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Regency Love: A game about 19th century courtship inspired by Baldur's Gate

Tea for Three is an Australian game studio built by three unlikely developers. There's Samantha Lin, a bubbly twenty-something PhD candidate whose thesis is about Shakespeare film adaptations. There's Jenny Tan, an auditor with a background in accounting. And there's Melody Wang, the programmer of the team.

This unlikely trio of developers is the brains behind a game with a theme that, until very recently, was also unlikely material for a video game.

Regency Love is a role-playing game available now for iOS devices set during the Regency era, a period of nine years between 1811 and 1820 when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled as his proxy as Prince Regent. In the world of literature, it is better known as the period when author Jane Austen was most active, producing some of her most famous works like Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. When you think of the world of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy, that's the Regency period. And it is in this world of tea parties, structured courtships and Colin Firth looking uncomfortable that Tea for Three has stumbled onto something special.

"I still remember the moment when I realized who Imoen was in Baldur's Gate 2."

"[The three of us] were having dinner one day and started fan-girling over Dragon Age 2," Regency Love's writer, Samantha Lin said. "I've always loved the BioWare RPGs, especially Baldur's Gate 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, because of the romance side plots (and fireballs).

"[We] thought, hey, why not have a fantasy RPG with all the romance and none of the fighting? So basically, a dating sim — only, not quite, because we wanted to have all the dialogs and conversations from those RPGs we loved, as well as the ability to make an actual difference with your conversation choices."

The Regency period was fertile ground for their idea. It may have lacked the action-based excitement of of a fantasy setting or a historic war zone, but the excitement could be found elsewhere, in the story and the characters.

"When I think about the action-packed RPGs I love, they all concentrate on telling some kind of story," Lin said. "Yes, there's also quite a bit of action with darkspawns (enemies from Dragon Age), Bhaalspawns (from Baldur's Gate) and so on, but to me, it was always about why I was battling those foes.

"I remember playing World of Warcraft for a solid month and being completely obsessed, but it was always about achieving accomplishment-based goals rather than plot-based ones. I don't remember much of World of Warcraft now, but I still remember the moment when I realized who Imoen was in Baldur's Gate 2."

In Regency Love, Tea for Three uses the historical period to tell original stories about the people of Darlington, a fictional town with people whose interests and concerns — while seemingly trivial to a player from the 21st century — are real and serious to the people of the time. Through the player's interactions and conversations with other characters, the game reveals the values and struggles that a person — particularly a woman — would have experienced. In one conversation early on in the game, the player is lectured by a family friend about the importance for a woman to marry a man who can care for her. The dialog the player can choose from ranges from acceptance to defiance ("What about marrying for love?"). These choices will affect the traits of the player's character and shape the way people view her.

Players will venture to locations like the town center, meet new characters and have conversations with them that will affect future interactions. Regency Love's dialog trees are full of subtleties in language, so the consequences are not always predictable. As per the conversation above, questioning if a woman should marry for love may seem harmless and even reasonable, but the response suggests otherwise. In a later encounter, the player meets a handsome gentleman who tells her it is a pleasure to meet her. The dialog choices remain subtle in their differences ("I daresay I'm the more fortunate of us to have the privilege of being in the presence of such a handsome gentleman as yourself," vs. "I believe the pleasure is entirely mine, Mr. Graham").

...The game reveals the values and struggles that a person — particularly a woman — would have experienced.

The game is a dating sim to an extent. There are currently two male characters who can be romanced. Tea for Three has plans for future updates to the game that will add more romanceable characters, as well as side plots that flesh out the stories for yet-to-be-introduced characters. But the game always comes back to its RPG roots, and the romances are simply part of a bigger, more complex story.

Throughout the game, players will be able to play mini-games like Hangman that contain trivia about the Regency era. Completing these mini-games will earn the player motivation points, which they can then spend on improving their dancing skills, reading, needlework, singing, drawing or riding.

"Although a lot of the character's preoccupations could be thought of as insignificant — I mean, what's a well-darned sock in relation to overthrowing the Roman Republic? — they shed light on certain elements of human existence which, although small and quiet, are not in any way less important or meaningful," Lin said. "A well-darned sock shows resourcefulness, skill, financial awareness and a respect for one's belongings. So we wanted to focus on those types of stories, to allow for a kind of gentle introspection that a Regency era game allows."

Lin told Polygon that one of the challenges the team had was negotiating authenticity and accessibility. Regency era literature tends to use long sentences and complicated syntax which, while suitable for the pages in a book, does not work for a game that has to be playable on a small screen. The game relies heavily on Jenny Tan's art to tell what what isn't said through words. The result is a game that is accessible, even to those who can't make it through a Jane Austen novel, while still feeling distinctly of that period.

"Ultimately, we created Regency Love for everyone who loves a good story," Lin said. "Of course, different people prefer different kinds of stories, and I think our game is for those who like something that's a little playful, charming, slightly quirky and invites quiet contemplation.

"What I want all our players [to get out of Regency Love] is an immersive, interactive experience of the Regency world we've lovingly created, and which, in turn, we hope will be lovingly taken."