Never Let Go Of

Text adventure created in Twine 2 ◦ 3 months ◦ 2016
Narrative Design Research

In the research for this project, I did a review of a variety of major narrative games, including AAA experiences like Bioware's Dragon Age: Inquisition, medium-scale projects like Telltale's The Walking Dead, and smaller indie projects like Cardboard Computer's Kentucky Route Zero. Through analyzing these titles, I determined that choices in narrative games tend to boil down to six high-level categories:

  1. Optimal Path: a choice that focuses on the player attempting to push the story in a direction that suits the player’s desired narrative outcome, generally towards an optimal outcome like overcoming a challenge.

  2. Moral Quandary: a choice that focuses on morality-driven decision-making, often posing the player with a difficult moral situation that affects one or more characters.

  3. Protagonist Development: a choice that develops or informs the character traits and personality of the primary, player-controlled protagonist(s).

  4. Relationship Development: a choice that develops or informs the relationship(s) between the primary, player-controlled protagonist(s) and one or more other characters in the game.

  5. Puzzle Solving: a choice that focuses on the primary, player-controlled protagonist(s) attempting to overcome a specific issue through actions and/or dialog.

  6. Narrative Exposition: a choice that gives the player a deeper knowledge of the world at large in the story, such as characters, events, locations, objects, etc.

 

The major trend today in narrative-driven games is to offer the player three choices in conversations that have dramatically different direct outcomes but that each fit the voice of the protagonist. It is common for those choices to constantly fit in categories of 1. Positive, 2. Neutral/Humorous, 3. Negative, though not all dialog follows this format.

 

Providing a Variety of Choices

For Never Let Go Of, I wanted every choice to:

 

  1. Fit perfectly in the flow of conversation. Each choice logically follows from the events and discussion that precede it, and the outcome of each choice carries smoothly between passages.

  2. Fit Kennelly's voice. A text adventure provides the unique ability to show the internal narrative of the protagonist, allowing Kennelly to justify and contextualize any given choice that The Reader makes for him.

  3. Offer The Reader a sense of participating in a game. Not every choice offered necessarily has a dramatically new outcome, but each should connect to the game's design and feel intentional and purposeful.

  4. Connect to the characters, themes, and overall plot. Given the small scale of the game and its nature as a prosaic piece, there is no reason to let any choice not serve the larger creative goals and structure of the work.

 

In practical application, this game provides four very specific types of choices. These choices focus more on Protagonist Development and Relationship Development, with a soft focus on Narrative Exposition, little attention given to Optimal Path and Moral Quandary, and none to Puzzle Solving. The presence of these choice categories is due to the project’s concentration on character interactions and relationships.

 

Any choice that represents The Reader's effect on the story is displayed in blue text and phrased in an imperative verb tense (telling Kennelly what to do). As explained below, some choices originate from Kennelly, and these are phrased in first-person and displayed in an off-white that resembles the normal prose.

 

Each chapter of the story generally features at least one of each, and every choice falls under these four categories:

Frozen Choice: Each chapter starts off with one of these. They are Kennelly’s attempt to stop the story in its tracks and take a safer route. The supernatural force that possesses him subtly changes his thought process such that despite his initial protestation, The Reader's choice changes his mind and makes him go along with the more dramatic path.

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Frozen Choices show that Kennelly is not in control of the story

The Frozen Choices may frustrate The Reader, making them feel like they don't have control over the story. However, these choices represent the opposite reality, that it is Kennelly who has no control over the story, and it is the design of the story that has complete control over him. The hints of this are present from the first passages of the game, and it comes full circle through the villain of the story who arrives in the climax. The Path is a series of stories that focuses heavily on a meta-commentary of game design and narrative, and the Frozen Choices are the most direct nod this episode of The Path makes towards that commentary.

Key Choice: These are theme-related choices. The three options presented to The Reader each represent focusing on the past, present, or future. There’s no “correct” answer, with all of them having validity depending on The Reader’s mindset.

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Key Choices tie back to the story's theme of "time"

These push outside of the "good/neutral/bad" mold while still offering three different options. Given the game's theme of "how people think of time," they offer the options of Focus on the Past, Focus on the Present, and Focus on the Future. Each one is posed as a question by one of the three friends. If The Reader happens to agree with that character's opinion, this will add to that character's attitude score towards Kennelly.

 

These choices gauge The Reader's general sentiments towards the overall question of "what phase of time do you focus on the most?" Where The Reader falls on the spectrum has ramifications on the conclusion.

Inter-Group Choice: These choices affect the group dynamics of the cast. They generally take the form of Kennelly offering an opinion that affects how the characters see him or one another. They have noticeable ramifications on dialog, as each of the other characters has a considerable level of respect for Kennelly and his opinions on life and the Agency.

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Inter-Group Choices provide dramatic tension to the flow of conversation

These choices follow the "positive/neutral/negative" mold, but they always answer a specific question posed by another character. These critical moments tie to the backstories and personal sentiments of that character, and often to the central themes, creating points of potential tension or connection. Thus, these Inter-Group Choices add to or subtract from the questioning character's attitude score towards Kennelly.

Exposition Choice: These are opportunities offered to The Reader to learn more about the characters and world of the story. The Reader has the option of moving on and not reading this extra information, but it is always information that could influence the choices they make moving forwards in the story.

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Exposition Choices offer the freedom to learn more about the characters

There are three major exposition choices in the first half of the story. The first allows The Reader to read files that offer some background information on the cast of characters. The next two allow The Reader to pry into the backgrounds of Brighton and Natalie. If The Reader chooses to pursue the full conversation, the conclusion of it is punctuated by a choice that allows The Reader to approve of or disapprove of that character's way of thinking, which affects their attitude score towards Kennelly.

 

All of these choice categories lead to a lot of different variables being taken into account throughout the story, with the most significant consequences being in the last two thirds of the adventure.

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Earlier choices are heavily referenced throughout the adventure, especially towards the end

 
The Climactic Trials

The second half of Never Let Go Of spirals into a supernatural climax, where the four Agency personnel are thrown into the trials and tribulations of the Dream House. This location earns its name, reaching into the minds of its victims in search of their innermost desires and fears, forcing them to either face their demons or hold onto whatever psychological methods of escape they cling to in everyday life.

 

For these four characters, the trials of the Dream House tie back to the theme of "how people think of time," with each of the characters aside from Kennelly representing Past (Brighton), Present (Natalie), and Future (Armen). In focusing on their respective phase of time, the characters run from something they're afraid of in the other two, and it's up to Kennelly to both figure out what's happening and try to snap them out of the spell their own fears have cast on them.

 

The trials can be experienced in any order, and each of them can be expanded up to two times if The Reader chooses (similar to the Exposition Choices above). These expansions offer a deeper perspective on why the character is going through that trial, but they also force Kennelly to experience the cause of their trial along with them.

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Remaining in the trials offers a deeper perspective on each of the characters

  • For Brighton (Past), The Reader can choose to Stay and watch the man focus on his resurrected dead husband. Eventually The Reader must Leave, moving on from the past and escaping the trial.

  • For Natalie (Present), The Reader can choose to Wait, sitting around forgetting about more pressing matters. Eventually The Reader must Act, pushing onwards to try to figure out this trial.

  • For Armen (Future), The Reader can choose to Go, following Armen without analyzing their strange surroundings. Eventually The Reader must Stop and question Armen's motivations and the nature of the rooms around them.

Creating Compelling Consequences

In the climax of the trials and the events following them, The Reader has all of the choices they made throughout the first half of the story brought up in some way, whether it be through Kennelly's internal monologue or the lines of the characters with whom he interacts. There's no consistent way a choice might affect a line in the story—it could be a word, a clause, a sentence, or even a full paragraph. The way this is done, of course, is a variety of conditional statements embedded throughout the prose (further explained under scripting).

 

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A large amount of text seamlessly changes based on the player's choices

While many smaller details in the trials change based on each of the earlier choices made, the major component of consequence comes from the final attitude variables the characters have towards Kennelly and the final time variables The Reader has accumulated. These determine whether Kennelly can save each of his friends from themselves. With a high enough attitude score, the ending of a trial opens up to a dramatic moment where The Reader can choose whether to encourage the characters to move on from their problems or sympathetically allow them to stay.

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The Reader has opportunities to reach out and help the characters