Narrative Snippets: Agency and Choices
[This is part of the ongoing series on narrative engineering: design, organisation and writing. These short articles (which are republished from our wiki) deal with agency and choices.]
A major difference between a StoryNexus game and a novel is that the player is in charge. They make the choices. The story is about their character. This needs to be reflected in the fiction – the player character is the most important person in the story.
That’s not to say that they have an easy time or are high status or aren’t challenged and beaten up. But the story must be primarily about the player character. Don’t fall into the trap of falling in love with another character, and having the player character around to witness someone else’s adventures.
And try not to tell the player what their character is feeling. Describe what happens to the character, sure, but stay away from telling a player that their character is surprised or elated or scared. It’s the player’s conception of their character that’s important, rather than yours.
Choice and choices are a major part of why someone would choose to play a game rather than read a novel. Players want to make choices, and you should let them.
Not every choice should be a huge deal. But you should usually note a player’s choices with qualities. These qualities don’t have to do much – you don’t need a lot of subsequent content that responds to these choice-recording qualities (and having a lot can lead to Combinatorial Explosion, which you want to avoid). But having their choices recognised by a world now and again makes players happy.
Of course, sometimes you want to make a big deal of a choice. If your major story leads up to a single choice, then go to town. For these choices, it’s probably best to lay out the situation that causes the choice in one storylet, and then let the player make the choice in the next. It’s hard to lay out complex situations in branch text.
How many choices?
Presenting players with choices is great. It engages them with the world and makes them think about their actions. But how many options are best? And how often?
It’s best to present a series of choices, rather than having a single large set of options that are always available. It’s usually better to present a series of five two-option choices rather than give ten options and have the character pick five times. This is because once a player has picked the choice they want, it’s no longer an interesting decision if they have the same choice straight away – they’ll just pick the same thing again.