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There's also a key element to the decision-making process in Virtue's Last Reward; however, it's easy to overlook this as a player. "In my works, I feel like it's more common that the decision they made was super important after they made it rather than before they made it," Uchikoshi says.
On reflection, this may be the most important distinction between Virtue's Last Reward and other choice-based story games. In The Walking Dead, for example, your decisions generally have immediate effect, with small ripples into the later chapters of the game. In Virtue's Last Reward, however, you only understand the effect your decisions had in hindsight, as more information becomes available. This keeps the suspense level high and, perhaps even more importantly, avoids those awkward scenarios in which your choices, as it turns out, didn't matter at all.
In developing games -- as opposed to simply writing stories -- Uchikoshi sees one crucially important distinction. "There is one thing that games have that isn't present in any novel, manga, movie, anime, or drama, and that is what I call 'bi-directionality,'" says Uchikoshi. "A story that doesn't flow in a single direction -- that is the essence of a game scenario."
"The 'bi-directionality' I am talking about refers to the fact that there is interaction."
What sets Virtue's Last Reward apart from its predecessor, which has a similar premise and follows a similar format, is that flowchart -- the ability for the player to jump around in the story at will.
Rather than any decisions made within the context of the story, the interesting moments of player agency derive from what thread of the story he or she chooses to explore, and when.
As the threads reach their conclusions, new avenues open up. Some, rather than concluding, are merely blocked due to a lack of information on how to proceed. The player can actively search for the keys to these "locks" within other threads in the game's scenario. The keys are always information: you'll understand why something happened when you explore it from another angle, and then be able to proceed.
"In a novel or movie, the reader/audience member can be no more than an observer of events, but in a game you can take the role of the main character. In addition, having the player experience things from a first-person perspective rather than a third-person perspective gives the game a stronger impact and makes it more interesting," Uchikoshi observes.
He uses this trick of perspective not just to keep the player engrossed, but also to limit the player's knowledge in a realistic way -- you can only ever understand what you experience or are told. This then becomes an underpinning of the unfolding of the game itself, as parallel story tracks that spiral off in different directions offer avenues into information you could not have otherwise discovered.
There's not just the challenge of keeping player interest through so many paths; there's also the avoidance of repetition and fatigue. "I tried my best to have all of the scenarios develop differently with different outcomes," says Uchikoshi. "You have to provide a certain amount of motivation to make a player want to play through all nine scenarios. That part was very challenging."
Uchikoshi designed the game's story flow using Excel, prototyping the potential outcomes of in-game scenarios. "After that, I matched the results with the chart I made and then came up with the nitty-gritty stories. When I came across situations that I couldn't get to work story-wise, I rewrote them in the Excel file."
VLR's number 9 door
In VLR's Nonary Game, if any of the participants can open the door with the number 9 on it, they can escape. The only way to open this door is to get enough points -- and to earn points, the participants must blindly choose to ally or betray each other in the "AB Game" -- a game of trust.
Deciding what would happen in these AB Game scenarios complicated things for Uchikoshi. After deciding on the flow of the story, he says, "I then tried my best to balance out various results from the AB Game... However, if I changed the results of Round One, then everything in Round Two related to that result had to be changed, too. That part was very hard."
These AB Game decisions form the crux of the direct player choice system in Virtue's Last Reward, and much of the interpersonal conflict that is the engine of the game's character interactions.