At its most basic level, "Austen Translation" is a game about making choices — choices which affect how the other characters in the game perceive you. So, if you were guest at a swanky lawn party, you might choose to “bedazzle your croquet mallet” to get a +1 to your BEAUTY score. Or maybe “fail to warn the other spectators of an incoming polo ball” to boost your RUTHLESSNESS score. It's pretty easy to see the cause and effect in these simple examples.
But recently we’ve been experimenting with some more complex interactions between a player's character and the other women vying to marry the same well-off bachelors. These might include actions where you gain *and* an opponent loses. Or maybe you both lose but she loses more. In this way, we’re hoping to make the choices of the rivals — or other players in the multi-player version — more meaningful, since they might well have a direct impact on you. We also wanted to enhance the sense of direct competition between the women. For instance, at the archery club outing you might choose “You ‘mistake’ an inattentive rival for the target” which would give you a boost to RUTHLESSNESS and the rival of your choice a reduction in WIT.
What was particularly interesting to me was the conversation that followed when some less obvious relationships between the text and the resulting changes to the stats cropped up. Take the action option “Offer a rival the last slice of pie at the church picnic." The original slated result was -1 WIT for you and -1 RUTHLESSNESS for your rival, the reasoning being that you have be pretty dumb to give away the last slice of delicious pie, and that your rival would feel warmly toward you and more happy with the world in general if they just had more delicious pie (my partisan “pro-pie-bias” is showing here). But, not so fast! There is also a good case to be made that this would be a -1 RUTHLESSNESS for you, and a -1 BEAUTY for your rival event, the reasoning being that you will look like a softy by giving away the pie and your rival may well look a bit of a glutton. A case could also be made that your BEAUTY might suffer (what with all the crying you’re doing having had to give up pie) and your opponent’s WIT might suffer (since they were too dumb to figure out just how much you love pie before they took it from you).
As a writer, these sorts of “self-constructing narratives” are a fascinating mechanic. How much content do we need to give players before they start connecting their own story dots? Do players feel a stronger sense of connection and commitment when they feel like storytelling partners with the developers? And how can we structure the narrative we do provide to encourage this sort of imaginative investment in the action?
We found a similar human delight in connecting implied narrative dots when we were working on our first game, "A Matter of Murder." In playthroughs and livestreams it was pretty common for players to draw strong conclusions about relationships, motives and events base on the *flimsiest* of cues. Most often these story elements weren’t intentional or integral to “winning” the game, but players seemed to revel in these serendipitous discoveries. It’s a tribute to all the ways our brains are wired to see pattern and meaning and story in the world all around us. It’s a beautiful thing.
Worthing and Moncrieff, LLC is an independent developer of video game stories founded in 2015.