Monday, June 18, 2012

Hakuoki Part 2: Handling Romance

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, is a visual novel game I became engrossed with and decided to dissect (with much love) so I could figure out why I liked it. After all, I’m a writer, and I want to see why the story works.

This week I’m going to discuss romance and how it’s handled in game. You can see Part 1 over here:

Hakuoki Part 1: Introducing the Visual Novel and Hakuoki Itself

There are five different second halves to Hakuoki (six on second playthrough), which means multiple endings, and the way the player decides on a path is by bonding with one of the possible romance options. Though the romance determines which path the plot will take from Chapter 4 onward, the relationship is typically very chaste with no bodice ripping to be found. To be fair, there is one sex scene, but only on one path and it happens off camera. Most times there’s a kiss towards the end of the game and that’s it

Yes, the game is rated M for Mature, but it’s because of the occasionally graphic depiction of violence (and all the swearing from some of the rougher characters). This isn't the game to play for some skin. The only shirtless scene is done entirely for humor and the person showing off (and annoying the other characters by doing so) is not a romance option.

What I like about Hakuoki’s way of handling romance as opposed to a game like Dragon Age is that the relationship comes about more naturally. This is helped by the fact the narrative is stricter and even though there are romance meters, there are fewer opportunities to raise them.

In most games I’ve played that allow for romances, the player might do something like attend special events with the potential love interest, say the right things in dialogue, and/or give tons of gifts to the love interest. And by applying sheer persistence (or the use of a well-documented FAQ from GameFAQs) the other character will fall in love with the protagonist, even if it looks nonsensical from a straight storytelling perspective.

Hakuoki wasn’t like that for me. There are still dialogue choices, particularly in the second half of the game after the relationship is formed, but in the first half, when the player is first exposed to the characters, the romance is made up almost entirely of incidental moments where the player has little to no idea how things will play out.

When I first started the game I decided to play it straight and go with what felt right. I admit I was a bit concerned when I was approaching the branching point and all my romance meters were below the black line denoting the midpoint, but it actually wasn’t that I was failing. The game will pick the storyline of the male character with the highest romance and seamlessly segue into the character-specific storyline without any player input or halting the flow of the game. It’s much more natural than the decision point moments in other games where the player immediately knows what they do at a particular scene will decide anything that happens in the future.

And raising the romance meter is surprisingly hard. There aren’t many moments to do so and they aren’t as simple as whether or not to flirt with a particular character. Chizuru as a protagonist is somewhat shy and it’s not in her nature to chase after a man. When she first meets the Shinsengumi and has an opportunity to explain why they shouldn’t kill her, the player can choose a number of different options. How she behaves and the reasons she gives will generate approval with one of the possible love interests.

But the majority of choices do not lead to any changes at all, rather allowing the player to take different paths around the same events and form bonds with characters that have nothing to do with a graphical depiction of a relationship. Many times, there will be a decision as innocuous as whether the player decides to have the protagonist stay in her room versus going out in the courtyard that will determine who she interacts with, and most likely, there will be no meter change. But there is a player perception change, as characters the player likes interacting with will be those the player will make an effort to hang around when the options are more obvious.

For instance, Sanosuke Harada seemed like a nice enough guy, but for some reason I hardly ever saw him except in the scenes that always happen no matter what choices were made. I similarly didn’t have much interaction with Toshizo Hijikata except when he was making command decisions for the Shinsengumi as a whole. Though I thought they were potentially interesting characters, because of choices I made that had nothing to do with who I wanted to talk with, I just didn’t intersect with them.

My first time through the game, my meters went up with three possible partners; Souji Okita, Heisuke Toudou, and Hajime Saito. This was just through in character decision making with very little in the way of pursuing any of them. (I can think of only one pre-Chapter 4 choice I made where it was pretty clear that I would or would not get a meter raise depending on what I did.)

But because of “random” decisions I made as a player, I became invested in Saito.

There was one point early in the game where I went out into the courtyard and met Saito and Okita there. I did not know they would be there ahead of time, which made the encounter feel very natural. I also found I liked the way that Saito never teased the main character, took her concerns seriously, and went out of his way to reassure her when he didn’t have to, even when it was an odd sort of reassurance along the lines of “As long as it’s my orders to do so, I will protect you. No matter what.”

Then when the first mandatory scene with the potential main villain comes out, the player is defended by three members of the Shinsengumi; Saito, Hijikata, and Harada. The player is given the option to draw her sword, call for help, or stay where she is. What the player chooses determines which Shinsengumi member is the one who specifically positions himself between her and the enemy.

By luck, the choice I picked resulted in Saito being the one to defend the protagonist. No romance meter points are earned for that choice, but because I was already interested in him as a character, having him specifically be the one to defend me cemented my choice in who I wanted to spend my time with.

So later choices, regardless of whether they gave points, started to revolve around the possibility of seeing Saito. Demons attacking the compound? Forget Okita. I need to find Saito! By the end of Chapter 3 Saito had the highest score on the meter (by one point, and yes that meter is hard to raise) and it was clear Chizuru had begun to care for him.

This made the transition to the Saito-specific Chapter 4 very easy. Though it was not immediately apparent, there were no longer any opportunities to increase romance meters with anyone else and Saito in turn became very prominent in the story, with Chizuru spending more time with him than any other character.

As the story went on, it was possible to continue raising Saito’s romance meter and see how he in turn begins to accept the protagonist as more than a charge to protect, but also a woman he loves. I really liked how even after the relationship was “locked in” from a game perspective it continued to grow until at the final boss fight Saito declares that he’s not protecting the protagonist because anyone ordered him to, but because he wants to.

I think it’s that post “we’re a couple” point that other games miss. In most games where the relationship is player’s choice, it doesn’t progress after the choice is locked.

I really liked Anders in Dragon Age II, but after he moves in that’s it. The relationship is acknowledged by other characters, but ceases to progress. The player cannot continue to help him with his problems in any way more meaningful than if they were not in a relationship at all. The same story events are just slightly reflavored wherever Anders is concerned, but it is not possible that anything he does will deviate from the central plot because of the relationship.

With its multiple endings, branching from the middle of the game, Hakuoki can do this. The same events play out differently depending on the path. Betrayals will happen, or not, depending on who Chizuru is with. Characters will die in slightly different locations, or maybe not at all. Even the final villain of the story can change.

In a way it doesn’t make sense that an ally will intervene in one storyline versus another, but the major deviations are always on the part of the non-historical characters (who are all oni demons) or characters whose real life counterparts died before the Boshin War started so I’m willing to roll with the changes. The important historical bits, like the outcome of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, never change.

If I did have one wish though, it would be that Chizuru as the protagonist could be molded to be more like the player wants her to be, rather than what she is, because she is serving as the player surrogate in the romance.

And that’s my topic for next week.