Yahtzee has an interesting rant on the lack of good romances in video games, commenting that designers are usually interested only in the very beginning of a relationship, or in its violent end as a motivation for revenge.
OK, but I think the real problem is that adventure games in general haven’t figured out how to do anything but shooting really well. Some of them branch out into sneaking, and you can make a case for exploring or rearranging colored geometic shapes, but personal interaction (including romance) is at best relegated to the dreaded dialog tree.
Now, this can be done well enough that it’s a fun addition to the game. Bioware is usually good at this. But the way they do it is by really good writing, which is pretty much not gameplay. E.g., in Mass Effect 1 Liara’s conversation is interesting enough that we click the right options to sit through it, but as gameplay it’s just a couple of clicks leading to small cutscenes. And there’s no skill in picking between three dialog options (hint: be nice to Liara).
I suspect the problem is not solvable for now, because any really satisfying personal interaction would require an amount of voice acting beyond even Bioware’s budget. Maybe in ten years simulated voices will be good enough to make it possible. Or you could go back to text, which can be cheaply produced in quantity– not a very attractive option, but if cleverly done it could be better than it sounds.
E.g., it could be fun to get e-mails or text messages from other characters. Both Vampire TMB and Mass Effect 2 used e-mails to some extent and could’ve done it much more; one advantage is that if you’ve heard the character speak, you’ll read their e-mails in their voice.
How could dialog be made into an actual gameplay mechanic requiring skill? One way is to require you to actually type text, like early Infocom text adventures. ASK LIARA ABOUT GENOPHAGE. The problem of course is that gamers, even pubbies, are much smarter than AIs, so you’d have to limit this to a tiny artificial language. (But hey, game designers, I wrote the book on that, and I’ll be happy to design one for your game.)
Some games let you ask about characters or things in your inventory, which is promising. Even if most of them produced the equivalent of “I have no opinion on that”, it makes the choices more interesting, as it would be tedious to run through every possible option.
It’s slightly satisfying to invest points in a skill that allows better dialog choices… after all, it’s a tradeoff since you could have spent the points on defense instead. But it’s not that satisfying since if the game depends on dialog much, it becomes a no-brainer to put points in Persuasion.
Dragon Age Origins allows you to influence a character by giving gifts, which in theory is a good idea as you have to know what they like. (Does Alistair like sculptures of monsters, or is that Leliana?) Though honestly remembering this kind of trivia is a little tedious; it’s the sort of thing players will go look up on the wiki.
Another option would be to use a minigame instead of picking from three or four choices (especially as almost always, one or two of the choices are obviously dumb). For instance, in Mass Effect 1 there’s a mission where you have to persuade a Turian general to buck up and stop throwing his life away. In real life this would require a full therapeutic intervention… a random chat in a bar is just not going to do it. In ME it requires a couple of easy dialog choices. If nothing else you can quicksave and choose randomly and not waste much time on it.
But what if you had three sliders– let’s say Compassion, Shaming, and Reasoning– and had to set the right value on each? Now you have to decide or guess which combination of these techniques will work on this cantankerous, messed-up old dude. If they’re each a ten-point scale, there’s a thousand possibilities, so randomly guessing won’t work. (Skill investments could increase your wriggle room, so you don’t have to come quite so close to the right values.)
(You don’t need a thousand possible voice response; the responses fall into categories which would hint which direction to move the sliders.)
It could be more interesting yet if your options were resource-limited– e.g. being compassionate is wearying, so you only get so many compassion points at a time.
At the very least, more choices = more skill required = better gameplay. I may try to create a demo of this to see if works out in practice…