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Shivering Hearts Dev Diary – The Problem with Branching Narratives in Games

Gamingtodaynews1f - Shivering Hearts Dev Diary - The Problem with Branching Narratives in Games
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Hey everyone,

Thought I'd post my first devlog for Shivering Hearts here.

If this kind of post is against the rules then I can take it down.

This vid doesn't fully delve into the nitty gritty side of RPG Maker but I instead talk about broader topics of where I draw my influences, and video game design in a wider sense.

While I talk about my game, I use it as a starting point to talk broadly about a lot of different topics such as the design and philosophy of choice-driven gameplay throughout different games like Baldur's Gate 2, Dragon Age and the Witcher 3, and then I start talking about the aesthetics of games and how I was mostly inspired by the concept art from different games.

If it's better for me to write a text post instead of linking a video, especially because it can be seen as a form of self-promotion, then I'll transcribe one part of the video that I would like to genuinely discuss.


The Problem with Branching Narratives in Games

When deciding on what kind of experience I wanted to create that was engaging but didn't use combat mechanics, that brought me to my experience with narratively complex RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 2, the original Fallout 1, 2, Fallout New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, and Dragon Age: Origins. These games have intricately detailed worlds and dialogue systems that allowed for heavy characterization and role playing. Games that certainly guide you through their world and stories in a linear fashion, but they respect your choices, and these choices are reflected in the multiple ending screens which illustrated the fate of the world and the characters you got to know.

But there lies a potential trap.

When a designer focuses on dialogue systems as a primary loop to push player experience, there’s the tendency to focus too much on how the experience can branch out and account for a multitude of player options. But to try and sell the game where every choice has long term consequences is a recipe for disaster. You’re fighting a losing battle as a developer if this is the main experience you want to craft, and it creates an unrealistic set of expectations in the heads of players. These expectations are very reasonable to have because you're told by the developer that your choice would do this or that, so you better be careful and really consider the choices you make. But when you go back and analyse how your choices affects the narrative, it often comes up short, and this is a shame. This might seem like a strong word, but as a player you might get a sense of betrayal from the developers, and as a developer you feel like you've tried your best, and it's still not enough. Developers focus huge amounts of resources into these branching paths, making sure they make narrative sense and are bug-tested properly, and it’s very, very likely that the large majority of players won’t see or appreciate the branching, nor will they care enough to go back and experiment with different possibilities. That’s certainly how I felt when playing games like The Walking Dead, The Witcher 3, Until Dawn, Heavy Rain, the list goes on. Despite having fun with them in the moment, no developer can account for every possibility. But maybe, that’s just the reality to accept with these branching narratives?

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So the question is, why did I stick with this potentially flawed starting point? Well for me, the reason why Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment are still the best games ever created (personal opinion obviously) is that it's not really about the navigation of the choice and how consequences are tracked and paid off long term. Rather, it’s how these gameplay mechanics allow a greater exploration of the game’s themes and it allows the player to be asked questions about spirituality and the self that isn’t just told to the player by watching a cutscene. I wanted to recapture that same magic that enraptured me as a kid, and even now as an adult. It’s about building empathy, and getting you involved in answering questions yourself and who you trust in an uncaring world. These sorts of questions don’t often get asked in the mundanity of everyday life. It also allows the player to be involved within the characterization of the protagonist, and provides ample opportunity for of role-playing. Well, role-playing within the limitations of a digital Dungeon Master, as opposed to live sessions of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons with a real time Dungeon Master that can react intuitively and creatively to player actions. It's hard for me to imagine AI to develop a keen sense of being a proficient Dungeon Master to give players the wide array of player options to allow for a truly reactive gaming experience. But who knows, maybe I'm underestimating Moore's Law and the rate of innovation in the AI sector.

I think there are a lot of problems you face as a developer when creating something like this. Not only are you creating these hugely complex web of decisions in a very bespoke manner that feels like you're trying to keep track of a plate of spaghetti and making sure each noodle is QA tested and working properly, how easy it is to make sure this doesn't hard-crash the game every 5 seconds is also very dependent on what software you're using. I was using RPG Maker MV for the past 12 months and while I think RMMV has so many advantages at creating something like this through it's relatively intuitive UI design that doesn't require coding knowledge, I still think 3 of those months was spent purely on QA and bug-testing, because it's so, so easy for bugs to be created and overlooked when trying to keep track of every decision. You're also facing huge, and I mean HUGE diminishing returns from your efforts when making this type of experience and trying to respect player choice as much as possible, and it still feels like I'll never be satisfied at the amount of choices I provide the player. So, even though I was able to create the type of branching narrative experience I wanted for Shivering Hearts, I think there are inherent hurdles to this type of game design that scares off even the biggest AAA developers, and why we aren't really seeing this type of narratively complex stories these days. Why would investors want to back rich and dense storytelling in games when it's really hard to do in a technical standpoint, is hard to market to a wider audience, and is harder to monetize compared to lootboxes or DLCs or games as services?

Anyway, those are my post-release thoughts, and is something I genuinely want to discuss with others that's separate from my desires of promoting my game (Although I guess I can't escape the fact that this is still a form of self-promotion).

Thanks for your time 🙂

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