Mailbag: Choice of Aesthetics

A while back, you alluded to the aesthetic preferences cultivated by Choice Of Games and their writers.  Is this written down or codified somewhere?  Is there a critical discussion?   Have you written about it?

There’s a lot of advice and material codified for people who are actually working for them, on their website. An obvious starting point would be their three-part series about how they judge good games: 1 2 3

It’s also probably worth looking at their ideas about structure, which covers branch-and-bottleneck (or what they call “stack of bushes”) design, delayed consequence, and stats deployment. Endgames specifically are covered in this post.

Sam Ashwell’s review of Cannonfire Concerto talks about how that work does/does not align with Choice of norms, and there are a few other (admittedly fairly offhand) observations in his review of Hollywood Visionary.

Overall, I’d characterize their preferences like this:

  • a highly customizable protagonist who at a bare minimum can be any gender and romance any gender, but who might also embody many other possible variations
  • a tendency towards bildungsroman, so that the protagonist’s definition can be incorporated into the storytelling, and because the whole brand was inspired by the game Alter Ego; many of their works start with an education and training period
  • less focus on prose style: their structure allows for more verbose writing between choices than inkle or Failbetter, and the undercharacterization of protagonists often precludes using a strong narrative viewpoint
  • an emphasis on plot consequence (you did this and as a result the company failed) over internal or emotional consequence
  • a tendency (though not an absolute rule) in favor of interchangeable characters
  • riffing on core conventions of existing genres (though this is something where they’ve matured over the years, I think — but early pieces sometimes felt focused on “what if we took this standard trope set and then explored the consequence trees possible within it”)

Interactive Fiction (ML Ronn)

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 8.36.21 PM.pngThe full title of this is Interactive Fiction: How to Engage Readers and Push the Boundaries of Storytelling (ML Ronn), and I read it as part of the same research that led me to read Deb Potter’s guide.

(Throughout the below, I’ll refer to Ronn as “he” because Ronn mentions using the pen name Michael in places, despite the gender non-specific initials on the cover.)

Ronn’s book makes an entertaining diptych to Deb Potter’s piece, since he starts out in the introduction by vehemently rejecting a lot of the things Potter embraces: writing for children, leaving protagonists blank, deploying frequent deaths, and the use of the second person POV in general.

Ronn claims it’s flatly impossible to tell a good or characterful story in 2nd person POV; there are plenty of counter-examples in the IF canon but instead I’ll take the opportunity to recommend some Jennifer Egan. To be fair, however, I think he’s really railing against AFGNCAAPs rather than second person.

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Writing Interactive Fiction (Deb Potter)

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 6.55.20 PM.pngWith the reappearance of IF as a commercial art form, there’s also been a rise in books out there to guide would-be writers in the form.

Deb Potter writes for the You Say Which Way series, which is to say pretty much straight CYOA. She has released Writing Interactive Fiction to teach others how to do the same, in a breezy and accessible style. Potter does not assume the reader has a great deal of pre-existing experience in the space, and starts out exploring basic concepts like choice and consequence, explaining why your basic left-or-right choice is usually such a bore, and suggesting that authors should give readers some warning before an instant death. She also comes down against using IF for moral preaching.

But there are a few places where her suggestions either depart from what I’d tend to consider received wisdom in the IF community, or introduce new terminology. In particular, she talks a lot about how to help the player build a mental model of the structure of the CYOA, and how to draw attention towards (or away from) choices that they might want/not want to replay.

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Twine Gardening

I haven’t published much in Twine on IFDB, but I actually use it a great deal: it’s become a prototyping tool of first resort for a wide range of professional projects, the format in which I deliver content to be converted into some other final presentation. A not-trivial amount of pro-level game story prototyping happens in Twine these days.

Which reminds me to mention that Chris Klimas has a Patreon for Twine maintenance and development, and it would be great to see that get some more support. Twine is usefully free to creators who might not be able to afford it, and long may it remain so — but I use it for industry purposes, so I pay for mine. (He’s also reachable via Unmapped Path, and has developed an engine to bring Twine pieces to mobile.)

One of the most characteristic things about writing in Twine is the business of curating the narrative map. Twine generates this map automatically, making a new passage for content every time you create a link that doesn’t refer to an existing passage, and placing that box somewhere near the originating passage. Which is fine, to a point, but very soon several things happen.

  1. performance drags and Twine takes its own sweet time inserting the box
  2. Twine’s idea of where to auto-place the box doesn’t correspond to my idea of how the contents should be visually arranged
  3. I can never zoom out as far as I want to, because even the smallest-box depiction of the Twine map doesn’t show me the whole monstrosity I’m working on

A really large portion of my time working in Twine consists of clicking back to the map view and dragging boxes around to better convey the story structure I have in mind. Pruning. Gardening. Rebalancing. Trying to make clusters of content stick together and make critical moments visible at a glance. Structuring so that I can recognize certain standard mini-structures.

For instance, both of these passages belong to a narrative that is, at the large scale, a standard branch-and-bottleneck, but the lower-level structure is actually very different:

The first diagram describes an “are you really sure you want to commit to this disaster” sequence: if the player heads down the left-hand path, they have several opportunities to opt out and rejoin the main storyline; but past a certain point, they’ve lost the game and are committed to a losing epilogue. And then, if the player survives that and traverses to the lower right portion of the diagram, there’s a big delayed-branching result with many different outcomes customized to what the player’s done so far: a narrative payoff for earlier choices. There’s some clustering to those delayed-branch results, which the diagram also tries to convey.

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Stats and Narrator Viewpoint

coglogo2.pngI’ve written a few times before about handling stats in ChoiceScript games, and making particular choices available. But in writing my own WIP, I also wanted to make sure that the story felt distinctly different if the player gave the protagonist a different personality — not just in terms of which choices they were able to make (or make successfully), but also in terms of the inner narrative.

With that in mind, I set for myself the following (silly) goal: when I ran randomtest, after the very first segment of play, none of the narrative output should be repeated across more than 4000 of the randomized playthroughs. That means that

  • many plot beats are reached only on 1/3 playthroughs (or fewer)
  • those plot beats that do occur every playthrough are narrated in at least three different ways, depending on the player’s stats and relationships

This speaks more to the fiction than to the mechanics, but the aim was to make the moment-to-moment texture of the story feel malleable, not just the plot structure.

This was also a good time to do more with the extreme ends of my choice spectrum: as discussed previously, I wanted to give some acknowledgement to players who managed to work their way into the top (or bottom) 10-15% of particular stat ranges, because that demonstrated a commitment to playing a particular way and should probably be understood as representing more deliberate agency than other approaches. So a lot of my alternate narration is designed to capture those high-end or low-end variations in how people view the world.

As I’ve often found before, it often enriches an interactive fiction to approach that story with some mechanical disciplines in mind.

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Loose, Tight, Flat, and Bumpy Stats in ChoiceScript Games

coglogo2Previously, I wrote about setting, checking, and gating content in stat-heavy choice-based games such as ChoiceScript content.

In that post, I didn’t get into the question of stat distribution: over the course of the game, how possible is it to reach particular stat distributions? Can you reach the top and bottom of each personality stat (raise it to 95+, or lower it to 5-)? Can you do this easily/immediately, or only with persistent (or even perfect) choice selection? If you run a bunch of random plays and look at what levels the random player can reach for a given stat, is the distribution reasonably bell-curve-like, or is it more flat or multi-modal?

If it is easy to reach the ends of the stat spectrum, I’ll refer to this as having a loose stat system: plenty of buffs or nerfs are floating around the system and it’s easy to get to one end or another. A player doesn’t necessarily have to play with purpose in order to achieve a particular character build. The problem here is that the resulting experience may feel fairly low-agency, because there are so many ways to get a particular stat profile that it seems like the player’s particular choice blend doesn’t matter all that much.

The extreme case of a loose stat spectrum is on where being at the ends of the spectrum isn’t even that unusual: by the end of the game, the distribution looks nearly flat, with little or no bump at the middle. This is a very unresponsive stat system, and it’s not going to reward the player at all for playing one personality stat consistently.

The opposite is a tight stat system: buffs and nerfs occur less frequently or in smaller increments, and it takes time to reach very high or very low levels. The problem here is that the game may feel quite difficult, especially if there are special endings or consequences associated with the extreme ends of the spectrum; it may be that most players never manage to reach ideal outcomes without relying on wiki guides to help them map their choices. This is especially frustrating if there is one “main” outcome that is boring/losing and all the special/winning endings require near-perfect execution.

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