Today, let's take a look at the use of choices in visual novels. Most people are familiar with the concept, but there is a lot that can be done with them. When is it useful to include them, and what are the various ways in which you can use them?
Pros and cons of using choices
Since a visual novel is basically a book+, choices aren't necessary (as can be seen in kinetic novels). Yet many visual novels happen to use them to improve the experience of their story. So how do they help us?
Choices can add more tension, making the reader feel more involved with the story. When someone's decision can make the main character die or suffer, it creates a link between the player and the story. For example, during a battle scene, the player knows a wrong move can turn the main character into fine red mist.
They can also give the reader more control over the story, which is fun, whether it be something simple as choosing the order in which you visit places or something far more complex that influences the entire direction of the story.
Story telling possibilities
Finally, they're perfect for when you really want to write a story with specific (character) routes and perhaps a true route which connects them all. This allows the reader to pursue his favourite character as well, instead of being forced to play other routes first.
However, like with anything, there are always things to consider when you add choices.
When making choices in a visual novel, readers will only see a few of the branches, while the others will remain unread. This means a lot of extra work will be put in content which the player might not even see. Not to mention the work that goes in making the choices similar in content to one another, typing out bad ends, etc. That's a lot of time which could be used for other aspects of the visual novel.
Problems with routes
First of all, routes need to fit your story. There needs to be an important decision that justifies the route split, like which girl/guy to pursue, or a moral choice that drastically changes events. It might sound simple, but multiple routes which are roughly the same except for a few details don't have a lot of added value.
Second, it's hard to make all routes interesting yet diverse. If you don't manage to do so, people might end up only playing one route before quitting, which is kind of a waste.
Last, because the order of the routes can be chosen freely, your game will lack a proper ending. This can be solved by adding a 'true' or 'final' route, but this one needs to combine all of the smaller routes in one epic ball of awesome while remaining unique on its own, which is hard to pull off.
Kinds of choices
Of course, not all choices have to be the same. They can be used to fulfill specific roles in the story. Below we'll note a few examples.
If your novel has multiple routes, these are the choices that determines which one you'll get. There are two common variations: The first one is a direct choice that will determine which route to enter. The second variety works with points, in which different answers give you different amount of points for routes. If you score high enough for a route, you will enter it, but if you don't score high enough for any of the routes you'll usually get a bad end somehow.
These kind of choices can decide which events you see first and which last or which events you won't see at all if there's a limit to the choices you can make. Even without direct effect on the story, the player can choose his preferred girl or event first, increasing interactivity.
These choices ask the reader if he is familiar with certain lore or information. If he already knows about it, he can skip the explanation, instead of being bored silly.
A detail choice doesn't affect the mayor storyline in any serious way, but will only alter some small details. For example, learning about various details, or receiving a wound which might be mentioned later on and hinder your progress a little. It could be as simple as giving the reader bonus information about the character when you make a specific choice.
These can be seen as a variation of the first kind of choices - route choices, especially if you consider dead ends. When the main character is in a fight, it's far more exciting to influence the outcome or to decide on a way in which it's fought rather than to read the standard fighting scene. You have to actually think about your actions and their possible consequences. This could be, but doesn't have to be in the form of an instant death when you pick the wrong move. Though just like with route choices, you can also gain points instead of dying. One mistake will not instantly kill you, but many mistakes will. Let's look at an example:
An ogre throws an axe at your face 1) dodge 2) scream 3) block.
1) missed me, nanana~ - 0 wounds
2) he has terrible aim, but you're missing an ear and a bit of your cheek - 2 wounds
3) sadly, your incompetence in DEF shines through and you only decrease the damage - 1 wound
The following choice could be something similar. Imagine you have three of such choices and a limit of 4 wounds. If the reader failed badly twice or picked another combination to end up with 4 wounds, he dies/X happens. X could be an early defeat of the enemy or something else entirely. If you keep in mind where you want to end up, then the rest of your story can remain the same.
Keep in mind that if your surpass the threshold somewhere, death does have to follow swiftly. Nothing is more annoying than suddenly dying an hour later without understanding why.
Yes, this is a necessary category. Choices can make and break the experience equally well. Most of all, they need to make sense, not be entirely obvious from the start and be fair. Here's what I think you should avoid:
- Picking item X/food X/whatever random thing you may think of to decide which path to follow/to get the best ending. I don't think a route or ending should depend on whether I make spaghetti or a fruit salad for lunch!
- You have a naughty dream about character 1, 2 and 3... in which you go to bed wiiiiith? -insert answer-. Try to make your choices a little less transparant.
I'm looking at you, Tsukihime.
- Why-are-you-asking-me-this choices. If you ask up front which boy you want to pursue, immersion is broken. Why not let the player follow his favorite love interest or route as the story unfolds?
- Out of character choices. Granted, this doesn't count if the main character is you or a personality lacking puppet, but imagine a rapist encountering a nude woman on the street and then getting the choices 'give her your coat', 'call the police' or 'gasp'.
- Irrational choices. Choices which make you wonder why the heck you or the character would ever do that. This is especially bad if all choices seem terrible to you. For example, an ass has been bullying you and then you get the choice to date him or give him flowers, while in fact you want to break his ne-... ignore him. Of course, the main character might be a weirdo which has fallen in love with our ass, but it has to be made clear before suddenly giving an irrational choice.
- Meaningless choices. We talked about choices being a way for the player to pursue their interests. However, choices where you're simply stating your favourite colour or something similar minor, clearly add nothing at all. It's hard to decide at times if a choice adds flavor or not, but there are some out there that clearly don't.
There are probably some other variations of choices or reasons which I missed, but my point is: Think it through. Your choices for choices also have consequences ;)!