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Opinion:  Heileen  & The Art Of Game Storytelling

Opinion: Heileen & The Art Of Game Storytelling Exclusive

April 9, 2009 | By Emily Short

[Continuing her exploration of narrative in games of all flavors, as originally printed on Gamasutra sister alt.weblog GameSetWatch, writer and interactive fiction game designer Emily Short looks at Heileen, a visual novel of an adventurous trip to the New World.]

Heileen is a "visual novel" in Ren'Py, produced by Tycoon Games (whose collaboration on Summer Session I wrote about in an earlier column). Unlike Summer Session, Heileen has no resource-management element or structured gameplay, only a sequence of dialogue and action choices for the main character, which (as in dating sims in general) determine how she winds up relating to the characters around her.

I've noticed that authors of choose-your-own-whatever-style works often seem to think that their job is simply to put in decision points now and then in some otherwise fairly standard (or, indeed, substandard) story, and the results will be entertaining and replayable.

This is not the case. Choice-based games need to do many of the same things that challenge-based games do: engage the player with a strong hook; provide a sense of agency; keep its implicit promises.

Heileen treads a middle line, with some successful design choices and some unsuccessful ones -- which makes it a useful case study. The analysis that follows is based on my own highly opinionated take on what makes a choice-centric design work, namely: convergent plot, non-arbitrary options, strong pacing, and effective writing.

Is the plot divergent or convergent?

Do the player's choices drive the story in wildly different directions, or is there essentially one storyline in which the player's choices lead to variations on the same theme? Heileen pursues the latter course: on multiple playings the player will encounter the same mysteries and secrets, but different choices about relationships lead to different possible outcomes.

It might seem as though a more divergent structure will lead to greater replayability, but I don't find that to be the case: I am most interested in replaying scenarios where I'm curious about an alternate branch, and in which there is something approximating a strategy to pursue.

This is part of the reason why wiki-based collaborative choose-your-own stories rarely come out to be very satisfying: lacking any kind of common vision, they fly off in all directions, producing a highly chaotic experience which at best can offer some oddly visionary moments or startling juxtapositions, but which lack any semblance of real direction.

A closely-related point...

Are choices meaningful or arbitrary?

Does the player have a reason to be invested in one outcome or the other? Can the player reasonably guess what sorts of outcomes might come of his choices?

I remember as a child being irritated by Choose Your Own Adventure novels that started with questions like "You're in a cave that forks a little way ahead. Do you go take the left tunnel or the right one?" It is, of course, a choice I would have to make if I were exploring the cave in reality; it's even a choice that might appear in a more simulation-oriented game, where the game space was presented in some consistent way.

But it is not a choice that has any narrative interest when the player has no way of guessing what might be at the end of either tunnel and no reason to pick one or the other. The player's role in narrative determination is here functionally equivalent to the role of a flipping coin.

There are plenty of examples of this kind of question design even in more recent work. Dream Day Wedding is a hidden object game: not my favorite genre to start with, and here iced with a quantity of romantic frippery that made me cringe.

Its sole gameplay innovation is the introduction of "Choose A Story" segments, in which the player is invited to decide how (for instance) the bride and groom met. But the available options are generally meaningless: they let the player make choices about (for instance) whether they met at the bride's workplace or when she was out jogging, a purely circumstantial decision, but not about what kinds of problems they faced, how those problems were resolved, or how they developed as characters. Possibly this is because giving the characters any very serious problems would have been out of keeping with the rose-scented mentality of the game.

Heileen, like other dating sims I've met, makes the choices largely about where the player character should spend her time, and whose side she should take. It feels from moment to moment as though there is a good correlation between player intention and story outcomes, since paying more attention to certain characters makes them more friendly and responsive.

On the other hand -- I'm not sure whether this was my fault or the game's -- even after reading some hints on the game's forum, I wasn't able to change the ultimate outcome of the story. No matter what strategy I took towards interacting with the other characters, I always wound up involved with the same one.

Is the pacing even? Are choice points distributed with reasonable evenness?

This kind of question doesn't come up much with the classic old form of Choose Your Own Adventure book, because choices happen at the bottom of every page or two, and no segment ever runs very long. In a computer-directed game of choices, however, there is a lot more room for variation -- and the player also doesn't have the option of flipping ahead to see how long a passage he's in the middle of at the moment.

Heileen was a little problematic in this respect. Some portions of Heileen run for very long periods without any opportunity to intervene. It may be that my own expectations interfered with my enjoyment here: I generally think of cut scenes and other long non-interactive stretches as bad things in interactive narrative, but they are not at all uncommon in Ren'Py novels, and there are several apparently quite well-regarded works (such as Songs of Araiah or the short poem-like The Rise and Fall of Gemini) that offer no decision points at all.

Personally I find myself getting impatient reading a "novel" where I have to press a key in order to continue after each line of dialogue, especially if I am never to be allowed to intervene; nonetheless Heileen hardly invented this kind of structure.

The linearity is most evident in the last portion of the game. Here at least the end of the story partially reflects the player's choices, so it varies some from playthrough to playthrough; nonetheless the structure felt a little unbalanced to me.

Is it a good story?

Beyond all these structural considerations, of course, a game or interactive story of this kind is going to depend especially heavily on the quality of its writing -- the plotting, the prose quality, and the characterization -- because it is from these things, rather than from any procedural aspect, that all the texture and the aesthetic pleasure of the piece has to come.

I will admit that Heileen struck me wrong in a couple of ways from the outset. For one thing, it purports to be a historical story, but even allowing for the fact that this is "historical" as seen through the filter of the dating-sim genre, it's almost impossible to take seriously.

Our young heroine -- supposedly a creature of the 17th century -- sets out to sea in a vessel that resembles a cruise liner more closely than any old-world sailing ship. She has a spacious room to herself (as, apparently, do most of the other people aboard the ship), uses the bathroom when necessary (no sign of plausible ancient hygiene), and contracts scurvy only if she is too absent-minded to partake of the fresh fruits and vegetables that are, of course, freely available. Most of the women aboard dress and act in a way that would have been unacceptable at the time, and the characters have surprisingly modern views on such topics as slavery, class status, lesbianism, and polyamory.

Then, too, it takes the plot of Heileen a long time to get rolling. Again, I suspect that genre conventions may be standing in the way of my appreciation a little: as far as I can tell from my as-yet limited experience of dating sims, it is an adequate premise simply to put the main character in a new situation in which he or she is surrounded by romantic prospects.

This Heileen certainly does -- the ship to the New World abounds with unexpectedly well-groomed sailors and officers, and Heileen loses no time in becoming interested in them. As seen from outside generic expectations, though, this looks a bit weak. In fact there are more significant tensions and mysteries to be found later in the story, but Heileen rambles and dithers a bit before stumbling upon these; rather, I thought, as stories often do when the author starts out not quite sure what the point is going to be, and finds out only about halfway through writing. The corrective for this is then to redraft the story. As things are, Heileen never really achieves a thematic unity.

I find myself comparing Heileen back to Summer Session, which I found considerably more successful. Some of the difference, certainly, has to do with the gameplay structure: the resource-management component of "Summer Session" provided a sturdy backbone to the story that reinforced player agency and gave a sense of forward movement.

Likewise, the characters were more consistently delineated in Summer Session. One of the most potentially interesting characters in "Heileen" is that of your friend and companion Marie; but the game can't seem to make up its mind about whether Marie is outgoing or shy, daring or restrained.

Her romantic plot arc, too, makes little sense, as she can switch attitudes and interests apparently in the blink of an eye. There simply wasn't enough consistency there for me to believe in Marie as a person, even a conflicted and complicated person. In Summer Session, by contrast, replaying the game gradually revealed more plot events that explained consistent but previously-misunderstood behavior from the protagonists.

To be fair, though, part of the trouble with Heileen is that, as a story, it is considerably more ambitious than Summer Session. It then falls short of these ambitions. The characters in Summer Session are troubled for the most part by light concerns: holding a summer job, passing a school course, getting along with the popular kids, saving up enough cash to buy cooler clothes. Heileen's characters have their preconceptions overthrown, encounter life and death situations, and see some of the darker sides of human experience, but they still act and think with a schoolgirlish immaturity.

In a lot of ways the issues I had with Heileen"are variations on problems I've seen in a lot of different game styles when they begin to embrace more narrative ambitions. A design that might have been perfectly sufficient for a dating sim set in a high school becomes awkward and inadequate for a high-seas adventure with more serious themes. These are natural growing pains.

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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