Four Types of Variable-Influenced Player Choices
Choices that lead to the changing of variables can be used in four different ways:
Defining the Player Character
The character values of the player character are determined by choices. These decisions are especially important in the beginning and the first third of the story to let the player define the traits of their character and outline it.
In an interactive thriller, for example, you could ask at the very beginning how the player wishes to solve a specific conflict: through diplomacy, violence, or cunning. Depending on their decision, the corresponding variable “diplomacy”, “violence”, or “cunning” is then increased by a certain amount. After several of such Player Choices the player character is taking shape and you can start to design the following choices and their consequences dependent on the value of those variables.
Defining the Game World
The player’s decisions not only influence their player character but also the events in the game world. These decisions are especially helpful to determine the fate and future of secondary characters.
For example, if a player has decided to extort a witness to get testimony for a mafia process, at a later point there could be a story segment where the player is being told that the witness was found dead in his cell or that his wife has separated from him. This would not have happened if the player had forgone getting this testimony or had chosen a more diplomatic approach.
For you, including such short events in your story does not require much more effort. But for the player, the game world suddenly becomes much more alive and dynamic. Their decisions not only have consequences for their own character and the development of the plot, but will also influence many other aspects of your story, making it immediately more complex and broader with the player’s decisions having much greater impact.
Defining the Course of the Story
Player choices that influence the course of the story should only be employed very late on and very carefully. Consider beforehand what consequences the possible story paths will have for the complexity of your story and for your additional workload. The downside of many great ideas is that, instead of just one story, you suddenly have to write two stories. With some experience and planning you can often tailor this idea to limit the additional work, for example, by merging the different story paths again at a subsequent point, or by having the consequences of a decision only play out at the end of your story.
Do not hesitate to point out to the player when a Player Choice will lead to a far-reaching decision. In the computer game “Elex”, for example, a warning in large print is displayed that the player is now making an important decision for the further course of the game. This, of course, creates uncertainty and tension within the player.
Defining the Player’s Success
How many different endings can a crime story actually have? Strictly spoken, just two: a good one and a bad one. In reality, however, it can have as many as you want because every ending allows for different nuances and partial successes. These varied endings can be achieved through the use of variables if your story has only one main plot thread.
Imagine the player taking the role of a private eye investigating a murder case. In their hunt for the murderer they meet different people in different locations, questions witnesses, and collects evidence. At the end of the story, they manage to narrow down the number of suspects to just one person whom they can now bring charges against. How the trial ends and what happens to the murderer now depends on the player’s earlier decisions:
If the player managed to win over all witnesses and find all evidence, the murderer is being convicted. If the evidence is not solid, the murderer is acquitted or only receives a minor sentence. If the player violated some laws during their investigation, the murderer might get arrested, but now the player character faces some charges as well, for example for trespassing, burglary, or battery. Further possibilities are that the player survives the adventure unharmed or gets seriously injured, suffering permanent damage that will prevent them from ever working again as a private eye. Or, although the murderer has been acquitted, the player is offered the opportunity to take the law into their own hands, exposing the culprit at least in the eyes of the public.
A very exciting idea is to present the player with a dilemma between two narrative goals. To do this, you only have to think like your player, understanding that they basically wish to accomplish two things: convict the murderer, and be the hero of the story. It will make for a fascinating dilemma if you deny them that second goal in order to achieve the first one. Now the player has to ask themselves the question: how much of my personal goals am I willing to sacrifice to achieve that higher goal?
In practical terms this could mean that the player character will not be able to convict the murderer by their efforts alone. They are dependent on the help of a local crime boss, making a pact with them. Or they require the support of a superior or partner who demands all the glory for solving the case for themselves.
Make sure that, in these dilemma choices, the player realizes that decisions which push them towards one goal might push them farther away from completing others. The best place to use these catch-22 situations is at the heart or end of a story. Not only does this limit additional work; it exposes opportunities to throw your players through twists and turns.