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In my visual novel (an interactive, narrative-based video-game), I have a detective character who decides whether he believes interviewees controlled by the player.

The detective doesn't explain his reason but it's buried in the choices. The reader can't anticipate which choice-combination will convince him (choices might reveal a clue unwittingly, said clue becoming important later). The reader can make a suspect helpful or aggressive, but they won't know what makes the detective sympathetic or suspicious. The player's choices therefore impact the story, but only indirectly.

It feels like I need to emphasize that SOMEthing has been determined by the interview, but the detective is sly and does not always reveal his thoughts to the suspects/interviewees. I have the option to signal the reader non-diegetically that the detective has made a determination. In other words, I can signal the mystery's progress outside of the on-going dialog and other in-story elements (for example, Telltale's "Mr Toad will remember this").

The downside is that this means the story is sort of letting out a WHOOP WHOOP but not explaining it. It's telling, not showing.

I can integrate it diegetically (in-story), as a "power" of the detective (it is an occult world) that he invokes at the end of every interview, so it could be integrated thematically, but it's still a gimmick that draws attention to itself without having a clear pay-off. The detective has determined something, but the reader isn't sure what.

The signals are not necessary to "win." in fact without the signal the reader probably wouldn't realize the story has passed judgement. It is purely to draw attention to itself. The flaws of the interview may or may not be explained, depending on later branches to the story.

Is a non-diegetic signal from the story engine goofy and distracting (breaking the 4th wall)? Or does it re-enforce the idea that choices matter, even if you have to trust me that the choices matter?

EDIT: It's probably no surprise that my Interactive Fiction community says yes, the signal is a good idea but should be vague and subtle. The comments and answer on WritingSE says no, it should just emerge through the story.

  • What medium are we talking about? A computer game? A "choose your own adventure" book? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 25 at 18:35
  • Ahh, sorry, it is like a visual novel. Words and pictures, but digital (iPad, web) – wetcircuit Feb 25 at 18:36
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    @wetcircuit This is much easier to understand, thank you. I further edited to explain some of your terms of art. – Chris Sunami Feb 26 at 14:44
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For:

  • Many visual novels are in fact linear or have a few clearly signposted choices. Markers that indicate replayability encourage replayability and discovery of new content.
  • Some interactive stories invite the player to examine the interplay between choices and consequences, the different consequences forming an implicit moral message of the story (something we don't see in real life, where time flows in one direction). Perhaps you need the player to realize that yes, the predicament the protagonist is currently in is all due to that particular bad decision made earlier. Signals make it easier for the player to both revert to the necessary point and notice the connection.
  • Signals make it easier for the player to explore all content and all branches in the game, should they wish to do so.

Against:

  • It's easier to map the decision tree, after which the world may seem less "alive".
  • If your game has easy rollbacks, an immediate, easily interpreted failure signal would encourage the player to instantly retry, thus lessening the range of content seen by the individual player and the community.
  • Any metagame element that encourages replays reinforces the notion that all branches are equally good and the player "wins" by seeing all content and plotting the decision tree. If your game has an actual win state that the player needs to reach, this metagame reward detracts from the effort and joy of winning and the player's empathy for the protagonist.

A compromise solution to reward the player for exploring different paths and encouraging replayability is to signal when the player has found a plot branch he or she hasn't yet seen. You can do it right at the branching point or after the scene concludes. The game Cinders [free demo] by MoaCube does this.

  • Thank you! Comprehensive answer, and strategies for use! – wetcircuit Feb 26 at 22:21
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In works that aren't strictly visual novels, where players/readers might not expect their choices to matter, then visual indicators work well to remind them that yes, the choice they just made will affect something. But in visual novels, the concept of "every choice matters" is pretty much a given, so it would be distracting.

Since you appear to be writing an occult detective mystery, I'd say that not telling the player what kind of effect their choice had (or whether it had an effect at all) would work well. But if you do want to provide some kind of feedback about whether you've convinced the detective or not, you could have him stand up at the very end of the interview, get to the door, then turn back and say something like:

You know, between you and me... I don't believe a word you just told me.

  • I think you are right. It seems unnecessary and distracting in this format. Thanks for explaining where it does work. That makes sense. – wetcircuit Feb 25 at 22:37
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If the detective is entirely impassive, and reveals nothing, your interviews are going to be pretty boring for the player to wade through. I'd suggest giving him some info-bearing "tells" that a savvy player can pick up on (change in expression, drumming fingers, etc.). In game, no single character would ever see a tell more than once, so it's plausible they wouldn't see the patterns.

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