Blog

Dec 22

2016

How to Write Intentional Choices

Posted by: Becky Slitt | 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.

One of our core principles is that choices have to be meaningful. There are several dimensions to a meaningful choice: for instance, it has to have consequences; and it has to have emotional resonance for the player. Underlying those ideas, though, is the idea of intention. In order for a player to feel emotionally invested in their choices, they have to know why they’re choosing it, and they have to have some idea of what the consequences of that choice might be.

A standard practice in old choose-a-path gamebooks was to offer the options “Go right” or “Go left” without any more information about what the reader might find in each direction. The reader would have to choose randomly.

Then, they’d probably fall off a cliff.

More seriously, though, in a choose-a-path gamebook, you can easily flip back to start over, or peek ahead to see what happens with each option. That’s not possible in a Choice of Games game. The player needs to live with the consequences of their choices, and may feel very frustrated if they make a choice with one intention in mind only to discover that the actual results are different.

So intentionality is important in general. It’s especially important in a few particular circumstances. Specifically, when the potential consequences of an option are negative; and when different options within the same choice have different difficulty levels.

In these cases, it’s up to the author to make sure that the player has all the information they need to make the choice that they really want to make.

In practical terms, this means that before a choice, you should try to signal:

  • the potential story results for each option
  • which stats might be tested, if the option leads to a stat test
  • the relative difficulty of each option, if some options are harder than others.

There are several ways that you can go about this.

One of the simplest and most effective methods is to communicate information about stats, story results, and difficulty in the text leading up to a choice. Here’s an excellent example of this kind of narration from Mecha Ace:

The PC is the pilot of a mecha – a giant robot spaceship – and they’re facing off in combat against their archrival Hawkins.

You examine your options as the Imperial mecha lunges forward. In any other situation, the obvious choice would be to be aggressive, counter-attacking and forcing your opponent onto the defensive. But with a pilot as skilled as Hawkins, you’re not sure if that would prove to be the best thing to do.

Of course, settling for a more defensive posture would prevent you from doing any damage to the enemy, but it would also mean that you could probably have a better chance at avoiding damage to your own machine, provided you kept calm.

It also occurs to you that you could use Hawkins’s verbosity against her. If your opponent is too busy monologuing to put all of her focus into the fight, it would be a lot easier to fend off her attacks.

Lastly, if you are fast enough—or lucky enough—you might even be able to withdraw from close combat, putting yourself out of the reach of the enemy ace’s monosaber.

And here are a few snippets of the code that follows, so that you can see how the text points to the stats that are being tested:

*choice
    #Fight aggressively to cripple or destroy Hawkins's machine.
      You lunge forward to meet the Imperial pilot's attack.
       *if piloting >= 4

    #Keep calm and fight defensively.
      *if willpower >= 3
 
    #Keep Hawkins talking to prevent her from focusing on the fight.
      *if presence > 2

    #Attempt to withdraw to keep out of reach.
        *if speed >= 7

So, withdrawing tests speed: “if you are fast enough.” Taking up a defensive posture might be easier than attacking or trying to withdraw – ie, the stat test is lower for this than for either of the others – but it means that you’ll sacrifice the opportunity to do damage to your enemy. It’s implied that fighting aggressively will test your piloting, since the text cautions you that you’re facing “a pilot as skilled as Hawkins.”

The text clarifies the potential risks and rewards of each option, shows the relative difficulty of each option, and hints at the stats that might be tested for each one – in other words, it allows the player to make the choice with full intentionality.

To show why this is important, here’s a look at the choice on its own, without the additional text:

These options all make sense for the situation, and the text of each option tells the player exactly what their character is going to do. That’s a good start.

But the player doesn’t necessarily have enough information to choose the right one for them. What are the risks of each potential action? Is one option harder or easier than the others? What strengths and weaknesses might come into play with each one – or, to put it in game-mechanics terms, what stats might be tested? Does the first option test the PC’s piloting skill, weapons skill, or both? Does the last option test the PC’s speed, piloting skills, or both?

That’s why the text before the choice is important: to make sure that the player has all the information they need to take the action that best fits their goals.

Another way to convey this information is to put it in the text of the option itself. To take a lower-stakes example: here’s a scene from Psy High, in which the PC is choosing what to do on a date with their girlfriend Alison. This is how it would look if the text of the option only had the activities themselves, along with an abbreviated version of the code so that you can see the stat effects of each option:

What have you got planned?

*choice

*selectable_if (money >= 50.00) #Dinner and a movie.
*set obedient %+15
*set rel_ali %+15
*set money -50.00
The movie you've chosen is a drama you know Alison has been dying to see ever since production was announced, and she practically jumps up to hug you when she sees which theater you're heading towards.
*goto alipriority
 
#Walking around downtown where everyone can see us.
*set popularity %+15
*set rel_ali %-10
 
The closer you get to the center of town, the more teenagers you see—at this time of day, half of Kingsport High is downtown. As you approach each cluster of people, all eyes turn towards you, and a ripple of gossip and greetings rises up as you pass by.
 
Alison shrinks away from all the stares and whispers, holding tighter to your hand for support.
*goto alipriority
 
#A walk on the beach.
*set altruistic %+10
*set rel_ali %+20
Alison smiles radiantly as the wind whips whips blonde hair. Solitude, nature, romance—this is exactly the kind of date that would make Alison ecstatically happy.
*goto alipriority
 
#Just hanging out behind the school.
*set obedient %-15
*set rel_ali %+10
This isn't Alison's usual scene, but when you suggest sitting on the hood of your car and listening to music through the open windows, she shrugs, grins, and follows along. "It doesn't matter what we do," Alison says contentedly, "as long as we're together."
*goto alipriority

Because Alison is very shy and very romantic, it makes sense that certain activities will appeal to her more than others. She won’t be happy if she’s in the middle of a crowd; she’ll like the simple beauty of a walk on the beach. It also makes sense that each activity has different benefits and drawbacks for the PC: going out to dinner costs more than going for a walk on the beach. Therefore, each potential date activity has different effects on the PC’s personal stats and on the stat that tracks their relationship with Alison.

But before making their choice, the player would see only:

It’s just a list of activities; the player has no way of knowing the effects of these choices, either on their relationship with Alison or on their other goals and stats.

Some players will want to be able to choose the activity that would make Alison happiest, but they have no way of knowing which one that will be, so they might be unpleasantly surprised if they choose one that makes her unhappy instead. Or, they might be willing to make a sacrifice in one area for the sake of a benefit in another area – but, again, they can’t tell how to do that, or even that the possibility of a sacrifice exists. A character who’s very concerned with their own social status might think that making Alison a little unhappy is worth it to increase their own popularity. Likewise, a character who’s strapped for cash might not want to spend $50 – or, they might think that expenditure is worth it to make Alison happy.

But in order for the choice to be intentional and meaningful, the player needs to know that they’re making those tradeoffs.

Therefore, here’s how that choice actually appears in the game:

The bolded text points the player towards some of those tradeoffs: the extra cost of going out to dinner, the increase in popularity that some players might like, etc. Now the player has all the information they need to make the choice they want, and to advance towards the goals that they want.

In conclusion, one of the best ways to make your choices meaningful is to make them intentional. To do that, give clues in the text about the potential story effects and stat effects of each option, and indicate when one option is easier or harder than the others.

Good luck!

Dec 16

2016

VERSUS: The Elite Trials — Infiltrate the Elite gods, or turn double agent?

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (0)

We’re proud to announce that VERSUS: The Elite Trials, 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 January 2!

Will you infiltrate the gods’ Elite Courte, stealing their superpowers, or turn double agent and join them, taking your place among the divine?

VERSUS: The Elite Trials is a thrilling 140,000-word interactive novel by Zachary Sergi, author of our best-selling Heroes Rise trilogy. 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.

In this sequel to VERSUS: The Lost Ones, as one of the prisoners trapped on planet Versus, you must vote for who will fight in deadly gladiatorial battles. Thirteen prisoners have formed a voting bloc, the Elite Courte, to ensure that they choose who lives and who dies.

But one of their so-called “gods” has a plan for revolution. Your power to steal superpowers and memories makes you the perfect spy–or the perfect double agent.

MemoryTravel through time and space–keeping one step ahead of the enforcer agents who want you dead. Play the gods against each other in games within games. Design your own planet in the halls of the gods.

On Versus, nothing and no one is as they seem, perhaps not even you.

  • Play as male, female, or non-binary
  • Create a planet and culture in your own image
  • Romance one (or more!) of ten different characters
  • Subvert the corrupt Elite Courte, or join them to suppress rebellion
  • Learn the shocking truth about your home planet, Prisca
  • Rejoin Lady Venuma, Grog, and Breeze; meet a new cast of alien characters

We hope you enjoy playing VERSUS: The Elite Trials. 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.

Dec 16

2016

New Hosted Game! Tokyo Wizard by Adrao

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (3)

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Become a powerful wizard or witch in modern day Japan! Tokyo Wizard is a 144,000 word tale in which you’ll learn the power of magic and the consequences of it. Become one with Shinto animal spirit magic, learn powerful battle spells, or choose the path of necromancy and command an undead army! The game is entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects, where your choices control entirely the outcome of the game. Can you free Tokyo from the evil menace facing it, or will you be consumed by dark magic?

  • Learn over 60 unique spells, divided into magic schools such as necromancy and illusion.
  • Battle or befriend an array of Japanese mythological creatures, including guardian Nio, bakeneko, forest Kappa and powerful elementals.
  • Three different game paths with 30+ endings.
  • Restore yourself to life with the save system.

Adrao 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.

Dec 13

2016

Author Interview: Zachary Sergi – “Versus: The Elite Trials”

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

Choice of Games’ latest release will be Versus: The Elite Trials by Zachary Sergi, the thrilling sequel to Versus: The Lost Ones. As one the prisoners trapped on planet Versus, you must vote for who will fight in deadly gladiatorial battles. Thirteen prisoners have formed a voting block, the Elite Courte, to ensure that they choose who lives and who dies. But one of their so-called “gods” has a plan for revolution. Your power to steal superpowers and memories makes you the perfect spy–or the perfect double agent. On Versus, nothing and no one is as they seem, perhaps not even you.

I sat down with the author, Zachary Sergi, to learn more about his game and his experiences writing interactive fiction. Look for Versus: The Elite Trials later this week, releasing on Thursday, December 15th.

Tell me about the world of Versus. There are all sorts of strange aliens, creatures, and types of superpowers floating inhabiting this universe. What kinds of things influenced your world-building?

Oh man, I could write an entire novel answering this question (and I guess I kind of did!) There were two major points of inspiration for Versus—the first was the now-defunct 1990s Crossgen Comics universe, which had a series take place on a world in every genre (except for super-heroes, purposefully). These worlds existed in an interconnected galaxy and there was one series, Negation, where characters from each world were dropped on an experimental prison planet and the comics followed their escape across space, learning to work together despite their very-alien differences. The idea for a world where every character was from a different genre always stuck with me (everything I write tends to mash genres, another facet I credit with my own personal writing god of worship, Joss Whedon). To me, Versus is Survivor meets Hunger Games meets Downton Abbey, with characters plucked from dozens of genre planets. Oh, and the TV show Lost! I forgot I was obsessed with that show when I started creating Versus, so that was a huge influence, too.

When I was a kid/pre-teen, I made up the Versus universe using my action figures (Marvel Legends are my jam), but added in my other favorite ingredient: voting-elimination competitions, like Survivor. (The Hero Project was the same thing—I played a version of American Idol with my action figures that eventually spawned The Hero Project/the Heroes Rise fame-driven universe). It was so much fun discovering what happened if you put a pirate and a monster and a goddess and a super hero and a slave and a space ranger (and more) on the same planet and forced them to vote each other out. Except the consequences are much graver here, because you don’t just go home—you go into a death match to fight for your life.

That’s how the Versus concept was birthed, 15 or so years ago—and when I was looking to start a second Choice of Games title, this concept seemed to lend itself perfectly to the interactive format. Many of the characters—Lady Venuma, Breeze, Todrick, just to name a few—were based on characters I created as a kid with my action figures. I always say I do the same thing as an adult—except my toybox is a bit different, now.

If we’re talking specific influences for Versus: The Elite Trials, I spent a lot of time looking at Versailles and other French gardens/castles to inspire The Elite Castle. The #365DaysofDrag series by Phi Phi O’Hara on Instagram inspired some of MamaNa’s best lewks. I crafted a playlist (I do this for every project) that had a lot of Tinashe, Jhene Aiko, Lianne La Havas, Sza and Halsey (who literally has songs titled Young Gods and Castle) when writing The Elite Trials, to set the right regal sonic mood.

What is it about the Versus saga that really compels you to tell this story?

Well, part of that answer lies in the MemoryTravel chapters—I originally conceived of them as more “procedural” (case of the week, like Law & Order—or really, more like Lost episodes) chapters that would allow me to explore some of the characters’ home worlds without getting too bogged down in often-crushingly complicated main-story choice-based plot paths. The OtherBoard Binarian sequence was a place for me to explore the meaning of artificial intelligence and deconstruct racial relations, while The Elite Trials is my chance to go full-blown Great Gatsby and explore cultures of wealth/privilege, as well as exploring what draws us to religion—and what defines divinity.

Specifically in The Elite Trials, I got the chance to write something I’ve always wanted to—a utopian/dystopian world-building sequence that allows readers to create their very own societies. My favorite class from college was a seminar where we did nothing but read utopian literature and deconstruct the societies based on 12 sectors—then the final assignment was to write our own utopias. When I wrote my own utopia final project, the world rules I created really surprised me—so I wanted to see if I could recreate that experience for our readers.

Everything I learned in that class has helped in my science fiction writing, but I used a lot of my notes from that class specifically to help generate the kinds of choices (if you look closely, there are about 12 general societal sectors the reader chooses, and they’re all tied in one way or another to the kind of Wone deity you choose to be). The goal with this particular section was to provoke thought about questions like why do we pay taxes or how do we think human nature compels us to act—stuff we often overlook. My first goal as a writer is always to entertain first and foremost, but if I can sneak some veggies in with the meatloaf, I’ve really done my job!

This is not your first rodeo by any means. You’ve written four of our most popular games in Heroes Rise and Heroes Rise: Redemption Season as well as the first Versus game. What’s changed for you in writing IF over the course of those? What are you enjoying and what do you find challenging in the form?

Every single book teaches me something new—though I have to say, The Elite Trials is probably my least linear and most branchy installment. It feels much wider than it is long, and I took to heart a lot of reader feedback on feeling railroaded and worked a lot with Jason and Mary (lovely CoG editors) to teach me how to build even better choices. After all, the first Heroes Rise was one of the very first CoG books published, so I feel like we’ve really all grown together. While my earlier books favor 4-5 character types and reward consistency, The Elite Trials is much more complicated—you’re going to have to sacrifice something important to you along the way. There’s no clean victory/character profile for any type of reader, which ultimately makes things more interesting (and makes the choices more compelling, hopefully).

Looking back, The Prodigy was just my first opportunity to (pretty quickly out of college) tell a story that was authentically me in this original format (the learning curve was steep, though—coding that first book was a doozy, nor was there a deep CoG catalogue to study yet). In college we weren’t really encouraged to write genre stuff, so this was quite literally my first time writing about super heroes (the biggest love of my life), which seems insane looking back on it now. I’m thankful for that more literary schooling though, because I think it belongs in genre storytelling and has grounded the my writing in character and emotion… I’ve always taken the approach that if you strip away all the genre elements, is there a story still there to tell based on just the characters?

Anyway, I never thought anyone would read Heroes Rise, so when readers actually embraced it, a light bulb went off: oh, this is what I should be doing. Then The Hero Project was my chance to tell the story I was always itching to—my child-created reality TV series (it’s still wild to see fan art of someone like Lucky or Mach Girl, who I never thought would leave my childhood bedroom). If The Prodigy was me channeling my own struggle/fantasy with the American Dream as a writer, The Hero Project was about processing how to handle reader feedback and take things to the next level. Also, the books rather nicely track my own growth as an advocate—tracking the evolution of my perception of gender specifically is the best way to see this (the concept of Zehirs, while well-intentioned, was pretty regressive based on what I know now).

HeroFall was my first chance to really play with alternate endings and branchy storylines, knowing I wouldn’t have to service plot-lines directly in another book. With interactive fiction, you can’t always have it all—the more choice you offer, the more the linear story has to shrink. We don’t have armies of writers writing branched plots—it all falls on the individual author—so it’s always a balance between important moments of choice and important moments that will allow the story to continue beyond just one installment, restricted by deadlines!

The first Versus book got a bit away from me—I didn’t anticipate how much world building I’d have to do, given that there are no earth-references available and every character is literally from a different world. Given the time I had to write The Lost Ones, I did the best I could, but I wish I had another year for that one. And as for Redemption Season, that’s the book I’m perhaps most proud of, despite the polarizing reader reaction—I think it captured a point of view most often overlooked in pop culture. I’ve learned the most important lessons from that book about the world outside my little LA/NYC bubble, and if anything, the openness of format in The Elite Trials is a direct answer to some of the harsh feedback on Redemption Season.

What other SF/superhero/alien stories do you admire, and why?

Oh man—another insanely hard question to answer shortly. If we focus on Versus alone (and leave the superhero element out of it), there were some really clear primary inspirations. Obviously Star Wars and Game of Thrones and Lost come to mind first. American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, and Battlestar Galactica. I could go on and on, but those are the big ones!

There is one more Versus game before you’re done telling us about these characters. Any hints for our readers about what might be coming?

Well, the jury is out on exactly how many books I’ll need to get to the end point I’ve had planned from the beginning, but yes, definitely at least one more book in the works. Though I come from the background of reading comics (and TV)—I love serialized storytelling. The Versus world has so many other eras and stories to be told, so I’d love to get to expand the universe someday—or a real dream would be to see other talented writers take their crack at the corners of the Versus worlds.

As for what’s coming next, if Versus has been about anything, it’s that nothing is truly the way it presents itself on the surface, once you look underneath. So we’re building to one big unexpected finale twist that was actually my first idea when I started building the plot. Originally I thought it could take as many as 5 to 10 books to get to that end point, but the nature of interactive novels makes that impossible to do in a truly satisfying way, so I’m condensing to get there faster. Which means, like what Marvel is doing with the Star Wars comics filling in the three year gap between Episode 4 and 5, there could be future stories to be told. Also, when thinking about the next Versus book, one big name comes to mind: Empress Vaccus.

What else are you working on, both for Choice of Games and other things you’re writing?

I’m starting to turn my eye to the next installment of Redemption Season for next year, then hopefully another (and potentially final) Versus installment. These past two years I wrote two TV pilots that got close to being made: one about a college girl who has a nervous breakdown and joins youth-based cult, and the other about a single 28-year-old who quits her life when all her friends get engaged and falls into the world of Tarot cards (but it’s unclear if she’s having a bipolar break or accessing psychic power). Looking ahead, I’ve got another idea I’m starting to work on, but haven’t decided if it’s another pilot or traditional novel quite yet…

Proust/Pivot Style Questionnaire Questions:

What is your favorite word?

Pass. (In one sense, in means success, moving forward—but it Hollywood, a pass means a rejection. I think all the best words have two meanings, and no other word has ever motivated me quite as much as this one).

Your favorite color?

Blue (especially when paired with white—I have the wardrobe to prove it).

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Writing professor!

Which would you not like to attempt?

I’m a TERRIBLE athlete. Also, my little brother has a real estate job that requires constant interaction with strangers and selling—he’s brilliant at it, and it sounds like my worst nightmare.

Sparkling or still?

Tap.

Dec 08

2016

Cannonfire Concerto — A symphony of intrigue begins an overture to war!

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (0)

We’re proud to announce that Cannonfire Concerto, 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 December 15!

In an 18th century symphony of intrigue, your supernatural virtuoso performance begins an overture to war!

Cannonfire Concerto is a 190,000-word interactive novel by Caleb Wilson, 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.

You are the finest musician of the 18th century. Behind fans and opera glasses, audiences whisper that you are a bearer of Genius, a mysterious supernatural power to master your chosen instrument. At the brink of war, spies, generals, and royalty vie for control of the continent. Will you play them all like a fiddle? Who truly holds the strings?

Play as male, female or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual. For some, romance is a means to an end. For some, it’s a sonata duet of love and sex. Perhaps both.

Will you and your Genius achieve immortality, or will the poisoned pens of critics slaughter your career? Will you overthrow the church, bringing forth a new era of enlightenment, or defend your kingdom from a secular invasion?

The concert hall is silent. The Cannonfire Concerto is about to begin.

  • Play as male, female or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
  • Confound the competition with your musical talent on the violin, guitar, or zither.
  • Do you give a private concert, or are you really there to gather intelligence?
  • Join Bonaventure Fox on his conquest for Meropa, or fight him on the side of Rienzi.
  • Romance royalty, or rekindle your relationship with a childhood sweetheart.
  • Rebuild the nation, or leave it behind to begin anew.

We hope you enjoy playing Cannonfire Concerto. 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.

Dec 06

2016

Author Interview: Caleb Wilson – “Cannonfire Concerto”

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

Choice of Games’ latest release will be Cannonfire Concerto, an adventure of spies, intrigue, musical genius, and more set in a world not too unlike Napoleonic Europe, called “Meropa.” I sat down with the author, Caleb Wilson, to learn more about his game and his experiences writing interactive fiction. Look for Cannonfire Concerto later this week, releasing on Thursday, December 8th.


Cannonfire is a fantastic game, both in the sense that I loved it, and also that it’s set in a slightly fantastical version of perhaps Napoleonic Europe, which you call Meropa. Tell me about Meropa and some of the corresponding real-world places you explore in the game.

Meropa is definitely meant to be a cartoonish/simplified version of Napoleonic Europe. In the earliest drafts, it *was* Napoleonic Europe: Cerigne was Cologne, Kavka was Prague, Bonaventure Fox was Napoleon Bonaparte, etc. It never quite worked properly. I think that because I wanted to make the world of the game simpler and smaller than real history, it just felt weird to write about real places and people. Rienzi was never based on a particular city, though in our world it would have been a rival to Florence and Venice. Its role in the story is as the main city that has embraced “Genius” as definitely a real thing. Colubrina is like if Venice were full of mazy alleyways instead of canals. The Grand Duchy of Lithaltania is kind of all the Balkan states rolled into one. The real Lithuania was one of the last places in Europe to officially convert to Christianity. A city that’s mentioned but never visited in the final version of the game is Aessa, which was to have been modeled on Odessa.

What is “Genius?”

It’s a little ambiguous on purpose — some people consider it a soul, and some people don’t believe in it at all. I think its tentacles make it just a bit sinister. One thing that I play with a bit is how much physical presence a Genius has. The main character of Cannonfire thinks of it as something physical and separate, and seems to see it interacting with other people, though really it interacts with their Geniuses. So in a sense I think the Genius’s existence could be denied! Whatever it is, there’s no moral element to the Genius, which I guess makes it pretty different from a soul after all.

What kinds of social issues did you have in mind as you were writing it?

Hmm, maybe only the fairly obvious idea, still relevant these days, that being a skilled artist doesn’t make someone a good person. In general, I really like the inclusive mode that Choice of Games sets as the default in its games. It was really nice to work from that, and fun to try to write a character than felt consistent no matter what details the player chose.

And your background–you’re a long-time IF writer but this is your first CoG title.

Yes, I’ve written a bunch of short parser IF, mostly entered in various “minicomps” — this seems to be a term I only see in that context, but they are more or less game jams.

What were some of the unique aspects of working in ChoiceScript for you, as compared to other IF tools?

Of all the various IF tools I’ve used, ChoiceScript feels the most like writing prose fiction. But that’s also a little bit of a trap, because you can’t just write like you’re writing a novel. My technique was to make the mercurial and somewhat fickle nature of the protagonist part of the story: it’s not so much that the reader is choosing what kind of person the virtuoso is, because they’re always the kind of person who might think to do all the choices the reader is given, but instead they just help the protagonist which impulses to follow. I try to make the presented choices part of the narrative too, and when I read a piece pf choice-based IF I like to imagine the character thinking of actually doing all of these things. I also like how ChoiceScript lets you easily integrate game-aspects into the fiction, though I think there’s still a lot there for me to explore.

Do you have some favorite IF (other than your own) you want to rave about to me?

I really love the work of Chandler Groover, which is dark and fairy tale-ish. He started writing in the last few years and has
already produced a bunch of remarkable pieces, my favorite being “Midnight. Swordfight.” I’d also like to mention “With Those We Love Alive” by Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie, which is mind-blowing and heart-breaking, even if you don’t follow its directions to draw sigils on yourself with a marker (though it really does add something kind of special).

What are you working on next for us?

I want to write another story set in Meropa! It would be very different from Cannonfire, and I now that I’m a little more familiar with how a long-form ChoiceScript story can be constructed, I have some ideas for making the focus a little different. It would explore a place that’s mentioned in Meropa but not visited, Rabami (heavily inspired by Finland), and I’d like to make it a thriller.

Proust style/Pivot-style Questionnaire questions:

What is your favorite word?

Picaresque.

Your favorite color and flower?

Green, very dark purple iris.

Your favorite composer?

Michael Nyman. His piece “Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds”, first used in the movie The Draughtsman’s Contract, is the unofficial theme song of Cannonfire Concerto.

 What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

I used to imagine being a scientist. Assuming I could magically become better at math, I’d like to attempt it.

What profession would you not like to do?

Being a professional athlete seems to me to be the perfectly wrong proportions of stressful, dangerous, unfair, and ego-boostingly overpaid.

Take-out: Chinese or Mexican?

Chinese, probably? I think it survives the take-out box more intact.

Dec 01

2016

Empyrean — Take down your father with his own secret airship!

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (0)

Empyrean

We’re proud to announce that Empyrean, 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 33% off until December 8th!

Overthrow your father’s regime with his own secret experimental fighter plane! Dogfight dieselpunk aeros to save your city and the iron jungle beneath it.

Empyrean is an interactive “flying ace” novel by Kyle Marquis where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–325,000 words, without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Far below the city of Actorius lies the mysterious world of the Deep Tech–creatures and plants both living and mechanical, and powered by unknown forces. Your father harvests the tech to create experimental airships, and the Revolution that fights his every move races to do the same. Your father’s aero, the Empyrean, is governed by Deep Tech dynamics not even he understands.

Only you can fly the Empyrean, match wits against ruthless oligarchs and devious spies, and take to the sky to fight your city’s enemies. But who is the enemy? The Revolution, or the government they say is corrupt? Foreign invaders, or the Deep Tech itself?

In a world of gleaming towers and downtrodden laborers, streaking aeros and deadly rooftop duels, when you risk it all, the sky’s the limit!

  • Fly the Empyrean, the greatest aircraft ever designed
  • Play as a man, a woman, or nonbinary; romance men or women.
  • Explore the Deep Tech, a savage mechanical ecosystem below your city.
  • Conceal your true identity from your family and the secret police.
  • Befriend Wesh, a denizen of the Deep Tech who is both human and machine
  • Cross swords in top secret research facilities, elegant cafés, and even atop airplanes in flight!
  • Use the Deep Tech and your political authority to improve and protect your city
  • Side with the revolution, the government, foreign powers, or the Deep Tech itself!

We hope you enjoy playing Empyrean. 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.

Dec 01

2016

Support Heather Albano’s “Keeping Time” Kickstarter

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (1)

"Keeping Time" trilogy

Heather Albano, author of Choice of Broadsides, Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance, Choice of Zombies, and A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, is running a Kickstarter for her “Keeping Time” trilogy of non-interactive steampunk time-travel novels. They tell the story of a girl, a pocket watch, Frankenstein’s monster, the Battle of Waterloo, and giant clockwork robots taking over London. Backers will get access to the final book in the trilogy, Timebound, as soon as it’s finished.

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.


Nov 29

2016

Author Interview: Kyle Marquis – “Empyrean”

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (1)

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.

Favorite word?

“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.”

Continue Reading

Nov 29

2016

End Game and Victory Design

Posted by: Adam Strong-Morse | 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.  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.

Arm-and-fingers structure

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.

Subscribe by E-mail