I’ve played a few Choice of Games titles recently and really enjoyed them, so figured I’d try my hand at choiceScript, their proprietary scripting language for creating games. I don’t have much to write about the language itself, as it was fairly easy and has a lot of similarities to ren’py. I’m much more interested in the design philosophy of the company, which I’ll cover when talking about their style guide.
To test it out, I made a wee intro about a high school paranormal investigation club which, since I enjoyed making it, I intend to develop at least one chapter of.
I particularly like how there is an emphasis on mechanics mattering and being story appropriate, diversity and player expression. All things I love!
Conventions in Choice of Games
I had a look through the Choice of Games I’d previously played to get a feel for the writing style and how choices are presented.
Generally, it seems that they are written in second person, present tense, with the choices in first person present tense. It’s as if a narrator is talking and the player is replying. Past tense is used in flashback scenes that determine character traits.
Different games present their choices in different ways. Choice of romance uses a lot of questions, sometimes without diegetic context, such as:
‘Are you a daughter or a son?’
Creme de la Creme doesn’t really ask questions – you just pick the next thing that happens.
“Your father straightens the collar of your coat. “ “Remember you’ll always be our son”
This lets the player choose what other characters do and say in addition to their own actions.
Vampire the masqurade presents some choices as incomplete sentences with ellipses.
“drove from city to city learning to do what you loved, which was…”
I had been doing monthly ‘What I’ve Been Playing’ posts over on my now defunct narrative design blog, which served as a nice way for me to articulate what I enjoyed/thought worked about the games I’ve been playing and served as a bit of shorthand analysis. Though I wasn’t making the most astute observations – I am still fairly new to the narrative design side of game development – it served as a good incentive to ‘play like a designer’. (I do play games like a tech artist, but that mostly consists of zooming in on textures and trying to eyeball framerate issues…)
I’ll do one for February soon, but in the meantime, here’s my thoughts from December through January. Unlike the other posts I’ve moved over, this isn’t edited so proceed with caution, I guess?
Choice of Romance is an interactive fiction piece using the Choice of Games engine. I really enjoyed this, though it felt a little short – I have sequels to play though!
The opening to this game was great – we are thrust straight into the action with a barn fire that sets up a pastoral setting, the fact you have siblings and that there’s magic in the world. It also allows the player a choice that shows part of their personality.
One thing that’s excellent about all the choice of games I’ve played so far is the character customisation. They allow you to play as multiple genders, customise your look and pick a name from a list of setting appropriate names.
The way these choices are presented are very nice. For example, when you decide what you want out of your forthcoming adventure, you make a wish on a butterfly, and when you decide your eye colour you are looking in the mirror. They are small elements, but these make the choices feel immersive and part of the narrative, rather than like using a character creator at the start of a game. Its nice to not have these all lumped in together – you don’t get a full description of a character at the start of a book – but is wise to keep them near to the beginning before the player has a picture of the character in their head.
Having a description of what your character looks like, despite there being no sprite or model for them is really cool. It brings me into the story if I have a strong image of who I am playing as. I tend not to play as myself in these, but play them multiple times as different characters.
I was slightly disappointed that you could only play as straight or gay for the romances and that there was no bi option, but the choice of the main character’s sexuality determines the gender of the love interests, so I see why it was done this way.
Same character, different gender is something I’ve encountered a couple of times in Choice of Games and it is a really interesting concept. The character’s speech, actions and much of their description is the same but their pronouns are changed. This is great for catering to people who want to play as different sexualities, but its also incredibly interesting in terms of how the character is seen and their social dynamics.
There was one character in this game who was described as unattractive, boring and rich. They are the safe but unromantic marriage option; the person you marry out of duty not love. When I played as a straight man, she seemed someone to be pitied, a little desperate but harmless. When I played as a straight woman, he seemed creepy and predatory. They had exactly the same dialog.
I figured this was to do with social expectations and my own internal biases, but couldn’t figure out if it was the gender of the love interest or the gender of my player character that was swaying my opinion. As such, I decided to see how she came across when I played as a lesbian woman. She was somewhere in the middle – she seemed less harmless, but the pity came through too.
This is far too complex an issue to tackle in a wee blog most about games I’ve been playing, but overall it came down to the idea that as women we are socialised to have our guard up and be on the lookout for potential violence, especially coming from men. Even in this fictional gender neutral setting, my own learned behaviours are coming through.
Whether this is a right or wrong thing to think, many people do think this way, so considering the wider social views on my characters, both in the real world and in their fictional world, could add something to my writing.
On a completely different subject, I thought the pacing of the story was interesting. Some events, even entire months were glossed over, where other moments were seen in great detail. This is something I’ve struggled with in my own work so would like to practice.
Speaking of practice, I’d like to try out a character creation segment for myself, and possibly even give the Choice of Games engine a go, as I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve played from it so far!
Perfumare is a dark fantasy visual novel available on itch.io.
Like Choice of Romance, Perfrumare doesn’t show you your player character, but allows you to choose your gender and clothing choice, this time while looking through a shop window. Its another nice, natural hook that allows the player to define themselves.
The AD in this game is great. Chromatic aberration on everything is such a mood. The sound is also great. There’s no music, but the ambient sfx really sets the mood.
This game had a really excellent writing style. I liked the longer sentences and strong use of similes for description. I’m struggling to find the words for why these are so good, so I’m just going to dump some of my favourite excerpts here.
“His eyes lock with yours, just as the door snaps open, with a long, deep rasp that brings you back to reality with a start.”
“Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, a pungent oder of death reaches your nose, heavy like steel and clogging like ash.”
“Something stirs in your mind, blaring like raid sirens; an echo of screams and endless darkness.”
“There’s a click of the floor button being chosen, then the ping and glide of the door, the humming noise of working machinery, the shift of the ground.”
“But the dizziness returns tenfold, knocking you off your feet so unexpectedly you smack your knee against the bed frame in your haste to stay standing.”
Obey Me has been advertised and recommended to me a lot, as I’ve downloaded dating games and other ‘girly’ games on mobile. The pestering broke me down and I figured I’d give it a go, thinking it was a visual novel/dating sim.
It is not.
It is a card collecting, gatcha, dance game with some visual novel story sections and a messaging app.
In its defence, this game is incredibly polished, has excellent Japanese voice acting and, despite its proclivity to spam you with notifications, doesn’t actually prompt you to spend money very often. If you are after a card collecting, gatcha, dance game, I think you’d be quite happy, but, like many mobile games, that is not what it is advertised as.
Now, it does have many romance elements – it has the aforementioned visual novel and messenger elements, alongside a gift giving and touch system not unlike the skinship system in Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side – a game that I will defend with my dying breath. However, the issue was that you know nothing about these men. You are thrown into their world, given a quick introduction to some of them based on deadly sin archetypes (not necessarily a bad thing – give me a well written trope any day) and, that’s it. You can now give them gifts and touch them. It felt weird, and non-consensual. I know these are pictures on a screen, yet I felt like a creep just touching this man’s hair who I knew nothing about beyond ‘hot demon boy’. I think moments like that need to feel earned and come from a place where its clear both characters want it in order to feel like a nice bit of romance gaming and not some creepy objectification thing.
Beyond this, I had to do a lot of dancing to get to any plot, much of which was not interesting. It appears to be slice of life so far, which is great when you have interesting and engaging characters, but not so much when you know very little about said characters. I also found the writing to be somewhat awkward, with unnatural sounding dialog, which I believe is probably down to translation.
I’m uninstalling this before I’m complied to play more. Despite thoroughly disliking this game, I seem to keep being drawn by these push notifications.
I’d had this sitting in my itch ‘To Play’ collection for ages, and had forgotten why I’d added it. I was expecting a short, silly horror game without much substance and I was proved wrong delightfully.
I went back and explored every option here in order to learn how the game worked and get every ending. It being short to run through once was much appreciated here!
The premise involves being a kid and staying over at your friend’s house. She boasts about her uncle who works at Nintendo, you talk about school, fight or stay friends. Depending on how you speak to your friend, and how much you probe her inner thoughts, you can realize that there’s something sinister about her uncle, who is arriving at midnight. Why has everyone forgotten her brother ever existed, and what price did she have to pay for all these new video game consoles?
Tugging on nostalgia, it invokes that kid at school who always had some outrageous boast, alongside featuring a creepypasta/urban legend type feel. I’m a sucker for nostaliga and internet horror, but there’s something more about this game that makes it so good.
Gameplay wise, its a choice based game; however the addition of optional elements that seemingly provide flavor text, but are later revealed to change the options the player has available to them, elevates its complexity. It also features time management, as the clock counts down to the uncle’s arrival. In playthroughs after the first, the player will be trying to figure out how to make the most of this time to give them new options when the uncle arrives, or trying to leave before that happens.
The game is just excellent aesthetically too. The sound is fantastically spooky, the writing quality is good and the abstract visuals, which I’ve seen used unsuccessfully in a fair few visual novels, work well in complementing the abstract terror that is the uncle.
Vampire The Masquerade: Night Road
This is a Choice of Games book based on the ttrpg.
The setting was very interesting, and while I don’t remember there being a lot of descriptive text, I did come away with a rich picture of the world.
I enjoyed the game, however I got a very sudden ending, which I suspect may have been down to mechanics and stats not being appropriately telegraphed or tutorialised. I understand a tutorial is not very immersive and is the last thing you want in a game like this, but as far as I can tell it was using mechanics from the tabletop game, which are significantly more complex than a typical Choice of Game.
Part of me thinks discovering how the stats work through play is a good thing (though would be better if your character was as green as you), but the shock ending where I was going about my tasks and unknown folk just burst into my apartment and killed me was really dissapointing, especially as I wasn’t able to save the game. All my hard work, just gone. Now – that could be saying something! About the fleeting nature of life, random acts of cruelty but honestly, as much as message is important, tragedy has to be cathartic, and that was just unearned and locked me out of my experience.
I believe there is a Storyteller Mode which displays stats, so I may try the game this way and see how I feel about it.
This one is a tabletop rpg. I believe there’s a lot of overlap between IF and RPGs, so figured I’d talk about it!
The low-prep, improvisational nature of this one is quite new to me. I normally run D&D with a heinous amount of prep – think writing an entire source book prior to playing a run shot. I think this is good for me as a storyteller to get used to thinking on my feet a little more. Having said that, the best way to be able to improvise well in a way that makes sense and ties together nicely is, in my optinion, having a solid grasp on your world, so I did spend time prepping the location and its key factions. Having these factions make moves against each other in the background, regardless of player interaction, puts them at the center of a thriving world and means there’s always some kind of danger to walk into.
Talking of danger, one of my critiques of my story is the constant escalation. There was a running joke that we were just playing Riverdale, and I do feel like our session shared the common criticisms of that show! Things went from ‘who’s going to the party’ to ‘a character’s parent has been murdered and a gang is taking over the town’ very quickly.
In terms of the game system itself, I really enjoy how the rules convey typical teenage experiences, and the focus on relationship building over combat. Its also rules-lite which is absolutely my jam. Nothing like a maths session to break immersion! (Looking at you level 15 D&D campaign.)
In particular, the seating chart, where the group collaboratively builds NPCs, is a delight. Keeping track of 15 NPCs during game is not though – and even then I struggled to have a character for every situation. We’re playing a new setting soon, so I hope we’ll be able to include more diversity in the NPC dynamics to make sure they fit every potential situation.
Final Fantasy XIV
MMOs are a genre of game that I have always loved the idea of and never actually enjoyed. I partly blame the mythos developed around them by the ‘we got stuck in the game’ style stories I saw a lot as a young person – Digimon and .Hack come to mind, but by the time I was playing these games, I already had a picture of a much richer experience than I would actually receive. I imagined I’d meet new people who I’d form bonds with for life, that hanging out with them in the game would be as fulfilling as a real life friendship. I imagined I’d be a hero, standing out from others in the game and joining in on massive events.
Perhaps if I ever got to raids/dungeons/high level content in these games I would get a glimpse of something akin to what I imagined an MMO would be, but the grind to get there is far too long for someone conscious of their time (they say, writing a blog post about video games… ;)).
There’s just nothing exciting about killing 10 wolves, or clearing a cellar of rats. I believe the true fantasy here is not being a hero, but having easily managed tasks that can be ticked off a to do list. How many of us have a constant to do list and feel like its never done? The whole thing, at this level at least, feels very passive. Click the button, get the task done, get the level up music. Almost skinnerbox like.
While I understand that there’s a strong appeal in a game like this, especially to those who just need to tune out, its not why I play games. Playing FFXIV was fine, but I don’t want to spend my time on fine. I’m just as passive watching a TV show, and then I’m getting drama, I’m getting a story. I’m just very driven by those concepts when engaging with media.
Being a story gamer though, I am loathe to admit that I skipped a great deal of the dialog. I just don’t want to sit and listen to why ‘S’hojobi’ (The names in this game are…something.) needs me to kill rats. Its not engaging. It doesn’t lead to a larger plot point, it doesn’t teach you anything about her as a character. She’s just a to do list deliverer.
I’m still considering playing more to see if its any different at high levels and in a group, but I’m not sold. If anything, I’ve found the imagined experience elsewhere – what was that initial description but a game of D&D?
I’ve seen the idea that every choice in a branching narrative must be meaningful or ‘do something’ floating around, and it doesn’t sit well with me. I really like choices that don’t functionally do anything, but allow me to express myself as a player and get to know/create the character that I’m roleplaying.
The video below has a lot of great points about interactive fiction, but what interested me most was the idea of ambiguity in the text as it reinforces my thoughts on this topic. Ambiguity lets the player shape the story by filling in parts by themselves, while serving the writer because it allows the same text to take on differing meaning without the need for additional content or code.
Heather explains why it’s a good thing to have choices that don’t affect the gameplay on a mechanical level nor show the player entirely new pieces of text. Small bits of flavor or backstory, especially where it relates to the character and their life, can entirely re-contextualize scenes for the player, leading them to make different choices. As in the example in the video, while the player will always have to fight the enemy captain, whether that person is a true enemy, a friendly rival or a lover-turned-enemy completely changes the emotions surrounding the fight and thus leads the player to a different experience. I’d certainly be playing three times over to experience the plot from those perspectives!
On the back of my choiceScript experiments, I started thinking about expanding the idea I was using to test the language and what stats I would use. I don’t want to try and force a story around a set of mechanics because the story won’t be very strong, nor do I want to try and add stats and choices to an existing story because then the stats won’t be particularly meaningful and there will be an obviously canon set of choices. What I want to do is to start with theme, genre and atmosphere and build a set of mechanics and narrative goals that align with these. I’m thinking of it more in the way I design content when I’m GMing a ttrpg than writing a novel or designing a video game.
This extra credits video expands on the topic of mechanics carrying their own sperate – often opposing – meaning from the narrative themes. As an example it uses Pokemon. The plot appears rather fluffy – being friends with the Pokémon as your cute animal friends, but the mechanic is essentially about forcing animals to fight each other. You get rewarded for winning battles in exp and money. This is the sort of thing I want to avoid.
Aesthetics of Play
Another Extra Credits video talks about Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics – a paper I’m pretty sure I read about six years ago for uni, but I’m just riffing off the video here.
Mechanics = Rules and systems Dynamics = Actual play Aesthetics = Reason to play
Genre is explicitly defined by aesthetics in other mediums. It appears that game genres are mechanically focused, but really we are defined by aesthetics too.
For example, portal is a puzzle game, though it functions as an FPS. Fallout is an RPG though it also functions as an FPS. The genre truly defines what you’re getting out of the experience, rather than the physical mechanic.
Personally, I used to think that games should be defined by two genres – their narrative and mechanic genres. So ‘action shooter’ or ‘romance visual novel’. There’s some redundancy to this however – in the examples I’ve provided, the mechanics and narrative generally do go together and follow expected conventions. This format also adds to the perceived divide between mechanics and narrative, which undermines both game design and criticism – mechanics are a story tool and if they do not support the narrative themes of the game they are not successful.
As an example, if you used this two genre idea and had a ‘romance shooter’ – how does that even work? You’re posing your MC as a lover, then they gun down a bunch of people? Even if it’s to save the one they love, the message is irreparably changed by the mechanics. Killing one person to save the one you love is dramatic and shows how far you’d go. Mowing down armies just says that human life is worthless in this world and/or the MC is a psychopath.
Conversely, I worry that thinking like this just reinforces tired genre conventions. If the mechanics and the story must match, do we not get anything new? Its one I back and forth on.
Sense Pleasure – Good music, art etc.
Fantasy – Step into a role you can’t/don’t perform in real life.
Narrative – Game as drama.
Challenge – Joy in overcoming obstacles.
Fellowship – Social gaming.
Competition – Expansion of social gaming that is combinative.
Discovery – Uncovering the new, either through environment or mechanics.
Expression – Creative expression.
Abrigation – Pastime, disengagement.
Genres generally share a core aesthetic.
CoG will have narrative as the main aesthetic, with creation and discovery as secondary elements.
This is a port of a couple of posts posted on my old narrative design blog, focusing on what makes the player connect with a character when they first meet them. I use two characters from the sci-fi drama/romance visual novel Andromeda Six.
Before we meet this character we hear a lot about him – that he’s an assassin who plays with knives and calls himself a spy, but also that he talks bigger than he is, and Bash can hear him coming from a mile away. This gives the player an image of the character before meeting him – a dark, dangerous assassin, but perhaps someone with a bit of an ego who isn’t taken as seriously as they’d like. For those that play these types of games often, the writing invokes the ‘Bad Boy’ trope. Whether this is played straight or subverted is yet to be seen, however players who like this sort of character will already be warming up to him.
Damon’s first line is interrupting Bash as he gossips about him. This shows us from the offset that Damon is no stranger to confrontation and that he relays a certain outward self-confidence.
Saw me what?
He follows this up with clear sarcasm. This is probably why I like the guy so much – one after my own heart!
Delightful. Please, don’t let me stop you.
Before he is given a chance to say more, his body language and the way he looks at the player character is described. Getting some physicality in there is really nice and helps transport the player into the story – we can imagine the movement as if blocking out a play.
The use of the word ‘prey’ is clearly pandering to a certain audience, but from what I’ve seen of the fan community, Damon is the most popular character, so the devs really knew who they were making this for! I’m in this audience myself so…can’t argue!
Damon is leaning nonchalantly against the wall
cold stare…makes me feel I’m not so much a guest on this ship but his prey
The player character then wonders if he really is an assassin, calling back to what Bash said earlier and introducing a mystery around the character. Getting drawn into the story of a mysterious character and trying to find out more about them is an excellent hook.
I wonder if he really is an assassin.
I feel a slinking presence behind me, dark and ominous and entirely dangerous.
After this, Damon warns the player not to interrupt a conversation happening on the bridge. He calls them little and stupid, shifting him towards antagonistic and shifting the power dynamic between him and the player. Despite this – he was giving them a helpful warning, which might suggest that he has their best interests at heart. This small glimpse of kindness in an otherwise mean character is a complete gift to the players who want to romance a ‘scoundrel with a heart of gold’. We also get another little physical detail in that his voice is described as raspy.
Looks like our little stowaway has lost more than just her memory, You’d be pretty stupid to interrupt that conversation.
The player does not reply to his comment about the conversation, and he responds with:
What’s the matter, cat got your tounge?
It then describes his grin as ‘wide and wolfish’, coming back to the animal metaphor we got when the player was described as his prey.
We then get a little plot from him – we find out about another character and his opinions on them. He goes off on a story about a tiger which is not entirely relevant but does show character. Mostly, it leads into this line:
Had big fluffy doe eyes, kind of like you.
Considering we have this context of ‘prey’ – this is excellent. He’s flirting.
An interesting follow up to the reams of description is this line:
I’m sure you like what you see, but its rude to stare.
It brings the necessary descriptive elements and moment to moment gameplay together, making the present tense writing feel more real and develops player presence a bit. This would probably be obvious and annoying if it happened everytime a character was described, but for a character like Damon who would call you out, its excellent.
We are then given a choice that sets up whether the main character has any initial interest. One option lets us ask why he thinks he can intimidate us, shooting him down, and the other sets up a flirtatious argument that will become the norm for interaction with Damon. I like the idea of letting the player make an initial assessment of the character, whether just for the player’s headcanon or to use mechanically to drive the narrative later on.
Regardless of what you say, Damon gets into your space, with some more nice character description and flirty, yet antagonistic, dialog. When the player calls him out on messing with them, he shows his true colours and confesses that he really only wanted to save them from the captain’s wrath, elaborating on the ‘scoundrel with a heart of gold’ trope I mentioned earlier.
Overall, we see that Damon is a sarcastic, antagonistic, domineering flirt who – despite it all -has the player’s best interests at heart. His motivation in this scene was to prevent the player from interrupting the captain. I like that he has his own motivation here and its not a clear ‘introduce the character’ segment – it makes for a much more interesting glimpse into who Damon is.
June is a very different character archetype from Damon. The first time the player meets him is also in the opening of the game, so the scene has to pull more weight in terms of establishing the world and player character.
We get a very small amount of narration before we meet June. All we know about our character is that we are unaware of where we are and that we feel unwell.
June appears, and we see his sprite alongside his theme music. The music and art do a lot here. As his theme’s baseline is reminicent of a banjo and he has a gun strapped to his chest, we get a cowboy/gunslinger vibe before he has any dialog. Despite this, we see a surpised, soft expression, which undermines some of the steryotypes about this type of character.
The first thing we have described about June is his height – both an important character detail as is revealed later – and something a lot of people are into romantically.
His first lines are apologetic and kind, showing that politeness is one of the defining characteristics of the character.
Oh, I didn’t know you were awake…Apologies, I should’ve knocked.”
We get some description of his mannerisms, describing the way he sits in the chair. We are in bed at this point, so him sitting down brings us to an even level. Had he remained standing, he would have come across as powerful or intimidating and that isn’t the vibe the designers intended for June. Even though it isn’t seen in a visual novel style game, blocking is still important.
He asks the main character how they are, again affirming his polite and kind nature.
“How are you feeling?”
After this we seen an early appraisal of him from the main character. The kindness and safe feeling that June gives off is more explicitly told to the player.
“gentle half-smile…casual posture”
“pistols…nothing in his demeanour that suggests he intends to use them.”
“He certainly doesn’t look like he’s here to harm me.”
We get some early hints of romance after this, describing him as warm.
“something I like about them. Something…warm.”
He then worries about the main character, yet again showing his demeanor and alluding to plot things.
“I was worried about you after…”
This leads into the player learning they have amnesia, and a section about them trying to get their memory back.
I used a similar device in my Sarriah opening, but what works here is that it is done fairly slowly. In my opening the player asks what happened and Sarriah immedatly assumes they have amnesia – that doesn’t make a lot of sense. In Andromeda Six it is gradual. The player asks where they are, June introduces himself and the ship and then asks the player to introduce themselves. When they fail to do so, we realise they have amnesia.
He then takes the player through some breathing exercises (again, because he cares – we really know this by now) and reveals how the player was found and where. There are no assumtions made about who the player is, which leads well into the main plot. Again, this is where my introduction fell flat, as I had Sarriah just assume the player was part of a worker’s rebellion. Her assumtion is fitting of her character, but it needs to be drawn out significantly rather than magic leaps of logic.
Back to June, we get some more hints of romance as he helps the player to stand. We get a lot of descrription about how the main character feels in his grip, and some typical romance physical contact.
“…concern dripping from him.”
“June offers his hand to help me stand, and when I take it his skin is surpisingly warm, a stark contrast to the cold metal walls.”
“Despire the rougness of his skin, tha callouses on his fingers, his touch is gentle.”
“…a strong arm wraps around my waist, holding me up.”
“…golden tan. About the strength I can feel under the fabric of his clothes.”
The player is given the option to flirt as part of this segment, which leads to June being very embarassed. This reaction is very fitting to the character, helps establish your character (would you flirt with someone you just met when severley injured?), and gets the notion that this character is a love interest across early.
Overall, we see that June is a sweetheart who cares about the player’s wellbeing – not because he’s attracted to them, as is implied with Damon, – but because he’s a good person. His motivation in the scene is simply to check on the player, but it doesn’t come across as a simple meet the character because its very much in his nature to do so.
It feels decidedly less forumlic than Damon’s introduction, though that may be because I pay attention to Damon-like characers because I have a type…
If we were to boil meeting June down to a forumla it would be:
Introduce the character with some dialog typical of their main personality.
Show the character’s body language.
Have some plot.
Have some flirting and physical description.
Give the player a chance to comment on how much they like the character.
This is similar to Damon, but with more plot and none of the ‘what do others think vs what do you think’ parts. This shows that hearing other character’s opinions of the character before you meet them, while interesting, isn’t necessary, and might be something that is only needed for characters who’s internal natures differ from the front they put up.