If you ask a whole bunch of videogame developers how they start their games, they’ll probably give you a whole variety of answers. It’s like making music: people like Kurt Cobain will compose the melody first, before laying over some heroin-fueled lyrics, while others start with the lyrics. Then there are those who will just look for a popular old 80s song to cover or sample.
So with games, you can start with a gameplay gimmick (like sonar or time-control mechanics), or maybe a premise like “how can you generate more goodwill in the world?” Some might even decide on which game engine to use as the first key decision.
Others start with a story to tell, and since my background is in writing, I decided to start I’m Not Your Hero with its story. Besides, I have that story in my head that I’ve been meaning to tell for years!
Also, having made this decision it became really easy for me to decide on making a game in the Visual Novel genre.
Starting with the story
The basic premise of the story was kinda tight in my head already (“a hierarchical high school where everyone speaks like they were in a high fantasy novel”) but I was still missing the story beats, the beginning and the endings. Plural, because unlike the screenplays I’ve written in the past, games are interactive and can have multiple endings depending on the player’s actions.
Furthermore, the structure for a game is likely to be quite different from a TV show’s 5-act structure or a movie’s 3-act structure. I think I’m a fairly experienced storyteller from the stuff I’ve done in the past, but this is uncharted territory and I’m going to have to do a lot of research into the genre.
Look, some of you might want to just write straight ahead, put pen to paper and just run with your creativity – to hell with constrictive structures and rules!
I’ve tried it before and it doesn’t work for me. Writing without plotting works for Stephen King, but I’m not a genius like him and I need the order and form of a structure to keep my writing on the right path.
The visual novel structure
Luckily for me, the help guide that comes with Visual Novel Maker is packed full of information and links to useful external resources – kudos to the authors!
What I found most useful was the insight into designing choice-based story structures, from Choose Your Own Adventure books to Visual Novels. There are a couple of options for you here:
The cascading tree of death
This is the most basic type of structure, and it’s really just a tree diagram that basically splits every time a player had a choice to make. And since a VN game is mostly about making choices, that can result in a crazy amount of branching paths, leading to a gazillion possible endings.
Not only is this really tedious and results in a crap-ton of content to write, it also means as a writer, you’re unable to weave together a coherent story because there are just too many variables. For the same amount of writing as a linear novel, you’re going to have a tiny fraction of the story.
Open gameplay like that is more for sandbox open world games anyway, like SimCity or rogue-like games. For those you’d be better off building a world and some reactive systems inside, rather than trying to form a compelling VN narrative.
The complete opposite of that is to take away all choices altogether and just take player through a compelling story, at the expense of player agency.
Sidenote: What is player agency?
Making a linear game would be the most convenient for writers who are used to having full control over a story, and want to focus on telling the best story they could. You could disguise it with a bunch of choices that ultimately don’t impact the direction of the story, so as a designer you are always in control, but I’m sure players will figure that out after a while.
While playing random VN games to understand the genre, I legit came across this game where the only gameplay is tapping to progress the dialogue. The only choice you have in the game is at the home menu, where you can choose to start a new game or continue an old one. This game exists, and has been listed as a favorite, so a linear game is a really real option!
I decided against such a structure though as I already have experience with linear stories and I wanted my player to have that feeling of agency and control.
Plus, I have different endings in mind and I can’t decide which is the best… So let’s make them all available!
I came across this concept in this blog post, and it is the one that resonated most strongly with me.
How this basically works is that you divide the game into sections. Within each section, you can branch out to do different things but at the end of the section, all the branches will be forced back to the same path so the next section will have a consistent start.
If you look at every Bioware game, they are more or less structured in this way. You start in a long tutorial level to learn the game mechanics and story, and then you come across a space ship that allows you to travel to different planets. This is your “branching” section, but ultimately you’ll have to complete all these different planets and once you do, it will trigger the final level which will be pretty much the same no matter what you did during the branching section.
In a VN structure like the game I’m making, you can make it so the decisions you make during the different branches will affect later decisions, through the use of player stats – which can be visible or invisible to the player, depending on what works for your game.
To use the Bioware example again, the Mass Effect games give you a Paragon/Renegade score. Choosing “good” decisions pushes you towards Paragon, while “evil” decisions push you towards the Renegade side. Where you sit on the scale determines how NPCs react to you and the kind of dialogue options you have in later NPC conversations.
So I’m pretty much going to work it in a similar way. Decisions will trigger my main character’s placement on an invisible scale, and this will affect what branching options are available in later sequences.
So in INYH, the protagonist is an antisocial girl tasked to save the school from a demon by befriending everyone and uniting the student body. The big premise is that she has to get out of her comfort zone of isolation, so I’m going to make Reputation her main stat. Many decisions will make her either more social or antisocial, and as she goes up and down the scale, she is able to gain favors from NPCs through friendship or threats.
This will be the primary method to create a sense of agency for the player, as their actions will determine how the story plays out and what kind of person the protagonist is.
But the beauty of the Aggressively-Merged Branches style is that I will still have a fair bit of control over the story. No matter what happened in the first two levels, I can still trigger a key event in the third level because it serves my story, and it will still fit with the player’s actions because the story never strays too far from what I’ve planned.
This post is getting pretty long so I’ll sign off here. Next up, I’ll share my misadventures planning and plotting the story.
Thanks for reading! Hope you found it useful!