For Arcade Spirits, I wanted to take some of the best elements of my favorite narrative games and put my own spin on them. Many of the visual novels I’d played didn’t really allow you to roleplay — often the only choices you could make were for major branching paths, and the results of those choices weren’t always clear. Choose to walk down a hall instead of entering a particular room and suddenly you’re romancing someone else. I wanted to do better than that.
For inspiration, I drew from two sources… Sakura Taisen (Sakura Wars) and the Telltale narrative games.
Sakura Taisen is a combination visual novel and tactics RPG game. Between battles you converse with the characters, and are given popup prompts to react to what they say. Depending on your reactions, they may like you more or dislike you a little. Ultimately these reactions are rarely full branches but they’re meaningful interactions that help define who you are and your relationship to the characters. However one thing I didn’t really like is how you feel forced to optimize and gamify it, that you can’t really roleplay unless you don’t care what character ends up falling in love with you. It feels a little bit contrived — and hardly romantic — to simply always pick what you know they want to hear.
My next touchstone were the various Telltale Games narrative experience games. Here, you’re often given a range of reactions to what’s happening around you — again, no major branches, and often only a few lines of dialogue will be different — but it allows you to play the character the way you want to, as empathetic or apathetic, trusting or skeptical. While many deride these “microdecisions” as ultimately having little value, since they branch out briefly and then rejoin the same conversation without major changes… they do provide brief moments of engagement in what would otherwise be an uninteractive sequence, allowing you to style it to your liking.
My ultimate design was to combine these two, while removing many of the consequences. Using a tip from Dragon Age II and Inquisition, where you’d get “tone” icons which indicate your personality type if you choose a particular line, you’d have a variety of emotional reactions to what’s happening combined with a brief nonlinear moment where others react to your reaction, before rejoining the conversation in progress.
I chose seven basic emotions for my system. Three pairs of two, and a neutral option.
/ Goofy: Lighthearted, snarky, mocking.
\ Steady: Serious, firm, considerate, thoughtful.
/ Kindly: Empathetic, compassionate, gentle.
\ Frankly: Direct, honest, blunt, clear.
/ Gutsy: Impulsive, instinctive, risk-taking, bold.
\ Brainy: Logical, reflective, cautious.
| Mildly: Neutral or informative.
Each time you’re given an opportunity to react, you’ll be given one pairing (say, Goofy and Steady), one wildcard option (such as Kindly) and one Mildly option. You can’t constantly pick Goofy because Goofy might not always be available. You’ll be accumulating points on each of these emotions, with your dominant personality trait playing a role in some conversations.
(There’s even an option for you to enable or disable colored icons that appear before your choices, so if you want to blind-pick and see what personality you get, you can! But if you don’t want to accidentally pick something you feel is out of character for you, the icons can guide you.)
It’s a way to express yourself and roleplay, but notably… you can’t hurt your experience by choosing the “wrong” options. While a character may PREFER to romance Goofy people, that’s just bonus points on top of also supporting her decisions, helping with her problems, and generally being a good person towards her. Goofy is just the icing on the cake, a way to nudge things in your favor if you made a few mistakes along the way. You are never locked out of content if you didn’t go hard in the paint on a particular personality trait.
Interestingly, the recently released Mass Effect Andromeda — which came out a few weeks after I’d designed my own system, albeit influenced by my love of Bioware — uses a nearly identical system. It has four personality options, and they never completely lock you out of any content. Major decisions are made without specific emotional tags and the game simply uses emotions as flavor and roleplaying aids.
So, I had my system in place, complete with cute little pixel art graphics to represent the choices. But then I went and revamped the UI, as noted in the last blog post. That meant revamping the icons, too.
The end result? Whenever you choose a personality-based reaction, either blindly or by visible icon, you get a little popup indicating how your personality changes.
I’m pretty happy with this system, as it allows replayability (how would a more serious character react to this?) and roleplaying (how would I react to this?) without sacrificing story. While there will be bonus content along the way for people who strongly adhere to one personality or another… outside of a secret ??Bad End?? I won’t talk about yet… you can play Arcade Spirits however you like.