Doing the history posts, I’ve played a variety of Twine and pre-twine games, as well as other CYOA games.
I began to see a pattern to what games do well, but it was hard to put into words. Good writing and length matter a lot, but there was something else.
I think the two things that really help a cyoa game do well in the comp are:
- Being able to strategize, and
- Delayed effects of choices.
This is essentially looking to the future and the past, in-game.
There are two key ways to allow the player to strategize:
A. Role play strategies; for instance, Stone Harbor allowed you some freedom to picture yourself as a psychic, and to say “no, that’s too obvious, I’ll read his ring” and so on, even if it didn’t change the plot. Ash allowed you to be despairing or hopeful. Both allowed you to make consistent choices over the game.
B. Gameplay strategies. Cactus Blue Motel lets you strategize where to go, what apartments to visit, etc. Birdland lets you try to guess what actions raise what statistics. Games with a good world model often do well here.
Games have to have some kind of recognizable structure to allow strategizing. Players have to be able to form an educated guess about what will happen next and what effects their choices may have (evening this is subverted later by the game).
Delayed effects of choices are useful because they make choices meaningful. If every choice can be immediately undone, it’s easy to lawnmower. Ash had an effective moment where an early choice about the shape of a shadow came back much much later.
The first CYOA game to reach the top 3, The Play, did great at allowing strategies and delaying effects of choices. You were managing the cast of a play and had to decide to be firm or nice to cast members, and whose side to take, but their opinion of you built up over time. Though not an ifcomp gane, Choice of Robots was all about strategizing (mad scientist vs. Graceful robots vs. Find robot love) and delayed choices (building up the stats), and Slammed! let’s you strategize being a heel or a face.
Low-placing games often eschew these things. Megan Stevens, for instance, writes games for more than just entertainment: her three Ifcomp games focus on important real life issues. They are generally just menus for accessing linear stories. They usually place low, even with graphics and good writing.
Note that I’m not saying how to make a ‘good game’, just noting some patterns in Ifcomp only. Spy Intrigue and A Time of Tungsten both had trouble signalling how players could strategize, resulting in many players feeling lost or floundering around, but both games had a population segment who really liked them.
For another example, compare Cat Manning’s Crossroads to her later Invasion, or glassrat’s Seeking Ataraxia to their later Ashes.
Howling Dogs had a great world model allowing strategy, as did With this we love alive, and our angelical understanding had great roleolay strategies available, especially with drawing symbols.