Every now and then, a writer sets out to create a book in the style of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, which, by the way, I think is a trademark. And also pretty much dead for one extremely simple reason: Videogames now exist and they do the whole interactivity thing far better. So, let’s talk videogames (or video games, whichever you prefer), and make it a topic less intimidating in the process. Now, I’m a player and an author, not a developer (yet). So I am drawing from my experience as a gamer instead, but I do think this offers a fresh perspective on the media itself.
Videogames are the most profitable and largest of all media industries today. They have come a long way during the last few decades, growing from simple tests of skill and reflex into a giant pool of diverse types of games. Some are purely puzzles, some have you point and shoot at enemy after enemy, and some tell interactive stories. Yet others do all that at once, but this series will focus on the types of games marked by being centered around their stories. This has the advantage of these games representing some of the easiest to create, with special software available to make it even easier.
A short heads-up: In gaming, different types of games are called genres. However, because genres mark content differences in literature and to avoid confusion, I will use the term types here, instead. Gaming is severely lacking in terminology for content categories, although the word theme seems to get common.
Games and Writing
Before computers became powerful enough to do more than that by the 70′s and 80′s, games fell into two categories: Simple games of moving pixels around according to a set of rules, and text-based games reacting to typed player commands.
Lucky for us, text commands got replaced by choosing from options later on, making the creation of those games much easier when writers did not have to anticipate every possible input from any unknown player’s vocabulary.
As time went on, computers and gaming systems became more powerful, and developers became more experienced, resulting in more and more games getting additional story elements on the one side or additional graphical elements on the other.
The so-called Adventure game went through many forms as time went on. Text-adventures were mostly a digital version of Choose Your Own Adventure books and are mostly gone now. Point-and-Click Adventures are a niche one might want to tackle, but it does require some experience with these games and familiarity with their numerous conventions. 3D Adventures I will lump in with RPGs next week, leaving this week’s space for the game type with the most obvious connection to literature, the visual novel.
What this post will not get into are the more intimidating and complicated types of games that require very specific techniques and are very different from book writing. The third part will go into these a little, but overall it’s a completely separate kind of writing were text, image, and player actions all have to be accounted for. Doing this requires experience.
The Visual Novel
The visual novel is pretty much what you would imagine when you hear of a video game genre based on Choose Your Own Adventure. There are events, you are presented with options to react to them, and according to the option you picked, the story may play out differently.
The story may not change at all (Shan Gui), change but head toward the same ending anyway (Emily is Away, Girl Crush), or change completely depending on your choices (Hatoful Boyfriend). Thus, the volume of writing can greatly differ, ranging from much less (Girl Crush thanks to repetition), as much as (Shan Gui) all the way to far more than a novel (Hatoful Boyfriend needing dialogue for all possible chains of events).
Games of this type look very similar in basic design: There is a static background showing the location, one or two static character images showing the characters currently talking or acting and their current emotional state, and an area showing either descriptive text or dialogue, including your own options whenever you get some. There are exceptions ( below is about as far as you can get away from the default setup), but these are rare. Text can be spoken, but more often than not it’s not.
Content-wise anything goes. The form means visual novels are predominantly about characters interacting with each other in some form of relationship. This lends itself well to romance and indeed, romance of all heat levels is by far the most popular genre for visual novels. The type is somewhat infamous for leaning strongly toward porn and while the gaming equivalent of it, called eroge, is indeed very successful and common among visual novels, having pornographic content is not even remotely required, neither is romance.
There is software for creating visual novels with no programming knowledge whatsoever, easing you into development. From my own experimentation, I can recommend Novelty and Ren’Py. Both require little to no programming but allow programming for people who know how to code to expand the abilities of the software.
Get to Know the Genre
Like with literary genres, writing requires knowledge of what is written. Here are some suggestions where to start. The selection is diverse on purpose to show what’s possible in content and presentation.
In Japan, the visual novel is an extremely popular genre with strong competition. This is usually resolved by audacity, meaning either pornography (which I will not include), weirdness, or both.
How weird? Well, this weird. If you have never heard of Hatoful Boyfriend and the above picture didn’t clue you in: You are a human on a highschool entirely populated by pigeons. This is highschool, so you romance the pigeons. This eventually leads to a tale of the apocalypse, genocide, and revenge. Duh.
It’s on this list for being one of the most famous examples of this type, but also to show the ease of getting art to use in such a game. These are photographs of birds made by the developers in a zoo. As far as execution goes, Hatoful Boyfriend is an absolute textbook example of the type. Weirdness optional.
Available on PC (Steam), Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Android, and iOS for a few dollars.
Boiling down the visual novel to its bare minimum, we get a simple story with no branching like the Chinese visual novel Shan Gui. Noteworthy for its simplicity while still getting good reviews.
Available on Steam for $1.99.
Emily is Away
Are the art assets what intimidates you? Enter Emily is Away, a game told entirely within a simulated messenger software. A few boxes with some text in it. That’s all this story needs.
Noteworthy for the strength of its implications and how it manages to tell a story happening just outside of itself. This one’s a downer, though. Also about the furthest a game can stray from the basic formula in presentation.
Available for free on Steam.
Girl Crush (NSFW!)The newest game on this list Girl Crush is clearly in the erotica genre. It’s about a girl named Quinn and her female BFF (the player). Quinn starts taking “kissing lessons” and with time, they get increasingly intense.
It’s interesting for letting you easily see how it works (there are two meters, one for love and one for arousal). Apart from that, there is text with some options to click and answers the game gives for those. From a writing perspective, it’s interesting to see how much it accomplishes with little actual writing and lots of repetition, something completely unacceptable in book writing.
The game is available for free on its own site, either online or as a download
Analogue: A Hate Story
Okay, enough with the romance. Here’s a science fiction tale set on a lost generation ship from the perspective of those who have found the ship a century after its last crew member died and are now starting an investigation into what happened.
Picked as a critically acclaimed example of a different genre, even though some romance is present.
Available on Steam for about $10.
Great, I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.
Next week, I’ll delve into the worlds of roleplaying games (RPGs), the most popular of the story-based game types.
In the meantime, some recommended posts about visual novels from other blogs: Why you shouldn’t make a game (or, why you should make a visual novel) on how this is a good idea for writers, and What I Learned While Working on Visual Novels, which is exactly what it says on the tin.