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a Youtube video by Adam Koebel (Somewhat famous as a online roleplay game master) got me thinking about the "multiple ending" aspect of games.
His opinion is not mine, luckily different persons are allowed to have different opinions. The little game I create has one goal and you either reach it, or not (in various ways).
The question I want to ask is, what do You think about meaningful decisions in games? Do you have them? How do you handle them?
Of course many visual novels and similar games are all about the replayability. So is Adam Koebels way of looking at things even valid to you?
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The first and most obvious one is that he compares visual novels and other games to D&D (and similar roleplay games). Yes, D&D is amazing in that aspect on account of their free choice, but saying that other games should be like that is saying that politics should be democratic and devoid of corruption at the same time. It's an irrealistic idea that cannot possibly exist outside of someone's initial ideals. He already mentioned the impossible workload that such a project would entail, although I think he still underestimates it. A few things he didn't mention/think of:
-A GM can describe a new character, environment or asset, a developer will have to make it. So giving the player the freedom to go to a lot of places means having to design or commision those places. Making whole new maps just for a bit more freedom of travelling is expensive or time-consuming, and the player will probably just call it filler, making the game sloggish due to travel and the game size unnecessarily large, and a bane to completionists who need to explore every nook and cranny of the game.
-A GM can improvise a character development and the branching this causes on the spot, a developer will have to do so before the game even starts. And you have to do that with every possible branching, and every branching leading to more branching. He suggests there being shadow branches that the players will never see in his campaigns, but doesn't seem to realise that each of those branches also have branches and that he would have to perceive and create all these branches before the game even starts. A GM can do such a thing. (At least, that's what he might think. We all know that a GM's campaign is a lot more lineair than they like to admit, as flexible as their improvisation and planning but inevitably many routes and turn of events are decided by them beforehand with the PCs only getting to push the button.) There will be branches like that in the first few minutes that are literally a whole other campaign entirely and thus double the entire workload for a developer while it would be merely a cool parallel universe idea for the GM. Obviously a developer has to decide the story direction and make choices that trail back to a main route to make the project manageable, even if that means making the game feel lineair despite the player's choice.
-With a GM'd campaign the idea of other choices exist, even though they'll never explore it later. Good, that's interesting. With a game, not allowing people to go back explore the other options is equal to getting a lot of outraged reactions and people complaining that they had to reinstall the entire game just to play the other routes. Doing what he demands would be equal to commercial suicide for the project. And not deleting it will always feel like the player has to play all the routes OR that the game is linear. This argument is his most shortsighted one, as he literally seems to miss that his ideal only allows for very specific kinds of storytelling games that wouldn't work for most stories. And it's not even a quality-improving suggestion, whether branching, lineair or one free-choice ending, the quality of the game comes down to execution rather than format.
His Nier argument also doesn't hold water. That's still branching, even if it's branching within the same timeline. And Dark souls is still linear according to his ideas. Neither is truly different from other games, the execution is just better. There are no doubt games done with the same mechanics that he will call lineair or forceful, simply because they feel less free in their lineair approach. Dark souls still has bosses you have to defeat in order to advance and Nier still has a lineair plot where you can't avoid certain events even though you might want to. It's both still the stuff he rants about, it just didn't feel like it to him due to the stories being better written and directed.
So, don't hold his words in too high regard, at least until he makes his own videogame and actually delivers on his rants. Which I highly doubt he can, once he finds out that these 'forced lineair interactive stories' still take years to make. I mean, that game he suggested with an off-hand idea to make the linear story 5 hours and then the branches 40 hours, with his six routes (which can still feel rather forced in one direction) will be (40*10000*6=)2.400.000 words disregarding the first five hours, longer routes, further branching and repeating scenes. According to a quick internet search the longest good literature is 1.8 million words, and the longest visual novels seem to be roughly similar with +1,5million japanese characters.
More visualising this idea, Lord of the rings, including the hobbit, is 550000 words, little over half a million words. You'd have to write that amount of work 5 times to get his minimum idea of a properly branching game. Now add that it has to be a good story with proper writing. Which isn't often the case with the long VNs, japanese games already have a habit of cloudgazing (fluff scenes with little purpose, which can sometimes be literally a whole scene about the characters looking at clouds and talking about it.)
I made P&Y, which has a split like he suggests but at the halfway point and about 100000 words resulting in 6-10 hours of playtime. That took me a year and a half to make, and is a kind of 'every route is different from another' without a lot of reused scenes and with actual difference in the routes based upon a singular choice that we rarely see in VNs of both the japanese and the EVN kind. (Sorry, tooting my own horn here.) For his project (aside from needing more decent art and proper coding), I would need 36 years and probably still not deliver something he'll like and wanted as described here.
I don't completely disagree with his opinion. Especially commercial japanese games and more uninspired VNs the choices can seem forced and pointless. Far be it my words that VN aren't often lineair even when they're interactive. Making something feel interactive and intuitive within reasonable measures is hard. His words that all VN have canon endings (the one true ending he mentioned) are false, and such a true ending can still be a very good ending and build-up to it. But there are many VN that do have them and can be annoying because of it. That's true. But that's the VN's fault rather than the VN format. A project is only as good as the execution, which is why there's no one format for a story or game that's always used and popular.
Telltale games are popular because they have good writing even when the people have since gotten used to their diamond-linear storytelling. Isekai anime tend to be season highlights despite the community getting sick and tired of the premise, because the stories are written well by inspired people. Carbon copies of popular games like Five nights at Freddies (including the sequels) are rarely popular with the critics because they lack innovation and writing, but are popular by letsplayers because they're easy entertainment. It's not the format or kind of storytelling you use, but the execution of the story. A good format and beautiful assets with uninspired writing will still be bad, and a good story with a boring premise and average art can still be considered a gem.
(Sorry if this feels like a rant and incoherent, it took me an hour and a half to write and I'm pretty sure I forgot things or went off-trail a few times.)
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I believethe quality of your game lies in its execution, more than the contents and replayability.
For example, I don't particularly like choice menus. Instead, I like to hide my meaningful choices among other functions.
I've used this example once before but I think it illustrates my point nicely, so I'll use it again and expound upon it.
Lets take a scene, where the player is in a fantasy world of heroes and villains. You are walking to your destination when the game hints that you can see a group of bandits ahead.
You will have to fight these bandits to continue, right?
What I would do here is instead of popping up a choice menu with "fight" "runaway" "distract them" etc, I will rely on the player's own intellect. In other words, I take away the 'hand-holding' of multiple choice and make the player think for themselves.
In my opinion, this makes for a more engrossing form of story telling. You aren't simply choosing from a set of predefined choices, you're making your own decisions.
Should you go to your inventory and equip a sword? That may provoke them, getting you into a fight you might be able to avoid, but on the other hand, without that sword you may very well be killed and reach a bad end.
Lets compare this to say Call of Duty. Do you wait for the game to tell you "swap weapons", or do you decide for yourself? I know I'd be very annoyed if I had to be told to swap a sniper rifle to an AK when leaving an open field and entering an urban concrete jungle. It would be insulting me a little
For this reason, I try to minimise 'cookie-cutter" gameplay and instead trust that my audience is a sentient being of intellect.
pro·gram·mer (noun) An organism capable of converting caffeine into code.