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The Storytelling Secrets of Virtue's Last Reward

January 11, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Of all the story games I've ever played, Chunsoft's visual novel for 3DS/PlayStation Vita Virtue's Last Reward stands at the top of the heap: it's storytelling as gameplay, not beside it, and that significant fact earned it a place on Gamasutra's games of the year list for 2012.

The story is complex and rich, with multiple branching paths that all lead seamlessly to a single conclusion; because of this, it has all of the features that make linear narrative compelling while offering up a palette of choices that invite you to piece together what's going on by continuously testing the story's boundaries.

Virtue's Last Reward

If you step back and consider how the game really works, you'll find that you have no meaningful bearing on how the story plays out. This matters less than it sounds like it should because of the role it casts you in -- a kidnapped college student who has no idea what's going on. As you learn, he learns; as you figure out what's going on, so does he. The player is deftly kept aloft in the updraft between what just happened and what's going to happen.

What's the secret to building a story game like this?

"When I am writing a story, I always have a conversation with an imaginary player. It makes the process more fun," Kotaro Uchikoshi, the game's director, tells Gamasutra.

Virtue's Last Reward is what is known as a visual novel, the Japanese form of the graphic adventure genre, which, as in the West, has its genesis in 1980s PC games. Uchikoshi has been working in the game industry since the 1990s, when he landed at one of the genre's major proponents, the now shuttered KID.

999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors

He launched his career as a freelance writer and developer in 2001, eventually partnering with Chunsoft, a developer with a rich history in the genre, to create the Zero Escape series, which includes 2010's 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors (Nintendo DS) and 2012's Virtue's Last Reward (Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita).

The Death Distinction

Both games put the player in the shoes of someone trapped in a contest, called the "Nonary Game," played out in a sealed environment, where they and eight others must escape to survive, and will die at any time if they break the rules.

In Virtue's Last Reward, the player is, in fact, constantly aware of the threat of death -- from the premise of the Nonary Game itself, to the themes of epidemic, murder, and terrorism that weave through the plot.

As players, we all know that death is nothing to fear; in games, we die all the time. In fact, Uchikoshi acknowledges this. "For games, regardless of the genre, the main character and surrounding characters can die many times. The weight of a character's 'death' may somewhat be taken lightly, and that is one of the weak points of games."

He has an antidote for that.

"So basically, rather than the desire of 'I don't want this character to die, so I'll try to avoid it,' we put emphasis on the desire 'I don't want this story to die as is, so I'll try to avoid it.' As a result, keeping the story alive will connect, in a way, to avoiding the death of a character," he says.

Cleverly, this turns the player's emphasis toward keeping the game's story moving forward. In fact, the story's branching scenarios -- which are represented by the in-game flowchart below -- are a large part of what makes Virtue's Last Reward such a significant achievement for game narrative.

This is not a mere play log; it's fully interactive. Players can jump to any point in the story they've reached so far, testing theories and exploring alternative outcomes. The threads of the story branch as you make decisions and change what happens.

The best bit is that you can take this knowledge into other threads and, armed with it, learn even more. As you do so, the tale begins to reveal its true depth in surprising ways -- when characters both do and don't act as you'd expect, it gives you more food for thought, and more knowledge to take back to other scenarios.

As the game approaches its conclusion, more and more of the story unravels, allowing you to grasp those threads and weave them together into the real tale.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Joshua Darlington
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Thanks! Sounds like a fun game. I will have play that.

I like the idea of "thought experiments." It reminds me of Portal. Glad that some people are tapping into game theory (interactive decision making) and modern physics for ideas.

Matt Robb
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Sounds like turning Groundhog Day into a game design. I really like the idea.

Frank Washburn
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999 had it's flaws (having to manually skip text and replay puzzles you had played before) but it's resolution was literally the most incredibly story resolution I had ever experienced. Zero Escape manages to even top it by working the fundamental disconnection of player knowledge vs. main character knowledge into the story line itself. My only worry is where they'll go for the final game, because while Zero Escape was busy blowing my brains out with plot twists, it showed quite a bit of its hand for the final game. Still looking forward to it. 999 and Zero Escape are truly "must-plays" for the DS/3DS/Vita.

James Margaris
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"Zero Escape manages to even top it by working the fundamental disconnection of player knowledge vs. main character knowledge into the story line itself."

This has been a sort of fatal flaw in these kinds of games in the past. As the player you learn more about the story but as the character you don't retain that knowledge. As the player you want to try new decisions but the only way to do that was to start over. In 999 it felt like the idea of the character learning from the replay experiences was on the tip of their tongue.

Being able to travel back to decision points is something you really want to do as a player (as opposed to just starting over) and having an in-game explanation for that mechanic is almost the Holy Grail of this sort of game. Have not VLR yet, looking forward to it.

James Yee
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If only they'd bring it to PC so I could play it.... :(

Filipe Salles
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I haven't played any of those, but I think I will have to play them now.

Thanks for sparking my curiosity, the different approach that these games, regarding development of the stories, seem to offer are really interesting.

Jordane Thiboust
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Very nice game indeed. I enjoyed the storytelling of Virtue's last reward and 999 very much. I can't recommend them enough!