I default to tabletop games when I make games. It’s the skillset I have and it doesn’t involve, typically, reaching into a new skill space to try and develop something. But it’s not the only system I’ve ever used, and there is a design that I’ve had kicking around in my head for an idea of a few different visual novels, or maybe even RPGmaker style games. One of them that I think has a perfect name to go with its concept is Boyfriend Material.
In Boyfriend Material, you play a small-town area’s Dr Frankenstein type. You get to customise the type of weirdo doctor you are, and you go out on adventures finding different ways to make yourself a monster of some variety. The idea is that you work on it in pieces, with arms, legs, torso, and head all being projects of different types that you can mix and match, and doing so will expose you to different other people doing things similar to you, with the goal being attending a big party where all the different monster-makers like you are gathering to show off your creations.
The intention is that you should be able to customise your Dr Frankenstein, and you should be able to customise your Frankenstein’s creation, to let you make a potential romanceable NPC that you can start a relationship with at the party, or, you can date one of the other Dr Frankensteins you hung out with in the course of the build-up to the ball.
It might be a bit obvious to you, but this design is an absolute resource nightmare. We’re talking about a lot of modular design components; you need to be able to customise your protagonist, you need to be able to customise the parts of your in-development monster, and if there’s a Dr Frankenstein associated with every possible type of development you can do on your monster, then every factor of the monster adds another thread of complexity.
Let’s say that all characters get to be represented by a single form, no expressions or face-changes or anything like that, just the basic face, basic pose, and we set aside character customisation for your protagonist now. That means we can see this as a set of expansions on this basic combination. Then, let’s assume that our monster has five parts – head, torso, arm, arm, legs, and each one gets to choose between one of two options. That means the basic art would be 1+(2×5)+5, or 16 art assets. That’s a really simple, unimpressive way to do things, though. let’s say everyone needs a happy expression and a sad expression, and suddenly that’s 32.
That’s simplified of course; there are ways to cheat the resource storage on this kind of thing, where a sad and happy face monster with one type of arm or another type of arm is an easy resource to make. But even if they’re easy to make, they still represent more that needs to be organised.
Plus that’s a really simple kind of Monster? Sure, there’s the obvious meat corpse option for digging up bits, but what if we want a lot of different ideas for how our monster could look? Just off the top of my head, I can conceive of visually interesting options for building your monster out of:
- Fungus, like a myconid
- Wood and bracken
- Rock, like a golem
- Alchemically grown mystery substance
- Steampunk clockwork robot parts
- Glass jars full of ghosts
Okay, that’s just some ideas, but now what does that do to our — again, two expression — characters? We’re now looking at 7 different components for the monster, and that gets us to 2×(1+(7×5)+7), and that translates to 84 art resources. If characters have say, 5 different expressions, that takes us up to 210.
This is obviously really challenging for me to work with since I am not an art resource producer and art resources are expensive. This here represents art assets ramping through the roof hard and fast.
Okay, what if we eschew stuff entirely, what if I try to make this with almost no art assets. Is there a thing I can make where the bulk of what I do relies on the text and the rules, and doesn’t need art assets? Well, I can think of a few ways to do that. One is a pure text game, like Twine! That could be interesting to do. Twine is a good system for making linear games, though. I don’t know if I could use Twine to make a ‘visual novel’ without visual assets… but it’s something to look at.
Twine is a good thing about making sequences of pages, and those pages can check variables. It’s hard for me to visualise the complexity of that, though, because this is more meant to follow along a calendar, building up to an event, where in those days you can go to a lot of different locations and try out doing different things. I don’t think that works – it’s a bit like how in Twine it can be challenging to put an apple in a bag, because the bag has to be a specialised, customised item that can look at the apple and say ‘the apple goes in here’ rather than the much more general ‘objects can be put in bags.’ This kind of thing makes Twine really good for narratives with abstractions, much more than they are about handling material objects. In a lot of ways, Twine, isn’t a system that lets you go back and forth.
Okay, so maybe Twine, but probably not based on what I already know. You know what does work when you have text and rules and the stuff can be entirely imagined? Roleplaying games. A visual novel is often built around indulging a particular experience, a sort of empathic relationship to the fiction – you know, it’s about enjoying a story and about how that story makes you feel. Comments on visual novels tend towards being surprised about how the mechanics are good, you know? Otherwise, it’s very ‘yeah, this is exactly what you think.’
When you’re doing a RPG… I mean there’s journaling? That’s an option? But a journal RPG relies on you being the one who creates things, and gives you an excuse or a direction for the narrative you’re constructing. I don’t know, I feel like it’d be very difficult for me to make those experiences as engaging, as exciting or as enjoyable in the same way. Definitely an interesting option, but different somehow. I think it’d be in part that as a visual novel, I can provide for you, in a removed way the fiction, but if you’re doing a journaling RPG, all I’m doing is prompting the fiction. I can’t write romantic dialogue for you that makes you smile – I have to ask you to do it.
Another interesting option is, what if the RPG is a conventional group shared-narrative RPG where everyone is working on their projects? What if the other Dr Frankensteins with their specialities are all controlled by other players, who at the start of the game set up some of these parameters and maybe determine some secret traits that let players tell a story together about who does or doesn’t wind up finding one another or the monsters they make/summon/create interesting?
Relying on players to create more rules entanglement changes the need for stuff; players generate stuff for one another, but also, they need fictional framing to make that generation meaningful, and to make it so that they want to do that engagement. Also, what does success look like when I’m trying to bait you into, effectively, dating the rest of your RPG party?
I know I’m asking a lot of questions and providing very few answers, and that’s because this is something I’m genuinely not sure about. Right now, I can’t do the research to fulfill this to my satisfaction.
This is a way that the material needs of the game’s available stuff (its stuffness) can come into conflict with the tensions of its fiction (its abstraction). A new set of limbs for the monster aren’t free: They’re going to bring with them the need for systems for the player to interact with to go get those resources. Similarly, that gives me a space to fill in the world, to show different people doing different things in the world, which means that these game rules (the collection method) and this stuff (the art assets) all relate to one another, creating a matrix where you can sometimes make more of one thing to address another.