A conundrum of choice and theme

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Carassaurat
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A conundrum of choice and theme

#1 Post by Carassaurat » Sun Feb 03, 2013 9:08 pm

Hey LSF,

Let's, for the sake of argument, say that I'm a writer. I start off with my theme, or moral of the story — this is the reason I'm writing my story in the first place, I've got a message to get across and I want to make the world a bit better. Then I move on and come up with an arc that demonstrates this idea of mine, there are enough ways of doing this.

Where do player choices come in?

If I tell the set-up for a joke and then give people the option of picking between two punch lines, that doesn't make it funny. Similarly, I'm intrigued by the idea of giving players choices in visual novels and how they can be used in inventive ways, but whenever I'm actually writing something and have a message that I want to communicate to an audience, I can't help but leave the branches out because there's this specific story that I need to tell.

It's easy to come up with choices when you start off with a premise, but (and I purposely avoiding debate over any 'right' way here) I write backwards, from the theme that I want to convey, and, well, I can't fit branching into that.

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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#2 Post by Sapphi » Sun Feb 03, 2013 10:24 pm

Let's, for the sake of argument, say that I'm a writer. I start off with my theme, or moral of the story — this is the reason I'm writing my story in the first place, I've got a message to get across and I want to make the world a bit better. Then I move on and come up with an arc that demonstrates this idea of mine, there are enough ways of doing this.

Where do player choices come in?
They don't.

At least, not in a way that I have been able to make peace with myself, which is why all the meaningful stories I'm working on are Kinetic Novels. :)

Theoretically you could use a branching novel to teach your audience a lesson something like "If you do this, this will happen; if you do that, that will happen, so do this and not that" but I find that the traditional approach of juxtaposing two similar characters in a linear story, giving them similar struggles, and watching one fail and the other succeed is the more successful treatment. This is because you're forced to compare and contrast their actions as you are reading the story... not necessarily so for branching visual novels where the player may only play one branch. Or he will do one and then wait awhile before the other, so that the contrast is lost.

Additionally, if you have Good Choice and Bad Choice, and you want to emphasize Good Choice, you don't have much of a way to elevate that ending over the other one. The reader might play through and get the good ending first, then go back and play the bad, and the meaning of the ending will be destroyed because the events weren't portrayed in the order best suited for the staying power of your message...
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#3 Post by OokamiKasumi » Mon Feb 04, 2013 12:26 am

Carassaurat wrote:...I've got a message to get across... ...I move on and come up with an arc that demonstrates this idea of mine...

Where do player choices come in?
By presenting the reader with scenarios that illustrate your premise and offering three options at the end of each scenario:
-- One that Agrees with your premise.
-- One that Disagrees with your premise.
-- One that sits on the fence, or ignores the premise altogether.

The Agreements lead to the story's conclusion.
The Disagreements lead to Bad Ends.
The Fence-sitting selections:
-- Lead to endings that illustrate what happens when one refuses to decide.
or
-- Railroads the player into making a choice.

~~~~~~ Example: ~~~~~~~
Little Red Cap: The Brothers Grimm
Premise: "Don't Stray from the Path."

...One day her mother said to her, "Come, Little Red-Cap, here is a piece of cake and a bottle of wine; take them to your grandmother, she is ill and weak, and they will do her good."

"I will take great care," said Little Red-Cap to her mother, and gave her hand on it.

Grandmother lived out in the wood, half a league from the village...

~~~~~~~~~~
Scenario 1
~~~~~~~~~~
Just as Little Red-Cap entered the wood, a wolf met her.

"Good-day, Little Red-Cap," said the wolf.

-- Greet the wolf?
-- Ignore the wolf?
-- Run away from the wolf?

> Greet the wolf:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Thank you kindly, wolf."

"Whither away so early, Little Red-Cap?"

"To my grandmother's."

"What have you got in your apron?"

"Cake and wine; yesterday was baking-day, so poor sick grandmother is to have something good, to make her stronger."

"Where does your grandmother live, Little Red-Cap?"

"A good quarter of a league farther on in the wood; her house stands under the three large oak-trees, the nut-trees are just below; you surely must know it," replied Little Red-Cap.

~~~~~~~~~~
Scenario 2
~~~~~~~~~~
The wolf walked for a short time by the side of Little Red-Cap, and then he said, "See Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here -- why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry."

Little Red-Cap raised her eyes, and saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere.

-- Go off and pick some flowers.
-- Stay on the path straight to Granny's.
-- Dash through the woods to Granny's.

:)
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#4 Post by Greeny » Mon Feb 04, 2013 8:26 am

Here's the thing: If you want to send a message, than I assume you believe your message is truth.
And what is true, is always true - in any given circumstance.

So choose your choices wisely - write branches that are different in content, but all lead the protagonist to the inevitable destiny that is the truth you wish to convey. That way, when the player replays the story and gets a different branch/ending, it will only reinforce the idea that your message wishes to portray when they realise all paths lead to the same underlying truth, but perhaps in a different way.
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#5 Post by Funnyguts » Mon Feb 04, 2013 1:22 pm

I've asked this question of myself too, and the best answer I've come up with is to write the theme so that it's impossible not to have a message in the game. For example, I could write a story that tells the player about how misogyny is bad and all that, and try to create a game based around that. Or I can create a theme that by necessity is a feminist comment against mistreatement of women because the theme forces the player to deal with the issue through the gameplay. I had an idea for a game where you'd be an android purchaseable by a human (think Chobits or TCAST), and every time you play the person that purchased you would be randomly generated, and as such you yourself would be generated in a way that would please your new owner. How you're treated will change with each playthrough, and players will have to deal with potentially being abused and mistreated, possibly even when the owners will be seemingly nice to you. The themes of what an ideal spouse should be, expecations of subservience, and so on can't help but appear in the game because of its nature. I can do a similar thing with, say, environmental degredation: Make a game where resources disappear if you overuse them. Don't have this big huge thing about why protecting the environment is good, just make it a natural part of the game that would cause the game to make no sense if removed.

It's definitely not a perfect solution, and it might be completely wrong, but it seems like a better starting point to me than going "This is my message, how do I drill it into people's heads?"
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#6 Post by SusanTheCat » Mon Feb 04, 2013 4:39 pm

Things don't have to be so black and white.

My game Fall Fair was all about money and what to do with it. If you gave it all to charity -- you got one guy. If you gave it all for "experiences" -- you got a different guy. If you saved it all to give to the club -- you got the secret third guy. If you frittered it away on the games, then you got no guy,

In Ghost Day, I am using right-brain, left-brain choices. Either will take you to the end of the story, as long as you are consistent with your choices.

A Visual Novel is awesome because you can explore two points of view on the same issue. You can be the rebel and the loyalist at the same time. You can leave your player with a better understanding of your theme as a whole.

Susan
(Can you tell I'm not a fan of "True" Endings. There are two sides to every sky.)
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#7 Post by OokamiKasumi » Tue Feb 05, 2013 10:30 am

SusanTheCat wrote:(Can you tell I'm not a fan of "True" Endings. There are two sides to every sky.)
I'm with you on this one -- especially for Visual Novels where the focus should be on the story.
-- While one can have a preferred ending, one shouldn't focus the entire story/game on only ONE ending. ALL of the endings should be treated as though they were True. When you don't, it cheats the player of a proper conclusion; a complete Story.
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#8 Post by Carassaurat » Thu Feb 07, 2013 8:02 pm

Many thanks for the replies!
Sapphi wrote:They don't. At least, not in a way that I have been able to make peace with myself, which is why all the meaningful stories I'm working on are Kinetic Novels. :)
Ha, yes, that's exactly how I feel. But there's a bit of a stigma against kinetic novels, in that people will almost always proclaim that they prefer choices and that they could just as well read a book of interactivity's out of the door. How much stock to put into that, I'm not sure; stuff like That Cheap and Sacred Thing or Narcissu do very well on favourites lists, as do some that are barely interactive, like Saya no Uta.
OokamiKasumi wrote:By presenting the reader with scenarios that illustrate your premise and offering three options at the end of each scenario:
But I wonder: is "Little Red-Cap stays on the road, meets up with Grandma, everything's fine because she didn't stray" really a story or just a sequence of events? Certainly that version and the "Little Red-Cap strays, picks flower, gets eaten" version (which is one of the original versions) aren't as meaningful as the version in which she strays, gets eaten, but is rescued and has, presumably learned a lesson. I'd argue that this version in which she makes a mistake and learns from it in the end, is, from a perspective of story, by far the strongest version, because it includes a character arc.

If you have the player pick from a good and a bad option, the result is more a shabby quiz than it is a story.
Greeny wrote:So choose your choices wisely - write branches that are different in content, but all lead the protagonist to the inevitable destiny that is the truth you wish to convey. That way, when the player replays the story and gets a different branch/ending, it will only reinforce the idea that your message wishes to portray when they realise all paths lead to the same underlying truth, but perhaps in a different way.
At that point, what's the point in having choices if they all lead to them same conclusion anyway? I don't really see a storytelling benefit from this over picking the best possible way of making my point.
Funnyguts wrote:I've asked this question of myself too, and the best answer I've come up with is to write the theme so that it's impossible not to have a message in the game.
It's definitely not a perfect solution, and it might be completely wrong, but it seems like a better starting point to me than going "This is my message, how do I drill it into people's heads?"
That's a very fair answer and I think that's a good use of choice — but I don't think it's really much of a story, but instead a simulation; it's not a retelling, it's an experience. It's a 'walking a mile in someone's shoes' kind of getting the point across. That's perfectly valid — perhaps even especially worth exploring since it's being so neglected by games — but, not being a story proper, it has its own limitations. The main one I think is that you can only get the experience of rational people across. I, too, would get disgruntled by being treated as an object, so your misogyny example works very well. But you can't really convey what it is to be depressed for no obvious reason, or you couldn't make the simulation equivalent of Der Untergang.
I just re-listened to a talk Jonathan Blow gave on conflicts in game design, in which he also asserted that the authorial message model that we've been using from non-interactive media ought to be ditched, which sounds a lot like what you're arguing. It's just that I value my message more than I do interactivity ;) .
SusanTheCat wrote:Things don't have to be so black and white.
If I may be so bold then, what was the meaning of these visual novels? I find it impossible to tell from your short descriptions.

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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#9 Post by Sapphi » Thu Feb 07, 2013 9:12 pm

Carassaurat wrote:
Sapphi wrote:They don't. At least, not in a way that I have been able to make peace with myself, which is why all the meaningful stories I'm working on are Kinetic Novels. :)
Ha, yes, that's exactly how I feel. But there's a bit of a stigma against kinetic novels, in that people will almost always proclaim that they prefer choices and that they could just as well read a book of interactivity's out of the door. How much stock to put into that, I'm not sure; stuff like That Cheap and Sacred Thing or Narcissu do very well on favourites lists, as do some that are barely interactive, like Saya no Uta.
I think we have to remember that the visual novel format brings together two very different types of people. Some are primarily players of games, who enjoy games with good stories. Some are primarily readers of books, who enjoy literature with pretty pictures. I am the latter. I think if you made a KN-VN Venn diagram you would have a few people like me mostly in KN territory, while most of the community is probably in VN territory simply because the "pick a girl/path" model is what made VNs famous in the first place. So probably a lot of the stigma comes from that crowd, who got into visual novels because of the choices and are scratching their heads at KNs like "But where are the choices?!"

But, as you noted with the favorites list examples above, everybody loves a good story when they read one. It's just that you have to write it first, and you have to write it very well, because there's no novelty of choice to redeem it. I can stomach poor writing in a VN if the choices and their outcomes are interesting enough. But I really don't want to read a badly-written KN unless I'm badly in need of amusement...
Carassaurat wrote: I just re-listened to a talk Jonathan Blow gave on conflicts in game design, in which he also asserted that the authorial message model that we've been using from non-interactive media ought to be ditched, which sounds a lot like what you're arguing. It's just that I value my message more than I do interactivity ;) .
Hm... for my part I'm not so disenchanted with the "authorial message" model just yet. Maybe that's me talking as a primary reader of books and not a player of games, though. When I do play video games they're usually very "non-messagey" like mindless button mashing, RTS, Tetris, Pokemon, etc.

Is there some reason you feel like you NEED to incorporate choices here, other than the fact that Kinetic Novels are generally not as well-received (at first) as others? Your approach to writing seems a lot like mine and I can't imagine adding choice... I'll come up with vague characters and a general message, but I'll know exactly the ending I want to "prove" my message before I know much else. Branching paths in such a situation seem like little more than distracting tangents... unless they all somehow "prove" the message, but even then if it were me, I'd pick the most dramatic/successful one and cut the rest.

Because of that, when I see DVDs that say "INCLUDES ALTERNATE ENDING!!" on the cover, I'm like, "Wait... What was the ending SUPPOSED to be? If it was supposed to be the original, why would you present me with this inferior alternate and ruin my experience? If it doesn't really matter and the endings are both pretty similar, why on earth wouldn't you just combine them/pick one? If it doesn't really matter and the endings are different, what the heck was your story about?"

Somewhere in my studying about writing successfully I was advised you should craft your story in such a way that, according to the way you've set things up, your conclusion is the inevitable outcome. It was like an epiphany for me... it explains why we all get so disappointed with Deus Ex Machina at the end, because it renders the conclusion logically unsatisfying!
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#10 Post by Greeny » Thu Feb 07, 2013 9:47 pm

Carassaurat wrote:
Greeny wrote:So choose your choices wisely - write branches that are different in content, but all lead the protagonist to the inevitable destiny that is the truth you wish to convey. That way, when the player replays the story and gets a different branch/ending, it will only reinforce the idea that your message wishes to portray when they realise all paths lead to the same underlying truth, but perhaps in a different way.
At that point, what's the point in having choices if they all lead to them same conclusion anyway? I don't really see a storytelling benefit from this over picking the best possible way of making my point.
I'm not saying all choices lead to the same ending - I'm saying you can have multiple endings and still have them all be in line with your theme.
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#11 Post by OokamiKasumi » Sun Feb 10, 2013 2:14 pm

Carassaurat wrote:
OokamiKasumi wrote:By presenting the reader with scenarios that illustrate your premise and offering three options at the end of each scenario...
But I wonder: is "Little Red-Cap stays on the road, meets up with Grandma, and everything's fine because she didn't stray," really a story or just a sequence of events?
LOL! That depends on the cleverness of the writer, and what the writer does with the original storyline.

Options:
  • More than one character wandering around in the woods.
  • None of the wandering characters look like a wolf.
  • What happens once Red gets to Grandma's:
  • -- If she does meet the wolf.
  • -- If she doesn't meet the wolf.
  • -- If she interacts with one (or more) of the other wandering characters.
  • -- If she interacts with None of the wandering characters.
Carassaurat wrote:Certainly that version and the "Little Red-Cap strays, picks flower, gets eaten" version (which is one of the original versions) aren't as meaningful as the version in which she strays, gets eaten, but is rescued and has, presumably learned a lesson.
That actually depends entirely on the Reader/Player's personal opinion of "Right" and "Just".
-- For example, I personally prefer the original, where she gets eaten because she was Stupid. (Too Stupid To Live - TSTL.) However, this is because I have ZERO tolerance for stupid people. Other people may think that Red should be saved because children should be saved. Still others may think Red should be saved simply because Red is a girl. Seriously, how a story actually impacts a reader depends on the reader's personal views.
Carassaurat wrote:I'd argue that [in the] version in which she makes a mistake and learns from it in the end, is, from a perspective of story, by far the strongest version because it includes a character arc.
Just because a story has a Character Arc, doesn't mean it's stronger, or even a good story. This is especially true when you're trying to make a point with your story/game. Anything that gets in the way of your story/game's central purpose is nothing more than a decoration, or worse: a Distraction.
Carassaurat wrote:If you have the player pick from a good and a bad option, the result is more a shabby quiz than it is a story.
In other words: A Game.
-- The trick to making it entertaining is to make it difficult to tell which options are Good, and which are Bad. Another way is by making ALL the options, good and bad Interesting.
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#12 Post by Sharm » Mon Feb 11, 2013 2:24 am

What I'm doing with my game is having all the endings explore different aspects of the theme. I think a few others have touched on this idea. For example, if you want to tell a story with multiple happy endings about how everyone has their own hidden pain and being judgmental is hurtful you could have one guy where you save him from the bad judgement of someone else, another guy where you're the one being judgmental and have to change your ways, and another where the guy is judging you unfairly and you have to change his mind. There are lots of ways to tell the same story and still have it feel fresh. There are even more ways to explore the same theme when you don't have to tell the same story.
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#13 Post by Carassaurat » Fri Feb 15, 2013 7:37 pm

My apologies for these late replies. In part, you can blame the difficulty of the subject for that, and in part you can blame carnival week.
Sapphi wrote:I think we have to remember that the visual novel format brings together two very different types of people. Some are primarily players of games, who enjoy games with good stories. Some are primarily readers of books, who enjoy literature with pretty pictures. I am the latter. I think if you made a KN-VN Venn diagram you would have a few people like me mostly in KN territory, while most of the community is probably in VN territory simply because the "pick a girl/path" model is what made VNs famous in the first place. So probably a lot of the stigma comes from that crowd, who got into visual novels because of the choices and are scratching their heads at KNs like "But where are the choices?!"
[...]
Somewhere in my studying about writing successfully I was advised you should craft your story in such a way that, according to the way you've set things up, your conclusion is the inevitable outcome. It was like an epiphany for me... it explains why we all get so disappointed with Deus Ex Machina at the end, because it renders the conclusion logically unsatisfying!
The funny thing is, I come from a gaming "background", so to speak; spent a year studying game design, too, in my younger, wilder, dumber days. I started looking into Ren'Py because I had played Don't take it personally and thought it wasn't enough of a game. Or, to be more specific, it bothered me that the character of the protagonist was split up between myself and the writer, and I set out to make a VN with a more RPG-like system of picking your dialogue option every time. That never went anywhere because it reduced all characters to infodumps, so I've since more and more eliminated player agency out of my designs. I wrote two kinetic novels for the Adversity Comp and I'm writing one now too... it's liberating to be able to tell a story, because I can only write my characters if their personalities actually count for something. If their personality doesn't even define which girl out of five they like, what does their character count for?

So I certainly don't feel a need for choices, but I had a very neat framework in which games were about mastery and stories about understanding, and that many things just weren't possible to depict by means of rules. But thinking about it, and thinking about the posts in this thread, I can't help but feel that choice-based VNs occupy a difficult middle ground where they aren't about mastering a ruleset, but they aren't quite a (good) story medium either, or at least not one that fits me comfortably, and VNs certainly have a lot of problematic ground — one of which is the aforementioned sharing of protagonist between writer and player that had bothered me so and continues to bother me. I wonder if, in the end, a story with choices can only say something about the nature of the choices, in a meta sense; if it can only say "this is what happens when you do this", and loses out on the ability to speak of people who just are the way they are.

The inevitability thing you mentioned rings true to me as well. If a character is strong, he or she will be strong enough to make his or her own choices. Quite frankly, I can't imagine creating a choice in my current novel; that'd be a gap in the personality of my characters, and it's exactly that personality that I want to tell you about. She has to respond the way she does, because that's why I'm telling the story (and sometimes, just sometimes, she seems to escape my grasp and becomes her own person, as if her actions flow from the personality more than from my imagination.)
It's also a Chekhov's Gun problem. A dating sim with five options always has four unused guns hanging on the wall. It isn't so much a problem of audience anticipation as Chekhov's example is, but it's a legitimate question to ask whether or not Shizune's bullshit really adds to the first act of an Emi route. It's impossible to weave a tight web of interconnection and foreshadowing when you don't know to what your text has to be connected, or what has to be foreshadowed.

Greeny wrote:I'm not saying all choices lead to the same ending - I'm saying you can have multiple endings and still have them all be in line with your theme.
It's a bit difficult talking in the abstract like this, but isn't the thing people like about choices that the VN/game actually acknowledges the player input and changes the outcome — the more it differs, the better?

OokamiKasumi wrote:Seriously, how a story actually impacts a reader depends on the reader's personal views.
[...]
In other words: A Game.
-- The trick to making it entertaining is to make it difficult to tell which options are Good, and which are Bad. Another way is by making ALL the options, good and bad Interesting.
I've decided long ago that I don't want to make games — see my reply to Sapphi above — because the elements of the human condition you can express in rule-based simulation is just too little. The magic circle is too small for my tastes. (As evidence by, like, only two video games ever having been about love.)

I think I'm a bit less of a post-structuralist than you are. Yeah, a reader's interpretation is the final word and the author doesn't get to decide what the reader thinks. But what author sets out to make something that can be interpreted in any way? Doesn't an author write because he or she wants to get a message across, or a message on a horizon of expectation? I'm inclined to condemn writers of a story in which the reader or player gets to make the meaning to either extreme shallowness or self-deception. (An interesting case, I think, is Umberto Eco, the meaning of whose The Name of the Rose is that there's no such thing as a meaning; he employs it in his denial of it.)

What you've got going on with your list is a set of what-ifs. A what-if can be interesting, but I don't think it can be inherently meaningful; the meaning comes from the resolution, none of which you've provided, indeed, which indeed would seem to be second consideration in your structuring. You write forwards, when I write backwards.

Sharm wrote:What I'm doing with my game is having all the endings explore different aspects of the theme. I think a few others have touched on this idea. For example, if you want to tell a story with multiple happy endings about how everyone has their own hidden pain and being judgmental is hurtful you could have one guy where you save him from the bad judgement of someone else, another guy where you're the one being judgmental and have to change your ways, and another where the guy is judging you unfairly and you have to change his mind. There are lots of ways to tell the same story and still have it feel fresh. There are even more ways to explore the same theme when you don't have to tell the same story.
Going by your description, I'm not sure I'd classify that as a story with choices — it sounds more like three different stories, and if they branch from a single first act, that'll inevitably be a messy one full of unfulfilled promises and hints at things that won't come to pass in the particular route you're going to play. As Sapphi mentioned before, is that not better told by juxtaposing different characters, so that they can interact and be compared within the same storyline?

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Flowers from Nowhere
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Re: A conundrum of choice and theme

#14 Post by Flowers from Nowhere » Sat Feb 16, 2013 11:43 am

Character traits and personality are the basis of all decisions but they aren't the only factors. If I was put into the exact same situation on two different days I might react differently depending on my mood or other such transitory conditions. In a way a VN is a joint story between the author and the player where the author tries to come up with a variety of ways in which the character might react to a given situation and the player uses their own view of the character to pick the choices they think that character would make.

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