How do you "show" choice in choice-based IF?

I recently published a Twine game with a great deal of shifting variables that change the story and six different endings that you reach by incremental choices. Today I got a review from someone complaining that there were “very few choices,” which makes sense in a way… you’d only realize how many other choices you had if you played it a few times. It’s put me in a pickle, because I don’t want to advertise “so many choices/endings!” everywhere when I tell people about the game, I’d like them to just explore the world themselves and figure it out. I’d like to know, though: when you’re writing non-parser IF, how do you build the narrative to explicitly show the variety of choices in the game?

My first thought is just to include lots of shifting variables, like if you learned about an object earlier you would recognize it later. I did do some of this, but you’ll only notice if you’re really paying attention.

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I haven’t played your game, so this is a general comment. One of the reasons I generally don’t play more choice-based IF is precisely because often I have to replay it in order to see everything. A game (like a book) has to be truly extraordinary in order for me to want to go through it again making different choices. I know some people love this aspect of choice-based IF, but I think it can be a problem in a Comp like this, where there are so many games to be played, and judges can only rate based on 2 hours of play time.

What is your game? Slugzuki doesn’t show up on a search of the entries page.

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My game is Universal Hologram! The Interactive Fiction Competition
Your explanation makes a lot of sense, I’ve definitely noticed a preference for parser games and against Twine stuff for that reason (also the lower barrier for entry, I suppose). The reviewer didn’t like the tone of the game, which I totally understand, it’s very idiosyncratic and not for everyone; I was just a little thrown off by the “few choices” thing I guess because I never thought about how I could indicate to the reader that their choices matter and affect the story without having them play it multiple times (a multi-hour commitment I wouldn’t ask of anybody judging a competition).

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I’ve played Twine games which displayed a message about the ending you reached - something like “You discovered ending 4 of 7: Hope for the Future”. A couple of times it motivated me to replay a game, as it made clear my choices mattered a lot.

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Oh that’s a great idea, I should definitely implement something like that!

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If you’re using the SugarCube story format in Twine, the memorize(), recall(), and forget() functions are useful for tracking achievements like Agat suggested.

I’d also recommend making sure that the choices in your game are true choices that actually matter. Players hate it when they play through a game a second time and discover that making different choices produces the same results. This makes the player feel railroaded and like their choices didn’t actually matter.

You also shouldn’t go too long without letting the player make a choice. If you’re showing people passage, after passage, after passage, and it’s entirely linear, then the player is less connected to the story than if they were interacting with it and making choices.

The problem with the two above methods is that they may lead to too many branches to keep up with. So to help keep that under control, you can make those choices “level up” various skills, attributes, and/or relationships or simply provide you with money, items, or information, and then use those levels, items, or information to have a better chance at succeeding at various critical story branches later on. This also helps players feel rewarded with a sense of progress towards a goal whenever they make their choices, especially if they can see visible indicator of that progress (skill bars go up, inventory slots filled, etc.).

If you do that, I’d recommend that in branches where choices include rewards, you should have rewards for all choices there, even the “bad” choices, since otherwise you’re back to railroading the player. Remember, a choice doesn’t feel like a choice if there’s only one good option. Thus, you have to make all paths rewarding in some way. Think about it, even bad choices in your life have often been educational, since they (hopefully) helped you learn to avoid doing those things again and potentially made you better able to handle/plan for setbacks in the future. Providing some immediate feedback that the “bad” choices provide some additional benefit which couldn’t be obtained otherwise, will make people more willing to give those paths in your game a try.

For example, maybe getting beaten up by the thugs allows you to overhear the name of their boss, which would be very difficult information to discover otherwise. It may also reward you with the sympathy of another character later on, who would otherwise keep things more professional, which could be enjoyable as well.

This should help you provide more real choices to players, that all feel rewarding, but without the “railroading” which can easily happen in games like this.

Hope that helps! :slight_smile:

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Something similar happened with @tripperm’s “The Call of Innsmouth” last year. The story had some substantial branches that nobody noticed.

@CogsAndSpanners tied for first place in the same competition, and he set out to “make a choice-based piece that heavily surfaced its divergent paths.”

Some authors have been successful making tradeoffs that break the reader out of the story long enough to point out that something has changed.

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This is really helpful, especially keeping in mind not letting players go too long without making a choice. I’m definitely guilty of that, most of the major choices in my game don’t appear until halfway through. Thank you for responding in such depth!

I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Because of preexisting assumptions (Twines are often not as gamelike as parser etc) and biases (it is very important for something to be a game rather than some other kind of interactive experience), many players will expect disproportionate and ostentatious displays of player agency in Twines to overcome skepticisms and prove they are just as good despite their innate sinfulness, even if the Twine is, in fact, far more interactive than a linear game of parser IF. Appeasing those who are disappointed that your experience is not some other kind of experience is not a particularly fruitful expenditure of time and energy.

Thus, I think breaking all your subtleties to overload the reader with incessant evidence of interactivity isn’t inherently a better scenario. I am constantly reading books, and I cherish those experiences; why should I not find value in even an entirely linear Twine? I did not know the complete extent of the interactivity of your work when I read it, yet nevertheless I cherished the experience. Why shouldn’t I? What was ever missing, that I must be shown it was there?

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I kind of disagree. Yes, reading books can be enjoyable (I’m addictively reading a series of novels right now). However, if I wanted to read a book, then I’d be reading a book, not playing interactive fiction. (Note the emphasis there.)

If your interactive fiction lacks interaction, then this disappoints the player, because that’s what they were lead to believe they’d find there, based on what the game is supposed to be. Also, keep in mind that some people don’t find reading books enjoyable, often precisely because they lack interaction.

That said, if you want to thwart presumptions of “disproportionate and ostentatious displays of player agency”, then I’d recommend setting your story in a smaller “closed system”, such as being trapped in a house, on a boat, in a dungeon, etc., so that the limited number of options feels reasonable. This is also extremely good for your first stories, where you’re still getting used to developing in Twine. Once you have that experience under your belt, then it will be easier to handle larger settings in your later works.

Anyways, even if you disagree, I hope that’s food for thought. :slight_smile:

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This is a good point, and I think part of the issue is that the majority of the games are vastly different than mine and the majority of judges have vastly different taste. I’m fairly young, haven’t played that much IF, and haven’t enjoyed a lot of the landmark works others usually say are great. I entered primarily to get eyes on my game, not with any illusion that I’d win. But in the context of IFComp, my game is sort of an outlier and this likely won’t be the first negative reaction.

Hitting the right balance of interactivity vs. telling a coherent story will be a challenge in the future as I keep making games!

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This really warmed my heart, thank you so much :slight_smile:

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I appreciate your perspective. I am not saying interactivity is an unnecessary addition, but that the consistent phrasing in this thread about “what the player wants” as a) a stable and innate thing not constructed by community biases and b) the prime directive which all IF should serve is perhaps misguiding. The work in discussion is interactive; why this heady fugue of programmatic apologetics in response to somebody not realizing this?

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In an ideal world, all works would be judged purely on their own merits. Sadly, we don’t live in such a world.

And yes, different people have their own preferences and biases. However, that doesn’t mean we should throw out our knowledge of how the vast majority of humans work.

If people are lead to expect something which they see as good, and then that thing doesn’t happen or happens much less than expected, then they tend to feel disappointed by that. That’s simply human nature. If you set people up with interactive fiction, then they’re going to expect to be able to interact on a regular basis. Even if the resulting work is otherwise good, an unmet expectation will still be seen as a negative. This is why setting expectations appropriately is usually a good idea.

You can’t throw that point out merely by saying it’s not universal.

As for “the prime directive which all IF should serve,” I don’t know what that would be, beyond providing something that the player would find beneficial through a fictional narrative. Anything from being educational to merely being entertaining would serve that goal.

But that goes for all things. If people do things, then they generally expect to get some benefit from doing those things, even if it’s merely internal satisfaction. I’d say that this is fairly “stable and innate.”

In the end, I don’t believe I was recommending any such “prime directive” other than providing the benefits that the player expected to receive by playing through the IF, and I don’t see how you can achieve that goal for most of the players without considering “what the (typical) player wants.”

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In ChoiceScript, there is a way to make a choice not selectable (grayed out, unclickable) if certain condition is not met. Sometimes author would put a hint near the choice that explains why it’s not selectable, or sometimes the choice text is self-explanatory why it’s not selectable (this is up to the author to decide whether to make the unselectable choice “visible” or not, because it might spoil part of the story).

When I moved to Twine SugarCube, I took that same idea and made some of my choices not selectable but visible in certain conditions. This is one way how I show that there are more to discover in a replay if the reader tries a different sequence of choices. As for technically how to do it (I used the base code of the link macro and made another macro specifically for this purpose, then just styled using CSS), that depends on the actual code, and you can ask about how to do that if that’s the effect you want.

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The question of how much interactivity is “enough” is an opinion-slog.

I’m more interested in the original question: how do you make your plot variability visible to the player? This came up when discussing, e.g., Heaven’s Vault, where the dynamic plot was implemented so smoothly and integrated into the storytelling so well that it could be almost invisible.

As discussed above, some game genres make a convention of “You’re going to play through several times.” But this doesn’t fit well into IFComp.

Meanwhile, as a physical book, was able to make variations visible on the page. You could sometimes see an alternate storyline running parallel to yours, but with no obvious way to reach it! This was really cool (one of the things I loved about the book) and I wonder whether you could write a game that did something similar.

I guess a plot-chart, filled in as you reach different endings, is one way to do that.

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I know this isn’t necessarily germane to the specific question you’re asking, but I just played through your game and definitely didn’t feel like it was static or unresponsive (also I really enjoyed it!) I also feel like many of the strategies folks are discussing here, while they make sense in general, might not fit as well with your game, since I felt like there was often a lot of intentional ambiguity about the situation, context, and consequences of your actions. So chalking this up to an idiosyncratic reviewer, or mismatched expectations (doing well in IFComp isn’t always the same thing as writing a successful piece of IF!) might not be the worst thing.

With that said, while I haven’t played through multiple times, I can think of a couple of things that potentially might have led folks to perceive less branching than you’ve implemented. I’ll spoiler-block the rest of this:

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One thing that might be going on is that I think some of the state-tracking has to do with whether you opt into some of the optional content, like interacting with your neighbor, or going to one of the unnecessary locations (I can’t remember the exact name, but I think there’s a pyramid you don’t need to go to?) I skipped some of these, and I suspect that that impacted what happened later, but many players will just lawnmower through all optional content and not perceive that they’ve made a choice, even though they have! The second thing is that I could see a player seeing going along with Gen’s plan as the “right” or “intended” path and assuming that any of the pushback options are false choices.

There might be some things you can do at the margins to better telegraph what’s going on in these sequences for a player with the sorts of default assumptions mentioned above, which is why I mention it, but again, I definitely don’t think you need to at least based on my experience with the game.

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It’s been mentionned above, the cheapest solution is to label your endings (not necessarily advertise them, because someone who does not finish your game once certainly won’t play it twice by definition) and say “you reached ending 2 of 3”.
I did that for a short game (very short, less than 2k words total) I made for inkjam, and session/player went from 0.8 to 1.9 (there’s 3 endings) after I added the labels.

Less cheap, is, when reaching the end, to hint about a choice that you had almost the opportunity to make and that resonates with the current ending.

Your sister makes fun of your wedding dress, your husband-to-be-(but-not-anymore) laughs and leaves with her. (Ending 3/17)
…that bus you missed, maybe you could have met a tailor there ?

(and I’m on my way to play yours now)

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I’m glad you brought this up, because I’m a total hypocrite over this issue. I love choice-based IF in the abstract, yet in practice I rarely play a game more than once. Even if there’s a game that really captures my imagination, I’m much more likely to just seek out other players’ reviews or discussion of the game than I am to play through again.

When I was working on The Exigent Seasons, I tried to minimize this issue by making the “endings” into in-game events that you collect. I numbered them the way that @smwhr and @agat described above to encourage a collection paradigm, while I added a frame story with a slight narrative progression and additional procedurally randomized text to make loops through the core content less repetitive, but I don’t know how successful I was. Seems like most folks still only play through once or twice and call it good.

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It drives me nuts not to be able to see most of the narrative in one play-through. And I often seem to make choices that give me less game than the reviewers get, which leaves me feeling cheated. Although I often like to read the reviews, because it’s like I played a totally different game than they did.
So I mostly stay away from choice-based, although I’ve played a few really impressive ones from the Comp which have tempered my wariness of the format somewhat this week.

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