Friday, April 22, 2016

Choice Structure (The Sea Eternal)

Note: This post deals with my game The Sea Eternal. As such, it will contain spoilers.  

Part of what makes a game enjoyable to engage with is a cohesive design approach with occasional variations in structure that interfere with expectations. I'd like to talk about some templates I used to approach gameplay, as well as some of the tricks I used to vary up the gameplay. Reading about these might break some of the magic of the game, but this information should also be useful to other authors looking for interesting was to vary up their game.

Almost all of these design ideas and much more were incorporated into my Interactive ChoiceScript Tutorial. Check that out if you want to take these ideas and run with them!

General Designs


In general, I adhered to these ideals:
  • Value choices over Next buttons, even if those choices were fake_choices.
    • Fake_choices are opportunities for players to contextualize the story and their place in it.
    • Fake_choices are also opportunities for stat variables variations.
  • Keep splits simple without getting too fractal in the different choices.
    • This allowed richer character and story development.
    • This made it easier for players to see the implications of larger decisions
    • This also made different paths and variables easier to track.
  • Keep pacing tight. This was achieved multiple ways:
    • Tie backstory / exposition into the choice paraphrase options.
    • Reveal information slowly, over time.
    • Use of the Well-paced Conversation (described below.)
    • Offer players a way to end conversations early, if they really want.
  • Make any single playthrough feel satisfying.
    • This was achieved by giving all paths a complete story arc and satisfying conclusion.
    • This was also achieved by asking players how they wanted to achieve their goals.

Variation of Conversations

Most conversations are of the following patterns:

Very simple conversations

Dialogue is a series of fake_choices that basically progresses linerally, but can still influence stats, NPC affection, or flag variables.

Branched conversations

Dialogue trees branch in layered choices. I used these more for conversations that were more central to gameplay, that would be reached more often. The branches gave conversations a more organic feel, and also add surprisingly delightful replay value.

Hub conversations

Dialogue is simple, and pieces of conversation are revealed, removed, or changed as the player explores other paths of dialogue options before returning to a hub of all the dialogue choices.

The well-paced conversation

This a hub conversation, but each hub is meaty and has several choices. To prevent this from dragging, the players are treated to a full version of the first choice they talk about, but a simplified version of the other options. I implemented this for the first conversation with Tamru / Awet / Liyu (TAL). I actually really liked the way this structure kept the pace going, rewarded the topic the player was the most interested in and downplayed the others. I wish I had used this structure in more places, and I think I'll use it much more going forward.

Advanced Designs

These designs are used more sparingly, mostly to inject some variety into the gameplay.

Gosubs that can be reached from multiple locations

Multiple-location content was used all over the place. This content can be reached from different paths, but always occurs, and has safeguards to make sure that it only ever triggers once. For example, in the early game after leaving Tephra's place, the player has the option between different activities, but will always hear the whale message, and then will always meet with Estre and Arraia. This structure preserves player choice while allowing for consistency in content.

The double-ask

These ask players the same question twice right in a row, with the space in between used to clarify potential consequences between each ask. This allows player to really stop and think about the future outcomes so that later on they do not feel disappointed, cheated, or blindsided.

Most players will tend to pick the same option twice, which might make the mechanic feel unnecessary, but the value to forcing players to make the same choice twice, even after discussing potential pitfalls really cements the choice in the player's mind, making them feel more committed to the direction.

Quick confirmation

For large branches (the kind that direct players to different files of content, rather than different paragraph of content), players were often asked to confirm their selection with a second, very small "Are you sure?" type question. This made sure that large decisions were never accidental, and also served to force players to really commit to their decisions. This is pretty similar to the double-ask, but this confirmation is more a sort of out-of-universe mechanic that confirms player intent before large plot decisions, whereas the double-ask is an in-universe event.

The no-choice choice

Some choices offered the player choices to disengage from the content, to skip ahead. This is kind of controversial design, but in a game that deals with relationships, I often offered choices to abdicate power as a way of rewarding players who valued the autonomy of their NPCs.

Of course, some no-choices were just opportunities to disengage from content, to move on with the game. I feel that for players who choose to act when there's an option to disengage, that action feels more important, more self-directed. After all, they had the chance to step back, and they chose not to. And, of course, if players actually would rather skip over the content, then this option allows them to get to other content that might be more engaging for them later. Having choices to skip ahead on occasion also helps with replays, helps make those sections of the game go faster and let players get back to branch points faster.

Free swim activities

There are several different mostly-flavor activities available to the player early in the game after leaving Tephra's place, but only enough time enough to do two of them. Offering the player several options but without enough time to complete all of them encourages replay by giving players the ability to see different aspects of the merfolk background and history in a replay. This is a good way to add replay value to the early game where larger plot splits aren't as practical.

Breaking up a larger choice

There are 16 possible possible names that the player can assign to the giant squid they find, including the options "I don't care." and "Name yourself." Having a choice with 18 dots is intimidating, scrolls too much, and makes the significance of the options sort of run together. To break up this choice, I assigned the names to 4 separate categories, and allowed players to switch between and display names from only one category at a time. This brought the number of choices down to 9 dots. That's still a lot of dots for once choice, but several of those are utility options: switch to a different set of categories, or have the squid to name itself. Seeing 4 names at a time is a much easier way to sort and decide on an option. I repeated this format for a choice where the squid offers the player a gift.

The mutating choice text

Once one of the humans reveals their big secret to the player, the player has an option whose text slowly changes, using variables to change the text of the choices. This was a fun way to play with text effects in a usually very structured game format. The fact that Choicescript is usually so structured makes it more striking and fun when that structure is played with an used to create different effects.

Allowing for the pronoun "they"

I wanted to accommodate “they / their / them” as valid pronouns for the genderqueer Awet, which was kind of new ground for ChoiceScript that didn't seem to have any established method, so I wanted to go into depth about how I accomplished this, because this variable ended up touching a lot of verbs in addition to just the pronouns. Note that for this explanation, I've shortened some variable names to make them easier to read, but the principle still applies.

Diving into the verbs, I found that the most common variation dealt with the “s” or “es” on the ends of verbs. For example, the sentence, “She eats bread.” versus “They eat_ bread.” I found that the easiest way to track this change was to make the “s” into a variable that would just be blank if TAL was Awet. That sentence became, “$!{Zhe} eat${S}bread.” This version could then easily become either of the original sentences.

The next common verb variation dealt with conjunctions, like in “they're (they are)” and “they've (they have)” versus “He's (he is)” and “He's (he has)”. For example, the sentence, “He's eating bread.” versus “They're eating bread.” This required two variables that were they-focused ('re, and 've) to replace the 's found in other pronouns. So that sentence became, “$!{Zhe}${re} eating bread.”

Beyond these two common formats, there were occasional verbs that didn't fit neatly into those rules. For example, the sentence, “Xe is bread.” versus “They are bread.” For those one-offs, I created the booleans VerbAlt to make sentences that looked like this:

*if (VerbAlt = false)


*if (VerbAlt = true)


This certainly didn't look very pretty, but it was actually very rarely used.

It ended up being a lot of work to make sure it all was implemented properly: two solid days of retrofitting, and then 2 months of bug fixing. But that's only because the mechanic was retrofitted. If I had approached TAL as potentially genderqueer from the start, it would have been so easy to do this. I think I'll approach more characters from this angle earlier in the future, just to make sure that such a hassle doesn't happen again.

The write-in story

Players have the ability to write in their own experience of a squid dream, if they want to. When it comes to dreams and desires, there's always some story angle that the author can't appropriately capture or might not think about. But the ability to write-in your own part of the story, that creates an official way for players to really put their own mark on the story, if they so want. I think it's an interesting experiment and thing to think about: is that piece of the story canon? I think if it's a question you want to explore more, Creatures Such as We might be a good game for you, and indeed, this device is a copy-paste of an easter egg within Creatures.

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