Strengths of various forms of interactive storytelling

Lately I’ve been thinking about the different formats commonly used in interactive storytelling - choice based games, parser IF, visual novels, even (perhaps) stuff like point n click adventures and top down rpg-lites - and while it’s widely accepted that any given engine or output format can be used to tell any kind of story, it’s true that every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses.

So what are they? Just brainstorming here, but please weigh in and add to what I’m saying here. I’m not weighing in on ease of use; in all cases expect a proficient dev.

Visual Novels -

  • Stories benefitting from persistent visuals
  • Dialog-heavy stories, complex relationship webs
  • Generally shorter passages
  • Audience primed for stories based on relationships
  • (Ren’Py specific) Expansion through python coding
  • High art budget or lots of “placeholder” art

Choice Based

  • Strengths and weaknesses of static prose
  • Longer (but not too long) passage length
  • Good for multi-layered/literary stories about character development
  • Easy to show internal life of viewpoint character
  • Very low asset requirement
  • Low solo dev time
  • Low barrier of entry to new players

Parser Based

  • Good for exploring a physical space
  • Good for virtual puzzles
  • NPC development difficult
  • Relatively high barrier of entry to new audiences

Thoughts? Additions? Other types of story? (point n click, hidden object, RPGMaker adventure games, etc)

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I don’t agree that any type of medium can tell any type of story. Any sufficiently powerful medium could replicate the effects of any other, but people are presuming that our methods are that powerful, and I think it’s clear that they aren’t.

Imagine a story founded upon the confusion of two homophones with different spellings. It would work fine in oral delivery, but would fail in text. Or a story with an important plot point that is immediately revealed when two homophones are spoken but the similarity is hidden in text. That’s actually the case in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where one character has the slang name ‘Low Key’ and is actually the Norse God Loki. Readers don’t make the connection until fairly late in the series, but people listening to the audiobook version tend to realize who the character is much earlier.

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I mostly added that bit to head off low-content responses that were about the universality of story and not about the mechanics of specific medium; the same core story could conceivably be adapted to any format, while it would come out very differently, like book/audio/movie adaptations.

That’s what this thread is about - the differences in these different types of narrative game and what kinds of content/presentation they favor.

Choice-based works tend to present only very limited options that are explicitly noted. Parsers are hard to extend indefinitely, but can easily contain special cases and non-obvious options.

Consider the classic Infocom game “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. An early puzzle involves lying down in mud in front of an oncoming bulldozer. There’s really no way to represent that puzzle in LucasArts visual verb parser, particularly since lying down isn’t a solution to any other puzzle that I recall. You’d have to change it somehow - and the presence of the relevant verb would prompt the player to think of the combination, rather than the player needing to make an intuitive leap.

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Choice-based systems can also be used to create play cycles within the game, like a turn-based RPG, simulation or resource/farming game, where each cycle is some fixed period of time (a day at school, a round of combat, a week of city bureaucracy, etc). Parser-based systems could be made to do this, but it would be outside the wheelhouse.

More generally, I find parser games better at stories where the choices are meant to be obvious but their consequences somewhat opaque, as with a CYOA. Closing a door or talking to the wizard could lead to wildly different unforeseen outcomes. Puzzles are often like pathfinding: which sequence of choices is best?

Parsers are better at games where the available command words are not always obvious but the presence of a world model means the effect of those commands is somewhat predictable. Closing a door or talking to the wizard should lead, in general, to the closing of a door and dialogue with the wizard. Puzzles are like mysteries; first you must find the puzzle, and only then solve it.

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I’m curious what you mean by this in regards to VNs. Do you just mean onscreen text? Because it’s literally hours between decision points in most VNs, if they even have them at all. So I’m not sure what you’re considering a passage.

Another strength of VNs (or maybe a weakness, depending on your viewpoint) is the auto mode for reading. I like to turn it on and then it’s basically like watching a TV show. This obviously highlights a VN’s lack of interaction, but is definitely a feature the other formats don’t have.

There’s also a fourth type of IF that you didn’t list, which is a hybrid between the world interaction of a parser game and choices of a choice based game. Some but not all Twine games fall into this category. I’m not sure if there’s been a coined term for it, but I think I’ve heard the term “hybrid IF” thrown around.

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Yeah, here I’m talking about screen real estate. I have noticed that VN’s seem to have fewer choices compared to length (without going into kinetic novel territory) perhaps as a factor of needing more visual assets, but I’m not sure if that’s true or if it only seems that way due to how much text is visible per “page”.

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I don’t really think it’s about the visual assets. They mostly get by on just a few paperdoll-ish character portraits and the same 10 backgrounds over and over throughout the game. I think it’s more that the author has a story that they want to tell and the focus is on telling that story, not giving the player control.

Some VNs even have two or three completely different playthroughs. Muv-Luv is a great example. I don’t want to spoil anything, but after you play it once, a second story option unlocks on the main screen, and I can’t even stress how night and day it is from the original story. And Fate/Stay Night even has a route where your guardian and loyal best friend in the original story become the villains.

I’m getting long-winded, but I’m basically saying that VNs have less options but they usually have drastic impacts on the story when they do, unlike choice games which have many options but mostly lead you through pretty much the same storyline regardless.

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Interesting! I didn’t realize that fewer but more impactful branches were that prevelent in VNs. Thank you for pointing that out.

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Yeah. That’s why they’re called “routes”. Because the story will diverge drastically once you get on one (it sometimes takes multiple key choices to get on one). Even in the ones that are just romance stories, once you get on a route it will usually dive deep into the back story of the romantic interest and the plot will start to be about them instead of whatever the main plot line was. :slight_smile:

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Would you say there’s a sufficient western/english speaking audience to make VNs without a romantic throughline commercially viable?

I think romantic plot lines are generally something that people enjoy though. For example most Choice of Games stories have them, as do Mass Effect, Dragon Age, the Telltale games, Detroit: Become Human, etc. VNs just lean into them a bit harder when they’re “slice of life”, since those stories are just about daily life instead of some serious world ending event or whatever.

A good example of an english game that did well for itself is The Letter (the developer is from the Philippines). It has a light romantic thread in it, but mostly it’s a horror VN. You can find it on Steam. Another one that technically isn’t about romantic sidestories that’s done quite well (although the game is completely free) is Doki Doki Literature Club. The game has been memed a lot, so maybe you’ve heard of it. It starts off as a slice of life game, but gets subverted hard. :sweat_smile:

For japanese games, I believe the Fault Milestone series has also done pretty well and doesn’t have romance routes either. And of course the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (Higurashi for short o.o) series is really popular, and so is the anime based on it. Same with Stein’s;Gate.

I think VNs have it a bit rough because they tend to get compared to video games instead of IF. Your average VN can’t compete with a normal game in terms of units sold, but I would think it would probably do better than your average IF game.

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All types of IF benefit from shorter passages, and there are NVL novels that give whole screen to the text. You can style the parser in the NVL or ADV style (not in pure Glulx maybe, but it’s relatively easy in Vorple)

The character sprites in typical VNs make the story more personal, where you can see the characters and their emotions. It’s awesome for romance and intrigue plots. But it’s not a unique presentation quirk.

Just to remind you that Western VNs and IF are still exploring the possibilities in presentation. Also the search engines brought the parser suggestions into mainstream, so the player expectations are wild these days.

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That’s why choice-based games have evolved to have the interesting consequences depend on combinations or accumulations of choices, rather than individual moves.

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Yeah, the Twine last project I was working on explicitly used player choices to determine whether or not the protagonist overcame their character flaw and thus gave them a positive, negative, or flat character arc at the end… I was going for a somewhat literary model.

In retrospect I had far too many “high level” branches in the main plot and would have delivered just as fine a play experience with something far more linear and saved myself a ton of work. Lesson learned!

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One way around this is to conceal unmarked options in the text — the equivalent of “examine,” perhaps. The link is present but formatted to look like plaintext, so the user must read carefully and mouse over every word.

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Which is an interesting idea—but it can also turn into the textual equivalent of a pixel hunt or the choice equivalent of guess-the-verb.

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Might be fun to hide secret options/easter eggs if that suits the theme of your experience.

I agree. I considered doing this with the project I’m working on, but realized that the user would most likely be trained by the game to just mash the left-click as they dragged the mouse across every word. The text equivalent of mashing the X button as you bump your character along every object in the room in a JRPG.

To be honest, I prefer my options to be more opaque. If I’m locked out of an option, I prefer to see the potential option even if I can’t click it. It makes me curious of what decisions would be required to get someone’s affection level (for example) high enough at that point of the story to be able to access that option. It gives me incentive to play again. IIRC, this is how the Choice of Games stories work.

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If you were consistent in your use of it — only hide links on nouns, let’s say — and trained the player to seek them, you could make it work. With the right balance of no-links, boring-links, and serious-clue-links, you’d create a sense of exploring and discovery that Twine mostly lacks.