What I learned from playing every Choicescript game (patterns in good/bad games)

I recently finished playing and reviewing every Choicescript game. Based on what I learned, I feel like it might be helpful if I share patterns I noticed in popular vs unpopular games. It helps that I have written what is possibly the least popular Choice of Games title of all time, In the Service of Mrs. Claus. So when I talk about what doesn’t seem to do well, I talk from experience!

First, a few caveats:

Disclaimers

-This isn’t a guide to making a great game, it’s just examples of features common in good or bad games. Correlation is not causation, and the next great game might go against all of this advice.
-Games are like that boat in the Suez canal. You spend months or years writing them and they are huge beasts, difficult to turn or control. If you finish at all, it’s a real achievment. Some games just end up stinking and you can’t do much about it besides wrap it up.
-This list is certainly tainted by my personal opinions.
-There’s not much writing advice here. It is a huge factor, but not one I’m qualified to discuss.
-Every game that I find flaws with has good points, too, and my game is one of the worst-selling.

To help reinforce those caveats, for each rule I list I’ve provided counter examples of good games that ignore them to show that none of these rules are hard and fast.

With that in mind, here are the four things that I noticed the most!

1. Your first chapter is vital!

Your work of interactive fiction is both a story and a game. Your first chapter serves simultaneously as a tutorial for the game, a character creation menu, and the hook for your story. For most Choicescript games, the first chapter also serves as a book cover or blurb, as many links to Choicescript games just link directly to the first chapter.

This makes the first chapter absolutely critical. One thing the lowest tier of games sales-wise have in common (besides those which are extremely short) is bad first chapters.

What makes a first chapter good or bad? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

Is my first chapter as interesting as the rest of the book?

Several of the lowest-selling games have purposely slow first chapters with later ‘big reveals’ that make the story much more exciting. While this can pay off with reader involvement, there is no payoff if no one’s reading in the first place.

When I discussed this with a friend of mine, they pointed out that famous books tend to start much slower than games narrative-wise, and that habit can sometimes carry over. Having dozens of pages of Bilbo’s birthday and Frodo walking is great for Tolkien, but doesn’t do much for gamebook sales.

Counterexamples: A few very well-written and well-regarded games have slow starts. Heart of the House is one of my top 2-3 Choicescript games, but I remember I looked at it a year earlier and didn’t buy it because the first chapter seemed boring. Asteroid Run: No Questions Asked is a fantastic, very fun sci-fi adventure that, I feel, starts very slow.

Is my first chapter a good tutorial for the rest of the game?

Your work of interactive fiction is, again, both a story and a game. For many people who buy your game, this will be their first Choicescript game, and even for experienced players, your game will have its own quirks that need to be taught.

If your game is going to be about resource management, you need to show what the resources are and how they’re used. If the game is going to be about moral dilemmas, you should show moral dilemmas in the first chapter that are similar to ones you’ll have later.

In my own poor-selling game’s original version, the first chapter featured no NPCs and a great deal of slow-paced flashbacks, both very different from the rest of the game.

In a twitter summary of a talk by Jon Ingold (80 Days, Heaven’s Vault, Pendragon), Twitter user Axel Hassen Taiari (@axel_hexed) reported the following comments:

“C) important that a game communicates early on what kind of game/experience it’s going to be. Not just thematically or diegetically (eg a Spider-Man game has to have Spider-Man) but rather give SOME sense of the possibility spaces you’re dealing with.”

One great way to communicate this is to explicitly show the player that choices change stats and say what stats are being increased (Creme de la Creme does this in some of the first chapter, as does VtM: Night Road and Choice of Robots. This is also central to Heroes Rise with the MeChip, as well as the Versus series).

Some games that have great tutorial chapters include Werewolves: Haven Rising, Vampire: The Masquerade – Night Road, Creme de la Creme, Choice of Magics, Psy High, Choice of Robots

Counterexamples: Ironheart is fun and popular and has a first chapter that is absolutely nothing like the rest of the game in genre, or in just about any other way. Silverworld and Stronghold: A Heroes Fate are two other good games where the main gameplay is very different from the first chapter.

Is my first chapter a good character creator?

Imagine rolling a Dungeons and Dragons character (where stats are between 3-18 with 9 or 10 being average) and getting someone with 5 8’s and one 10. That’s what a lot of character creation chapters are like in lower-selling CoG, even in otherwise award-winning games.

In fact, there are several games where you can pass all checks having all stats at 10% except for one in the 20%s. The game just never makes use of the visual space the rest of the stat bars provides.

Here is an example of the stats screen of a good-selling game and a bad-selling game after 1 chapter:

poorstats

Outside of stats, more customization is better in character creation. I share lots of CoG games with my students. One girl (whose parents immigrated from India) who played Creme de la Creme was thrilled that she could create someone with her skin color and hair type. For myself, I enjoy Choice of the Dragon’s customization.

Counterexamples: The biggest counterexample would be Creatures Such as We, a wonderful and popular game that has no stats whatsoever.

2. Stat disease

As I played through the vast ‘middle’ chunk of Choicescript games which are not bestsellers or worstsellers, I found a pattern that was repeated over and over again in regards to stats, a pattern that differentiated the upper-middle from the lower-middle. It came to the point where I could open up a new game, check its stats page, and immediately know about where it would be placed in bestseller/rating lists, based on a problem that many games have.

I call this problem ‘stat disease’. What are the symptoms of stat disease?

Overlapping/indistinguishable stats.
Examples:
-My own (low-selling) game, where there is a skill called Cheer, an opposed stat called Happy Helper, and an achievement meter called ‘Christmas Spirit’. If a choice is about the power of Christmas love, which of these three skills is involved?
-A game that has opposed stats ‘idealistic vs cynical’, ‘indifferent vs empathetic’, ‘honorable vs shameless’, ‘cautious vs maverick’, and ‘loner vs sharer’, as well as skills ‘charming’ and ‘cunning’ and meters ‘integrity’ and ‘pride’. If you have to make a choice to listen to your boss or ignore them, what’s being tested? Ignoring your boss could certainly be described as being a loner, and a maverick, and not idealistic, and indifferent, and not honorable.
-A game that has ‘charm’ as a skill and ‘guile’ as an opposed stat, and ‘confidence’ as a skill with ‘boldness’ as an opposed stat.

It should be easy to distinguish stats from each other. The very smoothest games are so clear that you never even need to check the stats screen; you can just say ‘my character has always been greedy, of course I can sympathize with the dragon’ and not worry about it.

Some games with great, easily distinguished stats are Tally Ho, Heroes Rise: The Prodigy (the opposed stats especially are very clearly differentiated), Choice of Magics (especially nice how differentiated the different kinds of stats are on the stats screen), and Champion of the Gods. Even in these games, there is some overlap, but most stats are distinguishable from each other.

Counterexample: Creme de la Creme has some stats that may be confusing at first glance. It’s not clear what ‘poise’ vs spirit is. The game overcomes that by explicitly describing what those skills are and aren’t in the first chapter, by name (with the question that marks your greatest skill and weakest skill). So confusing stat names can be overcome, but it requires conscious, guided effort.

Having too many stats getting spread out or generally being very weak

Little differentiation between good and bad stats

These two go together, and both go along with the ‘character creation’ part of point 1 above.

Opening up a stat screen and seeing 15 different stats starting out at 20% is very discouraging, especially when chapter 1 ends up with you only adding 5% to one or two stats. There are very few examples of popular games where you have tons of diverse stats with only small boosts in a few of them at the end of the first chapter.

One reviewer said:

Story captured my interest but stats mgmt hinder fun. There were too many stats to pay attention to. I found myself in scenario where a situation needs 2 or more different stats to align and my character meets only 1 or 2 requirements and none of the other choices can work either because of the same reasons. It ends up being annoying to keep track all these choices and scenarios to get what you want. It almost as if you cant be what you want without being penalized.

The other direction can be problematic, too. Having only 2 or 3 stats can get frustrating if everything depends on them but they are frequently changed without notice.

Stat checks and stat changes are indistinguishable from each other or happen unannounced

Opposing stats easily overriden on accident

Game frequently lowers your skills

The absolute worst thing is when you’re playing a game, focusing on a specific strategy, when suddenly a choice that looks harmless actually sets one of your opposed stats 40 points in the opposite direction of what you’ve been focusing on. You thought you were compassionate? No, you’re actually 75% sadistic!

Reviewers have pointed this out in many games. For instance:

this ruined the game for me, in this game you have personality stats like independence/respectable, and they fluctuates a lot depending on your minor choices, like greeting your friend one way instead of another. A big problem with this is at the end game, there will be major choices that will decide what ending you will get and only a few one will be available
to you depending on your personality stats, the rest will be grey. and since in this game what choices raise or lower stats is NOT CLEAR AT ALL! tries after tries i tried different combination of choices to raise my stat to a certain degree so i can select the ending that i considered to be best and it just never works,"

Choice of the Robots and Vampire the Masquerade: Night Road handle this well by indicating what’s being checked and when. I know a lot of authors (myself included) have eschewed this because it brings players out of the story, but it significantly contributes to the enjoyability of the game aspect.

Counterexamples: The Fog Knows Your Name is a fantastically popular game, but many reviews cite difficulties with the stats. For instance:

It is nice to see another story where stats matter but i think the way in which they are implemented leaves something to be desired. It’s never clear what choices raise your stats or when a stat check is behind a choice. Like for example my character in this was relatively physical, i had something like 63 physical so when confronted with an option to use a branch to defend myself i chose it. But obvious i failed that check because somehow picking up a stick wrenched my arm and made me more vunerable. But i had no way of knowing if 63 was a good level or if it was even checking my physical stat.

(Heavily criticized) Opposed stats are used for built-up skills or personal relationships

By skill I mean stats that represent your accumulated talent or knowledge. Making, for instance, agility an opposed stat to strength means that your character can be an incredible dancer or runner, but if they lift a weight once they become slow and clumsy. Making relationships opposed means that the best way to romance someone is to attack or abuse their ‘opposite’ person. It just doesn’t make sense.

Empyrean had to be completely revised to remove this feature after massive backlash. Treasure Seekers of Lady Luck, a personal favorite of mine, placed rock bottom in the last poll on underrated choicescript games, and it uses these opposed stats for relationships. People seem to really dislike it.

Overall Stat Disease

The following are a great deal of reviews exemplifying stat disease for various games:

God this game has intrigue and I want to learn more about it but the game’s mechanics itself won’t let me be interested. There are way too many stats to keep track of, such that I don’t think the creator properly factored in the crossover of having certain combinations. You will almost always hit walls of choices where none of your stats are suited for any options, and it doesn’t feel intentional or good to play. The game doesn’t clearly communicate which stats mean what and the crossover between stats makes it all the more confusing. I didn’t even get a chance to decide if I was honorable or cunning in the tutorial so I went through the game without the ability to choose either option. And in choices where 2/3 were the honor and cunning choice I’m obviously restricted.

Another review for a different game with stat disease:

Not enough chances to increase your skills.
[…]
Most choices seem to not affect the story as you may want them to, since in most cases it seems to fail a check of sorts. It mostly seems you’re just always making a bad choice.
Sometimes choices aren’t as straight forwards as they seem.
A save and reload function would’ve been nice to have; At least in between chapters.
A skill stat for stealth would’ve helped indicate if choices were being made properly when choosing options of that nature.

Another:

As I said, [game] lacks meaningful choices and reads more like a non-interactive novel at times. For that, we have entirely too many stats. Considering how the stats don‘t even impact the story all that much, we have too many of them and it gets confusing. Especially because micromanaging them is a chore.

There are a lot of instances where it‘s not at all clear which choice is going to change which stat. And even several instances where it is deeply unfair. For example, let‘s say we have answers A, B and C. Answer A raises a skill stat by 10% (very valuable). Answer B raises a personality stat by 10% (quite okay). And answer C reduces a skill stat by 10 % (really bad)! As a reader, it‘s almost impossible to see that coming.

Another review:

Genuinely a bit of a pain. It’s hard to raise your stats high enough to do anything, and balancing things almost never works. Rather little variation in paths, despite several playthroughs with different choices;

another:

I kept dying halfway through the game because I couldn’t figure out wtf the author’s choices meant, kept ruining my stats because I couldn’t figure out wtf the author wanted, and, had I known then that I could get a refund for a s*** game, would’ve demanded it. I expected a game that was more plot oriented (I mean, “choice of” means interactive novel, right??) and got a stat-oriented bunch of drivel with a shallow plot, shallow NPCs, and shallow relationships. I was completely unimpressed and found the game annoying as h***.

Games without stat disease

Mecha Ace

When talking about Mecha Ace, I never missed an opportunity to mention my favorite scene: I focused my skill on ranged weapon with a bit of piloting, so my mech is built for that. In one of the battle, I was given the opportunity to take a position in the formation which I took the frontline. My plan was to cause massive damage to opposing formation before they’re able to wreck ours, so at the start, I’d charge in with my squad. The game mentioned the pros and cons, including the time it’d take to assist my main force if they’re overwhelmed. Guess what? Our forces got overwhelmed. Being left alone, I pick the option to assist them, but the game mentioned that my mech is not the best at moving and my piloting is too low. Wham bam, we take a massive hit and there’s nothing I could do: too far to continue the deep strike, too far to return to the frontline. Power fantasy got fulfilled, but the consequence is brutally fair. At that time, I also realized: I have the long-range build. Why would I go that aggressive?"

From Creme de la Creme:

And unlike Choice of Romance, your lowest stat doesn’t get stuck being super-low level the whole time, because in the course of the story you get tutoring in your worst subject!

For Psy High:

If you, like me, love watching arbitrary sliders go up for acting like a Lannister, you will enjoy this game. If you had a good, or at least not-awful time in High School, chances are you will enjoy this game.

For Choice of Rebels:

With a sprawling, well-written story and intuitive mechanics (a first for me), there’s no reason not to try it out if you’re even mildly interested in the premise.
and the tension in plots are insane.
It’s long, detailed, complex, and gives you a huge amount of freedom to shape the story to your whims.
I fear the author might of written himself into a corner with how much choice was in this installment.

Origins of Stat Disease

It’s my belief that stat disease is caused by authors not knowing how to make interesting interactivity in their games (including me when I wrote my game). They throw in stat checks, but then the game is too easy since people can just pick a favorite stat. So the easiest option is just to make things difficult. Think about it: every symptom of stat disease is a way of making regular stat checks more difficult.

This is bad.

Engagement in your game does not come from making stat checks difficult! The primary use of stats is for the game to remember who the main character is.

Or, as Eiwynn put it, “For the bulk of text-based choice games, mechanics are not the key that unlocks the kingdom.”

So where does engagement come from, then? From having mutually worthwhile and interesting goals that must be pursued simulataneously but cannot all be achieved at once (especially relationships, but also things like saving something you care about that’s dishonorable vs being honorable. Choice of Rebels, Slammed!

The best games are when you can get any one goal you want but you have to sacrifice everything to get it (like Psy High where a dream crush can be dated but you find out they are a terrible person).

The game on the omnibus with the lowest overall rating is one which allows you to select your difficulty, with the default being ‘very difficult’. Difficult stats don’t, in general make for a fun game by themselves.

3. Give your game a satisfying plot arc (no matter the player’s choices)

The shape of your plot
Every game has a plot arc of some type. Here are some typical plot arcs:

Among poorly selling or lower-rated games, many have arc C, where the action picks up slowly and then kind of peters out. Like one review said:

There was a lot of blank space throughout the story. By that I mean several days were skipped to rush you to the main goal at the time. This could have been an excellent time to build upon the lore

And another:

The premise had a lot of potential but the execution of the story leaves much to be desired. The ending was completely underwhelming, no build up, no pay off, no climax, it just… happens, written in the same tone as the beginning and middle of the story.

Another review says:

Still working my way through but noticing the game breaks down in the middle of the story.

And the worst (my own game, In the Service of Mrs Claus, before I edited it):

The beginning is a chore to get through. It feels too much like an exposition dump.
[…]
It would’ve been better if it had just given you a character customisation first and skipped all the flashbacks that just bombard you and leave you confused on what you’re reading this time.
[…]
It’s as far as I’ve gotten cause like I said. The beginning chapter is too boring to get through right now.

Type B arcs are generally only found in the longer games (although Sixth Grade Detective is a shorter, but fun, example). These games are generally episodic, with no rising tension, and can become very dull after longer periods of time.

Type D arcs just stop suddenly, like the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I’ll shout out Choice of the Petal Throne, because I thought it was an awesome game (incredibly complex worldbuilding borrowed from a pre-existing shared world). It had a really interesting plot happening and right at what seemed like the midpoint of the game it just stopped like a truck driving into a mountain cliff. No real denoument or indication it was the climax.

A review of another game with ‘drive into a cliff’ ending:

I’m sure there are many out there who will enjoy this game. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. The story is definitely unique, and some ideas caught my interest, but it ended rather abruptly and with too many loose ends. It honestly felt like the story was going somewhere but the author cut it short/didn’t have time to develop it.

And another:

Only major negative I would say (which other reviewers have pointed out) is that the ending seemed to come out of nowhere and felt a bit rushed. I hope in future if the developer made another game that it would last a bit longer, I feel like there was more potential that could have been gotten out of this game.

Almost all bestselling games have an A arc, where the excitement picks up early on and steadily increases until a cool climax, then a significant (but not too long) denouement. Examples include Choice of Robots, Creme de la Creme, Choice of Magics, Tally Ho, and Heart of the House.

Wren Harper, who helped brainstorm this essay, pointed out that most good games actually have some self-similarity, with each chapter having its own climax and denouement, each higher than the one before:

The same contributor also noted that most static fiction builds a lot more slowly than this, so the best plot arc for a game is not the same as the best plot arc for popular (static) fiction.

Hitting up all important plot points

There are a couple of games where important plot points can be missed entirely if you take the wrong branches, but the game assumes that you knew them all along.

Emily Short famously said:

Your job is to make it as hard as possible for the player to finish your game without understanding your story.

From that same article, she says:

If you have a key story beat, don’t just narrate it and move on. Players skim in interactive stories, especially in choice-based stories where they know they’ll be able to keep moving forward regardless of how well they learned the establishing details.

If you need the player to remember something, give them a choice about that thing. If you can’t let them choose whether the thing happens, you can still let them choose how it happens, or how the protagonist feels about it, or what they’re able to salvage from it.

When games mess this up, it doesn’t show up in reviews because the reviewers literally have no clue what they missed.

A good example of hitting up important plot points is Choice of Robots. Events like the global war happen whether you’re a CEO supplying the military or a bum living with her mom.

Counterexample: Jolly Good, Cakes and Ale has one night where 3 or 4 incredibly important events happen at once. I completed the game remaining entirely at the opera, and that left 2 or 3 threads completely unresolved. But this is a very popular and fun game.

148 Likes

4. Make players feel they have real agency

You can have the most amazing choice-branching tree and fancy code, but if the player doesn’t notice that and think that ‘choices don’t matter’, it’s all wasted.

Conversely, the most railroaded game possible can still be satisfying if the player thinks it’s responsive.

A good example of that is Creatures Such as We. While it does in fact have a lot of fancy branching underneath, it’s more linears than many games whose reviews are filled with things like ‘this game is so railroaded!’.

So, what makes players feel like they have agency?

Are there clear goals that players can work towards?
Choice of Rebels, Choice of Magic, and Choice of Robots are fantastic at this.

In Choice of Rebels, two clear goals are ‘not stealing from people/being popular’ and ‘surviving’. The tension between these goals drives a lot of the excitement in the first few chapters.

In Choice of Magic, each type of magic you focus on has its own drawback and guides you to different goals. If you want to work with the church, healing is good, but it can destroy your body. If you love weird beasts, you can work with life magic. Destruction magic lets you be an amazing warrior but destroys the environment.

In Choice of Robots, the ‘vision’ at the beginning has a very important purpose: it immediately lets the players know 4 different possibilities for the player: doing something evil (and unknown), world conquest, robot love, or a singularity. And so from that moment you know exactly what kind of things this game is capable of, and that they will not be possible at once. It’s a brilliant way of showing the player the branching in the game. It also employs ‘greyed-out’ choices, different chapter names depending on your choices, and clear branches like deciding to work with military or not.

The difference isn’t that ‘this game included more branching than other Choicescript games’, the difference is ‘this game makes the results of your choices obvious’.

Reviews include:

I normally dont write reviews but I just have to share how amazing this story was. You really change potential outcomes drastically with your choices, and you can see how much each one matters.

Another for Choice of Robots:

I’ve played almost all interactive story games and think this is the best one! Although it could have images and less text per page, I felt the story really changes with each decision, the story is interesting and full of ethical choices, well written and I had fun with the achievements too!

Another for Choice of Robots mentioning clear replay value:

This is one of the few (if not the only) game where I was fully satisfied with one run - despite knowing for sure that there’s much I could do differently if I did replay it.

One for Choice of Rebels:

Just finished my first complete play through, so I have by no means exhausted all the choices and story line this game has to offer.

One for Choice of Magics:

When other choice games are extremely linear or short, his games have dozens of different outcomes, and completely different branching paths. If you can get past the fact that these games are simply text-based, Choice of Magics/Choice of Robots have to be THE best choice-driven games out there. They absolutely destroy developers like Tell-Tale games in this category.

Really recommend checking out those three games to get ideas how to convince the player they have real choices.

Counterexamples:
While the Heroes Rise games have significant branching, there’s a reason they have a smaller wordcount than many Choicescript games of similar play length. They have less of a branching style and more of a gauntlet style of gameplay, which attracts a different crowd of players.

Does the player act or react?
The very lowest-selling games tend to have almost nothing but reactions. Here is one review of such a game:

This game is severely lacking meaningful choices.

A lot of choices in this game are based on introspection – you can choose how your character feels about what happens, but you can’t stop it from happening. And even then the game unfortunately doesn’t necessarily respect your choices. There are a lot of instances where the MC goes on autopilot for up to three pages while the reader is left shaking their head and wondering what on earth possessed the MC to act like that. It‘s especially grating when there are characters that the author doesn’t like. […] Now matter how carefully I chose to only feel nice things about the author‘s most hated characters, somehow my MC always ended up snapping at them and criticizing them regardless.

A lot of this seems to be conscious decisions by authors to avoid too much branching so that writing doesn’t become an intractible problem.

But it’s all about the illusion of choice, not actual choice.

Consider the following situation in two different (made up) games: A player has a hostage goblin from an opposing army.

Game 1’s text and options:

You decide to kill the goblin. Why did you do it?
*I just don’t like myself.
*Goblins don’t deserve to exist!
*My followers expected it of me.
*It’s the only way to be safe.

Game 2’s text and option:

The goblin rages and fights against its captors. Its scars show it is a veteran fighter, but it looks underfed.

‘What should we do with it?’ asks a sergeant, looking at you.
*Negotiate with the opposing army for ransom.
*Kill him. We can’t take chances.
*Let him go. It might come back to haunt us, but it could make the goblins more agreeable.

Both writing options have the same amount of work. In fact, the second one is probably easier; games that try to remember player’s intentions often end up angering the players if they assume they have the same intentions later (that happened in my game). In the second game, you can just describe the outcome, set some stat from it, and never worry about it again. But the first one feels almost entirely non-interactive, while the second feels like a real choice.

That’s not to say you can’t describe intention. From a review of the bestselling game Creme de la Creme:

I really, REALLY love that i can choose not only my words and actions, but also inner intentions, reasons and thoughts. I saw many games where the writing just put words in your mouth based on your previous action choice, or where you gained stats based on your words and actions, and it just felt wrong, because i can secretly think the opposite of what i said, and it’s what i truly think that defines what person i am, not what i say. Your games aren’t blind to the fact that MC might behave not exactly according to their true thoughts, which is wonderful. Same action but different reasoning behind it is very realistic and nuanced.

Counterexample: The Fog Knows Your Name has a large proportion of ‘reaction’ or ‘passive’-style actions, but is still popular.

Does the game force attitudes, actions, feelings, or failure on a player?

One of the biggest complaints in Steam reviews for lower-rated games is that they were forced to act out of character.

From online reviews and commentary:

If [the voice of a story] rubs me the wrong way, or doesn’t feel like it reflects the choices I made, I tend to lay the story to rest.

Everything else, I usually take in stride. If a choice I made didn’t give me the outcome I want, or if there’s a character I don’t like, I mean–isn’t that how life works?

Actually, it feels better if an outcome came from my decisions. I don’t like feeling like I’m on for a ride when it comes to these games. If I’m on for a ride, I’ll just pick up a book from the library or something. I go to these games as an escapism, so I can live a life I know I’d never live, and one I can have a heavier influence on compared to my real one, where Im often forced to be somebody I don’t want to be.

Another review of a different game:

I agree with the people who say that the choices weren’t really choices: I felt railroaded into responses that I didn’t want but that the “game” decided I should in order to move the story along.

In my own playthroughs, I was annoyed by games that offered choices between two things part of the time but forced one of those choices later.

For instance, one game begins with several decisions on whether to obey your father or not. It then follows that with a scene where your character decides (no matter what you do) to eavesdrop on your father at great risk to yourself and for displeasing him.

Another game does that exact same trick, forcing you to eavesdrop conspicuously on a dangerous spy despite giving you choices earlier on to be risky or not.

It’s clear that this results from authors trying to ensure players ‘get the plot’ (like Emily Short said in the earlier quote), but you can force events without making the player cause them. If something MUST occur, make it an external event and not a player choice.

Is the player the hero of the story?
I read an interview with one author of a game that suffered in sales, and they mentioned that they were frustrated about not having a definite character arc for the player, so they gave all the character growth to a specific NPC, so she became the main focus of the game. And that had, I believe, a negative effect on gameplay.

In fact, one reviewer said about this game:

I was never directly interacting with them or responding to them, I was responding to the situation or with how I felt about it. I was not a main character, I was along for the ride.

Another said:

But by the time I quit I was already getting the sense that my MC was nowhere close to being the main character, [this other character] was the true main character,

Another game with the same issue (someone else is the main character):

The main character’s Mary Sue of a sister (and, I have a sneaking suspicion, author insert character) is both the protagonist and inexplicable Deus Ex Machina. She’s easily one of the most powerful people, possibly the most powerful person, in the entire galaxy. She’s the one with the resources that enable everything you do, she’s the one who shows up out of nowhere to either create or resolve problems, she’s the one whose choices drive the events.

I know what this is like. My game is one of the absolute worst-selling Choice of Games titles, and I think a big factor is that Mrs. Claus is the focus of, and, in many ways, the hero of the story. Judging by the steam achievements, for most players, Mrs. Claus is the strongest hero, facing adversity, training to get stronger, finding love, almost dying, and finding lasting happiness. Her name is on the game, her face is on the cover. The problems is, that’s not the player, it’s a side character. Each of these 3 games, including mine, that makes someone else the hero has suffered a lot in sales.

Counterexample: Every single Nebula-nominated game forces actions and feelings on the player. Perhaps that provides greater control over the story?

Summary:

The biggest distinctions I found between bestselling (compared to worstselling games) is:

  1. The first chapters serve equally well as story hooks, tutorials and character creation systems
  2. They don’t have ‘stat disease’
  3. They have a satisfying narrative arc that hits all important plot points
  4. They make the player feel like they have real agency

I’d love any feedback.

Credits

Wren Harper and Hannah Powell-Smith contributed thoughts to this essay.

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It’s fantastic to see this in the light of day. I’d have loved to read this when I was starting out and indeed it’ll be useful for me now! It’s great to have all those concepts laid out in such a clear way.

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These are all very helpful! Thank you!

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This is extremely informative; I’ve bookedmarked it as a reference while I work on a WIP myself. Thank you for taking the time to write this all out!

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This is really insightful. Reminds me of Romancing the beats, a summary on the how to hit the key points. Thank you for putting it into words.

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This is a terrific dissection of how mechanics can help or hinder a Choicescript story’s appeal. Since you’re analyzing the elements that help make up the most or least popular stories, I’d be interested to also hear your takeaways as far as genres and how the titles approach romantic interests, since those are also huge elements to commercial and critical success.

I suspect this thread is going to be linked to for some time to come, so welcome, future readers!

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I don’t share most of your concerns and ideas at all, but I appreciate the detailed description and information you have brought to the table. It is really good food for the thought.

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I realise that I’m arguing with you about your own game :grin: but I didn’t personally feel that Mrs Claus had this problem. The main character is a subordinate of Mrs Claus but as far as I remember you still gave plenty of choices on how to feel about her, the possibility of disobeying her and of course, plenty of opportunities for the MC to do cool stuff that didn’t involve her. I think when people complain about another character being the hero it doesn’t necessarily mean that no other character should be more important/powerful in the story or that the MC should never be in a ‘sidekick’ role, it’s a complaint about a lack of agency because things are too rigidly focused on another character. For example, you might only be given options to agree with or like that character, or the plot becomes railroaded in order to serve that one character’s arc and the player’s own effects on the plot are limited.

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Thank you very much for sharing your analysis. <3 You’re very kind to do so.

I would appreciate it if you could provide some insight on some questions I have-it’s totally alright to not respond btw, I know that people are busy and honestly most of the time I wonder if my questions are actually pretty stupid:

-I wonder if neutral/positive tropes can contribute to good or bad sales for games? Like, how much of it in a game is expected/okay, and if the familiarity brought on by tropes can actually help with expectations of readers, or make them feel disappointed that their expectations were not subverted/the game is too predictable at certain aspects.

I would expect the answer to be narrowing the target audience, but I believe that CoG in general try to attract as many readers as possible for that genre by offering more variations in character customisation?

-can players feel rail-roaded if their actions do not influence the reactions/consequences of another character, and hence why they feel that they aren’t the main character? Like, for example, would they prefer to be able to say, choose to kill off a NPC, but because of another NPC present, even when they chose that choice, the other NPC will always end up saving that NPC.
Will they feel rail-roaded for that, even if choosing that choice will contribute to a change in stats?

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When I saw this, I immediately thought of Choice of Rebels, which is one of the very top-selling games. There are some important characters that come in mid-way through the game and you can kill them, or send them away, or work with them, and it felt so freeing to see that in a game, it was amazing. It takes a lot of work (Rebels took years to write), but if you can afford to write it, giving that choice is way better.

I appreciate that, and I think your explanation may be correct. Something went terribly wrong with Claus, though, sales-wise. The best-case scenario is people just don’t like Christmas games, but then I believe it has other negative features. Reading your analysis gives me new ideas, thanks.

This isn’t a list of things I like, just things top-selling games have, and even then it’s probably wrong in a lot of ways. Some of my favorite games do everything ‘wrong’ (like Treasure Seekers of Lady Luck).

Well, I can say Christmas isn’t very popular. As for everything else, maybe there’s a slight preference for fantasy and for non-space SciFi (ike superhero or mad scientist).

I completely understand now why romantic interests are so important to readers. Romancing a character lets you get to know them much better and makes them better-written, and having to choose from different suitors is exactly what I mentioned in Point 2 about having several exciting but mutually incompatible goals to choose between. So I think the games where romance develops the NPC’s backstory and where you have to strategize who to romance do better.

I haven’t seen using tropes as a negative. The early games like Heroes Rise and Choice of Zombies were just ‘take every trope from this genre and mash them together’. Grand Academy for Villains takes every trope and parodies it, and that does well. I do think subversion or self-awareness can work, but I don’t think one is better than the other; for instance, Hero of Kendrickstone and Cryptkeepers of Halloford are completely genre-standard fantasy games (which I love), and did well, but Heroes of Myth subverts fantasy tropes left and right and also did pretty good. It all comes down to your actual execution, writing-wise, which is something I’m not qualified to discuss!

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You do a good analysis of what it sells and what does not and give well thought guess about how that happens and how be more trendy. A concept that can be really useful overall. But I don’t like to see games from that perspective of commercial success as a goal and key to make a wip or a game in general.

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Reminds me of Fallout 3, and how James, and Madison Li were the main characters.

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Slight? I think you may be significantly underestimating the importance of genre when it comes to reader appeal with these stories. It may not be fair, but what you write about has at least as much impact on success as how well you write it or the mechanics at play. Possibly more.

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One thing I’d definitely like to see is more critical analysis of Choicescript games with sharing of ideas between people. A lot of analysis is just ‘I hate everything about this game’ or ‘this game was awesome’.

It’d be interested to read an analysis from you about the effects of genre, especially since that’s not something I directly considered. This essay is certainly not the end-all and be-all!

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Oh, I agree. I’ve oft lamented that because IF exists at the intersection between game and book (especially the specific breed of IF you get with Choicescript, as opposed to parser and such like that), it gets ignored by the critics and press from both fields. The end result is that precious little gets said beyond what the actual fans give us in super-short story reviews and the like. I’ll have to see if I can come up with something along those lines. I’m no great shakes at delving into mechanics, but I do statistical analysis well enough and that’s all genre study really is. Sorting things into boxes and commenting about it.

One quick thing I will mention: how far back do you have to go to find a successful non-mech, non-superhero science fiction story in the CoG label? By my estimation it’s Metahuman, which is pretty darn old at this point. Depending on how you define the genre, at least a dozen sci-fi stories have come out on CoG since then. Some are objectively not great. Some, however, are Nebula nominees, even the winner of the entire contest the company put on a few years ago (which, ironically, has now sold worse than other games written for that contest that did not win which were also released under the HG label). There are always exceptions to every rule, and nothing is definite. But there are certain genres that, simply by writing your story in them, you’re already at 2.5 strikes. Unless you are absolutely flawless or deliver something truly unique, your failure is assured. Other genres, they already put you on second base right out of the gate. You can definitely still get tagged out, but the audience is so hungry for those stories that they will be more forgiving of flaws. The mediocre story can still do well, and the great (or sometimes just good) story in one of those beloved categories? The sky is the limit.

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Thanks for putting this insightful essay together!

I’m slightly curious if these same patterns emerge from the HG titles, on average, or not since the publishing standards between the official label and the HG label are different.

Also! Please don’t take my previous sentence to mean that you should start reading all the HG labels @Brian_Rushton! Reading all the CoG titles and publishing reviews for each one and then publishing this essay on top of it all is a huge achievement!

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The effect of genre is at least partly a marketing issue, I’d say. People use genre as a quick indication of what to expect. And a common marketing technique is saying ‘it’s like this thing that you like!’, to lure people in, and then ‘but also different’ to explain the unique selling point of this particular product. For example, the many stories marketed as ‘high school, but for wizards/assassins/superheroes’.

I love a good genre-bender, so I’d certainly like to believe that it’s not only boilerplate examples of a genre that can be popular, but maybe authors need to think about what the more familiar aspects of their stories are that could attract readers. @Brian_Rushton, you mention Heroes of Myth as a story that plays with fantasy tropes, but the first glance impression says solidly classic fantasy (Heroes! Myths! A cool cloaked figure with a sword and magic lightning!).

If I had to try to sell Mrs Claus in this way, I think I’d go either with comparison to Tim Burton-esque whimsical dark fantasy, or go for an urban fantasy angle (as if I really had to describe it I might say ‘corporate espionage with Christmas elves’)

…think you might be getting the contest winner mixed up with something else, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a Nebula nom! :sweat_smile: (and I wouldn’t really call 180 Files sci-fi… maybe some elements)

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I plan on reading them all and reviewing them! I do this because it’s fun.

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That’s amazing and you have my respect! Best of luck! I look forward to your reviews and to a possible part two essay of this pattern analysis!

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