Pandemic Productivity

COVID-19 is upon us. New York State is in the midst of a lockdown for all but the most critical employees. I don’t know that I am counted among them; I’ll find out after a manager’s meeting on Monday. It would be nice stay home, although I am certainly privileged enough to have job security and unused paid-time-off hours. I’ve taken this rare opportunity to sit at the computer for several days and make the most of an uncertain situation.

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Where worlds are created.

For my last two blog posts, I described my recent decision to start a visual novel project with old college friends. My early struggle was writing a story that fit into the schema of most visual novels, i.e. a first-person or third-person POV that offers choices and consequences. I wished to create a linear story with very few choices, but Tom was unconvinced this would be a compelling game. As someone with no game design background, choices were an intimidating addition for me to consider.

I’ll admit that I fall in love with my first drafts. Ideas are precious when they’re just made, even if they’re actual garbage. It took a long time for me to look at my visual novel outline and determine that it could be better. It does no one any good to assert their contributions are beyond refinement; this would count doubly if money were a factor. So, I set about trying to add opportunities for player interaction. Simply having people click to proceed to the next page of text wouldn’t be good enough; that would be a “visual novel” in the literal sense, with few stakes for the player.

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Can’t remember where I found this…

I’ve been using this tree to help my outlining, and modifying it when necessary. As demonstrated in the tree above, “threads” are where choice is granted, and each choice accumulates into a score evaluation that determines the next branch, where additional choices lead to another branch, until the conclusion is reached. In the strictest terms, all games are “linear” in that all possible outcomes are predetermined. The rub is in how many choices one allows, and how dependent the evaluations are on choices that came before it. Not all choices need to be factored into a score evaluation.

At the end of this thinking exercise, I generated the following:

The first pic defines the rules of the outline, color-coded by character and the kinds of choices one can make. The second pic is a sample of the rules in practice, where blue choices will conform to Miku’s route, and red to Aphrodite’s. The third pic demonstrates the first evaluation, and results in the appearance of one character or the other. I chose not to make entirely separate branches for this visual novel, but rather to remain on a primary branch and augment scenes to particular characters when necessary. Players still have choice, but it is not obvious which choices, or how many, will lead to particular outcomes. On a slightly different note, this reminds me of a blog post I wrote on Psycho-Pass years ago…

I plan on presenting these amendments to the rest of the team next week. The challenge after that will be a script. Believe it or not, all this pre-production is the easy stuff.