(this essay has mild spoilers for 9:05)
I’ve been thinking about writing an article on this topic for a while, but I wanted to preface it with a warning: I’m writing from the perspective of a player, not an author. So I want to present some ideas and issues, but I won’t present many solutions.
Narrative coherence, to me, means ‘how much does everything work together in one big story’? A game is coherent if everything in the game builds on each other. A game is not coherent if it goes in a hundred directions at once.
==Facets of a diamond, not branches of a tree==
There are a couple of ways that a game can be incoherent. One example is the ‘Time Cave’ structure, where the game branches exponentially into wildly different endings. This is the style most popular with kids CYOA books. A similar style is an ‘early branching’ game where the game splits into one of a few tracks at the beginning and stays on it the entire time without merging.
Both of these structures suffer from perceived lack of quality compared to actual quality. An author of such a game will spends hours and hours on the game, but because each play through only goes through one branch, the player experiences only a fraction of the material prepared by the author. This can be partially solved by replays, but because different playthroughs are so different, the final ‘feel’ is more like playing an anthology of unrelated games. In reviews of such games, players generally point out one or two parts they really liked and ignore the rest.
What is more successful in turning author work into player enjoyment is having all branches of a game relate to each other. The most extreme example is Aisle. Aisle is a strongly branching one-move game, but all endings relate to each other. They paint a picture of the main character that is fairly consistent. Even when they factually disagree with each other, they seem more like facets of a diamond instead of branches on a tree. Other branching games that act like facets instead of branches include Galatea, Heroes, and Cape.
==Oil and water don’t mix==
Another way that games can be incoherent is mashing together unrelated elements. These can include big changes in tone or in pacing.
One game that I recently played started as a campy space comedy, with humorous, bungling attempts to get into space. In space, it became a gory horror game, but the campiness continued, and it was really dissonant.
Another game had pacing issues. The game was almost entirely a wandering, conversational game with puzzles solved by bringing items from one area to another. The game then came to a massive, screeching halt because the author had decided to make the largest combinatorial puzzle in the history of IF in one location. Anyone who worked through the game without a walkthrough would have to spend hours or days on this puzzle, forgetting all of the plotting and pacing before. Some have referred to this dissonance before as “soup cans in the pantry”.
Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t mix up the tone or pacing of a game. But like mayonnaise, you need something to bind them together. Without some sort of connection, the ingredients fall apart like unshaken italian dressing.
A good example of a game that manages this is Delightful Wallpaper. This game is split into two very different halves. The first is pure puzzle, while the second focuses on narrative. However, the game binds the two by having a very strong atmosphere, a protagonist for whom both challenges seem fitting, and mirrored mechanics. In fact, the first puzzle directly prepares you for the second puzzle by acquainting you with every corner of the building.
Another game that manages to blend changes in genre is 9:05. In this game, there is a major shift in the genre, but again, everything before the shift helps to understand what is happening after the shift. Instead of throwing away what came before, it is carefully blended together with what came after.
Based on my own feelings about reviews and reading the reviews of others, I can safely say that games with coherent narratives are a pleasure to play, and result in less work for the author. If every new discovery and puzzle in a game works well together, like facets of a gem or like a blended sauce, then the game is better set for success.