Save the Date is a Ren’Py game where you learn from repetition. The date you’re going on, with a woman named Felicia, keeps going wrong (to say the least), and you need to keep replaying in order to try to make it come out better. Felicia starts off as a bit of a cipher, but she develops a more interesting character over the course of the game, much of which consists of conversation between the two of you.
This is a replay game on the order of Shrapnel or (to a lesser degree) Rematch: some state from earlier playthroughs is preserved, which means that the game actually offers you new opportunities for action after you’ve played through certain branches.
It sort of has to work this way because it’s Ren’Py; you don’t have the parser’s opportunity to conceal commands whose use will only be obvious after a couple of playthroughs. Contrast Lock & Key or Make It Good, where a “winning” playthrough is theoretically possible even the first time you open the game, but would require phenomenal luck for anyone to accomplish without foreknowledge. Parser-based versions of this concept tend to be substantially harder than Save the Date.
Underneath the date concept, Save the Date is actually a piece about interactive storytelling, and I will talk more about how after the spoiler space. You may want to play it yourself; it’s not a large time commitment, and I am about to spoil it very thoroughly in order to discuss it.
Alfe Clemencio of Sakura River Interactive is the author of highly branching visual novels in Ren’Py. His previous work Fading Hearts features a wide range of possible player paths and outcomes; now he is working on an ambitious RPG project called Don’t Save the World. His Indiegogo page describes Don’t Save the World thus:
Don’t save the World: An RPG is a game where the effect of player’s choices are so strong they can change the genre of story and game. Live a life of adventure (RPG gamplay) or a normal life of running a shop (management-sim). Say “No” to saving the world!
…Near the end of the game gamers might be given the chance to slow down or stop the hero from defeating the dark lord.
I will guarantee that some players trying to be “good” will try to stop or slow down the hero.
In this scenario you are not the hero and won’t be defeating the dark lord. If the dark lord isn’t stopped then all the lands will be flooded with monsters that will bring the cities and towns to ruin. The hero is definitely a good person and is trying to do good.
It’s because moral choices like this that morality meters won’t work for this kind of game. Can you figure out why gamers trying to do good would do something like stop the hero?
Here he talks about that project, about the challenges of managing highly-branching narrative, and about the moral elements he is hoping to explore in his new work.
Last weekend there was a mini Ludum Dare — an online game jam — focusing on conversational games and encouraging people to try Inform, Undum, Ren’Py, and other text-heavy engines. There were thirty entries and I haven’t tried all of them, but some thoughts on the ones I sampled:
Leaks is an Undum piece that presents the backstory to a poem. Technically it’s doing something rather cool: new stanzas of the poem appear in the sidebar as the reader makes progress through the story. The story itself could use quite a bit of polish, as there are a bunch of non-native English errors, and it is initially somewhat confusing what is going on and how the different passages of text relate to one another. It’s also extremely linear. All the same, it’s an interesting example of what Undum can do with juxtaposing and reordering text. (See also The Matter of the Monster.)
Here’s a Homer in Silicon on Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story — Christine Love’s follow-on (of sorts) to Digital: A Love Story. I had various issues with it, which I discuss in the article, but overall I did like it, especially for the vivid characterization of the anime-obsessed teens. (Also, Love manages to do things with Ren’Py that I wouldn’t have guessed possible and that make it feel much less static than the average visual novel.)
Added bonus: Dirolab has some thoughts on the piece also.
Homer in Silicon this time is on a visual novel called Matches and Matrimony, which (as you may already guess) lets you play through a Jane Austen plot or three.
Date/Warp is a visual novel from Hanako Games, paced out with puzzles. I liked a lot of things about it, but had some issues with the structure; essentially, my discussion is about how to handle situations where you want the player to replay and try most of the alternate versions of a multiple-ending game, where that will mean that late replayings will be mostly the same experience over again. Date/Warp enforces this more than many other games (though in a way I gather is not unusual for visual novels) by having the best ending be completely locked and inaccessible until you have played through almost every possible variation.
It’s a problem that has some bearing on multiple-path IF. I know, for instance, that there are people who did play Alabaster this way and found it exasperating to do so — see TempestDash’s review here — even though the intention was to steer players aggressively towards interesting endings and point out which mysteries were missed, rather than to encourage complete exploration of content. So, though I’m critical of Date/Warp as an experience in that regard, I think it raises some useful questions.