Programmable Series – Turn the Page

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A great advantage that games have over other types of media is the inherent interactivity that comes with them being games. You can simply push a button and the outcome of events will change. The player gets to control the actions of the game in every aspect that is available to them. Like playing with a digital puppet, they control when the characters move, jump, run or attack. However, even with all of that control, the story still belongs to the game’s creators – no matter how the player gets to the end of the game they are going to see the story you’ve created for them. So, what if your story is more complicated than something that can be portrayed in a platform or action game? What if your story is the game? This is where narrative, adventure and visual novel games come in.

Many people believe that visual novels are designed for a niche audience and don’t appeal to everyone. At a glance this is an understandable assumption, as many modern visual novels are geared towards fans of romantic stories and make use of anime-like visuals. However, if you look back at the history of visual novels, you’ll find they were originally marketed more towards adult audiences when they first became popular. The themes of many games were very adult oriented and often included excessive violence and nudity. Although their popularity wasn’t as widespread in many countries, the Japanese market was bountiful with these types of games in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Home computer systems like the PC98 and the X68000 had a large assortment of visual novels due to the fact that they were easy to create and these types of computers could handle them well. The popularity of the visual novel started to shift in the 90’s as more affordable home consoles took over the gaming market. With SEGA, Sony and Nintendo systems having fast refresh rates and responsive controls, they were able to deliver more action oriented games which really took over as the preferred genre. People could bring the fast action that they would find on an arcade game into their home.

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Looking into the 21st century, the visual novel market seems to be on the rise once again, not only on home computers but on consoles as well. Games like Steins;Gate bring a modern twist to the formula, while Read Only Memories pays tribute to the genre’s roots, using classic dialog options and pixel art graphics. Along with Steam being a convenient storefront, an increasing number of independent developers are getting their visual novels out to the public and even some classics are making a return. Surprisingly, these less interactive and more story driven games have had significant growth in recent years.

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For the average indie developer, these types of games can be incredibly beneficial to make. They usually require less programming than many other types of games and the primary focus becomes the game’s art and story. Depending on the interactivity you want to grant your player, you can easily create a high quality visual novel or point-and-click adventure game in relatively little time. You bypass the need for creating physics, hit-boxes and all the mechanics that go along with your average platform or action game and can offer a much simpler interface to utilise.

The biggest design challenge comes from choosing an appropriate method of interactivity. Dialog based or text based adventures can give the player a great investment into the story. Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher gave us a great basis on how these dialog options can give us more information on the world we’re interacting with. Snatcher offers a ton of dialog options and although they aren’t always useful for moving the story along, they’re not completely useless since they often provide additional interactivity and sometimes a little humour to what’s going on.

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Sometimes the classic point-and-click method is more appropriate for your game. Unfortunately, a common problem with the point-and-click method is properly guiding your player to the correct object to click in order to move the story along. Often times these games leave the player clicking everything on screen randomly, in hopes that they will find the right trigger to advance. If you’re going to choose this method it’s incredibly important to give the players some extra guidance if you want to avoid frustration. As an alternative to the “click everything” approach this method could instead be used to enhance the game play by being an optional part of the game. Offering different dialog options or story branches if the player clicks on a certain object during a conversation or while exploring the environment.

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It is fairly common to have both the point-and-click mechanics and dialog choices used in a single game, as it makes navigation a bit easier in certain situations. The Walking Dead series is a recent example of utilising both play styles, using the point-and-click functions to interact with the world while using the dialog choices when talking to other characters. There is also an added time limit element to some aspects of the game and your reaction time can have consequences on certain outcomes. This makes decision making more critical and gives a sense of urgency to the player. This is not appropriate for every game but when you’re in a world full of zombies, some urgency is to be expected.

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The mechanics you implement for your players to interact are completely up to your design choices. You can give the player some freedom of movement, you could include puzzles to solve or even have a fighting mechanic in your game. It’s important that whatever method you choose, it feels organic to the game and not out of place. Remember that visual novels and adventure games are all about the story. By the time a player finishes the game they’re (hopefully) only going to remember the story that unfolded. If they walk away from your game remembering how frustrating the controls were or how difficult it was to progress the story, then there is a flaw in the design or the choice of mechanics that were used.

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If you’re concerned that player interactivity would be a hindrance to the story or would not be beneficial to implement, then there’s always the option to skip all of it. You can simply have your story progress with a mouse click or a button press and let it play out like a movie or book. Some may argue that this is the most uninteresting approach to designing a game like of this genre, but if it’s the best choice and your story is solid, then it can be an acceptable option. If you browse through any number of visual novels online, many of them play out this way either offering limited choices or no choices at all. In fact, one of the most incredible horror games among visual novels, Saya no Uta, only offers 2 choices through its entire story. What’s truly important is the story and its presentation. Everything else is secondary.

With visual novels gaining a noticeable increase in popularity it’s a great time for indie developers to get their contributions to the genre in. Interactive story telling is a wonderful way to let people do more than simply watch events unfold. They get to be a part of it and discover the story for themselves. That feeling of discovery can be a powerful motivator for many people and leaves a lasting impression long after the credits have rolled.

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About Mike Clark (Chemical Taint)

*Indie game developer, specializing in classic and arcade style games. I design games primarily for personal computers and handheld/mobile devices. *Musician and part-time music producer. *Writer for Minus World's "Programmable Series."
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