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< prototype 2 >

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It can often be difficult to make player choice feel meaningful in games.

Everyone wants to feel like their individual choices have impact and weight across the story they craft while playing. 
This project aimed to explore some ways of bettering this experience while being inexpensive to develop.

Each part of the game's design was created with simplicity but impact in mind. 

 

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Overview

The game has two "phases", the "encounter" phase and "map" phase. 
 

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Encounter Screen

The encounter phase is similar to a visual novel. Text scrolls across the screen describing the events occurring within the scene, and choices will occasionally appear to choose from. Visuals in the background provide a bit more context to the current happenings.

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Map Screen

The map phase takes place after each encounter. The player must choose a new location to travel to, with their prior route and upcoming potential pathways viewable to them.

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The basic game loop is the player chooses a new location, travels to the location, and has an encounter there. The encounters are varied, it could be a naval battle, a shop on a port town, a sunken ship, etc. Each encounter has its own series of choices and consequences, which can then effect later encounters.

For instance, one of your first choices in the game is whether you toss your cannons, cargo, or treasure overboard. If you tossed your cannons, a future ship battle may not go well.

Choices like this with noticeable payoff are easy to capture in a game like this, it allows the player to feel smart if they kept the cannons or realize the importance of letting them go.


Either way, the player feels like they shaped the narrative
no matter the choice.

R

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Breakdown

Note:

The idea for this game is special to me, as I feel strongly individually shaped narratives are a space we have yet to see a lot of improvement in across "mainstream" titles releasing today. There are reasons for this, however I believe there are elegant methods to illustrate to a player that their experience is unique.

Largely, I think much of this could be solved through better communication to the player on what their "choices" really do for them. Taking a new upgrade should aim to have a noticeable new effect, choosing a path over another should give glimpses as to what the other path is like, or even using a potion should feel like a powerful, tactical choice when a oppurtune moment arises.


There are many examples of quick and easy-to-understand weighted choices in The Heart of the Sea.
Though, my favorite one to illustrate is right out the gate, giving you a hidden mini-tutorial of what choices may look like.

You're escaping an empire ship, and to gain more speed you have to eject one of three items in your inventory.

It's easy to understand what these three are:

 

  • Cannons presumably may help in later ship encounters, losing them means you're defenseless

  • Treasure might help you make purchases later, losing them means you have little to bargain with

  • Cargo is more of a wild card, losing it feels like the obvious choice - but surely keeping it's a benefit?

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It is not easy to gain back any of the items tossed overboard, so it is a permanent decision choosing which is thrown. The game is full of choices like this, and it's my hope that with enough of them you'll feel like your experience is your own.

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Choice Impacts

I found in most circumstances, it is important to give players feedback whenever possible if a choice is made.
 

This feedback can come in several forms:

  • Direct dialogue that immediately references the chosen dialogue option

  • A permanent change to the visuals, such as the ship sprite looking different

  • Soon after the choice, you notice a gain or loss of an item or stat

  • A message to the player informing their choice "Will be remembered"

All feedback being visual in some way is key, alongside making any sort of change very noticeable to the player. Most changes are displayed in the upper UI in the window, which reflects your current inventory and stats.

Additionally, keeping the stats and inventory clean and simple to understand gives more weight to each one. Only having one "treasure" for instance, now creates a situation where you can no longer use coin as an element of bartering. One would assume t

 

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When changes do occur, they are also accompanied by slight movement in the effected area, a short message, sound effect, etc. in order to draw the player's eyes there so they don't miss the change.
 

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Having all these different methods of feedback create multiple "levers" that can be adjusted depending on the encounter - allowing for many unique changes to your game state across dozens of encounters.

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Map 

The map itself is another layer of player choice on top of any made within encounter dialogue. When in the map screen, there are usually two upcoming locations to choose from. You cannot backtrack, so often you will often only see one of the two potential "routes" at each interval.

Since your path taken is shown, a player can easily see where they went and what locations they may wanna check out again in a future playthrough.

However, the importance is on the knowledge that you are incapable of seeing everything in one playthrough.

 
You cannot rewind choices, but there are so many at each turn your experience should feel like it is one born out of solely your decisions.

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Pirate Narrative

With the game's goals and systems being established from the beginning, I decided the setting of the game should harmonize with the game's mechanics as much as possible.

I needed something that could move across a map in one direction, with small encounters that could feasibly be on the way. As well as a situation that allows the player to make a variety of choices different from one another.

From this, the pirate theme was chosen:

  • A ship could travel through a wide open ocean, with islands or stops directly in the sea as encounters

  • A need to move in one direction to avoid backtracking lead to the race for a treasure out east

  • Opportunities open to lean into piracy, become an explorer, or side with the empire

  • Art can be simplified to a ship floating in water, with islands and/or other ships joining the scene when relevant.

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Learnings

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A sample of what an encounter's dialogue flow looks like, each large box representing a "block" of dialogue before it needs to transition after a choice is made

While a noble goal, it is easy to underestimate the sheer amount of dialogue needed to write a game like this. Not to mention keeping track of branching and looping narrative paths.

Each encounter could be extremely short, with a simple premise such as "do you let the castaway aboard, or leave him be?". However, encounters in turn start to feel lacking in content due to their length. There is a balance to be struck with crafting a lot of content in each encounter versus having a lot of encounters, it just takes dedication of writing a lot but also planning them well enough in advance to encourage consistency.

Additionally, an interesting issue arises with giving players so many paths. In my prototype, there are three main routes with smaller branches to choose from.
This creates at least three different entire narratives to follow, with the hope that they are at least similar to each other in enjoyment and length.

Lastly, in fully-realized version of this, a strong narrative is key. They must be hooked in as early as possible, otherwise the text-heaviness can get taxing depending on the kind of player. Smaller microgames could also be implemented to break up the game a bit, such as aiming and shooting a cannon, dodging a sea monster, etc.

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