Interwoven Disciplines: Storytelling, Game Design, and Usability

Today I offer a reflective post, for I have been hard at work on my next interactive novel, “Quantum Conscience,” and as I near its completion I find myself pondering the complexities  of creating interactive media. Those of you more familiar with my novels may wonder why I have yet to announce another book release, but I assure you that I am working harder than ever to create a new narrative experience. It just may not take the form that you’d expect.

One reason I love working on video games is that they force me to pull from every single skill, experience, and discipline in my possession, then line them together in order to make my vision a reality. I have always loved writing, but I’m also passionate about illustration, design, and musical composition. So in my case, the challenge of utilizing every tool in my creative belt is one that I happily embrace.

The best example of this is a tiny little feature that I decided to add to my interactive novel, “Quantum Conscience,” by combining my training in several different fields.

First, some back-story. You need to understand that not everyone in the gaming community would consider visual novels to be “games” in the typical sense. You won’t necessarily find puzzles, platforming obstacles, swordplay, or power/skill loops when you “play” a VN (although some VNs do incorporate such things). At its core, a visual novel is a story, and it requires a hell of a lot of writing and narrative structure. But the story is–in a sense–alive. You can interact with the story by making choices for the characters. Here’s an example from my first release, “Serafina’s Saga”:

In "Serafina's Saga," you can make choices for Serafina that often affect the story

In “Serafina’s Saga,” you can make choices for Serafina that often affect the story

When I started working on my second visual novel, “Quantum Conscience,” I wanted to create an experience that was more interesting and unique. Because the game involves a main character who can read people’s minds, Malcolm Pierce and I brainstormed until we came up with an unusual game-play mechanic. Instead of clicking on a menu box to make a decision, we wanted your subconscious choice of whether to read another character’s mind to directly impact the narrative.

A screenshot from "Quantum Conscience," a visual novel in which your decision to read the minds of other characters impacts the plot

A screenshot from “Quantum Conscience,” a visual novel in which your decision to read the minds of other characters impacts the plot. Background by Michelle Hagewood

Right away we definitely had a unique and profound way of letting you interact with the story, and I had a lot on my plate as far as narrative structure and programming requirements. But several months into the project, I was also honing my knowledge of game design and user experience principles, and I realized that my new game fell short in these categories. I loved my gameplay mechanic, but might you not realize how drastically you had changed the story just by looking at someone’s thoughts? Where’s the fun in an exciting plot twist caused by the player if you don’t even know you had caused it?

When I found out that another VN recently came out with a game-play mechanic that was similar to mine (in “XBlaze – Code: Embryo,”  the plot changes based on what news articles you read), my initial reaction was despair. I worried my game would no longer seem so unique. But spiritual twins like these can happen in any creative field, so rather than wallow in disappointment, I tried to learn from what these other artists had already achieved. How did they maintain such a subtle game-play mechanic while giving the player a sense of accomplishment? And the answer was surprisingly simple.

QC Screenshot 2

A screenshot from “Quantum Conscience.” In this example, the player’s previous decision to read Korah’s mind has impacted the plot, which is then indicated by a “!” symbol to the left of the text. Background design by Michelle Hagewood

So by combining what I knew about usability and game design to my existing narrative structure, as well as learning from other existing works, I created a simple solution. Whenever your decision to read a character’s mind has impacted the plot, you’re alerted by a “!” symbol that appears next to the text (and there are different forms of the symbol based on different effects).

I suppose the moral of my story is a simple one: the more perspectives you can add to a creative endeavor, the better it will become (most of the time, at least). Ideally, you can achieve this by working with a skilled and collaborative team. But if you’re a one-woman team, then learn the hell out of every discipline you can get your hands on. You might be surprised by the ways they connect.