Problems in the preview text of the adventure games of your choice
I can’t go back, can I?
Everyone loves a good choice-based game. They are simple, but often very effective in allowing us to interact with the game world in a more substantial way. Of course, they also present a pretty tough design challenge, as copywriters need to make sure players know what they’re getting into with just a few words, often referred to as preview text.
Text preview is obviously a necessity, as there is no way to fit all the text you need into a tiny little button that the player can press, but it can sometimes cause problems for the player. Short lines with easy-to-deliver messages are a cinch, but what do you do when the going gets tough? This is exactly the problem I encountered when I first wrote a choice-based game.
It’s not something that you really tend to notice when playing it, but there are tons of different ways the games try to convey their message by using preview text for a choice. Games will telegraph you in different ways with glimpses of exactly what you’re going to say or do, with mixed results. Some games will do their best to make the sample text verbatim what the player character is going to say, but this can be difficult with longer lines or more emotionally complex.
Without beef is a good example of this – for the most part you say exactly what is written in the speech bubbles that you can choose from, give or take a word from, then if there is more to expand on, Alex will continue to say the line. Personally I think Nightschool did a terrific job telegraphing exactly what you meant when you said it in Without beef, so I had very few moments of frustration regarding the dialogue choices.
Then there’s the method of using different wording in the preview, but in a way that accurately sums up what the character will say. It’s more of a feeling, if you will. Mass Effect use this technique most often, and while it generally works well, I remember a few times when I chose a certain line, only to get a slightly different meaning in real dialogue. A particularly scary moment happened when I thought I was just being polite to Kaidan, only to turn it into a flirtation. I like you, Kaidan, but not like this.
The last method is the easiest, but can work just as well – basically you’re just describing the function of what the player is going to say, rather than the actual words they are going to say, such as “agree with him” , âspare her feelingsâ or âtell her the truth.â This technique was typically used in older text-based adventure games, but it can sometimes be seen mixed with newer games, depending on the situation. If I had to guess , I would think it’s out of fashion because it’s less immersive to play.
The reality is that any of these methods could work, it’s just a matter of making sure that the way you frame those choices is as clear as possible, especially in high voltage situations or when there is has a lot of complicated emotions involved.
Considering this is an easy problem to run into when developers write hundreds of pages of dialogue, there are inevitably times when the preview text doesn’t convey what you’re actually going to do or say with a any level of precision. These moments can range from frustrating to downright hilarious – one of the most classic examples comes from a Wolf among us choice that reads “[Glass him]. âPersonally, I picked this one on my first game without seeing any of the memes because I thought it meant Bigby would applaud the Woodsman or something, but I got the shock of my life instead. when Bigby smashed his glass on that poor man’s head.
Another well-known (and beloved) example comes from Mass Effect, during a tense but otherwise civil conversation with the salaried scientist Chorban. One of the choices available to the player during the conversation is simply “[sigh]âAnd if he’s chosen, Shepard actually saysâ I should kill you two idiots. â Wait what? While the Wolf among us scenario is an example of text that imperfectly described its meaning, part of me wonders if it was just an error that somehow got into the game, because this reaction is so different from what it should be.
These are really funny scenes in retrospect, but at the moment it can be boring to have a result so different from the choice you chose. I mean by hell there are many lists out there describing how ridiculous these scenarios can be.
One of the reasons I love choice-based games so much is that they ask a very interesting writing question: how do you stay true to that character while still allowing the player to have so much autonomy? as possible ? The closest thing I can think of to this idea is improv theater, where actors make it up as they go, but also have to stay in character as best they can. Ah, I love when games and drama overlap!
If you love to write and have never tried writing a branched screenplay before, I highly recommend trying it with programs like Twine or Ink as it’s a great way to stretch those creative muscles. .
What’s your favorite game of choice? Are there any scenarios that you think turned out differently than you wanted due to rough preview text? What is your most memorable moment in a choice-based game?
Story Beat is a weekly column covering everything and everything related to storytelling in video games.