5 Rules for Writing Interesting Choices in Multiple-Choice Games
by by: Dan Fabulich
-- Note: Mr. Fabulich is Not a visual novel creator. He makes purely text-based, on-line "choose your own adventure" games.
The hardest thing about writing a multiple-choice game is creating interesting choices for your players. Here are five rules you can follow to make decisions you write more fun and engaging.
Rule 1: Every option should have real consequences
If my decision has no effect on anything, why am I even making a decision?
This rule seems pretty simple, but in practice it’s hard to follow consistently. It’s easy to write a collection of choices where nothing really happens; the player moves from place to place pointlessly. If you catch yourself doing this, consider deleting those false decisions and skipping ahead to the good part!
It’s also possible to take this rule too far, requiring that every option needs to branch into a completely different story. That would be pretty cool, but unfortunately it’s impossible to write a game like that; you’ll never finish.
Traditional Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book stories tend to be pretty short. It’s not hard to see why.
This is a 19 page story.
This is a 117 page story:
For more than you ever wanted to know about "Choose Your Own Adventure Game" books --> http://samizdat.cc/cyoa/
Fortunately, there are alternatives to merely branching the story. For example, sometimes player decisions don’t branch the story, but instead affect the main character’s attributes (“stats”) or other variables in the world.
The scores of these "stats" can then be used to access a hidden option or trigger an automatic Pass or Fail on a challenge. (In RenPy, we do this with Variable Statements.)
Some options may have no effect on the game, but have a big effect on the player’s imagination. For example, choosing a gender in Choice of the Dragon doesn’t really change the story at all, but it can completely change the way you think about the game, especially when it comes time to find a mate!
Rule 2: The player needs some basis to make a decision
Even if you’ve guaranteed that every option has consequences, if players have no idea what the consequences of their decisions will be, it becomes impossible to make a meaningful choice.
The classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books broke this rule all the time. As an example, here’s the very first choice from CYOA #2, Journey Under the Sea (the 2005 edition):
How am I supposed to decide whether to explore the ledge or explore the canyon? Both of these options are exploratory; neither of them has any clear advantages or disadvantages. Without more information, I’m forced to decide at random.The cable attaching you to the Maray [research vessel, above water] is extended to its limit. You have come to rest on a ledge near the canyon in the ocean floor that ancient myth says leads to the lost city of Atlantis.
You have an experimental diving suit designed to protect you from the intense pressure of the deep. You should be able to leave the Seeker [personal submarine] and explore the sea bottom. The new suit contains a number of the latest microprocessors enabling a variety of useful functions. It even has a built-in PDA with laser communicator. You can cut loose from the cable; the Seeker is self-propelled. You are now in another world. Remember, this is a dangerous world, an unknown world.
As agreed, you signal the Maray, “All systems GO. It’s awesome down here.”
-- If you decide to explore the ledge where the Seeker has come to rest, turn to page 6.
-- If you decide to cut loose from the Maray and dive with the Seeker into the canyon in the ocean floor, turn to page 4.
The goal of a multiple-choice game should be to make the player care about what happens; random decisions force players to disengage from their options and select an option unemotionally.
Rule 3: No option should be obviously better or worse than all the others
If one of the options is significantly better than the others, the player selecting that option loses a sense of agency—the feeling of making a decision. It’s like that Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert creates a computer with just one big button: “We push the button for you before it leaves the factory.”
If you’ve got one really great option, try to improve the others to match it. Similarly, if one option is much worse than the others, fix it or remove it.
When you break this rule, resist the temptation to “fix” it by giving the player less information. Hiding the consequences just turns one mistake into another, by removing the player’s basis for making the decision.
Instead, make an effort to ensure that every option is appealing in some way; even “wrong” choices should be fun. For example, in Choice of the Dragon, it IS possible for your dragon to die, sometimes rather gruesomely, but we tried to ensure that your death would always be pretty cool. Make the player say, “Wow, that was neat!” and not, “Oops. That was lame.”
One particularly common way to make an option worse than all the others is to have an “opt-out” option, where you can choose not to participate in the story. If you’re telling a story about a big adventure, don’t put in an option to stay at home and not go out on the adventure. Either you’ll have to override the player’s choice, (which breaks Rule 1 by removing the consequences of the decision) or you’ll have to give the story a boring ending. “Opt-out” options are inherently uninteresting.
Rule 4: Know your players
Multiple-choice games are role-playing games. If you can learn what it means to be a good RPG game master, you’re well on your way to becoming a good game designer. A great deal has been written about how to be a good game master, including an enormous body of role-playing game theory, much of which is highly relevant to multiple-choice game design.
One of the most important tips for good game masters is that not all of us play games for the same reason; different players can prefer vastly different games. Traditionally, three types of players stand out in role-playing games:
-- Gamist players want to “win” the game; they win when their character is successful. They want victory to be difficult but attainable. Gamists usually prefer “power fantasy” stories, where they can take the role of heroes accomplishing great deeds.
Dramatist / Narrativist
-- Dramatists want to read a great story, even if their characters are unsuccessful; they play for the emotional impact. A dramatist would enjoy role-playing an epic tragedy, whereas a gamist would find a tragedy “unfair” because there is no way to win.
-- A simulationist strives to ensure internal consistency within the rules; they want the game to be plausible. In multiple-choice games, simulationists prefer options that make sense for their characters, even if those choices don’t help them “win” and don’t make the story better. Simulationists especially dislike “unrealistic” consequences; for a simulationist, “that’s not what would really happen” is a damning critique.
Multiple-choice games have another category which I think is distinct to computer RPGs:
-- “What will happen if I push this button?” The explorationists want to discover what’s possible. They may become obsessed with finding every ending—good or bad—and trying options simply out of curiosity.
Just keep in mind that most players will have more than one of these goals.
Since a good multiple-choice game will be played online by thousands of strangers, it’s hard to “know your players” the way you know your friends. However, you should still decide which type(s) of players you’re trying to satisfy.
• Are you writing a story?
• Building a world?
• Crafting a game?
Due to the nature of the multiple-choice game format, it’s not impossible to satisfy many of these goals at once!
Which will you choose?
• The action that helps me win.
• The action that creates the deepest story.
• The action that my character would most likely choose in real life.
• A mysterious action with unknown consequences.
Rule 5: Break these rules.
Knowing when to break the rules is almost as important as knowing when to follow them.
-- A decision with no real consequences can be almost as fun, as long as you don’t let the player realize that their decision had no effect. (Of course, players are certain to discover the secret on future replays, so try to avoid using this technique too often.)
Unfounded choices and the spirit of exploration.
-- The old CYOA books were fun to explore, despite not always having clear reasons to choose one option over another. Some people tried every option anyway, just to see what would happen. If you want your players to explore all of their options, make them all equally appealing and let the players try them all.
(Beware: exploring a large tree of choices can become a chore, as you try all the options nested within option 1, then all the options nested within option 2, and so on. It feels a little like mowing the lawn.)
Just do it!
-- Theorizing about games can be a fascinating exercise—almost as fun as playing and writing them—but theory can also clog up your creativity. If you’re tying yourself in knots trying to make all of your options equally satisfying, to explore every possible branch of your story, or to satisfy every category of player, then just forget about it. If you miss something, you can fix it later!