That’s fair. I have gravitated to reading CoG titles and checking out this community precisely because I felt the experiences were notably richer and more rewarding than many of the game narratives I had encountered elsewhere. So I don’t need it to conform to a rigid taxonomy and process of production any more than I want every movie or piece of music to be structured the same.
I suspect my challenge will be countering my tendency to get too focused on technical matters of implementation when I’m actually more anxious about a compositional/storytelling moment. So there probably won’t be a scaffolding approach that resolves that complexity and I should just consider this part of the process.
Well, I’m starting to wonder if for an attentive reader if you need pure choice (ie more choices = more satisfying) as even fake choices can really pull you in and engage you even if there is not a bit of branching. Just being in a choicescript title when you feel confident in the author’s use of the medium, it enlarges as an experience more than even the options that you are offered (or that you take). (Note that sometimes when I read IF i switch into this foolish “just watch the changes” race-through mode that isn’t really the same thing, and have to stop myself so I don’t miss out.)
I think Choice of Rebels is amazing, and part of it is because I felt as a reader the impact of choices on what kind of experience unfolds, even if there are these big tentpole elements holding the structure together. Yours is exactly the kind of project that feels VERY rich in terms of the potential story space even if I don’t work my way through as a completist to try to read everything. Just reading a single well orchestrated path as a novel wouldn’t have been as rich as feeling the consequences of moving through Choice of Rebels as it stands – even if I was totally wrong where I thought I was accomplishing what.
I like your taste there, even if maybe the reason to read those others is partly because you went at the coding aspects of Choice of Rebels in more unique manner such that it is a bit more difficult for another reader to parse out when reading through.
I love those three as well, and have read source for Gold’s Choice of Robots and Marquis’s Silverworld after reading a bunch of paths through each. (And on my list is Tally-Ho, but I wanna do some more paths thru before peeking behind the curtain! Which is time intensive.) And one of the things I have found in general is that often as a reader parsing through the code afterwards that I’m wrong in what I’m expecting is happening under the surface “mechanically” (as far as setting up for branch switches or allowing or preventing various scenes), and I really love that as a reader. I think these two sources made me love their published projects even more – sort of gave me a “quantum reading” where i could “feel” some of the unexplored territory even if I’m not sure i could really navigate my way there without min-maxing or doing a really targeted read. I did get some good ideas how to offer juicy outcomes regardless of choices and routes, which has a lot to do with why I’m trying to write one now. I should probably read those sources again entirely now that I’ve been a beta reader on a bunch of projects. I’ll bet I’ll understand so much more!
But with Choice of Robots and Silverworld – and with Heart of the House – I just couldn’t quite imagine how these pieces were planned and written short of writing them as code from the beginning. And I don’t have a knack for that yet.
Frankly, Joel, with your project I found how well your piece worked even more inscrutable after attempting to read your source, and it made me love how your piece worked even more. both damned ambitious and satisfyingly delivers on those ambitions. Can’t imagine encountering your story in any other mode.
This is going off-topic a bit, but I want to reiterate something that both @Eric_Moser and @hustlertwo give out as their most important advise: Writing is the only way to actually improve your writing. Havenstone lays out the practical aspects of getting everything down in writing above, but from everything said here, I feel the following is very relevant here:
They both say this stuff better than I could, so it is worth repeating here: write, and then write some more.
Thanks, Eiwynn, these encouraging quotes are appreciated. And this addresses my needs even if it is drifting off my initial proposed topic. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be back at my writing desk at 5am tomorrow to keep soldering on!
I think your level system is good, I would write it out a bit differently but still good.
However, there are some problems with the things being said here. I am not trying to attack anyone personally, simply pointing out some flawed statements.
“Efficiency is the kind word for laziness.” True words from an unknown source.
Well, that’s partially true, It is not completely true. Take the mainline Fallout series, any one of them from 1-4 They all had player choice, and they had graphics/voice acting. I think what you’re trying to say is that there isn’t enough time/money as those had more than one dude, duct tape, and a wish.
All of those games however had more choice than Telltale games, and Telltale choices are the only thing they have going for them. Their stories without choice are average, and nothing to look up to. Luckily they are gone, and we don’t have to pretend they were good.
(Not trying to say it was any individual employees fault, as they probably would have been able to make better things if it wasn’t for management who thought that releasing the same thing with different brands of paint was making their games more popular.
That is a very corporate mindset. Things are already bad enough, so hopefully, they don’t follow it. Besides why fake freedom, when you can make freedom. It has that effect on casuals, and it also makes sure that people who actually care aren’t getting short-changed. Writing wouldn’t make us rich 9/10 so if it’s going to generate little income either way why would we sacrifice integrity for it. That rarely works.
Time is finite, I understand, but why have a massive picture of a tree when you can have a real bush.
I notice, my friends notice. Some fake choices can help with flavor, but you can’t eat seasoning, you still need the meal of real choice. Otherwise, you will never be full. The reason authors get away with serving pure seasoning is because there isn’t a source of analytics to show readers what’s behind the curtain. I am working on our own projects, and cannot do that for the moment. None the less I can assure you there is no food behind the curtain, just seasoning a lot of times, and the food is actively being hidden by the COG staff. This is why I generally avoid The Choice of Games app, the food in Hosted Games might occasionally spoil, and sometimes it’s also just seasoning, but at least there isn’t a shortage of food.
I hope the day comes when people see what’s going on, I might start the pushback on the wider internet, I might just be moral support. I don’t know, I just know that as it becomes more popular, and when analysis inevitably comes people will be held to a standard higher than a bottle of seasoning.
I also found End Game and Victory Design on the CoG blog very useful. This explores the sort of structure seen in work by Kevin Gold and others (including erm, me) that results in wide-ranging endings for these kinds of games. In fact all the blogposts under the Game Design tag are helpful, as are the CoG Game Design Guidelines. Whether or not you want to follow them, it’s really helpful to know a bit more about what goes on under the hood, and to make design choices consciously.
You’re overanalysing. Trying to do writing the “right” way, the most efficient way. Getting lost in the weeds. Here’s a sickle for you: nobody sees the choices you make while you write. There is absolutely not even one single reason to worry about the terminology used to describe the choices you’re making as long as what you write is sincere.
Thanks, Hannah, I really appreciate these resource shares. I have definitely been studying these for a while and have found them useful. I thought I had read all of them, but just noticed that I never did notice “End Game and Victory Design” when reading through those tags before. I’ll check it out immediately!
I read Creme-de-la-Creme obsessively and then read the source – and learned SO MUCH. So you are kinda already one of my primary choicescript mentors whether you know it or not.
In your author interview when launching that game, you had mentioned this which I am just noticing now:
Making and polishing up the outline was much easier having made one before, and I found that having that sense of the broader plot affected everything positively. I still had points where I changed my mind about scenes or chapter events, but I felt much more clear about what I was doing.
After the outline was greenlit, I wrote broad strokes summaries of scenes and major choices for the chapter I was about to start. I then coded everything with placeholder text, and did automated testing often to check that it all worked, and to check balance. Then I filled in the writing. I’d often shuffle things around at that stage, but it was great to have it in place first
Did you find that doing the work in this order freed you up to compose the natural, engaging prose itself right into the structure? Heck, even though I had seen this in the CoG Game Design Guidelines, part of me had suspected I wouldn’t really understand how to make the choices really count until I had written a few chapters and really experienced how it was working. Though maybe it mattered tremendously that this was your second title and you had some clear goals after Blood Money that made this process extra useful. Do think getting this structure / armature in place (with the stats changes functioning decently) will be a model you’ll use in the future?
Good point, and I think you are likely right about my over-analyzing here. I think I’m maybe avoiding some of the writing itself. Though I’ve picked up some solid advice and encouragement here that pushed me back to writing again. This really helped, even if I leave this discussion without a whole system of terms to arm myself with.
Coming from a writing background, I generally write each scene as prose (with pronoun and minor code), occasionally putting in shorthand for choices I don’t write yet. Then, when I am in more of a coding mindset I go back and adds choices and branching.
Uncharitable words, inaccurate, and more than a little silly. Whoever the unknown source might be, I doubt they’re a writer. As someone who’s pretty proudly inefficient in my own heavily branching CoG work, I would never slur people who go for simpler, cleaner projects.
When I say that graphics and voice acting require efficiencies that text doesn’t, I don’t just mean that there’s a time and money scale where bigger game dev teams can add more choice and variety than lone authors writing CSGs in their spare time. I’d argue that some variability can only work with text.
I mean, sure, we’re probably at the point where it’s technologically possible to do a faithful rendition of Choice of Rebels with voice acting and animated graphics… but no one ever would, because of the insane amount of vocal and graphical variability you’d need to seamlessly code together to create the same range of experience that someone gets by reading the text version. Anyone trying it, even with a big team, would start by dropping a bunch of the variability in the text version of Rebels – a necessary efficiency, leading to a non-identical experience.
I’ve not (yet) played Fallout; my experience of Bethesda games is limited to Elder Scrolls, which of course also have graphics and voice acting. When I compare Skyrim with Telltale Walking Dead S1, two games I liked a lot… I mean, they’re different things, and not just because of budget.
Telltale has far greater control over tone and pacing, which it gets by limiting player choice, so its music and story beats hit harder. Its protagonists are a more meaningful presence, not just ciphers. Its graphics are way more effective in storytelling terms; sure, Skyrim has its breathtaking vistas and cool monsters, but its characters (while a step up from Oblivion’s uncanniest valley) have to be rendered for gameplay above story. You’re so much less likely to get memorable images that way than with stylised graphics where the authors rather than players are picking camera angles.
Telltale’s advantages get sacrificed for the greater freedom of Skyrim. I like that sandboxy exploration interspersed with plot nuggets as much as the next gamer, and lots of the plot nuggets are satisfying. But the convention where quests stay on ice until you’re ready to pick them up is also an unrealistic efficiency – especially for the main, save-the-world one. If I choose to go off and spend a year of game time building a house, getting married, mining ore, and juggling cabbages, it has zero effect on the main plotline.
Laziness, I say! I’ve seen behind the curtain and my suspension of disbelief is shattered! They should have coded it so that if you didn’t care about the hero’s journey or were too late in stopping various impending dooms, you lost your chance, and people stopped treating you as the Dovahkiin and instead treated you as a failed messiah hermit while the world ends around you all. Bethesda picked efficiency, and it turns my hermit role-play into mere flavor rather than a real choice. Corporate bastards.
All that isn’t to say that Telltale couldn’t have included more variation, or that you have to like their stuff. Your tastes are your own. I’m just suggesting that if consequential choice is all you look for, you’re going to overlook a lot of things that other people might legitimately like.
Which is also why I don’t agree that writing for an audience of CoG fans who play through these games just once is:
Look, if I personally enjoy a CoG or HG, I’m totally going to read through it at least two or three times to find new things in the story and world. And it does still kind of baffle me that so many people do it differently. But last I checked, all the info we have points to the fact that readers like me are vastly outnumbered by the one-and-dones.
What those readers are enjoying is clearly the illusion of choice. Maybe there’s a reality behind some of that illusion (never all of it, of course – every game has Level 1 rails of one kind or another), and maybe not… they’ll never know, because they never test any of the paths not chosen. All they ever get is the sense that it could have played out differently, and that’s what they enjoy.
I don’t think writing for that audience is a decision that could only be made on the basis of money. Authors themselves enjoy different degrees of consequence and flavor. So in answer to:
Because 90% of the people reading your work are happy with the former, and so are you as a writer? My own personal satisfaction levels are different, and that’s why it takes me seven years to finish a game. I can think of games where my reaction was also “too much seasoning and not enough meal.” But some of those games have found a huge audience, and I’m not going to scorn either the author or the fans for what they enjoy.
You could go on a quest to break other COG readers’ immersion by pointing out the ratio of choices that are fake/flavor choices. I’m not sure how well that would actually work, though. People like what they like. It seems to me like a lot of analytical work that’s likely to be met with a shrug.
And your analytical tool would probably miss the fact that not all flavor is created equal. I can think of plenty of memorable moments from CSGs I’ve enjoyed where my choice didn’t alter a stat or branch a plot. Some of those choices didn’t even lead to different flavor text – the text of the choice bank alone gave a sense of scale, or possible emotional reactions that gave weight to what I was reading.
At the end of the day, you’re entirely within your rights to push for COG to publish more of the kind of games you like. Go to town. I like games with lots of consequence and room to explore, too. But do it with that mindset – “Cater to my tastes, company!” – and not, “Doing it differently would be lazy moneygrubbing!”
Some folks approach these projects as almost sandbox “do what you’d like” games (let’s say 90% game, 10% story), and others, perhaps on the other end of the spectrum, approach them as essentially personalized novels (let’s say 90% story, 10% game). The awesome thing about Hosted Games especially is that there is room for both, and everything in between! Yes, Choice of Games has a house style, but broadly speaking, does anyone claim there is a ‘right’ way to write interactive fiction?
And IMO more Creatives, at least those viewing their creative endeavors as a way to earn income, would be well served to adopt a “very corporate mindset.” That term was used like it…was a bad thing? Seriously? A business mindset helps you set parameters, keep feature creep from getting out of control, and actually finish projects, which many folks fail to do.
And efficiency is your friend, not your enemy. In what other field or venture does one say, “Oh I’m just going to see where this goes without thought to project scope or time spent, efficiency be damned!”?
I’m just saying, approach your project however the heck you want, but know in advance how you’re choosing to approach it, and don’t ridicule others who embrace efficiency and a market mindset.
That’s wonderful, and so kind of you to say! I’m very glad it’s been useful. When I revisit some of the more complicated or very in-depth bits I occasionally use it as a benchmark of what NOT to do as well, which can be just as helpful!
Yes - there’s a degree of swapping between story and code in the process for me. I think about the overall shapes of a chapter or scene, and figure out what information or development, if any, will happen no matter what paths are followed. Once I have a detailed outline designed, I do all of the code and use Quicktest and Randomtest to check that everything’s functioning. I can then get into the writing side of things. I know other people do the writing first, and still others do code and writing at the same time - there’s not really a right or wrong way of doing it, it’s more a case of figuring out what works for you.
I think I started doing it this way sometime during Blood Money. I didn’t do it as rigorously as with Creme de la Creme, where I did it all throughout creating the game. It’s been useful ever since for me - it helps me keep track of the size of a chapter and how much more I have left to do. In my current projects I’ve been going into a bit more mechanical detail with my broad-strokes notebook outlining than I did with CdlC, making decisions about which stats will be tested and the stat outcomes.
For example the sort of thing I would have written before was:
Clemence is running a discussion about the vote. They're excited because we're living through history!
-I just want to liven up the lesson
-History's written by the victors
-It's intellectually stimulating
Now, because I’ve got into the habit of pinning it down a bit more before starting the actual coding, I go into more detail about mechanics when I’m doing my initial plan. I prefer having the mechanics in my mind through the whole process. So I might put something like this in my notebook instead:
Clemence is running a discussion about the vote. They're excited because we're living through history!
-I just want to liven up the lesson (Test Entertaining, +/- School Popularity)
-History's written by the victors (Test Authoritative, +/- School Popularity)
-It's intellectually stimulating (Test Eloquent, +/- School Popularity)
When you’re further through writing, this article about game balance for Choicescript games may also be useful. I’ve been using a similar method since starting Creme de la Creme, as when I finished drafting Blood Money I hit points where it was literally impossible to pass some of the stat challenges.
Have you found that this helps you find more natural intervals and inflection points, or is it just what is more natural to you?
I think it’s a function of how I plan stories. I have the overall plan, with the waypoints (nodes, beats) where the story needs to land. I have a detail plan, which deals with different paths taken between those points. But even the detailed planning is not really about choices most of the time, they are about different routes to achieve objectives.
So for me, the bulk of the choices the reader sees and makes, happen when I actually sit down and type. How characters react and interact, which directions discussions might veer off in. The mood of the conversation, what tactics you might use in a fight. Most of that comes to me when I am writing. And, in order to do that, I need to be free to progress fast, instead of taking the time to break and fill out choices as I go. So in a way, what I write in that first pass is the way my imagination sees this scene unfolding on the first go. If I get ideas for choices right away, I note down the gist of them, but I don’t explore all the paths. In essence, I write one branch first, and then backtrack to fill things out.
For me, this is essential for three reasons:
1: I need to explore when I write. If I know everything, I get bored. I need the freedom to go wild.
2: Especially when it comes to discussions, flow is everything. Often choices there switch mood or direction, and it’s hard for me to jump between angry argument and soulful bonding in the same moment. Preserving the flow and mood is important.
3: Past Malin is always more boring than current Malin, and future Malin is smarter yet. Even if I think I know what will happen in a scene, actually writing it reveals things I never thought about. There’s no need for me to lock down choices beforehand. It’s often not until a scene is finished that I can look back and see which other directions it might go.
My way of working is all about trying to preserve writing momentum, and how you do that depends on what kind of writer you are. I have noticed that the more I write, the more the code gets integrated in the first writing session. These days I might not flesh out all the choices on the first go, but I add many smaller bits of code, *if’s and flags when I encounter the need for them.
EDIT: As for stats… that usually gets added when I feel like it, at many stages in the story. I tend to use stats more to understand what person the character the reader has created is, rather than to limit access.
Wow, this is a little masterclass in writing choicescript with a clear stats plan, thanks! I really appreciate this. I’m gonna end up following this approach when framing this piece up, see how it goes!
Do you find you need to take steps to prevent your first path through from being the dominant path for readers?
Not really, I’ve noticed my original path is in fact not the most popular with the players I think my character version is more caustic than most… And the first path is rarely even the most fun, it’s just the first one.
Very cool, so over time you stay in the momentum while dropping in bits of functioning code as you go?
Yep. A lot of my text have *if variations depending on past choices/personality of the player, so much of that tends to get added right away.
That is an unfortunate shorthand. There are fantastic things about a business mindset, including everything you mention in your post. Most of the art and entertainment we love is made by people who earn at least part of their living by making and distributing it. No one should be ridiculed for considering the likely return on the hours they put into their work.
On the other hand, as the person who first referred to commercial efficiency with (at best) faint praise on this thread, I’d not want to dismiss the bad things that can come with a business mindset. As the focus on marketability and profitability gets stronger, it can kill off creative ambition.
Partly that can be the direct effect that extrinsic motivators seem to have on many if not most people. There’s a good, pretty balanced article on that here. It includes the Anne Sexton quote: “First I want to write good poems. After that I am anxious as hell to make money and fame and bring the stars all down.” A corporate mindset can shift people away from putting their intrinsic motivation first; it doesn’t always, but it happens easily and often enough to be a legitimate worry (for creators) and gripe (for consumers).
And especially when a business loses its entrepreneurial edge and gets more risk-averse, it can stop investing in new, exciting, or complex things and aim only (or almost entirely) at safe and simple bets that offer a guaranteed profit. So contemporary Hollywood makes more and more blockbusters that are same-y and sequelly, with creative directors squeezed into the house style, while more weird and distinctive ideas or styles can’t get funding like they used to. Same for a lot of pulp publishing. That’s one major downside that can come with a corporate mindset.
I just came across a Skyrim retrospective that mentioned a game of its sheer scale wouldn’t be considered economical today. If true, that’s a shame! Its bigness was its most winning feature, and while it was a commercial risk to make a game so huge and unwieldy, it surely paid off for Bethesda, which is still raking in the cash a decade later.
As I noted earlier on this thread, Choice of Rebels is long, messy, and inefficient. A risk-averse business mindset would probably not favor it, despite its commercially appealing genre. Don’t bet on the guy who takes forever to finish a game because he’s writing so much emergent complexity and rabbit holes into it!
But I think it turned out to be a worthwhile bet. It’s no Skyrim, of course, but so far it’s sold around 39,000 copies, and my income from the game is in the neighborhood of $44,000. I don’t know how that compares to what people hope or expect to earn from their writing, but it’s a lot more than I’d expected to make! (Especially as someone whose earlier narrative nonfiction book had earned only $17,000.) As I shift from having a full-time day job to being a house-spouse with game-writing as my side contribution to the family purse, and can thus hopefully start getting the sequels out every couple of years rather than every 6-7, it’ll also look better in terms of an annual income.
That said, if my household was actually depending on that income (which we’re fortunate not to be) I would totally switch to writing simpler, more straightforward games and aim to get one out every year. There are virtues other than complexity in a piece of IF, and I’d aim to hit more of those (to satisfy my intrinsic need to write fiction I enjoy) while finishing games more quickly and reliably. There are other equilibria on the sliding scale of “business/efficiency” and “creative/complexity” that could satisfy me, not just the particular one I’m at now.
One of the things that makes XoR so good about creating meaningful choices is that when you are learning the game, you start with prima facie optimal strategies; you think they are optimal until you want to create and develop new characters. And then you realize that the other, seemingly suboptimal choices, have their uses too.
What are some seemingly optimal choices?
Only Plundering Merchants after Harrowing
Having Zvad Raid Extensively
Owlscap Protection Racket
Playing Nice with Horion and Linos
All these things are good to do. I used them as crutches for a while.
But it was only after the Discord started discussing “Red Bars Helots” (ruthless, skeptical, and nationalist ex-slaves, the weakest attribute and origin combination) that I started using heterodox and seemingly suboptimal strategies. Because I decided that I was going to make my characters work (and show other people how to make them work), and to do that, I had to do some weird stuff to squeeze out every attribute and Radmar Influence point I could get.