Heather is a great friend of Choice of Games and we’re all huge fans of her work. The Kickstarter fully funded just six hours after it launched. Additional support will fund the development of more of Heather’s extraordinary writing. Support this Kickstarter today! Even if you can’t afford to back it, please share it with friends.
Choice of Games’ latest release will be Empyrean, a flying ace adventure set in a fantastic world. I sat down with the author, Kyle Marquis, who has written novels, graphic novels, RPGs and now interactive fiction. Look for Empyrean later this week, releasing on Thursday, December 1st.
Tell me about what influenced your world creation for Empyrean. What kind of a world is this set in?
I love cities–real and fictional–and most of Empyrean takes place in Actorius, a city inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Actorius is full of skyscrapers, airplanes, colossal and sometimes-unfathomable machines; also deranged inventors, downtrodden laborers, scheming plutocrats. Despite Empyrean being a text-based game, most of my influences are visual. I pulled from film (The City of Lost Children), comics (Akira), cartoons (Batman: The Animated Series), and even games (Megaman). Then I tried to imagine describing those cityscapes to people who had never seen them. The result was Actorius.
The Deep Tech–the mechanical wilderness beneath the city–derives from my longstanding fascination with artificial life. When I was a little kid, I had a Commodore 64 programming book that contained coding instructions for the Game of Life. Life uses a few simple rules to simulate an evolving population of “cells” on the computer screen. Which start conditions would result, after enough iterations, in extinction? In a pattern eternally repeating? In true complexity–an ever-changing, unpredictable configuration of cells? The Deep Tech is like that, and also like a jungle full of robot dinosaurs.
What are some of the social issues you had in mind as you were writing the game?
While Empyrean can be played as a straightforward pulp adventure, it’s hard to tell a story about flying aces in an Art Deco city and not talk about fascism. And it’s hard to talk about cities without talking about labor. Empyrean is about who owns what, and why. The city of Actorius thrives based on an accident of geography–it was built over the Deep Tech–and by its willingness to exploit both those resources and its own citizenry. You, the player, are the beneficiary of that plundered wealth. Empyrean is about how you react to that.
The characters are incredibly well-drawn in this game. In particular, Mogra and Wesh stood out to me as favorites. Which did you enjoy spending time writing?
Writing Wesh was fun because she’s a concept that’s been rattling around in my head forever. I love grabbing characters from one genre or setting and dropping them in another to see if they’re viable. Pulps were full of Tarzan-like characters, but moving one from the jungle to a machine wilderness let me re-energize a stale concept. I also enjoyed Dominicar (the character’s father, and one of the game’s “villains”) for his fundamental shallowness, despite his intelligence and ambition. Here’s a man who has discovered and mapped a mechanical wilderness, and what does he do with it? Not wonder where it came from, or how it works. He starts stealing whatever he can to reverse-engineering radios and fighter planes.
I also enjoyed writing characters like Mogra, Lectini, and the nameless pilot of the mole machine aero, who hint at a world larger and stranger than the struggle between two cities for control of the Deep Tech. I worked hard to strip Empyrean of needless complexity, but I didn’t want the game to feel like it took place in a snowglobe. The murky origins of characters like Mogra and Lectini let me hint at a sprawling and complex world without muddying the central narrative.
What were some of the challenges for you writing in ChoiceScript, and what were the joys? You’re a very prolific writer–Empyrean clocks in at over 300,000 words, which is fantastic, and makes it one of our longest Choice of Games titles.
Writing in ChoiceScript has a wonderful rhythm that helped me avoid the tyranny of the blank page. Organizing everything around choices means the writer always has a structure to fall back on: you look at your stat list, you use your stats to come up with 3-5 choices, and you try to make it clear to the player what’s going on. That last part is the trickiest: you need to imply the mechanics that underlie each choice without just coming out and saying it. If the writing is too mechanical, the game becomes an exercise in stat-calculation for the player; if the writing is too florid, the nature of the choices becomes confusing and, eventually, frustrating.
You’ve also written some RPGs, novels, and comics, yes? Tell me about those.
Before Empyrean I spent several years writing a fantasy webcomic called The Water Phoenix King, and I created a fan game for the World of Darkness tabletop RPG setting called Genius: The Transgression, about mad scientists. I’ve also written several fantasy novels that I’m currently shopping around to agents and publishers. I actually think of myself as a high fantasy writer, but everything I do that’s successful involves airships and robots. Weird.
What are you working on for your next game?
I had so much fun in the Deep Tech that I wanted to spend more time doing a “jungle adventure” game. My next game is a Lost World-style story full of dinosaurs and savage adventure! Expect time-traveling angels, Byzantine imperialists, people turned into ambulatory wasp nests, were-pterodactyls…you know, the usual stuff.
Proust-style Questionnaire questions:
What profession other than writing would you like to attempt?
I would like to be able to make and/or fix something: cars, houses, tiny decorative jars. My family always discouraged me from anything not strictly academic, but sometimes I want to work on something concrete, rather than tapping away all day.
Which would you never like to try?
You mean, never like to try again? Menial service work. I’d rather trap squirrels in 17th century Russia than go back to re-folding novelty t-shirts while tourists explain to me their political opinions and try to guess my ethnic makeup.
“Conflation,” unfortunately. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
What do you do to reward yourself after a long day of writing?
I cook food, and then I eat it! Mostly Italian food–I’ve spent several years trying to rebuild the meals my grandmother would make when I was a kid.
Ketchup or catsup?
I believe the ketchup people and the catsup people aren’t so different, and should be able to work together to stop the people who say “I could care less.”
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. In today’s entry, I’m going to be discussing our thoughts on how to design the end of a game in a way that makes choices meaningful and interesting.
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.
When the Choice of Games staff looks at an interactive fiction game, we always focus some attention on the end of the game–what we sometimes talk about as the game’s victory design. What makes interactive fiction different from plain-old fiction–novels and short stories–is that the player makes choices that matter. Those choices should matter throughout the game, but they absolutely need to matter at the end of the game. If the game always ends the same way, then the choices along the way can’t be very meaningful.
We’ve identified two ways to design the end of a game that ensure that the choices along the way are meaningful and significant. The first is to create multiple, independent goals for the player, all of which are significant for the end of the game. The second is a structural design we refer to as the arm-and-fingers structure.
Multiple, Independent Goals
One of the pitfalls in interactive fiction design is to structure the whole game as an answer to the question, “does the player win?” For example, imagine that a game is about leading a heroic rebellion against an evil empire, and that it has two endings: either the player wins and overthrows the evil empire, or the player loses and the empire continues to oppress people. As soon as the game designer adopts that structure, the choices in the game become much less meaningful. They can still be tactically difficult and interesting–which of choices A, B, and C has the best chance of producing a winning outcome?–but fundamentally, the game can tell only two stories.
A variant on this problematic design is to have multiple different goals, but to make the goals overlap so they are not independent. Continuing with our rebellion example, perhaps the heroic rebel has several goals: recruiting the allies you need to overthrow the empire; developing the military strength to fight off the empire’s troops; and becoming a hero who’s remembered in legend after the victory. At first glance, this seems to solve the problem of only having a single goal, but in reality, the problem persists. If you overthrow the empire, you either necessarily or likely become a hero who’s remembered in legend. And if you fail to recruit needed allies, you can’t overthrow the empire. There might be a little differentiation–maybe it’s possible to win without allies, just difficult–but the basic problem remains: the player either wins or loses.
The solution to this problem is to make the different goals independent and indeed often in tension with each other. My partner Jason Hill uses the example of the different goals a student might have in college. A college student’s goals might include: getting good grades and graduating with honors; lining up a good job after college; winning the big game in their sport against the rival school; keeping their student job and earning enough money to pay tuition and other expenses; going to parties and having a fun time; building friendships that will last; and having a satisfying relationship with a significant other. That’s a mix of different goals, all of which could be interesting in an interactive fiction game about attending college.
In order for this approach to work, the goals need to be independent. Getting good grades has nothing to do with winning the big game–a player could achieve one goal and not the other, achieve the other goal, achieve both, or not achieve either, and that variety of outcomes means that choices along the way have room and scope to be meaningful. The player’s choices can tell different stories, whether that’s the story of a jock who wins big but fails out of school or of a student-athlete who leaves the team entirely to concentrate on their studies. And precisely because of those tensions, the victory design sets up interesting choices along the way: should the player character head to the gym for more practice, study up for the test, spend time with their S.O., or concentrate on an internship that might lead to a good job? There isn’t enough time in the day to pursue every goal fully, and the player has to decide which goals to prioritize and how.
The goals don’t have to be completely independent in order for this design to work well. For example, earning good grades can help to get a good job offer, and being a star athlete can result in invitations to exclusive parties and impress some other students. And some underlying characteristics and approaches can help with multiple goals: a smart character will do better at both schoolwork and jobs, and a charismatic character will find it easier to get job offers as well as easier to make friends. But the player will still need to decide what goals to prioritize and how. When your S.O. has a problem the night before a big exam, which wins out: studying or helping your S.O.? When your coach wants you to practice and your boss wants you to meet your work schedule and there’s homework to be done, how do you spend your scarce time? If you try to burn the candle at both ends and just cut back on sleep, will you cause everything to fall apart? These choices are conflicting–you can’t pursue all of the goals fully–yet combinable so that the player can choose to pursue any two of them.
By designing goals that are independent, a game designer gives the player’s choices space to be meaningful.
An important technique for ensuring that player choices have a major impact on the conclusion of an interactive novel is to have a major branch point late in the game with several different possible final chapters–what we refer to as an “arm-and-fingers” structure. To understand why that structure is valuable and how it works, it’s easiest to start by considering the problem that it solves.
One of the traditional tensions in interactive fiction design is between introducing branches and forcing the storyline to largely progress in a fixed way. Some of the earliest examples of interactive fiction relied heavily on branching, which cause player choice to have a larger effect on the game but also require much more writing and shorten the length of each playthrough. If every choice produces another branch point, than a game that has 10 choices each with 3 options ends up with 3^10 different branches–nearly 60,000 branches! As a result, some of the old “choose a path” books were a hundred or two hundred pages long, but with average playthrough lengths of 5 or 6 pages. The other extreme from branching on every choice is to make the game design linear, with each choice leading to the next in lock-step, which makes the game design and writing process manageable and feasible but can make multiple playthroughs feel repetitious.
Choice of Games recommends in general designing games as a stack of bushes. Each scene has branches, but the branches merge back together at the end of a scene. Then, variables and delayed branching can be used to make choices remain meaningful beyond a given scene. A stack-of-bushes with delayed branching is a good basic technique, but it can still feel frustrating when every playthrough of a game ends with the same climax.
An arm-and-fingers structure is a game with several different final chapters where the player’s decisions determine which final chapter they experience on a given playthrough. Most of the game is the arm, with chapter leading to chapter more or less automatically, but the structure of the end of a game is like a hand, with entirely distinct and separate fingers branching off in each direction. Kevin Gold pioneered this structure in Choice of Robots to great effect, and Lynnea Glasser also used it well in The Sea Eternal. It can maintain a manageable structure that does not require writing thousands of different branches, while still creating the feeling that the end of the game depends on the player’s choices, not just in determining a final outcome, but in determining the entire feeling and plot of the game’s climax.
By introducing a major branch point before the last chapter, the arm-and-fingers structure underscores the importance of the players’ choices. Not only does the outcome of the final conflicts of the game change, the nature of the climactic conflict changes as well. As an example, imagine a fantasy game in which the player plays the heir-apparent to a monarchy. Depending on the player’s choices, the final chapter could be one of four entirely different choices. If the player built a strong base of support in their court and among the nobles of their country, the final chapter could be a conflict with a neighboring kingdom that could be resolved through warfare or through diplomacy. If the player focused on the study of wizardry, the main character could renounce the throne altogether and pursue true mystic power on a personal quest. If the player fostered new ideas about politics and rights, the last chapter could be about fostering a new more democratic regime and breaking the power of the high nobles. And if the player lost control of their country, the last chapter could be a story of a monarch in exile fighting a civil war to retake power. Every one of those chapters is a satisfying, dramatic conclusion to the story, but replays offer wide variation and the player’s choices have meaningful impact by determining which branch the story goes down (and of course how that branch resolves).
At the same time, the amount of additional writing required is manageable: instead of a 10 chapter game with each chapter following linearly, the last chapter might be replaced by one of 4 possible end chapters, requiring writing 13 chapters total. That’s not a trivial increase in work compared to writing 10 chapters, but it is a far cry from an exponential explosion of different branches. And the pay-off is very substantial, making each playthrough of the game feel very different and making the player’s choices drive the outcome of the game. The arm of the game should be a traditional stack of bushes, and the introduction of a set of separate branches at the end–each with multiple choices and telling a satisfying climactic story–will make all the difference in making the choices feel meaningful and different.
As you think about outlining a ChoiceScript game–and as you think about how to maximize your game’s score on the “conflicting goals with satisfying endings” criterion in the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels–we urge you to design a game with multiple independent goals and to implement an overall arm-and-fingers structure. Neither is strictly required, but if you implement both your game will be miles ahead of a game that has a linear structure with a “do you win?” goal design and maybe a separately tracked measure of romance success. So think about how to make a compelling set of goals, each independent from the others, and then think about how those goals and player choices can drive the game to one of several different climactic chapters.
We’re proud to announce that Saga of the North Wind, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 20% off until November 29th!
The gods have chosen you to lead your tribe on a deadly pilgrimage to the Valley of the North Wind! When future generations recite your saga, will they sing of your glory or your downfall?
Saga of the North Wind is a 300,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Tom Knights, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
Your people roam the Great Steppe, chased and challenged by the fearsome Tribe of the Black Wolf. Their leader, the shaman Zhan-Ukhel, calls forth savage magic from Chernobog, the god who rules their tribe. Your tribe must have a leader who can call down protection from the gods. That leader is you, and this is your saga.
Rule your tribe as an iron-fisted chieftain or as a benevolent guardian. Will your allies support you on the field of battle? Will the gods come when you need them most? Do you even need the gods to smite your enemies, or will you seize divine power for yourself?
An eerie glow dances across the stars tonight, stars that bear your name. Listen, now, to the Saga of the North Wind!
Play as male or female, gay, or straight
Become a shaman of the spirit world
Fight the ancient, powerful force, Chernobog who rules your enemies
Battle in the arena or make a daring escape from captivity
Call upon the spirits for aid in your struggle against the Black Wolves’ sorceror
We hope you enjoy playing Saga of the North Wind. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.
Today, the team at Choice of Games is excited to announce a cash prize contest for interactive fiction over 100,000 words.
The Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels offers $10,000 in prizes. The First Place winner will receive a $5,000 cash prize, the Second Place winner will receive $3,000, and the Third Place winner will receive $2,000. In addition, all three winners will receive a publication contract with Choice of Games, including 25% royalties on the sales of the published game.
Entries must be written in English and developed in ChoiceScript, the interactive-fiction programming language from Choice of Games. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience.
All entries must be at least 100,000 words long, including both prose and code, and must follow Choice of Games’ inclusivity guidelines, including allowing players to choose their own character’s gender. The submission deadline is January 31, 2018, more than a year from now.
For more information, and to enter the contest, visit our contest page!
We’re proud to announce that Congresswolf, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until Nov 1!
Is the next member of Congress a werewolf? Can you survive a lycanthrope’s bite? There’s no silver bullet for winning an election!
Congresswolf is an interactive novel by Ellen Cooper, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–140,000 words, without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” — James Bovard
When a werewolf murders your boss, you must step up to run a Congressional campaign all on your own. While werewolves, protestors, and worse–the media–lurk around every corner, you’ll use everything you can to get your candidate elected.
Email servers? Tax returns? Who cares. Election-season secrets and October surprises are nothing compared to the possibility that your candidate might be a werewolf…or that you might become one yourself.
Play as any gender, play as gay or straight
Set the right tone with your TV ads
Prep your candidate for debates
Impress big donors
Get out the vote
Find out who killed your predecessor
Decide where your candidate will stand on werewolf rights
We hope you enjoy playing Congresswolf. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.
Zombies rise again at the dawn of Apocalypse! In this companion to the smash-hit Zombie Exodus, can you survive the first few days of the zombie outbreak as the dead rise, society collapses, and the living struggle to survive?
Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven is the first part of a series of thrilling interactive survival-horror novel by Jim Dattilo, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without animation or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
Customize a character using a variety of professions, backgrounds, special challenges, and skills to survive in a brutal and chaotic city as the Zeta virus spreads. Will you be an honorable soldier, searching through neighborhoods to aid survivors? Or will you be a ruthless bandit who loots and robs others for needed supplies? How about a paranoid hacker, psychopathic con artist, pragmatic scientist, or idealistic teenager? Dozens of options allow you to play the character of your choice.
Set in the Zombie Exodus world, the first part of Safe Haven focuses on the first few days of a viral outbreak which changes the infected into mindless zombies. Explore the changes to society at the start of the pandemic. Board your house, gather supplies, meet over a dozen other characters, and survive encounters with the living dead and even other survivors. Scavenge numerous locations, craft items, and use a variety of skills to survive the many challenges of the apocalypse.
The Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven series will continue with future stories in new locations in the coming years.
Play as male or female, gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
Over 500,000 words long. You’ll read 50,000 words each time you play. Given the number of paths from beginning to end, you’ll want to play numerous times.
Nineteen backgrounds/professions including Soldier, Teenager, Professional Wrestler, Bank Robber, and Doctor. Or create your own custom class.
Choose your skill levels in eighteen different apocalyptic skills such as Stealth, Ranged Weapons, Scavenging, and Survival. Level up your skills after each chapter and choose from hobbies to round out your character.
Select optional challenges for your survivor. Take care of a dependent child or a pet, or deal with a phobia, compulsion, addiction, or affliction.
Meet other survivors each with their own personalities, motivations, desires, and flaws. Even form romantic relationships with those you meet.
Jim developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.
Tap into pure, unconditional love, be engulfed in a journey of oneness, and bring peace to a place that knows none.
Twin Flames is an interactive novel by Ivailo Daskalov, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
Enjoy the beauty of the self-discovery that occurs when one soul finds its other half, and they start a mission that will change the lives of many. Help the twin flames uncover the mystery of who they were in previous lives and find their way home.
Enjoy a 50,000-word tale of love, redemption, and ascension.
Surrender to the power of true love.
Switch back and forth between both the male and female twin flames.
Decide on their specializations and relations with current romantic partners.
Delve in an universe of light, witchcraft, ETs, dragons and reptilians.
Ivailo developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.
We’re proud to announce that Sorcery Is for Saps, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until October 21st!
As an apprentice sorcerer, you should never steal your master’s identity. But what if that’s the only way to save the kingdom?
Sorcery Is for Saps is a 200,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Hilari Bell and Anna-Maria Crum, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.
Will your powers save the cursed king–or will you turn traitor and seize the throne yourself? You can probably break a simple kindness curse, but there are dark forces at work and you may be in over your head before you can say “Abracadabra.”
Throw in your lot with scheming councilors, the attractive heir, or even go to work for the invaders. But whether you choose to save the king or your own neck, one thing is clear—this is your big chance!
Magic, power, or true love—which will you choose? In Sorcery Is for Saps, you’ll find it’s easier than waving a wand.
Be a hero or turn traitor, seduced by a sexy spy.
Play as male or female, gay, straight, or bi.
Steal a rival wizard’s inventions.
Fight the maniacal, mechanical, magical monkey.
Power up for politics, succeed at sorcery, or just get really, really rich.
Trade barbs with your snarky familiar. Or will you kow-tow to a sarcastic ferret?
End up as a sorcerer, a royal councilor, a villain, or a mouse. (Literally. You can be turned into a mouse.)
We hope you enjoy playing Sorcery Is for Saps. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.