Choice-based games with high player agency?

Most choice-based games tend to lean more heavily on the story than the gameplay. The actual choices are kept minimal, otherwise they’d deviate too much from the main story the author wants to tell. There has to be a point where you cut everything down and say “no, you won’t get an entire outer space adventure in this romance game.”

Strangely enough, this focus tends to make me feel less engaged with a story; like I’m not actually a part of it, just reading along as an observer. Being lead single-file through the plotline with no meaningful variance for how my character reacts or goes about things is often a disappointment. I want games that can immerse me and make me think over my options.

For an example, I really liked Lady Thalia for a few reasons: The choices are exciting: pulling off heists to steal art is naturally a high stakes setting. It’s very easy to fumble and blow your cover, which makes you think twice before committing to an action. And you immediately feel the impact of your choices. In an entire scene, you can drop your score dramatically by picking the wrong things and playing sloppily. Pace Smith’s Limerick Heist I enjoyed as well: every choice leads to something different and the resulting text is always fun to read.

I’m not specifically seeking out crazy format benders or games with a million endings (ideally a one- or two-off game would be preferable); just games that invite you in to be a part of their world. Similarly, this doesn’t have to be exclusively Twine. There are a lot of other choice-based engines that I have no experience with playing or developing and I’d like to see how they differ.

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Brian has a great list of games on the IFDB :

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I’ve looked at this list, but it mostly seems to be games that aren’t the norm in terms of structure or gameplay. Not that they’re bad – some of them seem pretty interesting – but they’re explicit format-breakers where the appeal is that they aren’t regular choice-based games.

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Plenty of “regular” choice-based games available at CoG, with loooaaaadddsss of choices that influence the story. That’s kind of the bread and butter of CoG after all.

If you’re looking for the best ones…

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I think you’re too narrow on what “the norm” is for choice-based games. There are plenty of games in the format that have a lot of choices that significantly affect the outcome of the story as opposed to being led “single-file through the plotline”–a lot of them just mask how many branches there are that are being chopped off with every choice a player makes. I wouldn’t hesitate to say “a large chunk” of them. Given that Choice of Games’ output are renowned for their broad scope of paths and endings (especially in games later on in their history), the Tumblr IF crowd (afaik) tends to pride themselves on the same quality, and there are still loads of “traditional” choice-based games with wide, varied choices, I might even say “a majority” of them.

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:100:
Choice-based games being so diverse in story-telling, interactivity, and agency, I don’t think there is an actual norm we could even agree on :joy: but more trends depending on the (sub)community where games are made.

It’s kind of like parsers in that sense, imo: an umbrella term to refer to a form of IF games rather than a genre.

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100% agree!!

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I’d actually say choice-based games are more likely than parser games to let you fundamentally alter the story with your choices! Classic text adventures tend to have one and only one ending (not counting “you died! restart, restore, or undo?”) and the fun is in the journey you take to get there, whereas many of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books never merged their branches back together, so every single choice you make leads to a totally different ending.

Now, most modern games aren’t quite this extreme one way or another—even back in the early days there were text adventures with multiple endings and gamebooks with merging branches (especially the ones that tracked stats). But that early inspiration is in the DNA of the genre. Twine makes it a lot easier to split your game into two branches that never overlap again than Inform does, for example.

So—and I promise I will write this Rosebush article someday—I think it comes down to what feels like “agency” to you rather than a single variable we can quantify. Which isn’t to say it’s not real! Most reasons why people enjoy or don’t enjoy art are difficult or impossible to quantify. But when you say you want higher player agency, do you mean (for example) that you want a lot of different endings shaped directly by your choices, or you want freedom to play different sorts of characters and see how the story responds, or you want to see stats go up and down with the options you choose, or you want a “sandbox” where you can pursue a different plot each time?

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Also in the category of Rosebush-articles-I-may-one-day-write: is there a difference between player agency, i.e. the player has a bunch of options when they engage with the game, and protagonist agency, where the protagonist can do a lot of different things at any point in time? Most parser games have protagonists that can try to do almost anything, any time they want - it’s just that mostly those attempts will fail and they exist in a static narrative where very few of those actions have more than a binary progress/don’t progress impact. And yet to some players that can feel more like agency, which is potentially interesting to dig into.

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I once read a few academic articles that described agency as a kind of aesthetic pleasure of response. Rather than treating agency as “freedom” (which is unquantifiable and nebulous), it might be better to see the “result” of the response.

As the other posters said, agency might be more meaningful a metric if we are seeing how player actions alter the game/world/character state. Games with “high player agency” might mean having interactivity that actually create new variations of an already defined setting that impact gameplay or characters.

To move from text adventures a bit, Minecraft exhibits high agency from players because they can literally terraform the world and make it into whatever they want. The game responds in kind by spawning enemies and resources according to the player’s wishes and mistakes.

Meanwhile, games with limited agencies can create stressful and tenuous experiences. The tired example of Dark Souls is useful: players are limited by their stamina to input swings and dodge. Overcoming this wall is part of the fun: you feel accomplishment from doing something with a small toolkit.

So if we look at text adventure games like choice-based games, the choices that do exist and the ones that don’t matter are navigating the same waters. It’s just that agency as an aesthetic experience of response is more curated in choice games than parser games (you could, in theory, type anything you wish). This curation is, I think, intrinsic to all choice games and they want players to feel a certain thing with this agency.

I guess I don’t really agree that choice games, even the ones that are linear, are focused on “story” over “gameplay”. Each press of a button is affecting both story and gameplay. You are evoking a world of possibilities with each button you click, much like how in parser text input you can imagine a world. However, the possibilities are just more curated, more streamlined in order to get an aesthetic response that certainly has less “input” from the player but is still evocative because the text and therefore the world have changed.

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Maybe useful there to separate feedback and consequences: you can pick up and move objects around wherever, and you get feedback that that’s happening, but only a few of even the successful moves have the consequence of solving the puzzle… and consequences can be unintended: you broke the window so now you can get inside, but someone heard the crash and now they’re chasing after you, etc.

I think “agency” is such a broad term that it’s tricky to talk about because different people mean different things by it. e.g. Responsiveness in Narrative Systems has nearly 50 pages devoted to talking about different ways people use it and trying to synthesize some common ground.

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People speak of a hard dichotomy between choice-based and parser-based games but boiled down to a reductive soup they both offer a limited choice of valid actions, it is just that part of the fun in parser-based games is figuring out the steps in making the choice instead of clicking on some words.

Most choice-based games tend to lean more heavily on the story than the gameplay.

I am not sure that is true but you are certainly right that if an author sets out to tell a particular story then a choice-based environment is the way to go. That said it is certainly possible to make choice-based games where the player has a large amount of freedom but that doesn’t necessarily make for a better game.

I think the real skill in writing choice-based games is not providing wildly different choices but writing compelling enough prose that players feel engaged with the story. The choices should feel impactful but again that is a feature of the prose not necessarily the game mechanics.

I’ll rather have a game where I wanted to see what happens than one where I could branch off into one of a hundred tedious endings.

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Choice of Games is pretty much a master of disguise: an information overload to mask how little it actually affects things. You are bombarded with giant status bars and a million little stats to micromanage, but in reality nothing will affect most of these stats and what they do won’t be obvious at all. Yet you will always get 4-6 choices at any given time, all of them feeling the same. I’ve also noticed a trend of massive pacing problems with these stories, spending too long on setup and usually being unfinished or paywalled before you get to the interesting part.

There’s been a couple times I’ve found a game that looked interesting and dropped it solely due to the ChoiceScript format. I don’t really think I’m missing out.

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So even with the super wide variety of games/gameplay, with tons of recommendations out there, you still don’t vibe with anything… Maybe… you just don’t like choice-based games? And that’s ok.
You don’t need to force yourself with that type if you don’t click with it.
:woman_shrugging:

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Mmm, that diverges from my experience - among other things, the Choice of Games editing involves making sure that there’s a lot of branching, that stats all impact the story, and that each choice has some kind of effect on the narrative. I don’t know if you may have been playing Hosted Games, which don’t have editorial oversight? Or like Manon says, that style may just not vibe with you.

Edit: this article may be of interest, about a typical CoG design structure for endings.

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You don’t like the usual kind of choice-based games, so you are given examples of the unusual kind, but you don’t like those because they’re unusual. Based on this, you are then given a specific subset of choice-based games which apply game design theory to maximize the illusion of agency (because, fun fact: player agency tends to be an illusion in games anyway, even in a parser game or a full-on simulator), and you reject those because you understand that they use the illusion of agency, when this absolutely happens as standard practice in all kinds of games outside of the choice-based and IF, too, because a dev can only implement so much, and a writer can only stretch the boundaries of a story so far.

I’m not really sure what you expect any game genre or medium to do when given such extreme constraints, and it’s making this parser coder wonder if you’re trying to artificially create an extreme set of constraints that will ensure any targeted subset of games will fail to meet your expectations.

I think you might be looking for a tabletop RPG, honestly. :woman_shrugging:

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Games that follow traditional choice-based games structure but allow you to strategize for very different endings and also signal the choices on the way include:

-Choice of Robots (different in its feel of agency than other CoG games, although I like 90% of CoG games)
-Sorcery 2 (a traditional gamebook)
-80 Days (It’s kind of shocking how different playthroughs can be here. Going to the north pole once was so wild…)

But these have multiple endings, and you mentioned less endings…
-Cannery Vale gives you only one real ending but its open world and minigames and options to do explicit material or not made it feel like a living world.

All of these are in the tradition of other CYOA games. There are some others that could fit but are unusual (like 4x4 Archipelago). I’ll add more if I think of any!

Edit: ‘we the remainder’ by Charm Cochran has a traditional feel but arranges the links in a neat way and overall felt like I was in control.

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Here’s a few Twine games that I think align with your parameters (not too experimental, while having more story-affecting choices than your stereotypical ‘mosty linear’ Twine game), some popular, some not.

  • A Long Way To The Nearest Star - Long, has puzzles.
  • HUNTING UNICORN - Short, very story-focused, no puzzles, but it does have multiple endings and some interesting cause-effect chains you have to figure out to get the best ending. I played this one through a lot of times for the best ending.
  • Tangarora Deep - Short, not many puzzles, but there’s a dynamic exploration system and endings that fit your choices like a glove.
  • LIDO - Very short horror game, but still has multiple endings and clever ways they tie into… whatever’s going on there. I guess the whole game is a puzzle, if you look at it right.
  • Trigaea - Very very long. Full disclosure, I haven’t beaten it yet, but if you’re just looking for a “good” choice-based game this is one of the best out there. It’s pretty much a full-blown RPG. Not many puzzles that I can remember, but it has multiple endings and faction alignment and all that. Plus a fun combat system with upgrades and battling monsters and stuff.
  • 16 Ways To Kill A Vampire At McDonalds - Short, story-focused with puzzles, multiple endings, and many choices.

And I really second MathBrush’s suggestion of Cannery Vale (it’s one of my favorites).

All the above games have multiple endings that are affected by the choices you make throughout, not just at one or two decision points.

I can’t really comment on ChoiceScript games because I don’t play many, haha. I do remember that in some, since they don’t tell you how high your stats have to be for a specific story branch to happen, and some of your choices only affect your stats and not much else, it can be hard to figure out how much your choices are affecting things. Though I’m not saying all of them are like that, of course.

There’s a game I played many years ago, which was probably ChoiceScript, that I remember being something of an exception. It was some kind of management sim involving training monsters. It was only a demo, so I couldn’t play the actual full game, but I had some fun with it. What I remember about that one was it was very responsive to how you treated the monsters and you could be hilariously mean to them by making them do things they hated doing and forcing them into roles they despised. Like making the shy and sensitive one into a fighter. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of it or find it on IFDB, so go figure.

I liked a lot of the games from MathBrush’s list, too, that got linked in the second post, so you could check them out even if most might be unusual for their formats. Not sure what you meant by “the appeal is that they aren’t regular choice-based games”. I think any game that’s good or interesting will be different from the flock somehow, so most of the suggestions you get won’t be for regular games? And there’s a lot of different kinds of choice-based games out there, so regular could mean a lot of things.

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I mentioned this in previous messages and chat before, but there are multiple choice narrative flavors based on the level of agency:

(These are all basic, and there are hybrids and varying levels of agency - works may not just fall into one of these categories.)

  • Dynamic Fiction: The story is linear, the player clicks through but occasionally may make slight variations such as choosing their name or their dog’s name which is text-substituted going forward, cycling a choice for “attitude”, or clicking a link for an extra description that does not branch, or engaging in a mini game or “busy box” to proceed. Sometimes it appears multiple choices are presented, but the player must simply lawnmower all of them to continue forward. The plot does not vary based on choices the player makes. It’s similar to a pop-up book (or other ergodic literature that pretty much all IF qualifies as); there are things to do on each page but the plot is not affected significantly by any interaction. Occasionally these may offer a single choice at the end for an ‘ultimate’ decision, or make a win/lose choice “based on what you’ve learned” at the end. See my father’s long, long legs (Or Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of this Book where the reader is encouraged not to turn pages, and the only choice is to do so and continue, or listen to Grover and stop reading to avoid the monster at the end.)

  • Linear/Branching: You read the story, making choices. Each choice flows to a new passage and there may be several endings. The structure is basically a static flow-chart. No world state is tracked and plot variation is solely based on what page/passage the player chooses next. The physical Choose Your Own Adventure branded titles and many simple choice-narratives are this.

    • Hub and Spoke alternative - light world-state: Linear branching, but the player may find they “loop back” to a hub and are able to make a different choices after exploring a certain branch. This may contain simple world-state such as visiting a “you found a key” passage to be able access a branch involving a locked door. Many game-books use this structure, asking the player to roll a die or flip a coin to determine success/failure, and they may loop repeatedly into hubs with choices of encounters.
  • Statistics-based/Wide Lanes: Many Choice of Games titles operate like this. The player has tracked statistics based on abilities or relationships. Making choices increments or decrements these stats, and later choices may be included or unavailable based on previous ones. Usually the plot is mostly linear though there may be side-branches that gather again. The effect is like a multi-lane highway leading from one city to the other, the player will always reach the destination (barring a bad “game over” choice) but can choose which “lane” they travel in, affecting how the story is told and develops. The reader may be obstructed from changing lanes or progressing in certain lanes, or perhaps offered extra lanes based on previous accomplishments. Normally the story will always proceed forward to a set conclusion, but the denouement/finale can vary (“how good of an ending do you get?”) based on the cumulative choices, game-behavior, and accomplishments…such as who the love interest turns out to be, or how well you trained in an ability, and whether you made the world better or burned it down in the process. (Many Visual Novels/Dating Sims use a simple version of this or simple QBN/grinding as below - they are usually quite low agency but may be replayable and the only branching based on an ability or companion/love interest you choose or work toward modifying your stats toward choosing their route. See Doki Doki Literature Club.)

  • Quality Based Narrative (QBN): This is the IF equivalent of a complicated RPG. The uber example is Fallen London. There are hundreds of variables and statistics (“qualities” the player possesses), many may be hidden from the player instead of single list of known stats. Instead of relying on singular choices (do you have a key? T/F?), the player might be required to “grind” a stat to a specific level to open a specific choice - by repeatedly making the same choice Study at the library or Spend time with Bob or Train at the Archer’s Guild over the course of multiple days. They may be limited in the number of things they can choose and accomplish by an energy limit or time-progression cycle. Grinding or selecting a choice may involve a percentage for success involving a dice-roll, potentially based on the level of another quality. If your Stealth is currently 6, you might have a 60% chance of winning the dice roll to pick a lock. Usually there is a randomized element to the plot structure - you may have enough charisma to buy from a traveling vendor, but you may only be able to interact with them when you they visit your town (their passage/card is drawn from a “deck” of random occurrences and encounters.)

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I never really played any choice games until about 4-5 years ago, and considered myself a diehard parser player. I might have written something similar to this before trying a lot of choice games.

I appreciate them a lot more now after having played a lot of varied types of choice games, but I still like parser games better, and that’s OK. I don’t care for visual novels where you’re just clicking through, and that’s OK too. It’s just not my bag.

There are choice games, however, that would not work as parser games, where the story just lends itself readily to the format, and which felt deeply immersive to me.

This is one of the things I learned from playing a lot of choice games. The trick of a good parser game is to usher the player along the rails while making it seem as if the game is wide open, and some writers do that extremely well-- so well that it fools us into thinking there’s more choice there.

We all tend to write what we know and like. I picked up Inform instead of Twine because I’ve been playing parser games since I was 10. One day I’ll learn Twine, though, because I have some stories in my mental file cabinet that won’t work as parsers. But my WIP right now, which is a parser, is using some choice-based stuff in it, and from that I have learned how woefully huge a project can get when you’re tracking tons of different options and outcomes.

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