How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

Questions, skill improvement, and respectful critique involving game writing.
Post Reply
Message
Author
User avatar
YossarianIII
Veteran
Posts: 382
Joined: Tue Jan 13, 2015 10:26 pm
Completed: Guns & Lovers; SRRT!; Kill Your Refrigerator; Banality Man; Beretta Mondatta
Projects: Solidarity Forever
Organization: KONOL Games
Contact:

How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#1 Post by YossarianIII » Sat Jan 13, 2018 3:00 pm

I've been thinking a lot about what makes a choice in a video game interesting, so I decided to write an essay: https://yossarianiii.wordpress.com/2018 ... ideogames/

Basically, I think you can write effective choices by dividing choices into categories, and then looking at what each category of choice is attempting to accomplish. In the essay, I mention 7 common categories that make up most of the choices you'd have to write for a VN.

I wanted to share this guide here, partly in case anyone finds it helpful, but also to open up discussion and hear if anyone else has any special rules they follow or tricks they use to make sure the choices in their VN are satisfying. A lot of the good writing I see about choices in video games has kind of an academic slant to it, so I wanted to put something together that was a little more accessible.

So does anyone have any thoughts -- either on my guide or on what guidelines you follow in your own writing?

Image Image

User avatar
Katy133
Miko-Class Veteran
Posts: 704
Joined: Sat Nov 16, 2013 1:21 pm
Completed: Eight Sweets, The Heart of Tales, [redacted] Life, Must Love Jaws, A Tune at the End of the World, Three Guys That Paint, The Journey of Ignorance, Portal 2.5.
Projects: The Butler Detective
Tumblr: katy-133
Deviantart: Katy133
Soundcloud: Katy133
itch: katy133
Location: Canada
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#2 Post by Katy133 » Sat Jan 13, 2018 11:12 pm

This is a very thoughtful article! It's interesting to divide different choices into categories. It's a new way of looking at choices when developing a visual novel.

Thank you for writing it. :)
ImageImage

My Website, which lists my visual novels.
Become a patron on my Patreon!

User avatar
Mammon
Miko-Class Veteran
Posts: 712
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2015 3:09 pm
Completed: Pervert&Yandere, Stalker&Yandere
Projects: Roses Of The Thorn Prince
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#3 Post by Mammon » Sun Jan 14, 2018 11:08 am

A good summary of choices, and quite well-said right from the start that its not the choices rather than how they're used and if they're in a good story that work well.

With 1., that's what I used in my first game. Ironically the reason for that was me not knowing ren'py code and fearing the complicated magic behind 2. point based choices. Turns out that was actually very easy. But I didn't know that, so every choice gave us 2-3 completely different routes right away.
Ironically I wouldn't really call your Walking Dead example a Life or Death situation, rather than 1.5: Semi-significant changes. Yes, it meant one character would die forever, but both characters filled the same role and would therefore fill eachothers shoes when switched. Scene-wise and group-size wise it was just a different skin and voice actor holding the gun or getting bitten. Still a significant and appreciated choice, but not the life or death you describe. I believe that later in the game your actions can decide whether the little boy lives or dies from an infection based upon you giving him the water and food, which would be a life or death choice.

With 2. Points, I feel like you've already explained this half in con, but not completely. A point-based romance can easily give me an 'You've got to please the LI' vibe. By having to have a certain attitude and opinion that matches the LI's, required to get their perfect ending, I often feel less impressed by some VNs because it feels like the MC had to completely mold their character and personality towards being alike and attractive to the LI. This can easily happen when the writer gave you choices that go on your mentality or your opinion rather than you getting along well with them, no foul to a question that requires you to not redicule them when tell you their favorites.
An opposite of this is 'The Lady's choice' which has 3. Superficial choices to define your personality that are completely unrelated to the choices that decide whether you get their good ending. They'll like you with all 4 different personalities. Perhaps a more clear example would be 'cute demon crashers', who clearly say in the start of the game that you don't have to go all-out into their fetish to get the demon's good ending.

With 4. and 7. these can sometimes be the way of the MC speaking. If the MC rarely speaks or you're fine with a lot of making them speak through choices (F.e. Skyrim), this is just a good way to make it feel like you're the one saying it. This will probably work best if your dialogue is minimised in order to make sure you never say something not through choices. It can still work less if you get 3-4 choices that all feel unfit or if you choose something that turns out different from what you assumed the text would be (Something Telltale can sometimes do, choosing a compliment only to see the MC instead making it a backhanded comment for example.)
ImageImageImage

Want some CC sprites?

User avatar
YossarianIII
Veteran
Posts: 382
Joined: Tue Jan 13, 2015 10:26 pm
Completed: Guns & Lovers; SRRT!; Kill Your Refrigerator; Banality Man; Beretta Mondatta
Projects: Solidarity Forever
Organization: KONOL Games
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#4 Post by YossarianIII » Sun Jan 14, 2018 12:33 pm

Katy133 wrote:
Sat Jan 13, 2018 11:12 pm
This is a very thoughtful article! It's interesting to divide different choices into categories. It's a new way of looking at choices when developing a visual novel.

Thank you for writing it.

Thanks, glad it's helpful!

Mammon wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 11:08 am
With 2. Points, I feel like you've already explained this half in con, but not completely. A point-based romance can easily give me an 'You've got to please the LI' vibe. By having to have a certain attitude and opinion that matches the LI's, required to get their perfect ending, I often feel less impressed by some VNs because it feels like the MC had to completely mold their character and personality towards being alike and attractive to the LI. This can easily happen when the writer gave you choices that go on your mentality or your opinion rather than you getting along well with them, no foul to a question that requires you to not redicule them when tell you their favorites.
An opposite of this is 'The Lady's choice' which has 3. Superficial choices to define your personality that are completely unrelated to the choices that decide whether you get their good ending. They'll like you with all 4 different personalities. Perhaps a more clear example would be 'cute demon crashers', who clearly say in the start of the game that you don't have to go all-out into their fetish to get the demon's good ending.
True. Especially in recent VNs the way points-based systems work has gotten pretty complicated, probably more complicated than I go into in that post. I'm also not a huge fan of the whole "mold your personality to fit with a certain character" trope that you see in some stories, so I'm glad to see some VNs have found more interesting ways to do points systems. Might be a good subject for a future essay...

Image Image

User avatar
LateWhiteRabbit
Eileen-Class Veteran
Posts: 1867
Joined: Sat Jan 19, 2008 2:47 pm
Projects: The Space Between
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#5 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Sun Jan 14, 2018 1:32 pm

YossarianIII wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 12:33 pm
True. Especially in recent VNs the way points-based systems work has gotten pretty complicated, probably more complicated than I go into in that post. I'm also not a huge fan of the whole "mold your personality to fit with a certain character" trope that you see in some stories, so I'm glad to see some VNs have found more interesting ways to do points systems. Might be a good subject for a future essay...
Great write-up.

In regards to the point system for Love Interests, and seemingly having to mold your personality to match theirs to date them, I've always kind of viewed that as your actions setting what personality you would have by default as a player. I don't typically replay VNs - I get one ending for the Love Interest I pursued and don't go back to chase other options.

Speaking from a real world perspective, I understand why 'accumulating points to score a date' is very problematic - but dating someone who shares your interests is also a very real world thing. It doesn't typically go well if the two parties aren't similar in tastes and hobbies. Opposites may attract, but they don't stay together. And if your MC is a nerd, they aren't likely to get a date with the biker girl unless they demonstrate some interest in motorbikes and rebellion. It isn't healthy if they don't HAVE any real interest in those subjects and are just doing it to hook up, but that isn't necessarily unrealistic either. I think it is pretty common in youth for people to get involved with some activity just to get closer to someone. Once we get older and mature, we do less of that and are more comfortable with our choices and being open about them.

I feigned interest in horses to hopefully get a date with a girl whose family raised them when I was younger, and that isn't much different from the player choosing an activity to get points towards a Love Interest. It is a mechanic with Unfortunate Implications™ but it is modeling a real life behavior.

User avatar
Fuseblower
Regular
Posts: 151
Joined: Sat Jan 16, 2016 6:01 pm
Projects: Tenkeiteki Tokyo
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#6 Post by Fuseblower » Sun Jan 14, 2018 2:30 pm

That's a nice guide about choices.

There's one category of choice I didn't see though and which has given me a bit of thought lately : choices that add or remove choices in subsequent "choice nodes"/forks.

A simple example would be something that has to do with an inventory. If the player has chosen to pick up some item then later the option is present to use that item (the option wouldn't be shown if the item wasn't picked up).

Of course, that's a really simple example. A more elaborate one is when the player is "molding" a character by your category of "superficial choices". Counters for different personalities could be increased/decreased and in subsequent choice nodes choices are added that fit the personality of the character that emerges from the superficial choices the player makes while removing the ones that don't fit that personality.

User avatar
YossarianIII
Veteran
Posts: 382
Joined: Tue Jan 13, 2015 10:26 pm
Completed: Guns & Lovers; SRRT!; Kill Your Refrigerator; Banality Man; Beretta Mondatta
Projects: Solidarity Forever
Organization: KONOL Games
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#7 Post by YossarianIII » Mon Jan 15, 2018 6:58 pm

LateWhiteRabbit wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 1:32 pm
Speaking from a real world perspective, I understand why 'accumulating points to score a date' is very problematic - but dating someone who shares your interests is also a very real world thing. It doesn't typically go well if the two parties aren't similar in tastes and hobbies. Opposites may attract, but they don't stay together. And if your MC is a nerd, they aren't likely to get a date with the biker girl unless they demonstrate some interest in motorbikes and rebellion. It isn't healthy if they don't HAVE any real interest in those subjects and are just doing it to hook up, but that isn't necessarily unrealistic either. I think it is pretty common in youth for people to get involved with some activity just to get closer to someone. Once we get older and mature, we do less of that and are more comfortable with our choices and being open about them.
Yeah, it's a tough needle to thread for sure, and it probably ultimately has a lot more to do with how well something is written as opposed to the underlying points system. As with a lot of writing tools, there are lots good ways to use a points system but also some less good ways.

Fuseblower wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 2:30 pm
Of course, that's a really simple example. A more elaborate one is when the player is "molding" a character by your category of "superficial choices". Counters for different personalities could be increased/decreased and in subsequent choice nodes choices are added that fit the personality of the character that emerges from the superficial choices the player makes while removing the ones that don't fit that personality.
Yeah, those are both interesting examples -- definitely a good way to add a little complexity to choices. I've seen some games where it lets you know which choices are "locked" if you don't have the prerequisites and others where it just doesn't show anything if you haven't got the stats/item you need -- and both can definitely work in the context of different games. This would probably be a mechanic I'd need to consider if I ever revise this article.

Image Image

User avatar
IronForPistons
Regular
Posts: 34
Joined: Wed Jan 31, 2018 11:25 pm
Projects: Panzer Hearts (Editor), Picture Perfect Romance (Editor), Children of Cosmos (Editor)
Organization: Crystal Compass
Location: USA (Eastern Time)
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#8 Post by IronForPistons » Fri Feb 02, 2018 7:44 pm

Interesting article!
Fuseblower wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 2:30 pm
choices that add or remove choices in subsequent "choice nodes"/forks.
Of note in this discussion, I think, is the Rin route from Katawa Shoujo. (Here's a flowchart if you haven't played it or need a refresher - spoilers!) There are several choices that alter later options, and they compound on themselves. I think I remember seeing somewhere that there are close to 600 ways to go through the route. This creates a large amount of variation and replayability in comparison to the actual amount of text written.
Feel free to call me Iron!

Interested in editing or proofreading services? I do both, for free or trade!

User avatar
MapletreePaper
Regular
Posts: 40
Joined: Thu Feb 13, 2020 11:52 pm
Projects: Language Barrier
Organization: Naval Maple Media
Location: Ontario, Canada
Discord: MapletreePaper#5695
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#9 Post by MapletreePaper » Mon Dec 21, 2020 5:49 am

My own VN is gonna use a point based choice system, so it was nice to read someone else's thoughts on this. To be more specific, my story features two factions with the MC starting off fairly neutral.Through making choices the player can "nudge" the MC towards being pro-Faction A or pro-Faction B.

User avatar
CatXBird
Newbie
Posts: 2
Joined: Thu Feb 18, 2021 1:32 am
Projects: (VN game for PC made in Unity)
Organization: Cat X Bird Games
itch: catxbird
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#10 Post by CatXBird » Thu Feb 18, 2021 3:23 am

Doing research on game dev. for my project, I skim-read Rollings' & Morris' Game Architecture and Design. Most of it speaks to more "game-like" games (rule sets; not interactive fiction), but some points speak to all interactive fiction:
  • Your interface's primary function is to help the player play the game: good design doesn't make the player work against the system.
  • Interesting choices need to have consequences: they need to provide feedback after you've made them AND they're more interesting the more they meaningfully impact the environment (story, NPC reactions, etc.).
    • (NOTE: Not every consequence needs to be huge--sometimes just getting new information is enough--but what's critical to feeling empowered is that the world feels like it responded to the specific choice that you (the player) made.)
  • Key to a good choice is making sure that its intent/significance is clearly telegraphed to the player.
    • A Mass Effect-like dialog option, in which each reply is summed up in just a word or two but with the tone/intent omitted can result in player frustration: the player might click on the option "Really?", wanting to prompt an NPC for more information, but the line read and/or script might twist that it into an accusation that the NPC was lying.
  • Drama gains momentum from the audience's relationship with the characters: the way the characters themselves, or our understandings OF them, grow/change over time.
    • Interactive movies failed because their basis was the assumption that drama is purely plot ("what happens next?"), letting choices about characterization and theme fall by the wayside.
    • Plot-level choices can double as characterization, as they do in the various flavors of insanity vs. sobriety in Disco Elysium. In fact, the investigation itself is fairly linear--only one ending peppered with a smattering of dead-ends--but the flavor along the way is what changes due to the player's choice (just like instant ramen...)
My own thoughts:
  • It is totally possible to drown the player in too many choices at a given junction. (IMO, Planescape: Torment strays into this territory a little bit.)
  • Nuanced choices and consequences (i.e. the story changes but keeps moving forward, maybe even to the same destination; the "yes, and" philosophy of improv) are more satisfying than pass/fail "rocks fall--everyone dies" binaries.
    • But there's probably a balance to be struck here: Telltale Games were novel by presenting only bad and less-bad options, but that gimmick started to feel miserable over time, probably because of the narrative nature of the game--contrast that with something like X-Com which also emphasizes hard choices but feels less onerous because there were so many dimensions of choice involved AND/OR the emphasis was on mechanical systems rather than characters/people.
    • (An aside: Until Dawn employed an interesting fudge factor system where exploring and completing some side-challenges might yield, basically, "1UP" consumable items/information that will automatically save that PC from dying due to a failed check later on.)
  • It's okay for consequences to be unexpected if your intention is to shock the audience, but the audience's trust/sense of fair play (and the author's credibility) will only stretch so far, and if it feels like you're cheating there's not much you can do to rescue that good will.
  • Good choices should reflect the tone, genre, verisimilitude, and theme of the work.
    • Tone - a scene in a horror story where a bloodthirsty monster is bearing down on the MC probably shouldn't include the option to try and hug it (unless it makes sense in the context of the story)
    • Genre - rom-coms, thrillers, etc. each have their own genre conceits that guide the overall path of the characters and their choices (in which one of the author's main jobs is to HIDE those rails artfully--"to invent new cliches")
    • Verisimilitude - choices should reflect the MC as we've come to know them AND the world as we've come to know it
    • Theme - this really has more to do with the intersection of choice + consequences, in a broad way; it's a good idea to keep a weather eye on the core of your story and reinforce the theme whenever it feels appropriate

User avatar
Chiagirl
Regular
Posts: 45
Joined: Fri Mar 31, 2017 1:08 pm
Completed: Ellen and the Pumpkin
Projects: The Crossing
Skype: SummonerNinja
itch: Chiagirl
Location: USA
Contact:

Re: How to Write Good Choices: A Guide

#11 Post by Chiagirl » Fri Sep 30, 2022 12:06 am

Your first type of "life or death" / story fork choice are what I feel most if not all of the choices in a game should be, as the other types of choices just don't feel meaningful to me as a player. Take your 2nd points based approach for example, which are commonly featured in dating sims. I went through a character's route and got a bad end. I then replayed their route, made the exact opposite choices, and still got the exact same bad end (because apparently you would always get the bad end if you answered more than two choices "wrong").

This is very lazy writing to me, because it makes it feel like my choices don't matter as I acted completely different both times but got the same end result. I understand why it's done this way for ease of programming and not taking years to finish multiple paths, but as I player I can't say I'm happy with how it turns out as a result. I also agree that it's hard to strike I balance between too obvious ("go with A" vs "go with B" even though I may want B's route but feel going with A makes more sense in context at this point in the story) vs too hard ("go left" vs "go right" without having any idea who or what I'm likely to find around either corner).

Your 3rd example of superficial choices are indeed superficial, and unlike you I do mean it in a negative context. I've heard they're very popular among players who like to self insert (and also would prefer a blank slate protagonist) but for players like me who want the protagonist to be their own character with a clearly defined personality and backstory, superficial choice feel meaningless at best and immersion breaking at worst. (Why is this kick ass character suddenly being given the option to act like a doormat?)

I see their was a discussion going on in the comments about the dissatisfaction with dating sims forcing you to mold yourself into the LI"s ideal BF/GF in order to woo them, and I agree it's something I don't like.

Closed systems can range from "meh" to "extremely annoying" depending on how much help the game gives you in figuring out how to break them. Nothing is more frustrating than being unable to figure a puzzle out despite hint after useless hint (never mind the blow to my ego for having to use the hint system in the first place) only to have to look up a walkthrough to be outright given the answer because you still don't understand what they were going for and can't progress. These really should come with a "solve it for me while explaining it to me like I'm 5" option.

Chronological is fine, though I agree there can be some stress or decision paralysis if I think I get to chose one and only one. Telling me I can choose them all is immersion breaking through, same with emphasizing "what will you do first" in your example. I'd rather the nice surprise of being able to choose more than the immersion breaking of letting me know I can do them all.

Inevitable choices (which I find to be mostly the same as your last point of non-choices) are the worst kind because they were never really a choice at all. Just don't even make it a choice if you're going to do this. If you're giving me the option to not help someone, I shouldn't get stuck in a closed system of "you can't just leave them there!" until I pick the 'right' option and help them, or have the dialogue afterwards go something like "I really don't want to, but..." and go on to help them anyway. If you are using these for the points based method mentioned earlier this is the laziest of lazy and just flat out bad writing.

I've seen the non-choice only one choice option thing used when the other choices are "locked and hidden" due to not meeting required perquisites, and once as the only option for a truly impactful point in the MCs storyline. What I don't like is when you get a huge choice menu but only one "correct" choice actually progresses and does anything. Less in more in that case.

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users