Estimated reading time: 9 minute(s)

Twelve days ago, my colleague, Victor V. Gurbo, posted an article about rebuilding his new RPG Maker MV game design project, Jingzi Jingzi. Victor explained that he was streamlining his project, making it more linear and focusing on story, in response to feedback that I gave him after playing his early drafts. In so doing, Victor’s new ideas give the player less freedom to decide how to spend his or her in-game time. These events prompted Victor to pose an incisive question to readers about multi-path video games. Since he is making changes to Jingzi Jingzi in part because of my feedback, I thought that it would be fitting for me to tackle his question. Thus, in this article, I will explore the importance, or lack thereof, of giving the player freedom to write his or her own story in story-intensive video games.

Victor’s Question About Multi-Path Video Games

In his article, Victor posted the following question to readers:

In a video game, do you find it satisfying to be able to choose your path and how to spend your time? If so, do you enjoy the process of succeeding or failing depending on what you choose to do in addition to how well you execute your choice? How important is it to you, if at all, to be able to choose a path in a story-intensive video game?

Victor V. Gurbo

Victor left us with a bit to chew on in this multi-part question. Although he insisted in his original article that I am a “dictator,” I consider his demanding that I think this hard about something proves that he is the real dictator. But I digress. Let us deal with his question in steps.

Picture of crossroads from "At the Crossroads" by Harriet T. Comstock.  Used in article to represent branching narratives in video games.
From “At the Crossroads” on Project Gutenberg.

How I Understand Victor’s Question

To start, I will make clear how I understand Victor’s question. As I understand it, Victor is asking us to consider video games that have choices that are meaningful in and of themselves. That is, choices that materially affect the outcome of the game in and of themselves. For example, a player may be given a choice between A and B. In order to achieve the best outcome, the player must choose A. If the player chooses B, even if he or she plays perfectly after choosing B, the best outcome would be foreclosed from having not picked A. Or in a different example, neither A nor B is the “best” outcome, but each leads to different outcomes – perhaps after subsequent intervening choices – regardless of what the player does after choosing A or B. I do not read Victor’s question as referring to things such as optional walled garden side-quests in games that have no overall impact on the main story or outcome.

I suggested the “story-intensive” qualifier after reading Victor’s draft article. To be clear, the question does not refer to games that focus almost entirely on gameplay, such as most Mario games or similar types of action-platformers, nor does it refer to puzzle games such as Tetris. Victor’s question is about games where there is a strong narrative. In general, I am thinking mostly about role-playing games, visual novels, and action games with a story-focus. I think that Victor’s question also generally excludes sandbox games such as Minecraft or, to a lesser extent, Animal Crossing. While those games give the player vast freedom in choosing how to engage, there is no real narrative, and choices are seldom irreversible. I read his question as including some more structured examples of the idea, however, such as most entries in the “Story of Seasons” series (formally known as “Harvest Moon”) and similar titles, such as Stardew Valley.

Different Kinds of Choices

The first way is for a game to allow the player to choose paths that fundamentally alter the game’s main story. That is, if the player makes one choice, or a series of choices, he or she may experience an entirely different main story than a player who makes different choices. These games have full branching narratives. One game that I discussed briefly on site, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, is an example of this idea. Near the beginning of the game, the player must choose to lead one of three classes. Because each class ultimately has a unique story, that choice fundamentally changes the main story that the player experiences. Visual novels often offer even more choices, including where the player starts from the same point each play-through, and the player may experience dramatically different stories based on his or her choices.

The second way for games to give the player freedom of action occurs on the side of the main story. In these games, there is little or nothing that the player can do to change the game’s mostly or entirely linear main story, but the player may have freedom to develop character relationships on the side or have his or her choice of side-quests. One game that I have discussed on site, Persona 4: Golden, is one of the best examples of this concept. With a few exceptions in the form of late-game choices, the main story of Persona 4 is mostly linear and unaffected by the player’s time-allocation decisions. However, the player has a great deal of freedom in choosing how to spend his or her time, including by building relationships with the game’s large cast of characters.

Freedom of Action in Games is Generally Desirable

I enjoy games that give me freedom in deciding how to spend my time and that, by limiting my time to choose things, make those choices meaningful. In most cases, I am more interested in games that give me some sort of freedom to choose which story lines to explore than games that do not. For example, both Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Persona 4, discussed above, do great jobs of making time-allocation decisions interesting even though their central stories are mostly linear (note – Fire Emblem: Three House’s main story is mostly linear after the player chooses which house to lead). When handled well, the choices and consequences thereof are interesting even though they tend to have little to no effect on the game’s larger story.

Furthermore, I also tend to be more interested in visual novels that allow me to choose my own adventure than purely linear visual novels, even while noting that many choose-your-own adventure visual novels push the player to ultimately complete every path in order to see a true ending.

With my soft preference for games with the choices noted, I nevertheless value a story-based game’s writing, story-telling, and sense of aesthetics over whether it allows for choices. For example, Persona 4’s social link system is great not solely because having to juggle one’s time to work through them is interesting, but also because the links themselves are interesting. Another one of my favorite RPGs, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, has no social link system at all. The only “choices” the player has are whether to engage in side-quests and talk to various non-player characters. But Trails in the Sky has remarkable attention to detail, is well-written, and generally a joy to play. In the visual novel category, I just finished the eight part Higurashi When They Cry series, which consists of about 80 hours of reading with no meaningful choices. Despite its lack of room for player input, Higurashi is still a very good read – as I noted in an earlier article.

Meaningful Choices Do Not Add to Every Story-Heavy Video Game

Meaningful choices in a game are not forced, but instead are incorporated if and when they makes sense within the game. While I do have a soft-preference for games that allow for more freedom of action and player-input, game designers should first consider whether giving the player freedom of action would improve the game’s story and narrative.

For example, allow me to use two examples from within the same game, Persona 3: FES, the deluxe version of Persona 3 for PlayStation 2. Persona 3 has the same sort of social link system that Persona 4 does. The player must clear dungeons by night but may spend time as a student during the day, including by cultivating social links. In the context of Persona 3’s concept, it makes sense for the protagonist to make choices as an ordinary high school student when he is not fighting monsters. Persona 3: FES also has an epilogue which takes place after the main game. In the epilogue, the protagonist does not go to school or even into the outside world but must clear several dungeons in order to solve a mystery. In that instance, the player has no freedom of action at all other than how he or she chooses to proceed through the dungeons. The epilogue has a very straightforward and definite story to tell, and for that reason, there are no choices. Because it is well done and presents a solid challenge by Persona 3 standards, I enjoyed it all the same.

Choices should not be forced into games where they do not belong. In the case of a game where the writer has a clear and definite story to tell, meaningful choices may not add to the game at all, even if they are isolated from the main story. Of course, by decreasing the ways in which a player may engage with the game’s story, the writer takes on a heavier burden to tell an engaging story. For example, a visual novel with a large number of choices and more than 10 paths and endings can be forgiven for having a few paths that are not as engaging as others. A game such as Higurashi: When They Cry that has no choices or paths at all must be well-written and structured such that it continually engages the player who is not given the option of player input. Thus, while Higurashi is far from a perfect story, it was more than good enough to hold my attention for many hours, and the writers were entirely correct to make the visual novel linear with no meaningful player input.

My View on Victor’s Early Jingzi Jingzi Drafts

After playing Victor’s most recent Jingzi Jingzi drafts before his prior article, I suggested making the game more linear for several reasons.

First, Victor is, as he discussed in his article on writing music, a story-teller. Jingzi Jingzi’s title and concept is inspired by a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. When one starts the game with a Borges quote, the player might expect to find a strong narrative. I was predisposed to think even before trying Jingzi Jingzi the first time that Victor should deploy his story-telling ability in designing games.

Second, I understood what Victor was going for with his original idea in giving the player an in-game week to find a certain number of specific mirrors, wherein the player could either successfully find all the mirrors and proceed to the end of the game, or fail to find the mirrors in time and get a game over. However, I had two issues with the draft, impressive as was Victor’s attention to detail, that I thought required some adjusting. On one hand, finding the troubled mirrors was easy. There was nothing preventing the player from figuring out the location of all four mirrors on the game’s second day, making the game’s week a formality. Simultaneously, the early drafts gave the player little guidance on what to do, making me feel like I was sometimes wandering without much purpose. The resulting wandering, counter-intuitively, made it more likely that the player would stumble on all the mirror triggers relatively quickly just by talking to non-player characters.

After playing Victor’s draft, I offered my view that the game would be better with more linearity. The degree of freedom that Victor wanted to give the player not only requires one to account for every possible thing that the player might do with that freedom, but also to ensure that the game would be interesting no matter how the player approached it. Furthermore, the game may also demand changing events on future in-game days based on the order in which the player did things on past days. Although I am sure that Victor could have pulled off something along the lines of his original “open world” concept with a great deal of work, I did not think that the end result would be better than a game wherein Victor traded some of that freedom for a bit more structure, and spent his time focusing on writing a compelling story instead of asking the player to fill in the blanks.

As I understand it, Victor agreed with me to an extent, and he went back to the drawing board to create a more structured experience for the player with more focus on telling a linear story. However, Victor did note in his article that his revised concept for the game is something in between a hard-linear game and his original idea, meaning that it sounds like you will have plenty of room to make choices about how to proceed through Jingzi Jingzi while still being able to easily follow the main narrative.

Final Thoughts on Choices in Story-Heavy Video Games

Victor’s question about choices in story-heavy games was interesting, and one I look forward to exploring in the context of writing about specific games in the future. While Victor is admittedly a bit more of a story-heavy game libertarian than I am, I think that we both agree that the first question a game designer should ask is whether adding more player freedom enhances the overall game-play experience and adds something to the narrative.