CYOA structure: graphic novels

A key figure in the theory of cartography, and of information-representing systems in general, is the Bellman’s map in The Hunting of the Snark:

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

The Bellman’s map, the simplest map possible, is not a map at all, and this tells us something important about maps. The CYOA equivalent would be a diagram of a single node: a normal prose story.

Picture a slightly more complicated diagram: a blank sheet with two dots on it, one labelled “Vbrtz” and the other “Skwrf”, but otherwise featureless. This does slightly more map-like things than the Bellman’s map: it asserts that these two things exist, that they are named, separate and that they stand in some relation to each other, but nothing else. We don’t know the scale or the orientation, we don’t know what kind of thing a dot represents, we’ve no idea whether the space is physical or abstract. It’s still not a map. The CYOA version of this would be a string of beads: an unbroken series of no-choice jumps, equivalent to conventional prose but experienced somewhat differently.

But visual novels, a Japanese computer game (or, if you prefer, e-lit) medium, don’t emphasize the distinction between CYOA and the string-of-beads story; some contain choices and branching narratives, but many involve no interaction beyond clicking to continue. These are sometimes called kinetic novels, but aren’t (I think) really treated as a distinct form to anything like the degree that is true in Western fiction. Even in choice-based VNs, the convention is for very long intervals between choices.

Visual novels are a multimedia form, combining text, images, voice and music. The primary narration is text, with graphics playing an auxiliary role (albeit one rather more prominent and filmic than ‘illustration’ would suggest.) Graphics tend to be heavily-recycled image composites, layering expressions over the face of a static character image and character images over a background; often there’s just a background to contemplate while the narration continues. There’s a strong resemblance to puppet theatre: expressive movement of static character images can be used in lieu of animation.

The focus on setting and on internal perspective tends to be a lot stronger than in CYOA. The convention is that graphics are mostly shown from a first-person perspective, and the narration is usually first-person as well; there’s a much stronger emphasis on the inner life of the protagonist than is usual in western second-person CYOA, which tends to focus heavily on direct rather than suggestive action. In some ways, then, visual novels are more IF-like than CYOA tends to be. Visual novels tend to make their introspection a lot more explicit, however; most of the examples I’ve seen are typified by prolonged and banal navel-gazing.

katawa1Katawa Shoujo, Four Leaf Studios, 2006-2011

Most visual novels are not translated to English, and those that have been are often either non-interactive or are complicated enough that they’re really adventure games rather than CYOA; most of the CYOA ones that I’ve seen have been made by Western fans of the medium, and most of those are of pretty wretched quality. The major exception I’m aware of is Katawa Shoujo (Disability Girls, though I think the original sense ofkatawa might be closer to cripple), made by a substantial team of talented, theory-minded people who appear to share a lot of my feelings about the state of the genre. Only the first act, Life Expectancy, has been released thus far.

Hisao, a teenage boy with a recently-discovered heart condition, moves to a school specialising in disabled students. Here, he mopes about his lack of direction, meets a bunch of cute girls, and gets into a relationship with one of them. It’s therefore technically a bishojo (“pretty girl”) game, related to ren’ai (dating sim) and usually marketed to men. The assertive female characters and the emphasis on female-female relationships suggest that it’s intended to have considerably more appeal to a female audience than is the norm for bishojo, but that might just be my unfamiliarity with the genre. KS suffers considerably from genre-derived logorrhoea, but its writing has moments of understatement and insight that set it apart.

The point of Act 1 is to pick out a girl to pursue. The options are Shizune (competitive, overbearing, deaf), Lilly (serenely polite, tall, blonde, blind), Hanako (severe burn injuries, painfully shy), Rin (blunt, spacey artist, no arms) and Emi (little-girly, sporty, no legs beneath the knee). Lack of interest in any of them is interpreted as misanthropy, personified in your paranoid dorm-mate Kenji and his horror of feminist conspiracies. The game’s general aim is to normalise disability without minimising it; many of the characters overcome their disabilities (legless Emi is a track athlete, deaf Shizune is socially dominant) while others conspicuously struggle (Hanako’s social phobia is tied to her disfigurement, Hisao’s indecisiveness teeters between allowing his heart condition to limit him, or overreaching dangerously, Rin flatly states embarrassing details.) A lot of the story is about being unsure how to react socially to disability. At one point two of the girls have a heated clash of words, even though neither can directly communicate with the other.

katawa2A strong feature is its sense of time: the crucial units are the very visual ones of season and time of day, a visual novel convention. After the prologue, Act 1 lasts a single week, ending with a much-anticipated festival; by this time Hisao has either figured out which girl he wants to pursue or doomed himself to misanthropy and singledom. The choices are quite few — one to three a day — and almost all are social options rather than direct actions. The general aim is to score points with girls by doing things that they like, though this mechanic is not transparent. It’s sometimes necessary to back off from one girl in order to give another girl’s plot thread a chance to emerge. A key element of the game is that the girls are paired up as best friends, and in order to pursue a girl you also have to woo her best friend a little (but not too much).

Personality conflict between the girls — mostly between authoritarian Shizune and everybody else — is a prominent theme, although it’s never really over Hisao; in some of these conflicts you’re only an observer, so it passes the Bechdel handily.

Long gaps between choices lend themselves to a passive-feeling protagonist, and this is very conspicuous in Katawa Shuojo: Hisao is on unfamiliar territory, isn’t very assertive and has few strong preferences or character traits. It’s easy to feel rather pushed around by the girls: this is most prominent in the Shizune-Misha thread, in which the girls unrepentantly play headgames and commandeer your time. (Hisao compares this to Kafka’s The Trial, which is even better when you know that The Trial was written largely in response to Kafka feeling bullied by an ex-fiancee and her friend.)

katawashuojoThis is a little difficult to plot out, because it’s arranged into units that aren’t quite equivalent to CYOA nodes. Content is divided into scenes; scenes sometimes offer a choice, which may or may not end the scene, and may or may not lead to an immediate branch. (Choices are more likely to lead to immediate branching later on in the game.) Scenes can play out somewhat differently depending on state.

Here is another diagram, showing which options lead to which states. (I’m not sure whether any discrepancies are due to different versions, different presentation or me messing things up.) The full game, as far as I can gather, will essentially split into five distinct branches after Act 1.

Decision points generally give you a chance to score points towards an ending; at the end you get the ending with the most points, and often a silent choice will be made based on your scores. This doesn’t always work in a very subtle way; there’s only one chance to score a point with Emi before the Exercise branch on day 5, and you can’t impress her outside that branch. These mechanics are kept hidden, but anyone mildly familiar with the ren’ai (dating sim) genre will have a pretty good idea about them.

The difficulty with this system is that it takes time to introduce all five major characters; you meet Shizune on the first day, Lilly and Hanako on the second and Emi and Rin on the third. As far as I can make out, the game compensates for this by making all choices before the third day amount to a single point, awarded either to Shizune or to Hanako and Lilly.

It occupies a position somewhere in between Choices and What if… All the Boys Wanted You, which shouldn’t be surprising, since they’re all high-school romance games. While they have different play length/option breadth ratios, they all adopt a basic style of organisation with close reference to external, constant time, resulting in tiered stages that present a very similar set of options on each playthrough. There’s heavy bottlenecking and few or no spur-trails, though in the case of All the Boys the bottlenecking is effective rather than literal. These are games about people whose stories have to occur in between the demands of a regular external structure, a school or a job: they are the opposite of fantasy journeys. In KS most of what is actually done, or talked about, is kind of boring; action is a field in which girls and disability can feature, rather than the point of the story.

The tiering, in this case, means that your decisions affect the game in quite different ways at different stages of the game, as follows:

Early choices (day 1-2): no real forking, no individual choice is critical. No actual points scored (your choices give you the opportunity to score a point early on day 3.)
Mid-game choices (day 3-4): first crucial choices; 1 to 3 girls shut off entirely
Disambiguation (day 5-6): the remaining girls get sorted out. Misanthropic choices, which will guarantee a losing ending, become available.

Choices made later on, then, are generally more important, but not overwhelmingly so: the state-tracking is used to preserve a careful balance between early and late choices. Stateless CYOA can either erase your earlier choices (through merging) or make them count for everything (by never merging); this kind of fine balance is a key advantage of tracking state.

It’s hard to generalise about the strategy of Katawa Shoujo, because there are relatively few choices and the structure isn’t very regular. In general, the best way to woo a girl is to acquiesce to her wishes rather than asserting independence; the latter is risky, potentially earning points for the losing Kenji thread. If you don’t like Girl A, the best way to avoid her is to show interest in Girl B instead. The small number of choices, low threshold values and aysmmetry make for a sensitive design balance, which it mostly negotiates pretty well; the sensitivity of the grouchy answers is the main quibble. A single misanthropy choice will always damn you to the losing ending, although they don’t start showing up until fairly late in the game.

A couple of the day-6 choices are quite bald: in one (Creative Pain) you basically straight-up tell Rin whether you’re interested in her or not. In another (Sip pt. 2) you’re presented with a none-too-subtle choice between Hanako and Lilly; until then they’re treated as a unit. Most of the choices make more sense when a) you know who all the girls are and b) you’re thinking in terms of ren’ai-style relationship-points-scoring; if you’re not thinking in those terms they can seem a lot more ambiguous and arbitrary.

Not all of the choices literally involve impressing girls; some are more about Hisao’s character (and thus how well he’s suited to particular girls). Thus, expressing interest in the library scores you points with the reserved Lilly and Hanako before you even meet them. The laid-back, ambivalent Rin is effectively the option you get when you’re ambivalent about all the other girls (but aren’t hugely misanthropic); she’s the only girl who cannot be rendered impossible by the end of day 4.

With relatively few choices to work with, almost every choice you make will be highly significant. Given this, you’d expect the content of the choices to be fairly significant too. In fact, they’re often very trivial: you choose whether to introduce yourself to the class or not, to play aggressively or defensively at Risk, to be cagey or up-front about your heart condition. The first act of KS is therefore a story about the importance of first impressions, or how small choices in one’s youth can have huge and unexpected ramifications; and the importance of doing every small thing correctly, because errors cannot be repaired.

diceman1The Dice Man: In the Bronx, No-one Can Hear You Scream!, Graham Manley / Pat Mills, 1986 (hat-tip Iain Merrick)

If you were a (male, teenage) British comics fan in the ’80s and ’90s, 2000 AD was probably more important to you than the entire combined output of Marvel and DC. Best-known for postapocalyptic jackbooted thug Judge Dredd (“I am the law”) and Celtic temporal-adventurer Slaine (“Kiss my axe”), it delivered F/SF stories at a consistently overblown level of violence and swaggering, grimy cool. There were also tits.

One of the recurring influences on 2000 AD was The Dice Man, a 1971 novel by George Crookcroft (as Luke Rhinehart) in which the protagonist cedes his agency to the roll of dice, usually including options like rape and murder. The book’s rejection of responsibility, experimentation with different personas, and small but punchy doses of sex and violence made it totally fascinating to the same adolescent boys who loved 2000 AD, but its core appeal was essentially the same as The Cave of Time: the sense of unbounded possibility. Where The Cave of Time, and children’s fantasy generally, positions this as a nifty thing in its own right, in The Dice Man the main appeal of open possibility lies in its opposition to the stifling constraints of conventional life. The sympathy between the open worlds of fantasy and the open structure (real or implied) of interactive narrative is a general one, of course; there are reasons why real-world, non-genre pieces are relatively rare in game-stories, running deeper than the “nerds like genre” explanation.

The Dice Man comic published by 2000 AD isn’t directly related, but it’s certainly borrowing currency from the 1971 novel in order to suggest a certain kind of attitude. The title emphasizes the adolescent-RPG-like aspects of persona-experimentation and moral-escapist fantasies. Dice stand for a world without the burdens of respectable responsibility: no ‘you are responsible because you choose’ here.

Each issue of The Dice Man contains three stories of about 100 panels each, each using somewhat different mechanics. Most featured popular 2000 AD characters, though appparently there was one where you played Ronald Reagan. The title character, though, was an original creation for the series.

In theory the Dice Man is a paranormal noir detective, but the story has only superficial elements of noir and really plays out more like Indiana Jones and the Call of Cthulhu, plus a heavy dose of Hammer Horror. Dice Man (aka Rick Fortune) derives his special powers from a pair of mystic dice that summon eldritch forces. Here, Fortune is paired up with a severe, implausibly-clad and shapely blonde (named Joyous Gard but always referred to as Killjoy), and must battle the Runemaster, a Nazi bent on turning himself into a demonic Ubermensch. Most of the story is taken up with heroic action: there is nothing much in the way of mystery.

diceman2Like many of 2000 AD‘s stories, including their flagship Judge Dredd, it goes totally over-the-top with fantasies of America as the land of slick brutality. The tone is pretty much summed up on the first page: the obligatory murder victim has been killed by a freakin’ triple-bladed dagger (presumably borrowed from the inside of a Geography folder, in between logos for hypothetical metal bands) which, in line with 2000 AD‘s penchant for Clockwork Orange-esque invented slang, is always referred to as a ‘dag’. (Where I’m from, dags are clumps of dung stuck in an animal’s fur.) As previously mentioned, there is never any mystery worth speaking of; after an intro section, you march into the Suspicious House, promptly discover the kidnapped blonde and the expostulating supervillain, and proceed directly to the demonic horrors.

The art quality is quick, dirty and formulaic, with a strong feel of Golden Age pulp, all clenched teeth, lantern jaws and wobbly pools of black ink. Although the art’s weaker, there are definite sympathies with Fighting Fantasy: the line between grotesque human and demonic monster is blurred, the world is grimy and hostile, beautiful women are dangerous. (Dice Man doesn’t actually follow through on this: Killjoy is obviously meant to be a femme fatale, but ends up functioning more as a slightly tougher Willie Scott with a good line in wry smiles.) The writing’s of a similar quality, with lots of groan-inducing attempts at banter and tough one-liners. The art is mostly third-person or subtle first-, although the comic used conspicuous first-person in many of its other episodes.

diceman3At the start of the game you roll a die to determine a special power. There is no combat system per se, although at points you must roll a die for luck or damage (including Mind Damage, a feature almost certainly derived from the Call of Cthulhu RPG).

An interesting feature from the letters page: the people who this was written for thought of it as, no question, RPG. From my perspective, an RPG is not an RPG unless you’re playing with at least one other person, or at the very least a computer; a CYOA with RPG-like elements is not, for me, an RPG. The players of Dice Man — who were, it’s probably safe to assume, much the same audience as Fighting Fantasy — did not really think of them as being the same thing as CYOA. (Or were eager not to. CYOA was kid’s stuff, these were adulthood fantasies.)

(In case it was not already abundantly obvious, this is very much a boy’s world: Killjoy is mostly a Ball-Breaking Ice Queen. She gets to pose with an (ineffectual) gun, smirk wryly and deliver some slowball acid comments for Fortune to retort to, but otherwise her role is to get kidnapped and do what the hero tells her. The other woman in the game is a fat middle-aged comedy shrew who smacks you with a meat tenderiser.)

diceman43 nodes; 5 endings (not counting death by HP loss; 4 bad, 1 good). Highly linear; what we have here is really a single story with a couple of side-treks and variations. This is unsurprising for a game that’s small both in terms of total nodes and in the amount of action it can fit in per node; a single comic panel does not generally give you an immense amount of narrative room, and the result is a breakneck story that doesn’t linger on any given situation.

There’s a certain amount of state-tracking beyond the explicitly stated rules; you are assumed to be able to remember some simple inventory and past events. The mystic Dice skills are used quite a lot, mostly for small bonuses and to enable brief alternate routes; one of them changes the implications of the story somewhat, but mostly they’re of only mild narrative importance. In cases it can influence how you play: the Fist gives you a better chance at strength/endurance type options, the Web helps lying and subterfuge. But beyond the early game, there isn’t any room to adopt strategies according to your strengths; all the traits do is help you do things you’d be doing anyway, which is kind of boring.

If you’re playing straight-and-narrow, it’s quite difficult even discounting the combat; but the damage you can sustain is relatively low-risk. It’s almost impossible to be defeated with Body damage; Mind damage is a bit higher (maybe 4d6+2) but the chances of making 20 on that roll are a little under 16%. Thus, the main role of damage is to suggest threat rather than to simulate it: it’s quite easy to win on a single playthrough with a little one-time UNDO.

A notable feature is that the stronger granularity of comic panels makes a particular kind of merge possible: at several points you’re told to join a node mid-way through. Another obvious effect is that, even more than Fighting Fantasy, it’s difficult to avoid reading ahead: there are multiple nodes per page and pictures are more quickly absorbed than text. Nor are the divisions between nodes on a single page made very visually clear. I can think of a half-dozen ways that node groups could have been distinguished through layout; instead, things are laid out exactly like a conventional comic, and you have to piece together the grouping yourself. This is not made easier by the obligate terseness.

Both stories are heavily shaped by their use of graphics: the appeal of the girls in Katawa Shoujo is largely to do with how they express their personalities through physical mannerisms, and the horror and heroism of Dice Man is of the kind that works better in depiction rather than description. More significantly, the demands of the visual format place a tighter restriction on node number than would otherwise be the case. Otherwise they look very much like smaller versions of state-tracking CYOA, though their relatively small structure means that there’s not much room for modularity. What’s really striking is how much better use Katawa makes of its choices; it doesn’t really track state any more than Dice Man, and it has a considerably lower density of choices, but none of its choices are redundant.

The main advantage that KS has, though, is space to work with. Although its character art is considerably more polished than Dice Man‘s, it gets reused a whole lot more; and the backgrounds are photo-manipulations and also heavily reused. Once the core art was finished, a writer/coder could in theory elaborate on the story indefinitely with no further input from the artist. In fact KSuses a number of custom-made images for specific situations, but these are used sparingly. (KS also has a substantially larger dev team than Dice Man and a production schedule measured in years rather than weeks.)

Structurally, they’re quite different approaches. Bronx is basically the same kind of thing as The Forces of Krill: a gauntlet, a mostly-linear thread hemmed in by death. KS is much more likeChoices, an initially-linear story, paced and constrained by a realist setting, heavily reliant on state-tracking and deferred consequences, that steadily allows for more variability as the game progresses. (I don’t have a snappy name for those yet. Suggestions on a postcard.)

More importantly, though, it has no limits on script length; The Dice Man was constrained by the size of a print comic, but its real problem was that it was obliged to follow the format of its parent magazine and include three stories per issue. A single-story comic might have had just about enough room to do the job, but would have overtaxed a single artist and had more limited appeal (I certainly never gave a toss about the ABC Warriors). There is, I suspect, no way to tell a coherent, complete and genuinely choice-based story of any real length within forty brief, action-to-action nodes. At least, not the same kind of story as the 2000 AD audience would be expecting. Given the brutal constraints, it could have been a whole lot worse.

I mean, relatively speaking.

I mean, relatively speaking.

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One Response to CYOA structure: graphic novels

  1. Pingback: Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games | These Heterogenous Tasks

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