buy IGN’s explanation of why Catwoman is a symbol of female liberation? :)
I guess we agree that Choice of Romance succeeds in depicting male romance in a way as unrealistic as Tomb Raider’s depiction of female independence, and in an environment equally contrived to justify that lousy depiction! At the end of the day, the difference, I guess, is that I didn’t have the schadenfreudish pleasure of laughing at others’ discomfort, but was instead stuck with a game that promised “choice” and “romance” and offered neither, that promised medieval Spain and widespread wizardry and failed in its depiction of both.
[Irritable response redacted.]
All right, having checked myself with a neutral third party:
Possibly mentioning Schadenfreude here gave the wrong impression and suggested a personal attack on you even though I tried to be clear that it wasn’t one. So I apologize for that. I was trying to convey that I have a personal and subjective reason why I might be more receptive to start with because I’m interested in the problem of avatar gender in games and because I find the existing situation enraging.
If your argument is “this sucks because I don’t find it persuasive,” that’s your option, but I thought it made for an interesting play arc — the experience of discovering freedom from within a context of conformist restriction — and that there was some value in this that came from the way gender/sex was treated even though in other ways the world-building might be odd or incomplete.
If your argument is “this sucks because it’s marketed as a game of total freedom of choice,” then my response is that I agree the branding is misleading and in fact that was part of my initial premise. However, I think games that are about total freedom of choice are frequently not good at all at providing the kind of experience I’m looking for from interactive story; they often boil down to meaningless exercises in computer-assisted daydreaming. I’m happy to have that set of options narrowed into one that actually conveys meaning. (And as I’ve said elsewhere, I often find that the meaning of an interactive work comes from the distance between the options the player wants and the ones the author provides.)
Your final comment here was the first time I had the impression that you were actually uncomfortable as a result of the game. I thought your earlier framing of the discussion was meant to indicate that it wasn’t about your discomfort per se but was intended as a more abstract set of aesthetic criticisms about the rationality of the world-building, the parameters of the romance genre, and so on.
I don’t especially desire anyone to be uncomfortable as a goal in itself, though I also don’t think it’s against the rules for art to be a source of discomfort and to derive some of its meaning from that discomfort. If part of the meaning of this piece is “look, some people do not have the ability to opt out of being treated as trophy sex objects except via prolonged acting out against social expectation,” then maybe the co-opting of the traditionally privileged role into a non-privileged one is a fundamental part of how it works. If you didn’t like being in that position, okay, but that actually suggests that it worked as a use of interactivity to play off player expectations and convey a particular meaning.
So, no, I don’t like this purely because I like laughing at people’s discomfort. (Indeed, I thought you were saying you weren’t having that reaction as such.) I like CoR because I think that for all its assorted failings, which we’ve now cataloged in pitiless detail, it does have a player experience to offer about non-privilege and escape from that position — one in which the player’s expectations shift during play and the story raises some questions about what price you should be willing to pay for your freedom. I think I would have valued that player experience regardless of the setting — Mars, ancient Japan, whatever — and the reason I value the experience especially in a game is that it gets at the heart of an issue that most games culturally ignore and stomp on. Moreover I think the point would have been, er, less pointed if they simply left out heterosexual masculinity as an option.
(For whatever it’s worth, I played the game three times in the end — once as a straight woman, once as a lesbian, and once as a gay man.)
Ahh, every time I think I’m out, you pull me back in. This is my last foray.
I was not uncomfortable while playing the game. I was bored and unimpressed. I was responding to what seemed to be part of your reason for liking the game, or at least offering a qualified defense of it, which was ad admission of slightly guilty smugness at the game seeming unnatural and unsatisfying to heterosexual male gamers (which wasn’t exactly the point I was making, but never mind that). Indeed, you devoted a whole paragraph to that. I wasn’t particularly offended — and I’m sorry that you were by my response (or so I gather based on your having redacted your initial reply). I thought you were being quite open that part of the pleasure was the whole “bottom rail on top now, this time” experience of seeing a game that marginalized a group that you felt had marginalized you. Maybe I misread what you wrote about that?
I guess that part of our disagreement really is political, or philosophical, or something. I think we agree that the game advances a thesis — “if the rules of the game were different, men’s experience would be just like women’s, and heterosexuals’ would be just like homosexual’s.” I object to that on two levels.
One is that I don’t like when people invent convoluted and silly fictional worlds to justify their politio-philosophical beliefs (see, e.g., Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand) in a heavy-handed, implausible fashion. Yes, you can write a story where the world falls apart because Atlas shrugs. Or you can write a story where the world thrives because the kulaks are liquidated. That’s what authors can do; they can make the world work however they want. But when you embark on that kind of storytelling, in my view the standards to which you should be held go, way, way up because I think it’s a kind of sophistry and trickery that is excusable only when the story is very good or the internal logic is extremely strong. Neither was true here. My sense is that you, unlike me, think that (as long as the thesis is not objectionable), poor storytelling and internal logic is forgivable is it is the service of an “interesting idea,” including a politico-philosophical thesis. So we fundamentally disagree there. My literary / gameplay standards go UP for a game like this as opposed to a game like Choice of Broadsides; your standards, I think?, go down.
The other objection is just that I find the thesis very unconvincing on its own. Now, sometimes — most of the time — people make arguments just to make others who already agree with them feel happy. (See, e.g., MSNBC, Fox News, etc., etc.) So there’s nothing objectively wrong with making a work of art that presents an argument that will “persuade” only those who already agree with it. But the inevitable result is that it will leave others high and dry. I just think there’s too much biology in our sex and sexual orientation to wave a magic wand and sing, “It’s a small world after all!” I don’t believe that a heterosexual male and a heterosexual female, socketed into exactly social rules that are exactly the same for each of them, will respond to them in exactly the same way. I don’t believe that even if you could make babies appear out of thin air that would be true because so much of our selves is controlled by hormones and so much of our hormonal makeup is controlled by our sex organs. I don’t want to have a big debate over that question; maybe we disagree, maybe we don’t, maybe we only disagree to a matter of degree; but I think the game’s failure to engage whatsoever with that issue — when other than infans ex machina — is a serious failing.
Taking these two objections together, my problem is that even if you could make men and women’s lots interchangeable by some social engineering, it would take a lot more than starting from medieval Spain, taking out the Catholic church, and adding in magic wands. So rather than finding that this underlying “message” helps the game, I find that it highlights the gameplay flaws we both agree on. Choice of Broadsides, for example, doesn’t shout at you like a streetcorner preacher; it just lets you sail around, flirt around, and blow up some Frenchmen. Even if it’s not perfect, it gives you (I think) what it promises, and diverts you, rather than shouting at you and getting spit on your shirt. :)
I was responding to what seemed to be part of your reason for liking the game, or at least offering a qualified defense of it, which was ad admission of slightly guilty smugness at the game seeming unnatural and unsatisfying to heterosexual male gamers
Well, not quite; I wasn’t actually focused on how the game would feel to heterosexual male gamers until you brought this up. My comments about Schadenfreude were more of a tangent about the discussion we were having, where I thought “this makes me uncomfortable” would be an incomplete argument against something that was clearly done on purpose, and was furthermore ironic based on the experiences I’ve had going the other direction.
My defense of the game, to the extent I’ve defended it, is based on the player experience arc “You are unprivileged in a way that women traditionally have been in certain cultures, but you see a way to circumvent certain social expectations and reject being “claimed” by a husband-equivalent in favor of becoming a powerful figure in your own right. Do you take the opportunity? If you do, how do you feel about the results of doing so and how do you handle the enemies you make, and your clashes with authority and social norms?” This recapitulates issues that I’ve sometimes seen called “The Heroine’s Journey,” though that seems to be a sufficiently debated and ambiguous phrase that it may be meaningful only to me.
But I am interested in games about that problem or the related life-work-balance problems that many women encounter — among other reasons, because that issue rings much truer to me than any plotline about shooting aliens or hijacking cars. My parents hardly tried to marry me off to some rich dude when I was 18, but I do spend a nontrivial amount of my time and energy trying to balance the work I want to do with my personal relationships and with certain socialized female habits that aren’t always useful in a mostly-male workplace. If I observe that my coworkers interrupt and talk over one another just as a matter of course, ask for raises when they want them, and those behaviors feel rude and egocentric to me to perform, I have to make decisions: do I want to adapt my behavior to this environment? If it makes me uncomfortable to act that way because of female socialization patterns, what does that mean? If their talking over each other feels to them like an energetic design session, then wouldn’t it be better for me to do likewise rather than complain about this communication style? What if I perceive that I will actually be better at the job I was hired to do if I make sure my own voice gets heard? What if I’m worried that behaving this way just perpetuates a culture that intimidates my few female coworkers? If I notice them making game design decisions that perpetuate female stereotypes, how assertive should I be about my reaction to that? NB: I’m amalgamating a lot of different experiences into one paragraph here, and the people I’ve worked with have been awesome — but industry culture as a whole has meant I’ve spent a lot of mental energy on these things anyway.
In any case, I don’t actually think that CoR makes the argument “if the rules of the game were different, men’s experience would be just like women’s, and heterosexuals’ would be just like homosexuals’.” CoR is about an experience that has been traditionally the experience of women. And in order to deliver that storyline — which I think is the interesting story it has to tell, and requires the intrigue subplots at least as much as the “romance” subplots — it devises an excuse to make male heterosexual and homosexual experiences similar; having done so, it creates a player experience that might include some surprise (“wait, this isn’t how I think a guy would act!”) but I think that surprise may also heighten the experience of being underprivileged (“I can’t take charge? that’s not fair!”) that leads to the impact of the story.
If I thought that CoR were simply a propaganda piece for everyone being exactly alike, then I would agree with you that it’s extremely hamhanded and unpersuasive at that. But I didn’t take that away from it at all.
Anyway, thanks for sticking it out. I do feel like I understand where you’re coming from much better now.
Just have to say I gave a horrified gasp when I originally read this and missed the word “hardly” in the sentence about your parents. :)