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Why do people keep acting like these “choose your own adventure” games are new? And why do they keep being surprised when they don’t let you choose your own adventure? Maybe because they haven’t read this informative and insightful article yet! (me do write smart) Today on The Anime Harvest, the Until Dawn Effect.
Until Dawn is the newest viral gaming a recent (man, these things age fast) horror/adventure game from Supermassive Games. The premise is pretty simple; a bunch of dumb kids go to a cabin the woods, they find out something else is up there, and some of them die or survive depending on the player’s decisions throughout the story. It’s fine for what it ultimately is- an interactive horror movie- but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the game didn’t have enough alternate paths.
Until Dawn has what it calls “the butterfly effect” which, on top of being incredibly pretentious, is a little misleading. Basically, the game lets you know that little decisions you make while playing the game can have big consequences. That much is true, but it presents these effects like this:
When in reality it’s much more like this:
Did you have the girl open the door? Great! Then she’s dead and everyone else will carry on unaffected! Did you make sure you could reach the weapon? Oh, well that doesn’t matter because there are five other ways to get the same effect, and even if you do get caught, it won’t change anything! Not. A. Thing.
Ultimately, all that “your choices matter” stuff doesn’t amount to much. A couple short scenes of difference, and a different final “score”, but the same story any way you take it. Until Dawn is hardly the first game like this to oversell the importance of, well, the player, it’s just the most recent and one of the worst offenders. But we really shouldn’t be surprised by it.
These types of games have their origins in Visual Novels, those things you see on Steam with boobs on all the thumbnails. The come from the birthplace of all weirdness, Japan, and they are basically E-picture-books. They are almost always written in first person because the reader is supposed to identify with the protagonist in order to have a feeling of investment when the decision points or “flags” come up. In most good VNs, your decisions actually do matter, and because of that you only see about 10% of the content in a single playthrough.
When decisions matter in a game like this, certain decisions will lead you down one path, while others will set you down a completely different path. It’s not always an immediate branch- for example, in the visual novel Katawa Shoujo many of the decisions that the player make early on don’t directly trigger events, instead they accumulate “points” with the different girls in the game, and the player is set down 1 of 5 paths later, based on which girl they have the most points with- but it does lock you out of some content, at least on that playthrough, and that’s kinda the point. In order to have multiple different stories based on the player’s decisions, a game has to have multiple stories. It can’t tell them all in one playthrough. If it did, it would just be one story.
So what is the Until Dawn Effect? They Until Dawn Effect is why games like Until Dawn, and to a lesser degree Telltale Games games, can’t pull this off. It comes down to two key aspects, genre, and budget.
The vast majority of visual novels, especially ones with extensive branching stories, are romances. Either a guy protagonist getting together one out of several girls, or a girl with a guy, or some homosexual variant, or a girl and birds. These things get weird. There’s even one with a girl and cats and rabbits! Anyway, this is because it’s pretty intuitive to write for this set up. Rather than writing one story, you write five, or seven, or however many you need, each with two or three endings. Each of the stories follows the main character building a relationship with a different being of whatever gender and species, and is mostly distinct from all the other stories. Maybe it will have small roles and cameos from the other characters, but little to none of their drama.
Of course, romance isn’t the only genre that can have this structure. But it’s a lot harder to handle a mystery or horror work like this because at the end of the day you can only have one mystery story at a time. With romance you can have several potential stories run parallel to one another.
As for the budget problem, this is one of those odd cases of art where more money means less creative freedom. Like I said, in a good visual novel you only see about 10% of the total content in a single playthrough. The reason this works and doesn’t feel like a lot of wasted content is because they are relatively cheap to produce. Most if not all of the same art assets are used in every story route, and the programing is not particularly complex. Hell, people like Charon have proved that you can make a decent VN in RPG Maker. The only work that goes into each new route is the writing, which, while certainly valuable, typically isn’t a cost problem because the writers of these things enjoy writing. Once you have all the art assets and the engine, there isn’t a significant cost, financial or otherwise, in producing another story route or two.
Compare that with Until Dawn, which has been called a triple A title. We don’t know exactly how much Supermassive Games spent making the game yet, but it wasn’t cheap. Every scene of this graphically above par horror game likely had a production budget that would make a visual novel developer’s mouth water. For any new route you needed to bring in 3D animators, possibly environment designers, the programmers for those totally necessary QTEs, voice actors, and bug testers. When each scene costs that much, it would be financially crazy to have 90%, or even just 20%, of them not show up in people’s first playthrough. It would drastically cut the length of the game, give people the first impression that there’s not a whole lot of content, and earn your game some poor reviews. Ironically, big budget games just can’t afford to branch their content like that.
So, unless you want that $80 retail game to be only two hours long and about a bestial romance between a girl and her pets, don’t fall for the choose-your-own-adventure marketing ploys. Maybe someday, when gamers better understand the implications of truly branching stories, publishers can do it and trust that players will seek out all the content over multiple playthroughs, but for now the Until Dawn Effect means games can’t really have a Butterfly Effect.
Don’t Lose Your Way.
Hey, today we talked about visual novels, and I’d just like to share one of my personal favourites that I don’t really hear talked about much. It’s called deIz (that’s D-E-I-Z; not L), and it is a blast. Each story takes under an hour to play though, but there are a ton of them, ranging from heartwarming, to sad, to a little awkward, to completely hilarious! This isn’t a paid promotions or anything; the VN’s free and I’ve never even talked to the developer. I just want to see more people enjoy this gem. So if you’re interested, click this link to check out deIz http://gamejolt.com/games/deiz/5995