Now that our first interactive fiction game The Pulse is available, we thought it was a good time to break down exactly how we designed it to be more than just a series of binary choices.
When our small team of three first sat down to discuss creating The Pulse, we recognized two big challenges: First, the market was already very crowded with choose-your-path IF games; and second, we only had the ready skills to create a text based game. That meant no augmenting our story with flashy graphics or illustrations.
Despite those challenges, we were convinced we could figure out some key ways to include unique mechanics that would interact to bring something unique to storytelling in this format.
To that end, here’s what we did:
The Simple Stuff
We started with a couple of questions: What can IF offer that a traditional novel, comic, or even a movie can’t, and how closely do we hew towards creating a “game” or creating something more akin to an interactive novel?
We decided that leaning into the binary choose-your-path aesthetic was okay for our first outing, as it offered a recognizable format that we wouldn’t need to explain to readers and we could focus instead on selling them on the idea of a sci-fi story and a mystery, which we felt was what our general interest was anyway.
From there, we asked ourselves if we could add some simple mechanics that every game has so that, if asked, we could at least look someone in the eyes and say that The Pulse was indeed “a game” without losing sleep.
To that end we started with:
HEALTH — We agreed that if a player’s choices lead to a protagonist getting hurt, they should eventually die, resulting in Game Over status and a need to restart whatever chapter they were currently in. To that end, we adopted a three-strikes threshold and made sure to track each damage point as they occurred. Pretty simple.
We also made sure that players who took an opportunity to rest, eat, drink, bandage wounds, or pop a pill, could earn back any health points that had been lost.
ITEMS — We wanted to give readers the option to find items that could help them on their journey, or at least come into play in some minor way as they progressed through the story. We also felt that introducing the idea that items could be accumulated would encourage exploration.
While some items in The Pulse are picked up and disposed of quickly, some will might just determine how successful your ending is.
The Complicated Stuff
We also built in some mechanics that track variables that can have more impact on the direction of the narrative. This was a bit more challenging.
We talked a lot about how people play games differently. Some want to explore every corner of a world, while some focus on getting through the story as quickly as possible. We didn’t want to reward one way of playing over any other, but we did want there to be some consequences to how people engage with the main character.
To that end we built the following:
TRUST — Making erratic choices, or pushing a character to make dangerous decisions just “to see what happens”, results in a gradual loss of trust when you play The Pulse. That didn’t strike us as being punitive, but rather a nice bit of verisimilitude.
Like Health, we set this at a three-strikes threshold after which the player would be faced with the character moving on alone, and be required to restart whatever chapter they were currently on.
TIMED CHOICES — Since The Pulse is built on the illusion of speaking to people in real-time, what happens if the character is being chased, or has to make a decision quickly? And what happens if the player is not paying close enough attention in that moment?
To solve this challenge, some of the binary choices in the game are timed. You’ll know you are on a timed choice if the buttons begin to fade. If you don’t choose a path in enough time, the character will choose for themselves.
What happens if you don’t choose quickly? We tied this into our Trust variable by docking the player one Trust point each time they failed to react quickly enough. After three strikes, you are considered untrustworthy and receive a Game Over status and must restart whatever chapter you are on.
CONNECTIVITY— The last big variable we built into the game, as well as the most complicated is what we have come to call “Connectivity”. This tracks how willing you are to communicate with the protagonist, understand and respond to needs.
It works differently than the Trust variable in that its threshold does not result in a simple “Game Over” status. Rather, having high or low Connectivity can change a characters’ perception of you and be the deciding factor in whether they tell you a hard truth, or leave you in the dark in some instances.
Building high or low Connectivity can also lead to siding with different characters. As you play, you may end up helping a character you didn’t expect to be playing with.
All of these variables were first tracked by The Pulse writer Christopher Webster when he wrote the story in Twine. Yes, we used Twine, and that’s a story for another post altogether.
Leaving a note beside any choice that resulted in a variable change cued the developer to trigger it accordingly when it came time to transfer all the Twine text into the back end and code.
But we didn’t rely on stock responses when variables like Connectivity or Trust came to a head in the story.
Whenever the Connectivity variable effected the narrative, it was all handled in the writing process with Webster writing multiple passages based on where the Connectivity threshold might be as seen pictured below using simple if or else statements.
In the instance above, if a player’s Connectivity was at or above the threshold, the player would be able to sway the character to go against her judgement. Otherwise, she doesn’t listen to you. To us, this seemed like a big break in terms of giving some agency to the characters in the story over their own destiny and subverting the expectation of how choose your path games are “supposed to work”.
Experienced interactive fiction developers have been changing how stories are told for many years, and much of this is likely not news to those people. As this was our first game, however, we tried to challenge ourselves as much as we were able, and think of ways to enhance each player’s experience. Hopefully, if you are thinking of developing something, this will trigger some ideas.
Feel free to ask for clarification about how we accomplished certain features, or just throw out ideas in the comments. We’ll be sure to engage!