Make Good Choices: A Guide to Decisions in Videogames

Lots of games claim to have “meaningful choices” because lots of players complain when their choices “don’t matter” in a game. Personally, I don’t care how linear a game is if the writing’s good. (And no amount of interesting choice mechanics will save a game when the writing is bad.) But even in games I really admire, I often see a lot of choices that really don’t seem to add anything to the game. So why include them in the first place?

I think writers can make choices better in their games by thinking more about what exactly each choice is supposed to accomplish. My personal strategy for this is to break choices up into different categories. I thought I’d share some of the categories I use in this blog post so that other writers can use/adapt/totally reject them in their own work.

So here are 7 common types of choices in interactive stories, along with why you would/wouldn’t want to use them as a writer. I included pros and cons as well as some famous examples.

 

1. Life or Death

A life or death choice involves a clearly defined decision between distinctly different story outcomes. Do I kill this character or let them live? It doesn’t have to literally be about life and death, but it must lead to a significant story fork. (If the story goes back to being exactly the same three lines of dialogue later, it isn’t a life or death choice.)

Not all visual novels need life or death choices — they simply don’t work in the context of a more linear story. But if you’re writing a VN with different story branches, you’ll want to learn how to write compelling life or death choices that give players difficult decisions.

Ex. Will you save Doug or Carley in The Walking Dead, Episode 1?

Pro: Lets players know that choices matter; raises stakes of story; gives you the freedom to take a story in dramatically different directions

Con: Forces you to do a lot of writing that many players never see; can seem contrived if overused; doesn’t really work if you want to tell a linear story

 

2. Points-Based

A points-based choice may have little effect in the short term, but it will ultimately affect the story at some later time. Sometimes the player can see the points, but often there’s a hidden counter keeping score. This is very common in romance games where you pick someone to date as well as games that involve morality systems or choosing between different factions.

These choices are usually best when properly set up in the story beforehand. I see way too many games where the choice is “Choose which of these characters is your favorite!” before the characters have even been introduced. It helps when players actually feel invested in the preferences instead of feeling like they’re just picking options randomly.

In general, the outcome of a points-based choice shouldn’t be a surprise to the player — points-based choices are kind of like a personality test, so unless you’re doing something experimental, it’s actually better if the outcome is exactly the one the player expects.

Ex. Some choices give you Light Side points and some give you Dark Side points in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Pro: More nuanced than life or death choices; gives players a feeling of control over the story

Con: If you make a points system too obvious it can break immersion… but if it’s not obvious enough, it can lead to frustration; can also be a pain to balance everything when writing

 

3. Superficial

A superficial choice allows a player to express their own style without doing much to change the story. It can literally involve an appearance change (“Should I wear this hat or not?”) but is more often metaphorical. For example, if you can give your character a custom name, that’s a superficial choice. Or if a game lets your character choose between two conversation options that are different in style but would obviously have similar outcomes (i.e. “Yes, sir.” vs. “Okey dokey!”) that’s a superficial choice too.

While the word superficial is sometimes an insult, it isn’t meant that way here — superficial choices can be very effective at building immersion because they make players feel like they’re part of the creative process.

Ex. When you get to control a robot that has a bunch of crazy special moves (that all ultimately do the same thing) in Tales From The Borderlands

Pro: Easy to write since they require little branching; when done well, they can help get players personally invested in a story

Con: They’re low-stakes and don’t create conflict in the story; even when done well, some players will consider them “pointless”

 

4. Closed System

A closed system involves a cycle of similar choices that repeats until you reach a story outcome that breaks the cycle. Sometimes there’s an element of stat management involved (think business simulators like Lemonade Stand or calendar-style dating sims, where you make the same choices for several in-game days); other times it’s more about exploration (think the branching paths in the Lost Woods in Zelda and how they keep sending you in circles until you reach an exit).

A closed system can have one outcome, where you keep making decisions until you successfully solve a puzzle, or it can have multiple outcomes based on the choices you make.

Ex. Presenting evidence until you figure out the correct answer in Phoenix Wright

Pro: Feels more “gamey” than most choice options

Con: Can be difficult to integrate into a larger story and complex to write

 

5. Chronological

Chronological choices occur when a story splits into several branches and the player gets to decide what order to play them in. Sometimes these are big choices: will you explore location X first or location Y? More often, though, chronological choices are smaller-scale and used for presenting exposition.

In a mystery game, for example, a player might be given the option to ask a suspect “What’s your alibi?” or “What do you know about the victim?” For the story to progress, the player has to ask both questions, but they get to choose which order to do it in.

In general, I’d imagine most players don’t feel strongly either way about chronological choices: they’re not the most exciting, but they’re also unobtrusive enough to not be annoying.

For completionists, these choices can be a minor source of anxiety (“Will I accidentally choose the option that moves the story forward before I see all the other dialogue?”) — so sometimes it’s player-friendly to hint that a choice is simply chronological. (Instead of asking “Which of these things do you want to do?” ask “Which of these things do you want to do FIRST?” to let players know that they’re simply choosing the order.)

Ex. Choosing which poem to hear first in Doki Doki Literature Club

Pro: Easy to implement, natural fit for exposition

Con: Not super interesting, can be mildly annoying for completionists

 

6. Inevitable

Inevitable choices look like life or death choices, but actually the same thing happens no matter what you choose. Will you join the heroes or not? No? Well too bad — you have to join them for the story to progress.

Many players claim to hate inevitable choices — “what’s the point?” — and it is true that these choices can be obnoxious and user-unfriendly if abused. But when used sparingly, they can also be very effective. After all, most players don’t know in advance which choices are inevitable: voluntarily choosing to do what the story requires can make the player feel empowered, while futilely attempting to resist the story can make a player feel powerless—both useful things to consider when structuring a larger narrative.

One common way to make players less annoyed with these choices is to write a joke if players make the “wrong” choice so that they still feel like they get some reward.

Ex. When you’re asked whether you want a character to join your party in Paper Mario (and the game keeps going until you say yes)

Pro: Causes minimal story branching; opportunity for humor; works well thematically in stories that involve fate

Con: Can be user-unfriendly and pointless if done wrong

 

7. Non-choices

Non-choices are simple. You get something that is presented like a choice but it actually isn’t. Maybe you see a choice menu, but there’s only one option on it. Or maybe there’s a character you have to kill and the story won’t advance until you voluntarily do it. As with inevitable choices, players often claim to hate these choices, but most players will actually be fine with them if you don’t abuse them.

Like inevitable choices, non-choices can convey lack of power or even the will of fate. While that sounds dramatic, non-choices can also be used for comic effect to add emphasis to a story event.

Ex. The beginning of Resident Evil 4 when there’s some ambiguity over whether a man you meet is a zombie, but you have to kill him anyway to progress

Pro: Literally no story branching, so you don’t have to write extra text; disrupts the usual expectations for a choice

Con: The least involving choice option; only effective when used judiciously

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What Night In The Woods Can Teach You About Structuring An Interactive Story

Night in the Woods was a frustrating game for me. To be clear, it’s an extremely good game that you should definitely, definitely buy—it has maybe the most beautiful visual aesthetic of any videogame I’ve ever played, and that alone makes it essential for anyone who cares about indie games. But it also epitomizes some of the problems I’ve been noticing recently in interactive stories. Spoilers to follow.

Let me start with what it gets right: NITW has a story that’s willing to go dark but also manages to be empathetic toward its characters and never dips into easy cynicism. I love so much that Mae has a nuanced relationship with her parents—yes, she’s an angsty college drop-out who doesn’t talk about her problems… but she’s also willing to watch late-night TV with her dad or indulge her mom’s weird obsession with eels (EELS!). I also love how when the game forces you to choose between two characters, it doesn’t pit the characters against each other to create false drama (i.e., if you choose to spend your time with Gregg, Bea doesn’t get jealous). Complex depictions of friendship are too rare in any media, and NITW seems to intuitively grasp how the dynamics of a friend group work.

But as great as these details are, the main problem for me with NITW is that no matter how beautiful or authentic the individual aspects of the story feel, the larger narrative is often weirdly inert. The game feels long, despite the fact that it’s comparable in length to a Telltale title and actually shorter than lots of AAA games or something like Life Is Strange. While the writing is often sharp and clever on a sentence-by-sentence level, it’s a lot messier on the structural level—which is something that I think not enough interactive writers are paying attention to.

Lots of people complain that Life Is Strange is a poorly written game, and yeah, there are a ton of baffling choices the writers make on a sentence-to-sentence level. But I’d argue that on the structural level it’s actually a great example of a tightly-written narrative game. Each episode has a clear arc—like a good television show, the game balances mini-arcs and little episodic moments within a larger story arc. Yes, it leans heavily on melodrama and has a few weird plot digressions, but it manages to make its dramatic twists work by being genuinely surprising while still following its own internal set of “rules.” Plus, it’s got great cliffhangers and a few moments where player choice genuinely has a large impact on the narrative.

NITW is also arranged into episodes, but they lack the same sense of focus. Actually the game is a lot like its protagonist—it seems like it isn’t quite sure what it wants to do, so it just kind of… hangs out for a while and tries different things. So much of the game just consists of waking up, walking left and talking to people until you stumble on a plot-advancing episode, then going back to bed to repeat everything the next day. Which is fine at the beginning, but when you’re five hours in and the main conflict is “Should I hang out at the hardware store or the convenience store?” the lack of purpose becomes a slog.

Even people I know who love NITW are often confused by the haphazard way the game rolls out its supernatural plot elements. The game seems like it wants to build a sense of danger—Mae starts out fearless, poking a severed arm and laughing, but as time passes, she feels a growing sense of dread that she can’t escape. Except… that’s not actually how the story’s structured. What actually happens is that Mae will have a terrible dream vision, and then… just go jump around on some telephone wires for a while. There’s almost no build-up or suspense: bad things happen… and then they stop and the tension goes away so that you can break lightbulbs with Gregg… and then more bad things happen… until they pause again. With so many plotlines going on, it’s hard for any of them to really build momentum.

Consider To The Moon and how, despite how the story is so fractured chronologically, each part feels increasingly urgent because you’re inside the memories of a dying man. Or look at something “gamier” like Stardew Valley where all of the story goals are so tightly intertwined: acquiring resources helps you make friends, which helps you unlock new story parts, which requires more resources, etc. etc. NITW just doesn’t have that sort of cohesion—it’s a disjointed story full of fragmentary episodes, some of which are great and some of which either feel incomplete or like something from a different game. Yes, there are beautiful little subplots like the miracle rat babies or Selmers’s progress as a poet, but these self-contained arcs can’t make up for the fact the main story lacks purpose and feels padded out with unnecessary dream sequences and lore dumps.

IMO, there are two different directions the game could’ve gone in that would’ve been more satisfying. The first (and the one I feel like the game is leaning toward) would’ve been to put more trust in the story of Mae and Possum Springs—and forget all that stuff about the sky cat-god and the Republican murder cult. Instead of trying to have a blockbuster climax, the game could’ve embraced its identity as, essentially, a low-key, magical realist short story collection about the ups and downs of life in a small Pennsylvania town. It seems to me like the parts of the game players have really responded to are Mae’s relationships with her friends and her day-to-day anxieties. So why not make that the whole story? Embrace the messiness and leisurely pace!

The other direction (and the one which is probably safer from a commercial standpoint) would’ve been to make the story more linear and be more deliberate about drawing parallels between Mae’s mental state and the supernatural elements in the town around her. Make Mae “happy” at the beginning (but actually she’s just avoiding engaging with deeper feelings) and make Possum Springs bright and full of adventure. Then, gradually and consistently introduce darkness into the story—rather than telling a story that goes in circles, gradually reveal more about the state of Mae’s mental health and have a clearer increase in spookiness around the town. Make the murder-cult feel like a natural evolution of a creeping darkness rather than a plot twist out of left field, so that when there’s a climactic conflict at the end, it feels like a payoff that everything in the story has been building toward. You could still keep most of the sidequests and mini-arcs more or less as they are—the humor and humanity in them will feel like necessary relief against the darkness of the main story, making the whole game stronger.

And so here’s the end of another essay where I tell much more successful devs how to do their jobs. But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think I was alone in finding some plot elements of NITW weird, so I wanted to write something to explore that weird feeling. To be totally clear, I’d take one flawed gem like NITW over a hundred boringass, technically competent AAA games about burly dudes killing dudes. As it is, NITW is one of my games of the year, and I’ll 100% check out any future projects by the creators involved. Still, I can’t help wishing that all the wonderful, disparate parts of the game had been able to come together and form something more cohesive.

So, About Doki Doki Literature Club…

Look, I don’t enjoy trashing other people’s work, especially when they seem like decent human beings who put a lot of time into it. But oof… Doki Doki Literature Club was an unpleasant experience for me — and not in the way the creators intended. I’m writing this post not because I want to tear them down, but because I think maybe other writers and indie devs can learn from where Doki Doki Literature Club goes wrong (IMO) and also what it gets right.

FWIW, I seem to be in the minority in disliking Doki Doki Literature Club. A lot of people think it’s a really great example of what narrative video games can do, so if you haven’t played it, you might want to try it before reading further. Spoilers ahead!

The problem with DDLC is that it’s a lot more interesting in theory than in practice. The “twist” (which is heavily foreshadowed by the game’s promo materials) is that this cute anime dating sim is actually a psychological horror game. The issue, though, is that this “twist” doesn’t kick in until after a good 2-3 hours of reading. This means that, for the length of time it takes to watch a movie, you’re playing a regular dating sim.

Which would be great, if the dating sim part of the game were good. Unfortunately, it’s not — the game can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a parody of anime or a tribute. So it splits the difference: it follows all the tropes as strictly as if it were a parody, but it forgets to make any actual jokes. This means that for the first three hours (i.e. the amount of time it takes to watch The Fellowship of the Ring) the entire story revolves around four weirdly-proportioned schoolgirls sharing their Creative Writing 101 poetry and flirting with a protagonist character who has all the charisma of a wet sponge.

And it’s not like I’m against the idea of a romance story about teenagers hanging out in a club, flirting, and making dumb jokes. You can make a good story out of anything. Butterfly Soup is another VN that has basically the same premise as the intro to DDLC, and it’s brilliant. The difference is that where DDLC props itself up with tired tropes, Butterfly Soup is full of humor and personality.

Even when the characters are just standing around talking in Butterfly Soup, you still get a sense that the narrative is going somewhere. Each scene feels like it’s accomplishing a goal, whether that goal is exploring a conflict between characters or revealing a previously unknown part of a character’s personality. By contrast, the dialogue in DDLC’s first arc just feels so aimless. You learn everything you need to know about the characters in five minutes, and then over the course of the next couple hours they don’t really change or evolve or do anything meaningful. They just kind of… say things and never show any depth beyond the tropes they embody.

Anyway, I tried to romance Yuri because I was curious what a horror game would do with the “shy girl who only opens up to you” trope. But as I kept clicking (and clicking and clicking) through dialogue, it became clear that nothing interesting was going to happen. I kept wondering what the point of this long intro was. Am I supposed to like these characters, so that I feel bad when the horror kicks in? Or am I supposed to be creeped out, and sense the impending doom? It’s all very wishy-washy and feels like a long joke with no punchline. Could you imagine if Evil Dead started with three hours of teenagers improvising dialogue in a cabin before anything supernatural happened?

Finally, the best friend character, Sayori, announces that she’s depressed because you don’t love her enough, so she hangs herself in her bedroom. (I’m exaggerating a bit, but this is more or less how it happens.) Which… OK, sure. I can see what the game was going for — there’s some lip-service to the reality of depression and how seemingly happy people can have dark inner lives. But the plot twist feels totally unearned — something edgy for the sake of being edgy.

A good plot twist totally changes how you view the story before the twist — when you re-watch The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, the clues seem so obvious that you can’t believe you missed them. Or look at how even though the movie From Dusk Till Dawn changes genres abruptly in the middle, the whole first half of the movie keeps hinting that something more sinister is going on. DDLC by contrast has a few offhand lines of dialogue that hint at the story’s darker direction, but it’s too vague and unfocused to be effective. The story never truly lays the groundwork for a good twist — it just kills time being one kind of story, then abruptly decides it wants to be another type of story.

And now, I have a confession to make: I only played an hour or two past the first “twist” before quitting. I started a new game and saw that it’d been transformed from a bland dating sim into an equally bland dating sim with glitchy effects thrown in. And while the glitchy stuff was admittedly kinda awesome from an aesthetic viewpoint, I just couldn’t bring myself to click through all that dialogue again. I’m sure the meta-game-fuckery only gets weirder as you keep playing. Maybe there’s even a meta-narrative that attempts to retcon everything together nicely. I’ll never know — I’ve played enough to know it just isn’t worth it for me.

Which is a shame, because I really wanted to like Doki Doki Literature Club. It took a bold idea and really went all-in on it. But in the end, the writing just wasn’t nearly as inspired as the concept. Once again, the key to pulling off an abrupt tonal shift is that the player has to be invested in the game both before and after the twist. I liked Hatoful Boyfriend when I thought it was just a silly game about dating pigeons, and I liked Three Guys That Paint when I thought it was just about three guys that paint. DDLC, on the other hand, front-loaded itself with so much inane, directionless dialogue that by the time the horror elements kicked in, I was so jaded by the story that it was tough to care.

I’m glad to see people playing DDLC — I think it helps all VNs when one of them gets attention in the mainstream. And I think a lot of devs will probably learn a lot of interesting things from the game about the potential of what you can do in Ren’Py. For me, however, DDLC remains a game that’s a lot more interesting to talk about than it is to actually play.

Announcing Guns & Lovers!

 

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Some games promote unhealthy relationships with guns — but not this one. In this nonviolent first-person dater, you’ll meet four guns who are all going through some issues in their lives. Will you be supportive and form lasting romances or friendships with these guns? Are these guns all really who they say they are? Find out in Guns & Lovers! Features meaningful choices that lead to five unique endings.

Coming in October!

 

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SRRT! is out now!!!

Available now on itch.io: yossarianiii.itch.io/srrt

SRRT! is a comedy choose-your-own-adventure game about a robot and a human who are both trying to escape their pasts. Together they steal a car and go on a wild road trip across rural Pennsylvania.

Been working on this one for a while and excited to finally release it!!! It’s the first “commercial” release from KONOL Games. For more info, including screenshots and trailers, click here.

Popularity, Parallel Universes, and Cat Posters

The idea that popularity is worthless is a pretty popular opinion. Variations on “Just Be Yourself No Matter What Everyone Else Thinks” are ubiquitous online, particularly in artist communities. And I agree with all that Be Yourself stuff. To quote The Lego Movie: “I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.” But I want to go beyond cat posters: why should we really stop caring about popularity? Isn’t a large audience a sign of talent? Doesn’t it take skill to win fans?

My short answer is “no.” Obviously, popularity isn’t totally random — talent and hard work can play an essential role — but I think it’s random enough that popularity will always be a bad indicator of artistic merit. After all, if you believe that popularity equals talent, then you have to accept that the reality TV show Duck Dynasty spawned not just one but three of the greatest authors of all time.

So why shouldn’t you care about popularity? Well, first we need to talk about parallel universes! Because I think one of the best ways to make sense of artistic popularity is to think about chaos theory. According to Wikipedia, chaos theory means that:

small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for… dynamical systems — a response popularly referred to as the butterfly effect — rendering long-term prediction of their behavior impossible in general.

Basically, this means is there’s lots of stuff in the universe that should in principle be predictable, but these things aren’t actually predictable because they involve so many factors that to us they appear random or “chaotic.” That’s why even though we have the technology to send space probes out of the solar system, we still can’t predict the weather with perfect accuracy: the weather involves so many factors that it’s impossible for us to predict precisely where a hurricane will hit or even what the weather will be like in two hours.

I think you can make an analogy between artistic popularity and the weather. Broad predictions are possible and sometimes even easy when there’s a lot of past data. It will probably be cold as balls in Alaska in January, and a new Harry Potter book will probably sell a gazillion copies. But other cases are nearly impossible to predict. You can’t forecast exactly where every bolt of lightning is going to strike, and I don’t think any early reader could’ve reasonably predicted that 50 Shades of Gray would become such a juggernaut bestseller. Any human who claims they have the intelligence to predict bestsellers with perfect accuracy is bullshitting — even the smartest, most successful book editors all have a few “one-that-got-away” stories about books they rejected, only for another editor to scoop the book up and turn it into a bestseller.

Sticking with the 50 Shades of Gray example, I don’t think there are many significant details that separate that book from similar fan-fiction erotica. Or at least, there’s nothing comprehensible to humans that explains how that book got so much more popular than its competition — it’s totally possible that 50 Shades contains some alchemy of traits that destined it to the bestseller status, but human populations are so complex that we can’t trace a clear cause and effect link between all the “initial conditions” (i.e., the text of 50 Shades of Gray and the book market at the time) and the “diverging outcomes” (i.e., the success or failure of the book on the market).

In hindsight, you can analyze what factors led to the book’s success, but I don’t think any new writer can apply this knowledge to look ahead and guarantee their own future #1 global bestseller. Like a meteorologist predicting the weather, the best an aspiring bestselling author can do is look at broad patterns of what’s popular. From a human perspective, then, the massive success of 50 Shades of Gray compared to similar books appears random. Theoretically, there’s an alternate universe where E. L. James changed one word in 50 Shades of Gray and this caused a butterfly effect where 50 Shades remained an internet cult, while a barely-changed adaptation of that Harry Potter “My Immortal” fanfiction became a billion-dollar global franchise.

Obviously, there are conscious actions an artist can take to make themselves more popular — it’s not usually as random as winning the lottery. I believe that persistent hard work will almost always lead to some level of success. But I also believe that no amount of hard work or savvy will guarantee superstardom. It takes a ton of hard work to become a successful working-class writer; it takes a ton of hard work and some luck to become J. K. Rowling. Taking it a step further, I believe it’s possible for an artist with little skill or practice to accidentally create something enormously popular (just look at how little conscious thought goes into some of the biggest memes and how many similar memes fail to get even a fraction of the popularity). Ultimately, then, because popularity hinges so much on randomness, I believe it’s a bad indicator of artistic merit.

So, if popularity is a bad way to judge art, then what’s a better one? Well… that’s a pretty big subject. Zillions of people smarter than me have already tackled it, and maybe I’ll try to synthesize some of what they say in future essays here. If you believe like I do that popularity is partly random, it can be scary, especially if you’re trying to make a living in the arts. But I think it’s also freeing — if it’s there’s no foolproof blueprint for success, then what do you lose by trying to just “be yourself”? I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.

Videogames Are Better With (And Without) Stories

Like a lot of people who make visual novels, I read the well-intentioned but not-great article in The Atlantic that proclaimed “Videogames Are Better Without Stories.” Weirdly bad articles about videogames by otherwise great writers are nothing new, but what made that Atlantic article so frustrating is that it was actually on the verge of making some good points. The writer, Ian Bogost, asks where videogames are headed as an artform—which is a great question—but in the process he ignores some of the worthwhile things games are already doing.

Let’s start with a couple things the article gets totally wrong. Bogost claims that “the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films.” This really isn’t true. To give just one example, I don’t think it’s too controversial to claim that Season 1 of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead videogame tells a story that’s equal to or better than any season of The Walking Dead the TV show or any arc in the original Robert Kirkman comics. You could quibble about whether or not The Walking Dead TV show counts as “middling,” but my point is that The Walking Dead is a story that benefits from interactivity and was (arguably) best told as a videogame. If a game was the best medium for that story, why not others?

The other weird claim Bogost makes in the article is that because Gone Home is the videogame equivalent of young-adult fiction, its achievement is “hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe nothing much to praise, either.” Once again, even if you’re someone who believes that serious adults have no business reading young-adult fiction, you’d have to admit that there’s at least one good audience for young-adult fiction: young adults. If a narrative game provides a more meaningful experience for young adults than other young-adult media, that alone would make it pretty praiseworthy in my book. (Personally, I’d recommend Gone Home for adults too—while there are plenty of great books and films about voyeurism, I think there’s something special about the way investigative videogames like Gone Home can make you feel like a snoop.)

The most interesting parts of that Atlantic article were mostly at the end, where Bogost talks about the future of games as a medium by comparing them to other art forms. Throughout the article, he asks why a videogame would ever be the best medium for telling a story. In his view, the most exciting future for games is one where they abandon storytelling to embrace their role as postmodern objects—a mish-mash artform that takes our world apart and puts it back together in exciting new ways. And this is a really cool idea! I love the work of developers like Jonathan Blow and Increpare (I’m guessing Bogost does too), and I hope similar-minded devs keep making these types of games.

Bogost wants videogames to escape from “the stereotypical dude-bro’s basement.” This is a great goal, but I’d argue that the way Bogost dismisses narrative videogames is actively harmful to his goal because it (unintentionally) excludes certain types of people who create games. Because the skills needed to create a narrative game are very different than the skills required to make something like Braid. It’s not too difficult for a “right-brained” creative person to pick up the technical skills needed to create a story game in Twine, but creating something like Braid definitely requires a high capacity for “left-brained” logical thinking. At a time when women and minorities are still underrepresented in science and tech fields, it seems wrong to exclude narrative games, which are arguably more accessible for creators without STEM backgrounds. For many creators, narrative games are the most accessible genre (and this goes for players too—it’s much easier for a non-gamer to start playing Gone Home than Braid). This is important. If you want more diverse games, you have to accept a diverse definition of what games can be.

Because arguably, the main advantage of independent narrative videogames as a storytelling medium is that they’re democratic in ways that books, films, and TV aren’t. This might sound counterintuitive, but it makes sense if you consider how we create and consume media. For consumers, all media is pretty easy to access if you have a computer and an internet connection. Narrative games might seem expensive compared to Netflix or public libraries, but when you factor in Steam sales and Humble Bundles (and piracy), their cost isn’t that different. Plus, the widespread availability of Let’s Play videos on Youtube makes most narrative games available quasi-legally to young audiences (who might not have access to a credit card for Netflix or a car to visit the library).

And from a creator standpoint, a narrative videogame can be much cheaper to create than a small, independent film. To make a narrative game, all you need, in theory, is a game-making engine, software to create and edit images (if you’re including images), and software to create and edit sound (if you’re including sound). Entry-level versions of all this software are legally available online for free. Creating narrative games on your own is totally feasible, as is remote collaboration—something that’s not possible if you’re working on a small-scale film with actors and a production staff. For people who live in remote areas or who don’t have a lot of money, games are much more feasible to create than films.

Of course, writing is another narrative activity that anyone can do for free on their own, but even compared to writing, there are a few ways in which narrative game-making is more accessible. If you want to write even a mediocre book, you need either a strong mastery of language or a very patient editor (probably both). A narrative game, though, has no need for text (cf. Dropsy). The story of a novel lives or dies by the text, whereas a videogame story is distributed among the text, visuals, and audio. While someone who wasn’t raised speaking English is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to English-language novel-writing (unless you’re Joseph Conrad), videogames somewhat level the playing field by placing less of the story-telling burden on the text itself. (Think of bands like ABBA or Shonen Knife, who spoke English as a second language but who wrote songs in English that competed with native speakers.)

In the end, saying “Videogames Are Better Without Stories” seems as silly to me as saying “Music Is Better Without Guitars.” You might think that the best, most artistically exciting music today is being made without guitars—maybe you’re super into Renee Fleming or Oneohtrix Point Never—but that’s no excuse to ignore all the music being made with guitars. Or forget about instruments and think about all the different forms a musical performance can take: a Broadway musical, an opera, a ballet, a punk rock show, an art gallery installation, an EDM festival. Some of these tell stories, some don’t; some encourage audience interaction, some don’t; and some do both at once. If music can have such loose boundaries—sometimes incorporating story and interaction, sometimes not—why not videogames?

Continuing the comparison: in music today, there are certain stories that are only being told by underground, do-it-yourself bands. For example, you can always count on the music industry (like Hollywood and the Big Five book publishers) to tell big, broad stories about What It Means To Be Queer. And these stories can be important or meaningful, but they almost always lack the type of specific, idiosyncratic details that make up everyday life for LGBTQ audiences. If you want stories about, say, tripping balls on a boardwalk with your friends or trying to drown out depression with Jersey Shore re-runs, you have to delve into indie music. These musicians often record by themselves or in small studios with friends who are self-taught. They gravitate toward rock, rap, R&B, and electronic music, in part because the tools and knowledge for making this music are easier to acquire than, say, the tools and knowledge to write an opera. Their music is complex, funny, heartfelt, and meaningful. I don’t think indie music is automatically better than what gets played on the radio or at the Met, but I do believe it tells stories that other forms of music can’t. And these stories are worth hearing.

If you’re familiar with visual novels, you can probably see where this parallel is going. It’s hard to get exact demographic data, but if you spend any amount of time on Twitter, Reddit, or forums, it becomes clear that the people making and reading visual novels are diverse by just about any metric (race and ethnicity, sexuality, age, location, etc). In AAA gaming, it’s a big deal for a character to be canonically gay. In the niche world of visual novels, a comedy about cross-dressing and lesbian BDSM (written by a queer dev) is the mainstream. Like indie music, visual novels and narrative games are telling stories that aren’t being told elsewhere in the medium, and these stories are worth hearing.

In the end, my problem with essays like “Videogames Are Better Without Stories” is that their view of videogames is too limited and unambitious. Weirdly enough, Bogost himself has argued in other venues for a more diverse definition of what games could be, particularly in the intro to his book How to Do Things with Videogames, where he writes:

Games—like photography, like writing, like any medium—shouldn’t be shoehorned into one of two kinds of uses, serious or superficial, highbrow or lowbrow, useful or useless… We know intuitively that writing, sound, images, and moving pictures can all be put to many different uses. A voice can whisper an amorous sentiment or mount a political stump speech. A book can carry us off to a fantasy world or help us decide where to eat dinner. A television program can shock us with an account of genocide or help us practice aerobics… I suggest we imagine the videogame as a medium with valid uses across the spectrum, from art to tools and everything in between.

I think that any worthwhile critical perspective on videogames should consider the full spectrum of what’s possible in the medium: from the narrative to the abstract, from the professional to the amateur, from the conventional to the outsider, from the 100-hour epic to the 10-second Flash game. Books after all, run the gamut from Ulysses to The Diary of Anne Frank to How to Cook Everything and that’s part of what makes them great. If we want videogames to continue maturing as a medium, we need to embrace diversity and encourage the best work across the full spectrum of what a videogame can be.

 

OK, now back to working on my silly cartoon robot game…

First Trailer for SEX ROBOT ROAD TRIP

Hey! Here’s the first trailer for our next project Sex Robot Road Trip. It was originally supposed to have a more cheery, kind of ironic song in the background, but I had to pull that when I realized it was a cover song that could cause copyright issues…

I rearranged the whole thing and now it has kind of a melancholy, sincere song in the background… which also fits in a weird way? I mean, Sex Robot Road Trip is mostly a comedy, but it’s also maybe more melancholy and sincere than you’d expect from a game where a robot can date an Amish person? So I hope the new version of the trailer gives a good idea what the final game will be like!

Making Visual Novels (For People Who Hate Visual Novels)

I saw Christine Love’s talk online for Visual;Conference about the rules she follows when making interactive stories, and it got me thinking about some of the rules I set for myself when creating Sex Robot Road Trip.

In particular, I realized that a lot of the rules I follow are designed to help create something that’s accessible even for people who aren’t familiar with the genre of interactive stories called “visual novels” or for people who have negative associations with the genre.

Leigh Alexander wrote a piece on Katawa Shoujo for Rock, Paper, Shotgun that does a great job of explaining why some people seem to automatically dismiss visual novels:

I heard the early criticism of 4 Leaf Studios’ Katawa Shoujo. It was slow, it was boring, it was weird teenage girl porno, it was disturbing fetish stuff. There was too much clicking and not enough to do, too much reading about stuff “no one” cares about. That’s what I expected to hear regardless of whether it was true or not. Most people don’t understand the genre and it isn’t for them. Visual novels are for people who like visual novels, and I am not especially convinced that anyone will ever make a Japanese-style eroge that will convert those who don’t.

Personally, I’m usually in the “not-for-me” camp when it comes to Japanese-style visual novels, but I know that many of the downloads for my titles come through the forums for Ren’Py (an engine used frequently, although not exclusively, to make Japanese-inspired visual novels).

Since I generally don’t include the hallmarks of Japanese-style visual novels in my own work, I’ve reached the point where I probably won’t convert many more people from the core visual novel community (which is small when compared to the audience for video games as a whole). To reach more people, I’ll have to convert outsiders — by making visual novels for people who hate visual novels or have never even heard of them.

This introduction is all a long way of saying that the following rules are designed to help create a faster-paced game for players who find traditional visual novels too slow, static, or meandering. In particular, I took inspiration from games like Phoenix Wright or To The Moon, which are often the first narrative-driven games a casual player discovers.

To be clear, these rules are me talking to myself about a specific project, not me proclaiming THE RIGHT WAY to the world. Still, I thought this could be a helpful starting point for other creators who want to work out the internal “rules” of their own projects. (Because even if my game comes out and sucks, you could always just do the exact opposite of what I say!)

 

  1. Every route of the story must contain a unique “lesson.”we-do-need-no-education

Sex Robot Road Trip is, at the most basic level, a story about a robot learning what it’s like to be human. For a game with multiple endings to have a coherent theme, that theme has to inform every single ending. A strong theme keeps a story focused — avoiding the meandering conversations that some readers of visual novels complain about.

This is why I adopted a “lesson” structure for Sex Robot Road Trip. No matter what happens in the beginning or middle of a route, each story must end with Eva (the robot character) realizing that she learned a lesson from Beretta (the human character).

There’s a lot of flexibility with this formula — most of the lessons are indirect, some of the lessons are actually terrible advice, and at least one route totally abandons the lesson structure and goes off the rails to Crazytown. But having this clear idea of how the story should be structured was absolutely essential for revising the story.

 

  1. Pretend Dave Fennoy is reading aloud every goddamn word you write.walkingdead_lee_1335387842

Most writing advice books will suggest reading your own work aloud to get a feel for the rhythm. But let’s be honest: no one fucking does that. It’s great advice, but if you’re a writer, there’s a good chance you’re too self-conscious to start reading aloud in the presence of your roommates/parents/significant other/pets, who probably already think you’re a little crazy.

So to avoid looking crazy, I started imagining voices in my head. In particular, I imagined the voice of Dave Fennoy. There are two things I know about Dave Fennoy: that he’s a busy man who’s done a ton of voice acting work (including Lee from Telltale’s Walking Dead) and  that you can buy an official flask with his face on it.

I couldn’t tell you why I started imagining him instead of, say, Scarlett Johansson or Neil Degrasse Tyson, but I can tell you that reading your own work in someone else’s “voice” is a great way to test the rhythm of your writing. It’ll likely encourage you to be more concise (avoiding the purple prose that plagues many visual novels), and it’s also a great way to predict how potential Youtubers will sound if they read your work aloud in a Let’s Play video.

 

  1. Thou shalt avoid “Bioware Face” at all costs2705972-shepard-smirk

 Bioware Face, for those who don’t know, is a term for when the facial expressions of a videogame character don’t match what they’re saying, and it just looks creepy. (Bioware is a company whose games often have this problem.) Usually, it’s because the character looks too stiff and lifeless, although sometimes the problem is that a character is emoting too much or in the wrong way, and it just looks ridiculous.

To avoid this in Sex Robot Road Trip, I followed two guidelines. First, I made sure characters changed their expression during almost every line of dialogue they speak. Second, I made sure that the expressions never simply “alternate.”

For example, say I have four consecutive lines of dialogue attributed to a character. That means each one needs a different expression. I could do something like Happy Face—Sad Face—Happy Face—Sad Face, but I usually try to avoid simply alternating emotions like that because I think it can look too stiff and robotic (no offense to my robot characters!). So instead of going Happy—Sad—Happy—Sad, I might try something like Happy—Sad—Happy—Confused to mix it up.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. Some minor characters have only a few expressions, so it may be necessary to alternate expressions occasionally. Also, there are times when a major character is using a parallel speech structure (ex. “Either this… Or that… Or this… Or that”) where I specifically want to use alternating expressions to capture that parallel structure.

 

  1. Don’t let the characters just stand there like assholes. planking

I don’t like how during dialogue in Fire Emblem games, the character headshots mostly stay in their corners without moving. I get why they use such static sprites (cuz they have to write a million lines of dialogue), but for a short game like Sex Robot Road Trip, I didn’t want static images.

Each character in Sex Robot Road Trip has a “home base” position — the one main character Beretta is usually on the left side of the screen, the other main character Eva is usually in the center, and any other characters usually appear on the right. But I tried to make sure that in every scene (except very short ones), at least one character moves out of their “home base” position. Sometimes it’s a dramatic change, like Beretta running in circles, while other times it’s more subtle, like Eva taking a step back when she’s afraid.

Each of these movements is accompanied by a sound effect: a rustling sound for slow movements, a whoosh for short fast movements, and a swoop for long fast movements. And speaking of sound effects…

 

  1. Use lots of sound effects, but be lazy about finding new ones.49025169

This rule is partly to save me time in creation, but it also has some practical benefits.

In my first game Beretta Mondatta, I introduced a crunch sound effect to indicate bones crunching. In Sex Robot Road Trip, there’s a scene that involves the earth crumbling. I could’ve searched for a new sound effect, but instead, I just said, “Fuck it, it’s crunch time again.” Meanwhile, all of the swooping, whooshing, and punching sound effects in Sex Robot Road Trip were imported directly from a previous superhero game called Banality Man.

By being lazy and re-using the same sounds, I save time, while also (hopefully) creating a library of familiar sounds that repeat players will recognize—just like the “Wilhelm Scream” in movies or the “Treasure Opening” sound effect in Zelda. (The Phoenix Wright series is actually really great at creating recognizable sound effects, but among visual novels, it’s an exception that proves the rule.)

 

  1. Every “prop” mentioned by the characters should actually be visible in the game.chaplin-cane-primary

Don’t you hate it when a character in a game says they’re holding a sandwich, but you can clearly see that their sprite is empty-handed? Again, I get why developers do this, because it would be crazy expensive to re-draw fancy sprites for every new item a character picks up. But hey, my sprites are dirt simple, so I figure the least I can do is show props when they appear.

There’s a scene where Beretta mentions going to get a cheesesteak. When she comes back, you actually see her holding a cheesesteak. There’s another scene involving a cow where, instead of simply using a moo sound effect, I just went ahead and drew a cow.

Is it the best use of time? Probably not. Still, it’ll be worth it if there’s one person in the audience who goes “Whoa… someone actually took the time to draw a tiny cheesesteak.” It’s the little things.