Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #35:

Exploring Genres: Romance

by Travis S. Casey
June 10, 2002

No, wait! Don't go away yet! Romance doesn't have to be "romance novel" romance — there's also romance in the older sense, as in "Arthurian Romance". The basis of romance plots is generally love — but that doesn't mean that two people staring into each other's eyes has to be the focus. The Arthur - Guinevere - Lancelot love triangle is the basis of much of the Arthurian legends and the stories that have been based on those legends, but even people who hate "gushy stuff" can appreciate many of the versions.

Love is universal — and love for someone you can't have is almost as universal. The romance novel industry bears witness to the popularity of the theme, and so do all the many romance movies, TV shows centering around one or more romances, Broadway musicals with a romance theme, and so on.

Love is the basis of romance, but that still leaves a lot of room to maneuver. You've got two people who are in love, or who might fall in love — and then what? The "then what" is where the story lies. As the cliche goes, "the course of true love never runs smooth." (Well, sometimes it might, but letting it do so makes for a boring story.)

So we need something to get in the way. And boy do romances deliver. I've already mentioned the classic "love triangle" above, but there's tons of other complications possible, from the plausible (e.g., different social class) to the very odd (e.g., younger sister can't marry until older one gets married, in Shakespeare's classic "Taming of the Shrew"). We can group them all into a few categories, though:

  • Social Environment
  • Physical Environment
  • Themselves
  • Other People
  • Misunderstandings

Obstacles in the social environment are instances where "society" "just wouldn't approve". They're distinguished from other people keeping the lovers apart in that "other people" refers to specific other people, instead of a vague group. For example, in a romance where one of the lover's parents doesn't approve of the other lover, and that's the obstacle to be overcome, we'd be in the "other people" category. When there's a large group of others who wouldn't approve, or the "others" aren't really specified, we're in the "social environment" category.

Note that an "other person" can be a rival, which includes the classic triangle under "other people".

The physical environment includes anything that physically keeps the lovers apart. The classic examples are fairy-tale scenarios — the tower that Rapunzel is locked in, for example. This can overlap a bit with "other people" — a dragon who's captured a princess might be considered "other people" if it's possible to reason with the dragon, but if the only way to get to the princess is to kill the dragon or sneak around it, for practical purposes it can be considered part of the physical environment. Another fairy-tale-style example would be a curse that keeps the lovers apart — as in the movie "Ladyhawke", for example.

Wandering into more modern territory (or, one might say, movie-of-the-week territory), there's things like a lover in prison or a lover with a contagious disease.

The lovers themselves may be obstacles. This may involve emotional baggage on the part of one or both (e.g., shyness, feeling they're not good enough, afraid that if it doesn't work out they'll lose a friend). Another means is for them to be competing with each other in some way. Moving into movie-of-the-week territory again, the "one lover cures/rehabilitates the other" theme can also fall under here, with things like "I can't love you because I'm an alcoholic."

Lastly, misunderstandings includes all those fun things like mistaken identities, cross-dressing (e.g., the romantic subplot in "Some Like it Hot"), misunderstandings at masquerades, and other sitcom staples. They're not always funny things, though — see the example in the next paragraph.

Often more than one technique will be used — one might be the major obstacle, but other obstacles might show up in a minor role in other scenes. For example, in "Romeo and Juliet", the major obstacle is the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets (which I'd class as "social environment", since no specific people really show up as particular obstacles). However, at other points we have physical obstacles (Romeo in the orchard, Juliet on the balcony; Romeo's banishment), other people (Tybalt, the impending marriage to Paris), and a misunderstanding (Romeo's not knowing that Juliet isn't really dead).

Having multiple obstacles allows our couple to overcome some of them, thereby "proving" their love, while still leaving some doubt as to the resolution, and/or allowing the story to be extended. The last bit is especially common in soap operas, where a good, popular romance can be milked for a decade or more.

OK, So How Does All This Apply To Online Games?

I'm glad you asked that. Well, actually, I'm not glad, but I've got to bring this to a point sometime, or my editors will hurt me. Multiplayer online games pretty much can't center around romance — for the simple reason that there aren't enough main characters to go around, unless you're willing to do lots of separate romances. Doing that isn't likely to work well either — with dozens or hundreds of romances, throwing big obstacles in everyone's way is going to be ridiculous, and not in a good way.

Further, there are problems of audience/character separation much like those in comedies (see my last two articles!), but stronger. While a few players may be readily able to roleplay lovers while realizing that there's nothing real going on here, the more common online romantic scenario is that the players are romancing each other, rather than it strictly being the characters. A real romance is a risky thing to build a plotline around — if the players have a breakup, it's not likely that they'll be willing to keep the character's romance up for the sake of the plot.

A player-NPC romance is theoretically possible, and would cut the risks a bit, but it's (a) not likely to work too well short of strong AI, and (b) somewhat creepy.

So where does that leave us? Well, if we can't have a player involved, that leaves NPC-NPC romances. This would seem to be a dead end, since it removes players from the role of prime mover of the plot, and isn't likely to generate interesting love scenes.

However... there are possibilities here. Remember what I said back in the first paragraph — love is the basis of romance plots, but the love itself doesn't have to be the focus. You can do a lot with NPC lovers using PCs as go-betweens, or recruiting PCs into plots to get around obstacles — or, in the case of a triangle, to put obstacles in the path of a rival.

I've already mentioned Arthurian legends as one source of such plots. Another example is noir detective stories, where one or more romances often underlie the story, but the real focus is on the crimes, deception, and betrayals.

So, while romance may not make a good main plot for online games, it can make a very good background motivation for plots and subplots. And who knows? Internet fan fiction shows that people are willing to spin their own romantic fantasies on some of the flimsiest of starting points in TV shows and movi

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