My basic idea: you’ve been murdered in the metaverse, and you have to find out whodunnit, stayed constant throughout the project. The fact that more and more of people’s identities are, and will be, tied to the metaverse gives an excellent opportunity to set up the conceit of solving your own murder, as well as to try and highlight some of the issues that will cause.
Initially, I wanted you to switch back and forth between the metaverse and the real world to solve the murder, and piece together clues. However, a number of issues quickly cropped up. In order to have enough clues to really make it feel like you were piecing something together, there would have to be a lot to investigate. Paired with the two-layer set-up, that quickly ballooned in size. Second, making the game freeform made it much harder to keep the narrative arc going. I’m sure someone could manage to have the player feel like they’d really solved a wide-open mystery while still hitting story beats, but I wasn’t able to.
I elected to move closer to interactive fiction, and make there be two linear paths through the metaverse, but then give you two technologies to use: one that copied a room, and one that copied an item. As you went through the two sets of memories, you could use each once. However, I found in playtests that this made the players feel like they had very little control while still requiring an enormous amount of writing for the various combination of items and rooms, most of which would go unseen.
I learned that there was a difference between meaningful choices and choices that felt meaningful to the player. Even if they could genuinely shift the course of the story, if the initial choice wasn’t well-motivated and informed, these significant decisions could seem like set dressing. This was particularly an issue for the choice to use the technologies. You weren’t actually changing anything that had happened, just choosing a couple things to learn more about. I think if I’d managed to make that choice more compelling, this might have worked, but it was just beyond me.
I ended up having giving the player 2 main choices – which of their business partners to follow throughout the day they got murdered, and whether to investigate a copy of their home or gallery. I wanted players to still have the sense that they were building a case, and solving a mystery, so I let them choose which evidence to present in their final confrontation with the murderer.
However, rather than having one correct answer, no matter what decisions they made they would get interrupted by a guy telling them there death was just a mistake (shoutout to Cynthia for the idea!). My hope was that the initial portion would be convincing enough that this twist would land, and subvert expectations for the game.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this quite worked. Once you chose a person to follow, you could only accuse that person – I’d wanted to have convincing evidence to accuse either at every location, but that just became too complicated. This lack of choice undercut the sense of agency, and made the story as a whole more railroaded.
From playtests, I also think that I didn’t quite do a good enough job of convincing the player that the people were guilty. I was trying to present evidence that was ambiguous (since the no matter who they accuse, the person didn’t actually kill them) but also convincing, so that they were on-board for the accusation at the end. This was a really difficult line to walk, especially with the combinatorial explosion of story paths. It just took too much writing to properly flesh out, with too many moving parts.
This leads to my main learning for next time, which I began to implement towards the end. Since I just wanted the illusion that people were piecing together evidence, not an actual game people would play through again and again, I didn’t need to actually make meaningfully different paths. I think a lot of players will play through once, get to the twist – hopefully think ‘that’s neat’ – and then not touch it again. Given that, I think if I were to do it again I would focus more on giving the illusion of meaningful choice, but reuse pieces of evidence and events much more, just adapting them according to the player’s choices. As it is, I ended up in a bit of an awkward middle ground. I was writing branching paths as if there was player choice – and wrote just as much as if there were multiple endings, which made it harder to fill out the world – but still ended up tying everything back to a single ending anyway.