Alright, here we go
This got quite large and complex, so I hope it still makes sense. I tried to structure my points as coherently as I could, but it is still a bit of a web at its core.
Disclaimer that I dislike teen drama as a genre and this is sort of Teen Drama: the Game, though I tried to be as objective as I could. I also haven’t read any of the comments in this thread, though I did read your initial post, so if I bring up something that’s already been mentioned to death, it is not to nitpick but because I am ignorant of that discussion.
I’ve also skipped over grammar/typos and smaller inconsistencies as I figure others can get those easily enough and this lets me spend more time on higher level feedback. I’m assuming since you were interested in me specifically looking at it, you are in need of Shark Brand constructive criticism, so that is what I tried to focus on.
I like the idea for this game and am curious as to how successfully this can be done in a purely written medium. I’ll be interested to read the chapter where things shift. I think it’s ambitious and interesting and different, and while I’m sure it might turn some off for not being the usual type of game, I’ll be curious to see how it evolves and what it eventually solidifies into. The tone and the writing remind me of a number of recent indie games and feels like a bit of a hybrid of Life Is Strange (especially with the themes of coming of age and time/outcome manipulation) and Oxenfree (good vibes! I like both of these games).
Minor coherency issues
This is purely personal preference, but currently you just have a blank slate for naming the mc. I tend to find just a couple name choices to be much more user friendly, especially for testing purposes, but also in general.
I’d suggest rebranding the “wallflower” stat as something more neutral and not evoking shyness. A lot of what I would consider neutral decisions seem to contribute to this stat, like staying out of arguments, but I wouldn’t say that abstaining from an argument has anything to do with wallflower tendencies.
You have an end of demo screen in between chapters that might be confusing people
I was initially puzzled because this is listed under gender choice but when I checked the stats the mc is a guy. We do eventually get to a certain amount of mc creation, but I would suggest hiding the mc’s bio until that point to avoid confusion and possible frustration for people thinking they were duped.
the way this is structured makes it read like the mc is saying this at first.
all of these "uh"s are grating to read. there’s ways to show timidity and uncertainty that flow more naturally and don’t break up the sentence structure as jarringly.
again, here, it sounds like Olivia is saying this.
this seems like a big assumption to make unless it is well known that Carlton is openly bi, in which case this should be said beforehand, either in dialogue or in the mc’s thoughts.
what has Olivia (and Adrian, really) been doing throughout this conversation with Sabrina? hasn’t she been in earshot? if not that should be said
this reference is odd with a male mc
i didn’t actually click on this option so maybe the actual result reads better, but this feels like a homophobic reaction if you have a male mc (maybe that’s what it’s supposed to be?)
in where? there’s no context (a chapter later it’s said there’s cabins, but nothing here)
Major structural/development issues:
So I was running into a handful of problems that after getting to the end of the full demo have solidified into three (and maybe a smaller fourth) things I’d like to bring up (this is, as always, my perspective only and you as the author are of course in your right to ignore it in its totality if you so choose):
- clearly defining the mc
- pacing of the first half of the game (up to the Event)
- no perceived center to the story (which I will get into, but relates back to both above points)
- structure of the purpose of the time at the fire pit (which relates back to points 1 and 3)
1: the mc
This mc is not a traditional CoG mc (and I noticed from your FAQ where the mc’s photo is mentioned more than once that it sounds like it might be tripping people up). There are two reasons to address this, the first is more for the reader’s benefit and the second is for yours.
This is very much a game where we take control of an established, set character vs creating our own character (as is popular enough with other games that it is the standard that readers assume will be met). The freedom in this game is instead to have the ability to manipulate the variables in the surrounding npcs more so than in the mc (at least that is what I gather from your description of how it will work, we have yet to see it in action).
(As a side note, this also means we, as the player, are a character in this story. In the notebook, the main character is speaking directly to us, but in the story we and the mc are the same. This is in a sense breaking the 4th wall, acknowledging that we are holding the reins, but that we and the mc are separate.)
I am not here to say one way is better than the other, as I don’t really hold an opinion in either direction and think both contribute something different to a story. I do want to point out problems you might encounter with the choice you have made that you might want to address or at the least be aware of.
I do think you might want to consider explaining this distinction between a standard mc and your mc clearly in the introduction of the game. This would help to set the reader’s expectations and let them approach it from a more open-minded perspective instead possibly of a sense of disappointment or frustration that they aren’t getting what they usually encounter.
The second thing I want to mention is that having a set mc will cut down on replay ability. It means our freedom to control the mc’s actions, values, words and appearance is reduced considerably from mc creation and control games (we can’t play stoic once, charming the next, or lawful good one playthrough and chaotic neutral another, etc. Technically you mention we can preserve the npcs as they are in a “good” sort of fashion later on, but the mc’s actions earlier contradict this, which I will address later). I am obviously making an assumption here that wanting to replay the game is something you are trying to evoke in your readers. If that is not a priority, then this is much less important. People I’m sure will have an interest in replaying to change outcomes in the later half, but character creation is a major aspect of replay.
Then there is the limited character creation we do have, which consists of name, gender, and sexuality (but not appearance, including race/skin color, interestingly). When we get to gender selection, the bio photo changes to another premade mc. I’m not entirely sure what the point of choosing gender is when we can’t create more than one mc of the same gender anyway. It sort of feels like character creation that was abandoned in the middle of the design. What is the point of giving us gender and name selection but not race/appearance selection? The first two have the effect of making the reader feel like this is our character that we are customizing, but then the absence of the latter (and on top of that, a mandatory photo) makes it feel like that’s sort of ripped out from under us. Mixed messages.
Because of the bio photo, there are technically only 3 mcs in the entire range of the game. A lot of people like to replay with different mcs and the way it is currently set keeps people from doing that. This has the effect of making the game feel more bottlenecked, like there is a strict way it should be played and a discouragement in deviating from that. There is a certain expectation that comes with a gender selection screen, especially in readers who have played a number of other CoGs, and I can certainly see some frustration happening at that disconnect. I do think if this was laid out before the game started, people wouldn’t have as much of an issue with it.
I saw in your FAQ that appearance has specifically been addressed with the bio photos, but if you wanted to easily fix the majority of this issue, removing the bio photo and appearance description from the mc’s bio would be by far the easiest solution. If that’s not something you want to move on, setting expectations would seem useful.
2: pacing, 3: what is it all for?
These next two points are partially wound around each other, so I want to talk about them together.
With the way that this game is structured, everything hinges on the reader being interested enough in the other characters to make it to the half where the main event occurs. This sets an incredibly high bar for you, the author, because there is currently no driving purpose to help you hold interest until that time (there obviously will be a plot, but the reader doesn’t see that yet). Right now there is, from my perspective, nothing pushing the story forward. It almost feels like a sort of purgatory, with conversations that repeat and pacing that never seems to move anywhere. It feels like everything is waiting (which is technically what’s happening). I’m assuming the event hasn’t happened yet because you need enough information about the other characters revealed that there’s something to work with later. Right now, it feels very much like we are getting infodumps after infodumps with no reason why (or more directly, it feels like we aren’t getting anywhere because you need to tell us stuff first. Like a museum tour with too many instructions at the beginning when everyone just wants to see the dinosaurs already).
This conundrum sort of reminds me of the game Clue, in that the reason for them all together is specifically for an Event to happen, and then anything that was going on beforehand falls to the wayside. But a certain amount of information needs to be dropped before the murder so that we have something to go on afterwards.
This is where pacing and purpose intertwine. If you have a point of interest for the first half, the pacing can be structured around that. Right now, the game is stacked with all of these questions determining relationship dynamics and how the mc feels about people (necessary things to know for gameplay, of course) one after the other almost like a survey. There’s an unnatural feel to them because there’s nothing within the story triggering the majority of these questions, so they’re just asked out of the blue (I’ll list some examples in a second).
The most obvious place for this interest to come from is the mc’s motivations (which is currently a blank slate anyway).
The event between the mc and Madison is the strongest contender for the focus for the first half, especially as it is round-about discussed in almost every conversation, but I think you are holding your cards far too close to your chest with it. I’m assuming, from the comments in the game that the mc doesn’t want to discuss it that it will be revealed at a later time, but this has the consequence of having nothing to hold onto until that point from a reader’s perspective. Right now, you are holding the two most interesting major events back from the reader which leaves nothing for us to play with in the meantime, and no hints that it will get more interesting for us to want to stick around.
Now, let’s finally get around to actual shots from the game.
Decisions about how to respond to Madison need more context, both for the questions to make sense and for creating a stronger initial point of interest (if that is the direction you want to go). We are asked this with no knowledge of the event itself besides one small hint (that Adrian doesn’t think we are at fault), and this alone is not nearly enough to be able to answer this without choosing blindly. This question should be juicy foreshadowing for how the night could go, but ends up seeming much less impactful because context is taken from us (tbh, this whole friendship rift is so drama heavy, you could lean quite heavily into it without it getting stale).
We run into this problem again during the walk if we go speak to her. Context is lost left and right during that fight because the reader doesn’t know what we’re fighting about. There’s no depth to their tension and it makes their words shallow.
This is a good example of important questions being stacked too close to the front. We have barely seen anything of Olivia or what her and the mc’s dynamic is like. Because of this, we again have to answer blindly since we don’t know her enough to have an opinion. At the very least, we need a moment with her first (an inside joke, anything to establish the friendship) before choosing sweeping statements about it as a whole.
This paints Olivia in a terrible light and we have yet to learn anything about her that would make her character more nuanced. Did she ever apologize to us? Seem uncomfortable? Why do we like her? Why were we (are we) friends?
I’m not sure if Sabrina is supposed to come off as incredibly nosy and inappropriate or if this is another consequence of stacking questions too close to the beginning, but it really sours me on her character in general. Especially because she just keeps going:
This is an incredibly weird question for a complete stranger to ask. On top of this we are also forced to give her an answer instead of telling her to mind her fucking business. At this point she’s either oddly obsessive about us or all of these questions are being filtered through her mouth into the story and it’s damaging her character. But on top of all of this, we cannot give a good answer because we have no context for the event in question. This question, especially, requires knowing what happened, or at the least having a pretty damn good idea of what went down.
There’s a lot of telling and no showing happening so far. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see these things play out in real time? Instead of asking us if we’d reconcile, give us a chance to decide to have that conversation (and maybe watch it blow up in our faces). Let us play around in the world you’ve created instead of asking what we would maybe do.
Again, why is Sabrina giving us her opinion on something that has nothing to do with her when we don’t know her?
I’d also like to bring up the point of character voices. A lot of these conversations feel very similar. The same types of questions asked, just rotating out the asker, the same types of comments made, everyone is interested equally in asking invasive questions and giving away quite a lot in answers. Madison is really the only one who feels solidified during these conversations, and I think that is because our relationship to her is clearly defined (and because she is the only one not asking the same things). Even Adrian brings up the same questions everyone else is, and because we keep going back to the same topics, it’s making everyone sound the same. Would everyone actually care about the rift with Madison? Does everyone actually need to know your motivations and what you plan to do? No one has anything else to talk about? If you wanted to make sure all the characters have similar information about the rift, it might be better for it all to be done in a group scene. For example, if you get them drunk first and have it all hashed out in a big circle, the intimacy you’re looking for would seem more natural.
this, in contrast, stands out as the only time someone doesn’t want to discuss deeply personal issues.
again, this as the default for these interactions seems really odd to me. it feels like a therapy session. this kind of trust should be earned between characters and not the starting point.
Why are we stopping? Why are we scattering? We know what direction to go, this feels tedious and slows things down even more.
this is what i’m talking about regarding repeating invasive questions. it feels like Carlton is interviewing us for a tell-all. And again, there’s a lot of telling and no showing. give us a scene with Olivia and Adrian butting heads instead of this conversation and let Carlton be a witness to it. we’re spending multiple chapters just getting to the campsite, use that time to show different relationship dynamics with scenes of them interacting instead of telling us second hand how it works.
So far there’s a strict repeating pattern of isolating a character individually, interrogating them for information about themselves or others and then fucking off to someone else. Why is it structured this way? The fun in having a large cast is to have them interact and see what happens, but so far everyone is very isolated with the mc as the only connecting point.
4: why are we here?
Which brings us here. What is the purpose of the fire pit?
To manipulate and meddle and nothing else, it seems. There is also no ability to skip any of this, which means it is a mandatory, set part of the mc’s personality that they will involve themself in everyone’s business and seem to have no morals regarding messing with others’ lives (or apathy about all this drama). The issue I have is that this is non-negotiable. It’s not a choice to play our mc this way, it is a rule, and all of the options further this decision. I mentioned much earlier that we might be able to play a good character by keeping everyone the same, but this eliminates that as a real option.
It also as a whole continues this feeling of purgatory, of waiting, because still, even though we have finally arrived at the place we have been talking about the whole time, nothing really happens. No changes. No plot. What’s the narrative arc? We’re sitting around and chatting again but what’s the point?
What is the purpose of our time at the fire pit?
again, this dialogue feels like a forced therapy session.
So because she won’t share deeply personal issues with us, we lose any interest in speaking to her? We are then forced to start digging for this information however we can. Why? Why do we care? It’s not even a choice to keep investigating, it’s a mandatory scene change.
and off to the next scene, where we act incredibly manipulative. for what purpose? where is all of this going? why are we being so meddlesome? why aren’t we relaxing and getting wasted? isn’t that why we’re here? what is our mc’s motivation for any of this behavior?
I think overall, though it seems like that might have been a lot of criticism, it can all be narrowed down to just a couple of points, and addressing those will fix the rest (it’s just that those few things reverberate out and effect a lot of other things).
I think a project that doesn’t follow the usual script is going to, by its nature, be a bit of a tight rope walk as there is more trial and error involved, but I also think that’s exciting and interesting and everything that attempting a creative project is about.
Anyway, that’s it! Hopefully this was helpful to you in some way, and I’m flattered you thought my input was valuable enough to abstain from attempting to duel me (though I still would have won). I suppose we’ll see if you still feel that way after getting through all of this.