Skill Checks and the Ability to Say No

First things first, hello, I’m new. You probably could have guessed that, but I’m saying it anyhow, because I’m redundant that way.

Now with that out of the way, let’s jump right in to what this here post is about.

So, I’ve been lurking around here for some time now - about two or three years, I think? - and I’ve read a fair number of stories across CoG, HG and HD. Not quite in equal measure, because the HD games don’t really call out to me that strongly (ace/aro, as my profile says), but I’ve been around. In that time, I’ve noticed a number of common habits among the stories on offer, but two in particular really kind of stick to me, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about my thoughts on them, just to get it off my chest.

Skill Checks: Failures, Against Character Motivation, and Breaking of Immersion

That title probably reads like I’m coming out swinging, and to be fair, I’m going to be pretty blunt about this, but let me explain.

Primarily, I see these games as what they are, interactive stories. Emphasis on “story,” mind you. I recognize that, in order for it to be interactive,I have to be able to, you know, interact with it, but I can safely say that I don’t think I’ve ever come across a type of interactive story that actively checks whether I have the chops to meet a certain scenario or not. This… actually kinda tends to bother me a bit. I recognize that these are, as advertised, games, as well as stories, so I suppose I can’t be too surprised to see minor game mechanics involved, but more and more I’m finding that I’m not a big fan of the story stopping and asking me, “hey, are you strong enough for this next part? No? Well, that’s too bad.”

I’ll admit it here and now, I don’t suffer failure well. It makes games like Dark Souls really difficult for me to play, because you’re supposed to accept that you’ll fail over and over again, but for me, once is entirely too many. That tends to sour my opinion of things when I’m cruising right along through a story, only to then slam into a wall out of nowhere and be unable to get around it because I don’t meet the required check amount.

Let me give an example:

In the Lost Heir games, there are skill checks all over the place. You can’t go more than five minutes without one, it seems. The games advertise being able to build your character in whatever way you want - and you can! - but for someone like me, who, again, doesn’t take failing very well, it can seem like a lot of the checks you’re expected to meet are there to inform you that you’ve built your character the wrong way. Like, I tried to build a character who was primarily combat and magic focused, and then got hit with skill checks that expected me to muster up stealth chops that I simply didn’t have because I had no idea I would need them as soon as I did.

That, in itself, is another issue: if it’s the first time playing through a game, you have no way of knowing what’s going to get checked and where. Magikiras is another game that did that to me, too. I was building my character to be a tactician who tried to stay out of combat as much as possible and lead from the back, but then a series of skill checks cropped up out of nowhere that focused on combat and strength and accuracy and basically all the skills I hadn’t been doing anything with because I didn’t think I would need to, at least not right away.

This combination of unexpectedness and checking your absolute weaknesses oftentimes sees me stuck on a train of check fails that I can’t do anything about, so I’m just along for the ride whether I like it or not. It’s made me leery of CoG releases these days, because I know they’ll be full of skill checks, and unlike the HG WIPS with their save system that I can utilize to go back and try again as I please, if I screw up a check in a CoG game and want a do-over, I have to completely restart the entire game. If this happens 7+ chapters in, that’s a lot of invested time I’m flushing down the toilet. It doesn’t feel too good.

Additionally, there are some skill checks (or just plain dialogue options, while I’m thinking about it) that seem to exist for no other reason than to force me to break character. Like, say I’m playing a character who’s a stoic cynic whose only interest in things is cash and isn’t terribly invested in the goings-on of the world around them. I come across a skill check… and all the options are something that runs completely counter to my character build. I can choose to be friendly (which counters the stoic cynicism), optimistic (again countering the cynicism), I can want to learn more about a certain topic (counters general disinterest outside of monetary gain), or I can be altruistic (countering only being in it for the cash).

Or, to use another example, when my character’s motivations have historically been set in one direction, all of a sudden there’s a dialogue choice/skill check which is entirely focused the opposite way. Let’s say I’m playing a character whose one and only focus is academia, and then all of a sudden there’s a scene with a check that demands that I take a stance on some political happening that, realistically, would be far beneath my character’s interest, so it makes no sense that they’re even part of the discussion in the first place, let alone that they’re expected to have any strong opinions on it one way or another. There’s no option for me to say, “Why are you asking me? You know I don’t care,” so I have to choose a side, regardless of how neutral I’ve been thus far.

That actually bleeds over into my second topic of discussion, so we’ll come back to that.

All these factors put together tend to really take me out of the story. It’s hard for me to remain immersed in the plot when I get slapped with something like that, which causes me to sit back and go, “Wait, what the hell? Are we just not accounting for certain perspectives, here? What’s going on?”, because from that moment on, I’m not playing the game due to my interest in the story anymore, I’m playing it to see how many more times I’ll be shoved into a corner like that, how it’ll happen, and why. At that point, I stop enjoying it as much. Zyri, the guy enjoying the story, goes away, and Zyri, the critic, comes out, and then I start noticing things that bother me, and then I have to just stop playing the game because I start feeling negative about the whole thing.

More and more, I find myself drawn to stories where the skills are less for the sake of checks, and more, “this is your character’s general demeanor, which affects how others perceive and react to you as you interact.” Or, games where personality decisions you make early on change what dialogue choices you get later based on what you set your personality to be, that sort of thing. In Wayhaven Chronicles, the detective has a number of different personality traits and skills they can build into, and it’s not so much for the sake of skill checks (though those do exist), but rather, it changes how the detective behaves from one scene to the next - a hostile loner detective is more to-the-point and blunt and generally grouchy, whereas a nicer detective would be more inclined to speak politely and have a good attitude. It feels more organic to me, like I’m building my own character, rather than trying to optimize my stats for the absolute perfect run.

So, that’s my thoughts on that topic, wrapped up in a bow. Let’s talk about the second point:

Saying No: An Offer You Simply Can’t Refuse

Kinda spells itself out, doesn’t it?

Let me preface this by saying that I fully understand that, in order for the plot to move forward, the players actually have to engage with it. Eventually, you have to say yes to the plot, or else you’re stuck and can’t go anywhere. I recognize that.

However, I hold fast to the belief that, even if it amounts to nothing, you should never be outright denied the chance to say no. And, unfortunately, a lot of the WIPs I’ve been reading here, and even some published stories, have this real nasty habit of putting players in a situation where they might be playing characters who would have no reason to agree with what’s happening, but the author straight-up removes the ability to say no.

Let’s refer to my earlier example from point one: A character is only interested in one thing, but gets dragged, kicking and screaming, into a situation that is either beneath their interest, or that they shouldn’t even be involved with in the first place. Of particular note to me is If It Please the Court - my character, Jehanne Moreau, is very disinterested in this whole spy thing. She’s only in it for the money so her mother can keep a roof over her head. She holds no respect for the nobility, and has no problem saying so directly to the face of the noblewoman spymistress she works for. Her loyalty to France begins and ends at, “I live here.” Were it not for the fact that the enemy spy she bumps into later scares the crap out of her, she’d probably have jumped ship already just to not have to put up with the Secret du Roi anymore. And when it comes to her absent father, Jehanne figures he’s not worth knowing in the first place.

…But when the spymistress meets with her under moonlight, offers her the job, and offers to let her in on her father’s big secret, Jehanne is practically chomping at the bit for the chance, regardless of how I’ve been playing her up to that point. At no point do I have the option to say, “not interested, thanks,” which could simply lead to a game over, no harm done, wanna play again and actually play the game this time? Instead, the closest I can get is being hesitant, and beyond that, if I really want to quit this whole spy business, I have to actively try and lose the game, which is pretty hard to do, it turns out. (I’ve had to restart the story six times because I’m trying to fail on purpose but am succeeding instead. I’m failing at failing. I’m a living paradox of a man.)

That right there is what I wish more stories would do: Give me the option to say no, with all the consequences that would come of it. Yes, I’m aware that refusing to participate in the plot means there is no story, but let that be my choice to make. The WIP for Soul Stone Wars 2 allows you to ditch your party and turn to the dark side in chapter one, which results in a game over as you become a vampire’s trophy (wife/husband/person of sexual interest) and the world burns around you. You are then allowed to start over, and, you know, maybe not do that again, now that you’ve seen where it goes. Or, better yet, instead of removing the option to say no or having it lead to the game just ending outright, have the option to say no, and write around that so that the plot still works, even though the OC isn’t taking the path of least resistance.

I get hung up on this primarily because, when I start reading a story, I can’t stop until I have some kind of resolution, whether I like it or not. If I start reading a story that I simply don’t enjoy, I actively look for a point where I can swiftly extract myself from the plot, thereby giving me my resolution and allowing me to leave that story behind for one I enjoy more, without having lingering thoughts of the story I don’t like. “Just hit the back button” doesn’t do it for me, my brain doesn’t work that way. It’s an odd bit of obsessiveness on my part.

But beyond that, like I said, I play the contrarian in these kinds of stories - my characters are people who concede that they have a role to play in the story, but that doesn’t mean they have to take everything that gets dumped in their laps. If they have the option to put their foot down and say enough is enough, then they’ll take that opportunity. In Heroes of Myth, when faced with the knowledge that he may very well be part-demon, Kendrick of Ithos says “to hell with that” and goes out of his way to seal demons away from the human world forever, severing his own demonic ties and becoming completely human in the process. In Heroes Rise, Morgan Kastans, a.k.a. Merc, is told that she has incredible Infini powers, that she outright refuses to use on the grounds of not being willing to compromise her morals by lusting after power she doesn’t need. I forget what I named my Versus protagonist, but in the face of being told time and time again that she’s stuck on Versus and must either win the games and become a new god-being or die, her one and only goal is to get the hell off this forsaken hunk of rock and return to her family. All three of these characters have flourished without their Infini powers or demon heritage or being some kind of god-being (Versus OC’s gun has served get plenty well, thank you very much), because they had the ability to say no, and rather than the story coming to an abrupt halt or pulling an, “I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that,” it instead goes, “Okay, fair, we can make this work.”

I have a lot more respect for the stories that happily give me the rope to hang myself with, because if I game over at that point, I know damn well that I’ve done it to myself. I didn’t get caught out by a skill check I couldn’t meet because I didn’t know it was even going to happen, I didn’t die because I said the wrong thing and it turned south on me, I failed because I actively chose to fail, and the game let me. This is not to say I don’t respect the games where saying no isn’t an option, but I remember the stories more fondly that let me screw myself over, rather than the ones that put up safety netting so that I don’t fall, because that might risk me not being able to continue the story.

So, to recap:

  1. Skill checks take me out of my immersion, especially when they’re unexpected, go against my characters’ personalities, or target skills I have no chance of possibly meeting.

  2. Let me say no, damn it!

Don’t expect me to reply too quickly, I tend to be pretty slow on the draw when it comes to forum stuff. Probably, I’ll come back to this topic a week from now and be all, “oh yeah, I posted that, huh.”

EDIT: See? See? I told you all it takes me a while to respond. Of course, in this case, it was because I was at work until about two hours ago (11:31 AM, 6/1/2021 at time of writing), and I feel like my boss would have had a thing or two to say about me being on my phone when I’m supposed to be stocking shelves.

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I believe is a common feeling/complain with several readers/players, and yes there’s some games hfelt abusive of that mechanic, an others used in the most inconvenient part of their stories, but at the same time they are for a reason, yet reiterating in the previous statement, when is filled with 'em, it is frustrating and throw any immersion out the window, and about gave that level of assertiveness, phew that’s a tough one, and that have root with the story itself the author in turn want to gave and how develops, so I’m not really in a position to tell about this, or even calling it a problem either, I falls under what kind of story and probably style the author works under, if that makes sense, can’t find the right words, but going back with the skill checks is vital, to stick with the MC personality, strenghs, MO, etc… If not I will felt like a OP and we can tackle anything our way, of course, referring the genres who lies with action and or survival, in more casual one, works fine without said skill checks or in a very minimal way if that’s acceptable, personally I’m in a neutral point in this, yet I understand the complains and felt restricted sometimes, but depends also in your perspective, and preference too.

my brain is linked to disccussion at the moment, is pretty late, also i ain’t good at it either, AND I can have a stroke pretty often caused NY trying of articulate my exact thoughts in the matter in handI usually share my grain of sand and I skeddadle, oh well, thanks for read this thing one mine, cheers.

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How do you feel about skill checks where the game tells you what it’s testing? Does it feel better, worse, meh?

I know what you mean about frustration about not knowing what’s going to be checked and where, it’s an issue that I personally find quite challenging in my own work. For failing, I love games where failure leads to a plotline I didn’t expect. Tally Ho is fantastic for this! Still… There is a reason why it’s a behemoth of a game and not every author/project is going to suit that approach and priorities may need to be in other areas

Saying no… I don’t know, from an author perspective it feels like a hefty chunk of work to cater to a player character who hasn’t bought into the premise of the game. Variety of motivations is fantastic and the game being responsive to player expression is chefs kiss But if an author doesn’t allow a play style of “character who doesn’t care about spying” in their romantic spy game, I can’t really fault them for that. It might be nice to include, but it’s a lot of work to make it solid and worthwhile and ultimately it is a game about spying. In my day job I work on a mobile game about a reality TV show, and we have to make certain assumptions about the player character otherwise scope gets wildly out of control - we just don’t have the room to allow for player characters who aren’t interested in the show. I’m partly coming from a place of wanting to maximise how much fun I can squeeze out from the minimum amount of work.

Basically if the narrative voice of the player character is always dragging its heels and not wanting to be involved with the core premise of the game, how much fun would that be to play? How would an author orchestrate the player character changing their mind without it feeling railroaded, or would the character just complete the game in a grump because they didn’t want to engage with the plot - would either of those be fun? I don’t ask to be argumentative, I’m genuinely interested in the answers!

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That’s tricky.
If Luke Skywalker said no to Obi wan Kenobi after the Empire killed his uncle and aunt the story would have ended in 20 minutes.
Sometimes you are required to act, otherwise the story will prematurely end.

Then there’s the bad behaviour of some authors that want you to take a stance on a particular matter which is not functional to the story, but significant with them. That’s just patronising bad writing.

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First of all thank you for making the post. It made for an interesting read. And both things can cause negative emotions in games.

But just to reply specifically to your second point about skill fails. Sometimes the skill checks end up being unwinnable by certain character set ups mainly because some players play I’m a way the author doesn’t expect.

Opinions like this can be useful. Because you might be playing I’m a way the author didn’t expect so never planned for that situation.

So for me Personally if anyone feels like that with any of my games let me know. Because that is most likely a bug or something I didn’t expect a player to do.

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Well now, that’s tricky!
I would say that I agree on both of your points but… it’s subtler than that - I don’t agree with everything you said either.
Still, this is an interesting topic, so I’ll try to tackle both themes!

So, I’ll start with saying what I often say - “stats are my bane” - I dislike stat based games, so I’m more into the HG than the CoG lineup, since more often than not, HG are more “story based” and CoG more “stat based”. This isn’t an universal truth, but just something that seems like it’s becoming the “norm”.

The thing is, it depends on the story type. As much as a game could be geared towards it’s story, some stories in themselves are bound to test MC’s skills. A good example is my favorite IF game - “Relics of the Lost Age”. That game is quite balanced between stats and story, and yes, it HAS a lot of stat checks. But! The thing is, the story itself implies MC’s abilities will be tested, considering it’s an adventure story, with a lot of action and difficult things to do. My MC is geared towards charisma and reaction, which means he’s swift, very good at driving and stuff like that, and a perfect silver-tongue. But still, because of what’s happening, more than once he had to use a gun, be stealthy, and stuff like that, and well, he’s no stealth master (though he isn’t horrible), and he’s a total noob with guns… So he’s bound to fail these things. But that’s okay, he’s bad at that, and it may have consequences, BUT I consider it normal to be tested on these things he’s bad at, since well… you kind of get into that story knowing these things WILL happen and the game WILL test you on them, no matter if your MC is good at that particular thing or not. So yeah, failure never bothered me in that game.

On the other hand, some other games seem geared towards the story, and seem to imply that any build can “win” at the end, but then you realize that the build you choose can’t really get a perfect ending, as opposed to other builds, and that pisses me off since I consider one SHOULD be able to get a “perfect ending” no matter their build - it should just be a matter of good planning and selecting the right options to get by with what your MC can or cannot do.

With that being said, if a “challenge” will only be failed by ONE build from multiple ones, that will bother me, of course, since I would see it as unfair.

As far as dialogue options that break immersion are concerned, well… that’s why I like to follow WIPs - as long as you’re polite and make sense, you can suggest authors to include other options and explain them why. If they consider you make sense and are willing to (most are!), then the new options will get included, and after that the author will also keep in mind of that playstyle they may not have accounted for, and include options for that down the line too.
But again, an author is still the “ruler” of their story, so one has to keep in mind they may or may not agree to add these things.

It’s also worth noting I don’t mind games where the MC has a preset personality, with the player only “refining” it, or being able to gradually make them evolve in a specific direction.
Generally speaking, I like either games where you really can decide everything about MC’s personality, or games where the MC has a preset personality and thus is already a “true character”. Because well, either I’m just able to do everything I want with them, or I don’t have to bother about “setting” MC’s personality, and only guiding them along their path. What I strongly dislike is in-betweens. Games where it looks like the player can really decide whatever they want for the MC, but then some branches or choices lack the options to pursue the personality they selected for their MC. This is when I consider it to be bad design or an oversight, rather than a narrative choice.

I’m not the one that was asked, but this is an important aspect of the whole skill checks issue!
So, my opinion on that is that it makes it better to an extent. I do prefer when the game makes it obvious, though I’d rather have the option formulated in an obvious way (again, have to give the thumbs up to the “Relics” series that does that) than the game literally stating what the check is about, since that’s a different kind of immersion break.
With that being said, no matter how much the game tells me what is being checked, that won’t change the fact if the checks are too numerous and / or feel unfair, the main problem won’t be solved, eh?

This is both trickier and easier than the other point!
First off, I always advocate allowing MC to be reluctant or say no, be it at the cost of a bad ending, or something that would force them to actually do whatever the plot wants them to do. For example in “The One Chosen”, MC gets mind controlled into obeying, if they say no again and again, and it actually impacts future things, choices, etc.
It could be very hard for an author to do a full path with taking into consideration MC is reluctant, unless it was planned from start, so the players can’t really ask for too much.
But, more than once I did suggest an author to include the option to be more reluctant or to say no in stories where the MC is dragged into something.
For example, let’s take two different WIPs with reality shows related with dating: “The Odessa Dating Games” and “Body Count”. In the Odessa Games, the MC can be reluctant to participate (they lost a bet and are forced to apply to the game because of that), and well, they can be reluctant all along. If the player has their MC be reluctant until a specific point, they can end up saying “no, I don’t want to participate”, and then you get an early ending (though I did suggest to expand it a tiny bit, and the author said they’d look into it). On the other hand, in “Body Count”, MC may be a little bit reluctant at first, but they end up deciding they need to participate, even if the reasons and if they like being in it is up to the players - so in this case, you can’t say no, but the plot makes it clear why MC decides to participate. Both deal with it in perfectly valid ways in my opinions.
What I’m trying to say is that when the game forces the MC to agree with no choice about that, if it’s in the concept of the story itself, I don’t see any issue in it. Because that simply means MC “is okay” with that.
But when the MC is actually dragged into something they are reluctant to do, or that the player can make them reluctant towards, then I expect from the game to still let me refuse or make my MC remain reluctant, and not force my hand into suddenly being okay for no reason. Of course, if the game justifies in a good way the fact MC is suddenly okay, then I’m fine with that too!
Making big branching paths IS a huge thing, so we can’t expect of the authors to do so for any MC personality and motivations, but I still consider there has to be some level of “consent to the plot”, and it’s one of the author’s tasks to actually make it so the players won’t feel unconfortable about participating - but the way they do so is totally up to them.

This is something I don’t fully agree with you on :thinking:
You see, one can be very attracted by the premises of a story, from a player’s perspective. But then, they may want their MC to be reluctant to follow the plot, because they like to play MCs who don’t like to get involved in whatever is going on in the plot.
If I’m not interested in the plot of a game, I won’t play the game, that’s it. I won’t go and complain to the author “please make the game about something else”. But if the plot is something with MC getting forced to do something, then I will want to have a MC who isn’t on board. And if MC isn’t forced, then prior to the start of the quest, I would prefer if the game did actually prevent me from selecting options to make MC reluctant to whatever will be going on. That way, it would guide me towards a path where I wouldn’t be bothered by the fact my MC has to participate. A good example is the “Fallen Hero” series - I don’t like playing evil MCs, but the MC is already set on the path of villainy when the game starts, and this is not something I can change, I HAVE to follow that plot. But I can decide to an extent how MC feels about that, and I can only hope to be able to slowly “redirect” their way of thinking. So, the appeal to me isn’t th villainy, but how to mitigate it and trying to “get help” for MC, and I find a great enjoyment in that. On the other hand, if the game did allow me to decide my MC DOESN’T want to be a villain, then it would have been impossible to go on with the plot and justify things… Basically, sometimes removing player agency on some smaller / earlier elements of the story allows the player to be more comfortable with the bigger lines of the plot.
Though I guess some people wouldn’t agree with that way of thinking either…

And I think that’s all I have to say about that, really!

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I think this is a way where sometimes authors can shoot themselves in the foot. Let me elaborate, this is not aimed at you, but your comment made me realize something that has annoyed me for quite a while (and is relevant to the thread).

Choice. Choices are nice. Choices that allow you to decide how your character feels about things are even better, in fact, one of my favorites. However… it is so VERY easy to add choices never really followed through on. To use the example above, it’s really nothing to to add a choice early in the game that the character in question isn’t really fond of being a spy. It’s good character building, it might allow cool tension, but it becomes a problem when the author doesn’t follow through. Believe me, I know the problems of branching, but it is so VERY easy to unwittingly sabotage some players.

Why? Because at that point in the story, the player has no idea what the story will be about other than in general terms. If given three choices, one that they love spying, one that they like being good at their job, and one being that they just do it for cash and want out, they will assume they are all valid choices that will have consequences. The author might just have seen it as a flavor choice to add choices to a long scene, but for the player that suddenly became a defining trait. And thus, if said defining trait is not brought up in the rest of the story, it is very easy to disconnect players.

So, my advice to all the authors reading this would be to think CAREFULLY about what motivational/skills/goal choices you have early in the story. Let the players build a character within YOUR parameters, and make sure you don’t add choices for flavor without considering the consequences. You can’t do anything for people bringing an existing OC into your game, but you can mitigate the damage.

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I do get where you are coming from because I also have run into this problem before, but I think that if my character isn’t very strong, but I choose to do something that requires strength, then the game has to have some way to know if I would be able to do it. I would love to see more games where failing a skill check doesn’t mean that my action ends in failure. Maybe in the scenario where I am not strong enough, another character could simply help me out. They could take pity on me or are simply just being nice. There is no reason to punish the player for choosing something that felt right at the time, even if their character isn’t very good at it. Maybe sometimes it would even be better to fail than to succeed. There are a lot of people who have a fear of failure, myself included. Having more games where failure isn’t always punished could help those people learn to allow themselves to fail.

I think it probably could get very frustrating for an author to constantly accommodate a character that simply doesn’t want to be here. It could sometimes feel like writing for someone that doesn’t want to play your game. It is very valid to say no and I would love to have that option more often, but I also get that this would be more work for the author. Maybe there are other solutions than writing a new path or ending the game there. I wasn’t a fan of the first Samurai of Hyuga game telling me that if I didn’t want to kill the fish then I shouldn’t play the game, to be honest. I would be more okay with another character questioning why I am even here than the game itself.

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I just adore how not only we agree on that point, but I used your game as an example to make my point about that very same matter!

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Yes, absolutely! This is a good point and one that I missed in my previous post, which is that it’s important for an MC to be able to be reluctant about something if it’s something important to the character - like sabotaging another character when previously the game has been peaceful or an MC needing to turn to violence. If they’ve been dragged into something ingame, that makes sense to me that authors should allow players to at least express annoyance about it or go against whatever forces are dragging them. But… when it comes to going against the core point of the game, I would understand an author prioritising play experiences that are focused on that.

I really appreciate the examples being given! I need to read through all the posts again properly because this is an awesome discussion :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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Yeah, this is why I was talking about the game NOT allowing to be reluctant towards things related to the main plot from the start, and redirect the player towards a mindset where their MC would be okay from start.

But sometimes, the entire premise revolves around a MC getting dragged into things, or at least the premise is such that you can’t really expect the players to be okay with it - well, at least a big chunk of the players. This is where it gets tricky, since the story has to ease the players who have reluctant MCs to end up being okay with it, if they don’t want to add an entire plotline for the MCs who don’t want that.

Obviously, if there is no “dragging MC into the plot”, then I’d expect players to actually have MCs who wouldn’t refuse doing what they “should” be doing. Or for the game to directly make it clear MC is GOING to follow a certain path WILLINGLY (hence my “Fallen Hero” example).

I didn’t play the game the OP is talking about, the spy one, but from what it felt like in their explanations, I believe the entire game is about being a spy, but it offers the MC the possibility at first to not be interested in these things at all, and not care about the father that would be the main motivation, etc. If that’s truly the case and not how they see it (since well, there’s always the aspect of individual interpretation each player makes of a game), then I can understand how it can be frustrating. Again, if that IS the case, then I wouldn’t allow the player to have a MC who wouldn’t care about the father, for some quickly explained reasons. That way, the player wouldn’t find it logical to refuse to go on with the plot, and they’d “willingly do so”.
But I want to stress that out again - I didn’t play said game - I’m only working with what was said about it!

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Well OK, but they aren’t just stories. They’re games, too (that’s what you yourself called them, after all), and so the possibility of failure has to feature somewhere. Otherwise, you end up with an experience that’s like the later stages of a badly-balanced open world RPG, where the player has become so universally overpowered that there’s no challenge or meaningful obstacles to overcome, which kinda kills a lot of the enjoyment.

Plus, universal and constant success would be ruinous in pure story terms, too. If the hero is all-around brilliant and just always succeeds at everything, where’s the tension? The stakes? The threat? The challenges that must be overcome? It wouldn’t be realistic - all characters, including heroes, should have weaknesses and flaws.

Failure can be frustrating, sure, but imo removing the possibility of failure drains a story of its stakes and its realism and turns it into nothing more than a shallow power-fantasy.

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Completely agree with the first part, about checks. I think you explained it beautifully so there’s really nothing I can add to that.

However the 2nd part about saying “no”, to me, would often just feel a bit too gimmicky, imo.
I would agree that some stories can kinda railroad your MC in to displaying certain motivations that it previously might’ve given you the choice to outright disagree with.
That’s not to say I don’t think it can be done, I do think there can be decent ways to let you say “no” without it being a game over, or later just completely railroad your MC in to saying yes, and maybe even like it, and claim you’ve always liked it.
A good example I would give is the wip OFNA: Birds of a Feather. Granted the setting and nature of the story does especially allow for this to happen, and it’s written well enough(imo) that it doesn’t feel railroaded even if the outcome inevitably ends up being similar or even the same. It’s justified, and it’s because of exterior factors. Not because the writer said, “actually, you do want this, even if I gave you the chance to choose that you didn’t earlier on”. Illusion of choice is only an illusion if you reveal it to be, at least that’s how I see it, and experience it.

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IMO there’s two main factors to this- one is that ‘failing’ a choice can be disheartening, sometimes to the point of taking the reader out of the story or inciting embarrassment. Everyone else is being badass and my MC just messed up a punch because three choices ago i chose to jump over a log instead of break it in half? In more traditional ‘video games’ a failure often means trying again until you succeed, whereas in IF/CoG formula games it has to be incorporated in the plot. It is however, a game, stats allow your character to feel more alive and failure is a part of life. I know that personally I prefer stat failures to be presented as just another path the story can take rather than inciting penalities, but I recognise that in books that are more ‘game’ than ‘story’, punishment becomes a feature that aims to encourage me to to better next time.

As a side note, one factor of CoG’s that can also be frustrating is when a choice doesn’t test what I think it tests. For example if a choice states “counteract his argument with wit”, I may assume it is an intelligence stat check when in fact it is a charm stat check. This is annoying, however it’s equally as annoying for a choice to be presented as “use charm” and “use intelligence”.

There’s also the narrative point that in more traditional novels failure and the ‘try fail cycle’ is pretty common at mid points, whereas in IF making a character fail or succeed at the whim of narrative reduces player choice, even if it would strengthen the narrative.

Finally, the second factor is plot related. Some stats or decisions are necessary for a character to have/make. If I play a game book about a cagefighter, then I can’t expect to get given very many pacifist choices or to avoid the combat stat checks, and if I play a game book about a lost child on a quest to find their parents, it’s simply a pain for the writer to have to keep writing choices where the reader resists the plot. ‘Resisting the call’ is a standard choice to have at the start of the game, but eventually the protagonist has to answer it, otherwise the author’s got to write two entirely seperate books. I think that inaction is an action in itself in many cases, but when it comes to key plot points the MC can’t just sit out of them- because why bother playing a book about topic X if I don’t want to do X?

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About stat checks, I would agree with you on a personal level. However, I know there are some people who do enjoy the harder to “win” games. I don’t know if either is really wrong but rather a different viewpoint on these types of stories/games.

That being said, I do think there is a lot of merit in trying to make sure that stat checks don’t totally derail or end the game, even if you do have a “worse” outcome due to failing them. People just don’t like to replay 4 hours of game to make one choice different.

As far as being allowed to say “No!”, I totally see where you’re coming from. But from an author’s standpoint, I don’t blame anyone for not allowing the MC to hate the basic premise of the game. It is a massive amount of work and, if it’s not the focus of the game, then it’s really not worth it. A lot of people would be peeved by an early “Game Over” screen caused by those type of choices and just stop playing the game entirely.

I have this in my WIP where I track how accepting the MC is of the events happening and it is a TON of work. In every scene, dialogue option, and interaction with other characters, I have to stop and consider all the different MC motivations and if certain sentences need to be tweaked for them. It’s already the most challenging part of my game and I’ve barely even started writing it!

For me, it’s fine because it is a major focus of the story I want to tell and is one of my most important stats, but I certainly don’t begrudge any authors who don’t allow the MC to hate the story circumstances. It can just bog down the gameplay and destroy the trajectory of the plot if it isn’t really part of the story they’re trying to tell.

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One thing to consider with stat checks of the more “gamey” variant is this:

In a computer game, failing is learning, and you develop reflexes and tactics and actual skills.

In a cog, it tends to become simple pattern reading, where success is predicated on trying to predict what kind of character the story is built for, and what the choices test.

I really don’t like stat heavy games personally, because they very often feel like taking a test for me.

What I love to see in more stat intensive game is something like in heavy rain, where my bookish intellectual type can fail abysmally at physical challenges, but the story acknowledges that this is maybe not the best for for the character, without making it feel like it is the players choice for picking the wrong build.

Also, some advice to authors:

If some skills are going to be tested heavily at the start of the game (let’s say fighting and stealth), while others are more powerful in the middle (let’s say investigation), don’t let people build the latter skills high early on. Chances are they won’t stick around to see the payoff, but either quit the demo or build another character that can handle the challenges at the start.

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You know, I had actually meant to incorporate that into my original post, but as I got to writing my thoughts down, I completely forgot that that was a point I was aiming to touch on. So thank you for remembering what I forgot!

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On the one hand, I do appreciate when the game informs me of what skill is going to be challenged with what option, but going straight to “I do the thing (Strength)” takes me out on my immersion just as bad as failing seven checks in a row back to back.

The Luminous Underground does this in a way I actually really like, by managing to incorporate the name of the skill being challenged into each option. To use a non-story example of what I mean: “I’m going to need to be quick in order to make this work,” and this informs the reader that it’s a Quickness challenge. Doing something as simple as that is perfect for me, then I know exactly what I’m about to get myself into.

I’m gathering from this and other comments that I may have worded this particular point badly. I’m not trying to say that I want the option to nope out of the plot entirely - like I said, without player participation, the plot can’t go anywhere - I just want to be able to say no to things getting dumped on my head. My characters are fine with keeping the plot going, because that’s how they even exist, by going along with the plot. But, to use an example of what I mean: I’m blanking on its name right at the moment, but there’s a game on the HG side of the site where you’re an agent in a supernatural organization, and for a fair chunk of the story, you’re under the assumption that your human, but then out of nowhere, the plot decides, “actually, you’re a supernatural being too and always have been.” You get no say in it, it happens and you just get to deal with it. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to have the option to turn down, the story pushing stuff onto me like that.

Granted, as others have said, the author is ultimately the final word. However they want their story to go is their call. If I absolutely must accept this sudden twist in the plot, then it certainly won’t kill me to do so. I just wish that authors would at least give the option to disagree, rather than shrugging my shoulders and going along with it without complaint. It doesn’t even have to go anywhere, there are plenty of stories where saying “no” results in the other cast members basically telling your character “tough shit” in reply and making you go along with it anyhow.

So, I guess it’s less, “saying no” and more “being allowed to object,” in this case.

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It did cross my mind that authors may sometimes just not expect someone to play a character in the extreme opposite direction of what they expect for an average playthrough, but I had already posted the topic by then, so I didn’t think to go back and edit it.

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Oh yeah, I absolutely understand that. I’ve read through the code on some of the WIPs here, I’m well aware that it takes oh so many lines of code just to translate to, what, half of that in actual word count? If it’s something that would change the story so radically as to force the author to add even more code than what they already have, then I totally understand the author going, “hell no.”

That’s why my opinion is shifting away from the “let me say no whenever I want” stance I wrote it as earlier, and more in the direction of, “I just like being able to have the option, even if it goes nowhere.” Being able to say no, and then the author writing a sentence or two for that choice in the vein of, “your objection has been noted, now back to the story,” that’s fine, it’ll take, what, ten seconds to get that figured out? But asking the author to completely write and code a separate story altogether because the player said no? Oof. I’m not looking to drive the author insane, I’m just asking for a bit of wiggle room, that’s all.

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