The 3rd-person branching narrative genre has two major classifications of how they design their games. Some games are built around the notion of encouraging the player to try to reach a specific goal. This is the first type. These games have the player get closer or further from their goal based on the choices they make. An example of this is the game Until Dawn. In that game, the goal is to have as many of the eight protagonists survive the night as possible. Every decision is built around this objective. Ultimately, there is a notion of “winning” and “losing” in these variants of the genre.
The other design paradigm these games fall into is freer. These are the “no-wrong-answer” versions of 3rd-person branching narrative games. These games don’t have a specific win or loss condition. Instead, they treat the player as a co-author in the narrative, allowing them to play through the story they are most interested in seeing. In Life is Strange, the player makes choices related to the main character’s relationship with others in her life, but there are no better or worse paths. All are equally valid. The game doesn’t reprimand or encourage certain relationship choices throughout the narrative.
For our project, we determined from the start that we wanted to fit into this second paradigm, the “no-wrong-answer” type. In order to achieve this, we developed three design pillars around which all our decisions were crafted.
Before a decision is made, we wanted to ensure that players understood two things:
- That they were making a decision which would branch the narrative
- What the options were in that decision.
Obscuring a decision was something that some games do to create surprise when the decision plays out, but we felt that players should be able to anticipate a decision being made. In that sense, they could try to plan and predict how they wanted the story to unfold. We tried to communicate this both through the dialogue and through the object design. This design pillar is why we removed an interactable object from the environment early on in the semester. Players did not understand what the coat rack did, and they could not predict the results of engaging with it. We removed it and replaced it with the safe. Locking or unlocking a safe has much clearer narrative impact, so it was a better choice.
This is one place where we only had moderate success. Some objects had much clearer implications than others; therefore, they were more intuitive for players. The padlock, phone line, and window were much clearer than the safe and the gun. The safe was unclear because people could not determine if the broken handle meant it could be opened or not, and the gun because the bullets inside the gun were difficult to see.
While making the decision, we wanted the player’s motivation to be personally derived. Unlike something like an escape room with a clear objective, we sought to ensure that players could make their branching decisions based on any internal paradigm they chose. If players ever felt like there was a “right and wrong” choice, we had misstepped in our design. Through playtesting, we determined five main player motivations:
These decisions were made in order to craft the most dramatically engaging stories with the highest levels of tension and suspense. These players often viewed themselves as spectators wanting the “best story”, but they rarely felt empathetically connected to any of the characters.
These decisions were made with the idea of helping a specific character with whom the player empathized. These players wanted to assist that character in achieving their goals because the connected with them and shared their experience.
These decisions were made with the idea of de-escalating the tension in the room for everyone. These players felt a personal responsibility over the characters in the story and wanted to keep everyone safe. Of all players, they were the most emotionally invested in the characters’ well-being. They are the opposite of intrigue players.
These decisions were made in an attempt to suss out how the developers intended the story to progress. These players falsely assumed that the designers had a specific correct path they wanted the story to go down, and they attempted to have that version of events take place. We tried discouraging this type of player, but some individuals who have little experience in this genre in flatscreen came in with preconceived notions. They often played puzzle games and enjoyed escape rooms.
These decisions were made in order to try to break the story in some way and ruin the intentions of the developers. These players had fun in seeing how they could try to divert the flow of the narrative and watch the designers veer it back on track. Like Puzzle-Solvers, they falsely assumed there were better and worse paths.
Our third design pillar had to do with what happens after a choice is made. We wanted players to feel like the choices they were making were meaningful and impacted the story. This meant providing immediate feedback on clicking the objects, but it also meant showing the narrative ramifications. Showing the immediate feedback was easy and clear because every object had an animation and sound effect to go with clicking on it. Showing the long-term narrative ramifications was more of a challenge. Because we designed the interactions to be available long before the objects locked in, players would toggle an object and become disappointed or confused when the characters did not react to its change. A better design for this would have included some way for the narrative to respond immediately to these engagements instead of having to wait for the story to catch up to its relevance.
Some players not in our target demographic provided feedback that they wanted to know how their narrative impact would play out long-term. These players, even when they understood the immediate narrative consequences (i.e. a locked drawer could not be opened), wanted to know how that would affect the ending of the story. We did not consider this a failing, however, because a conceit of the 3rd-person branching narrative genre is that players must figure this out for themselves. Part of the fun is guessing what your actions may do. We simply wanted to ensure that the short-term narrative implication felt authentic.