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.