All through the month of June, my partner and I are creating a dating sim for the International Love Ultimatum Gamejam (#ilujam on Twitter and Tumblr). Want to know what goes into making a video game? I’ll be posting weekly updates in a structured development blog here.
This week: dating sim basics and writing branching narratives, with special guest Kasey Van Hise.
Dating sims feature one of my favorite aspects of game writing: branching narratives. According to my pal Rym of the Geeknights podcast, the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books are games: users are given an interface, a mode of interaction, and their input changes the story. Making decisions in games can be as simple as “go north” or “fight goblin.” But dating sims apply the decision-making mechanic to a basic human process: smooching cuties.
Recently, we’ve seen more and more western games introduce dating elements to their games; the champion of these—according to its enormous fanbase—is the Bioware franchise Dragon Age. Women Write About Comics has discussed why game romances feel satisfying (or not), and of course game romances can range from the sweet to the totally ridiculous sex romp. Anticipating user decisions and writing organic responses: that’s the job of a good games writer.
Good thing I know one!
Kasey Van Hise is writing Date Nighto’s upcoming release, Hustle Cat, and has spoken about visual novel design at Connecticon and on the Lean Into Art podcast.
(Full disclosure: Date Nighto games may be reviewed by Women Write About Comics, but never by me, and I will never see or influence advanced reviews before publication.)
Jo: Hi Kasey! Fancy meeting you here. What do you think is the appeal of dating sims, and why haven’t they been as popular in the western world as they are in Japan and Korea? What can authors of dating sims (and the broader genre, visual novels) do to increase the appeal of the genre?
Kasey: Well hello, Jo! Imagine running into you in a place like this!
I don’t know if I can speak to this being the appeal of dating sims for everybody, but one of my favorite things about the medium is the opportunity to have such a laser focus on building character relationships. Many romance stories have a large cast of potential suitors for the main character, but you don’t have any illusion of choice. In dating sims, you’re actually put in the shoes of the protagonist, and are free to further the story of the character that resonates most with you. There’s a lot of storytelling potential there!
Romance in particular requires you to get closer to the love interest, and in doing so you’ll learn more about them and become more attached as a character you’ve chosen to pursue.
Romance in particular requires you to get closer to the love interest, and in doing so you’ll learn more about them and become more attached as a character you’ve chosen to pursue. I think we see that appeal very clearly demonstrated in the Dragon Age franchise, as a close-to-dating-sims example. I’m sure we all have that handful of friends who are dedicated to Bioware’s work, and it’s because they’ve experienced these highs and lows with the characters in a way that just pursuing a main narrative wouldn’t have time to expand on.
I think that segues nicely into why I think these types of games are more popular in Japan and Korea than they are in the west– they just haven’t been properly introduced yet! I don’t think there was much of a perceived interest in the past, so the genre was pushed as a novelty or a niche. There were always a few that would get some mild recognition (I remember hearing about Tokimeki Memorial as a kid, for example), but no companies would touch them.
I love that a wider variety of developers are getting interested in doing dating sims. I think if we keep doing what we’re doing and make great games that appeal to different audiences, we’re on the right track. We’re in sort of a wild west right now for dating sims and visual novels, and I think that’s thrilling! I think we just need to keep doing it!
Jo: I talked a little bit about branching narratives in the intro, but I was hoping you could elaborate. How do you feel about making decisions in games, and how do you write these decisions for other players?
Kasey: On the player side, I love branching narratives in games, although it can be sort of daunting sometimes when you don’t know if you’re making the right choice! Admittedly, I usually play with a walkthrough if I’m really emotionally invested in the idea of doing things “right” for a certain character.
On the writer side, I love the potential of using decision points in storytelling. It’s very easy to get a little drunk on power when planning branching paths! I think every writer hits a crossroad in their story where the character their writing could be equally likely to pursue multiple responses or actions. With dating sims, you have the ability to explore multiple potential outcomes to their natural conclusions, and that’s great! It can be tough to reign it in a bit, though, and I’ve had to learn not to get too ahead of myself in planning versus writing. It’s easy to write checks you can’t cash, so to speak, when you’re in the outlining stage. Just be realistic with your own limits!
Jo: I hear this question a lot, and I imagine you do too: how do you win a dating sim? When there are multiple endings and multiple choices, how do you ensure player satisfaction, and how do these endings enhance the main storyline of a game?
Kasey: Ooh, this is tough. I think that’s impossible to define universally, since it means different things for different people.
I’ve noticed by watching reactions to games that I’ve helped with, or dating sims that get popular, that it’s pretty common for people to just play the one route they’re after and then never touch the game again. Some games perfectly support that, and that’s fine, but I think it’s important to impress that many, many games out there require a full play-through to fully understand the story or the character being presented!
This is my personal opinion based on my experiences with these games, but I think the best way to encourage full play-throughs and provide player satisfaction is to make the player care just as much about the main character as they do the love interests. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine that the protagonist in dating sims is often presented as a blank cypher for the player. It’s impossible to have a completely blank slate character in games that are written in a prose format, so it usually just creates a wet cardboard stand-in that nobody can relate to! But, if you can create a character that stands well on their own, I think that can drive players to view the other routes as possibilities to develop this character and the overall story.
The best way to encourage full play-throughs and provide player satisfaction is to make the player care just as much about the main character as they do the love interests.
Take the often-cited Dramatical Murder, for example. The main character, Aoba, has an interesting and endearing personality, and that propelled me into pursuing some routes in the game that I quite frankly hated. The promise of learning more about him and his past in the “true route” was the incentive I needed to continue the game. Or for another example, the BL game No Thank You (released locally by MangaGamer) has a wonderfully weird, distinct protagonist, and even though I’m only interested in one love interest in that game, I want to play the other routes to see how the main character develops throughout them.
I think this ties pretty strongly into how the endings affect the overall game and player satisfaction, too. If the protagonist is strong and the story is versatile, we’ll see different aspects of them play out as they adapt to each love interest’s circumstances. I love when endings give me different pieces of the story as part of larger puzzle that, while satisfying on their own, create an even bigger and more interesting picture when all put together. This is the approach I’m taking with Hustle Cat, at least! I hope having a strong protagonist personality and multi-faceted elements to each route is satisfying for players and encourages them to complete the whole package.
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about! Staying organized is key, so in order to “visualize” our game, I’m building our #ilujam game in a tool called Twine, used often to create interactive fiction stories. Here’s the first part of Beach Island! You can see the branches for decisions and how they all come back to the same spot:
Next week: two people who are definitely not artists attempt to tell a story with art.