A Taxonomy of Choices: Axes of Success
Posted by: Jason Stevan Hill | Comments (0)
As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.
If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.
Last time, we discussed basic Testing Choices and their variations. Today, we move to the topic of how certain choices help determine the outcomes of the various plotlines of your game.
To refresh your memory: the ChoiceScript Machine has three steps. The first step is Establishing Choices: where the reader establishes the character’s strengths and weaknesses; the second step is Testing Choices, where the reader applies their aptitudes (Primary Variables) to challenges (tests), resulting in success or failure in pursuit of goals (Secondary Variable effects); then, in Climax Choices, the Secondary Variables are tested to return the game’s End States: was the mob successfully dismantled? Did you get fired or get a promotion? Did your marriage survive? Was your partner caught, discharged, or did he get off scot free?
Previously, Testing Choices were generally set up to have one axis of success, meaning there’s one thing that all the #options are trying to succeed at in a *choice. The next step in opening up your game is the inclusion of Objective Testing Choices, where the #options point towards different Narrative Goals. As with a Testing Choice, a PV will be tested for success, but the different #options will each affect different SVs.
So, in the case of our detective, who finally has a mole in the Mob’s outfit:
#I persuade the mole to wear a wire, overcoming his fears of being discovered. (Tests $diplomacy. Success: ++evidence_against_mob; failure: mole refuses to wear the wire.) #I browbeat the mole into wearing a wire against my partner. (Tests $intimidation. Success: +evidence_against_partner; failure: the mole refuses to wear the wire.) #I bribe the mole to wear the wire against the mob, even though that’s against the law. (-$5000, ++evidence_against_mob, -principles) #I have couples' counseling; I ask my partner to run the op. (Tests $partner_rel. Success: +evidence_against_mob, +family_peace; failure: your partner does a poor job of convincing the mole to wear the wire, so he doesn't.)
Here, narrative tension can be provided by the conflict between Tools and Goals. What if you want to improve things with your family, but you have a poor relationship with your partner? And what if the reader wants to get evidence against their partner, but hasn’t developed any Intimidation? There are multiple axes of choice here: the reader is choosing both how they want to try to succeed, and what they want to try to succeed at. The tension between the PC’s aptitudes and their Narrative Goals deepens the experience for the reader.
OTCs are a key part of a good Choice of Games title. The mid- and late-game should be rife with them, as they force the choose along multiple axes of success.
Finally, we have Climax Choices. Climax Choices follow the basic template of an Objective Testing Choice, but test Secondary Variables instead of Primary Variables. Climax Choices can and (generally) should have Multiple Levels.
For example, in the Internal Affairs proceedings that follow the dismantling of the mob, the PC has the opportunity to make a case for themselves.
#I make a case for my outstanding service to the force and the city. (Tests $career; success results in a dismissal of the charges and a promotion.) #I make a case for the guilt of my partner. (Tests $evidence_against_partner; success results in his imprisonment, you get to keep your job.) #I make a case for my effectiveness as a detective. (Tests $arrests and/or $drugs_in_evidence; success lets the PC keep their job)
As previously mentioned regarding the ChoiceScript Machine, Climax Choices are where we see the payoff of the reader’s actions over the course of the game. If the reader has not made any effort to ensnare her partner, for example, attempts to indict the partner should fail at this moment. Impassioned pleas (a $diplomacy check), for example, are nothing compared to evidence ($evidence_against_partner) collected over the course of the game. These Climax Choices are the mechanical crux of the game, where the narrative forks as a consequence of both the cumulative successes of the player over the course of the game and the tactical response to the choice at hand. As a result of these Climax Choices, the broad contours of the playthrough’s endings are determined.
The different degrees of success in a Climax Choice are an example of End States: if the PC tries to get her partner investigated, the evidence may be overwhelming, resulting in a criminal trial; the evidence may result in the partner being sanctioned by the department; and the accusation may fall on deaf ears. That is the End States for one plot/goal of the game. When the End States for one goal are combined with the End States for all the other goals, we can determine their position within the matrix of End States, which is what the reader perceives as their “ending.”
Such is the basis of the ChoiceScript Machine: Establishing Choice determine Primary Variables; Testing Choices test PVs to effect Secondary Variable; Climax Choices test SVs to situate the player in the matrix of End States.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this taxonomy. It explains my conceptual framework for understanding choices in games, and ChoiceScript games in particular. If you have thoughts on any types of choices I’ve overlooked, I’m curious to hear!
The Four Point Trap is a design pitfall where a game ends up posing the same choice again over and over again. The classic example of this is “do you do the good thing or the evil thing?” Once the player has decided that they’re either good or evil, it’s unlikely that they’ll change their minds during a given playthrough. Therefore, the Four Point Trap is where the game functionally asks the same question over and over again.
In Choice of Games titles, the most frustrating instance of this is in the context of basic Testing Choices specifically, where, for example, the question is: do you solve the problem by being strong, sneaky, smart, or charming? Once you’ve established that you’re one of those four things, an author may end up repeating that basic structure in their choices again and again. After a fashion, the only choice that mattered was the one at the beginning where the reader decided between those four aptitudes. The rest of the story is just about reading comprehension.
There are many ways to mitigate the Four Point Trap. Because the 4PT mostly pertains to skill-based variables, one of the first steps is to have more skills for the PC than you will typically have #options in a choice. Thus, if most of your Testing Choices are going to have three or four #options, then the PC should have at least five skill variables. Then, at the very least, you’ll be inclined to cycle through the skills when writing #options; this means that whatever the PC is best at won’t always be available as an #option.
More importantly, though, is to introduce other axes of choice: motivation, difficulty, and objective being examples mentioned above. Motivations give, at the very least, a sense of nuance to a choice. Multi-Level and Variable-Difficulty Choices change the calculus by offering the player different levels of risk and reward. Most importantly, however, different Narrative Goals produce narrative tension by forcing the reader to choose between (hopefully mutually exclusive) objectives.