So, I played Dino-Knights, a Choice of Games story. Why did I play a COG game? Curiosity, sure, but mostly, the game said I could be a knight riding a triceratops, and that sounded delightful. The game was actually kind of fun, but it had some serious issues, and while reading through it, in identifying the issues I feel there was actually a lot of lessons to be learned. I don't know which forum it fits into, so I hope this one works, since it is a review of a storygame, if a non-site one. Anyhow, sorry if not, feel free to move this.
Anyhow, onto Dino-Knights!
The issues with Dino-Knights weren't the writing or grammar or anything like that, because it was actually well-written, and had decent imagery. There was a great bit where you kill a Necromancer and their death is cool as shit. The issues were different things that I think writers both new and old, good and bad can learn from. So, I thought I'd talk about them under a few ideas.
Why did I play this game? Because you got to ride around on a dinosaur. That's it. It's why I played a COG game and not a CYS one. Fuck it, let's be honest, I like dinosaurs, I like the thought of riding a dinosaur, and I sure as shit like the thought of riding a triceratops as a knight. So, that's something I want to talk about. Wish fulfillment, and fun.
A game can be dark, bright, sad, happy, whatever, but at least have a fucking modicum of fun in it. Sure, maybe for the perfect, artsy game it doesn't need to be fun, but none of us are good enough to make games that can be good without fun. Now, this might include a bit of wish fulfilment, which all games are. We always play as someone on a bigger adventure than we're on, in different circumstances. There's got to be a good balance. Too little, and it becomes dreary and boring to play. Id on't want to be some accountant in a realistic life, I want to be some evil Necromancer. Too much, and you sacrifice everything else, like realistic characters or hard choices or anything. So, you gotta try balance it.
I mean, wish fulfillment can come in many forms. Let me ride a dinosaur, let me beat up an annoying elf, let me do something cool, something fun, something unique, something I'll actually enjoy. Even the worst, most depressing games try to counterbalance their sadness with cool shit, like Warhammer 40k or Game of Thrones. So, to avoid making your game dreary, take a note from Dino-Knights. Maybe it's not relevant to the plot to give me a dinosaur, or let me have a giant bat as a pet, or to let me kill some dickheads, but even though the posh pricks say everything needs to be about the plot, a bit of amiss entertainment never goes too badly either.
Now, there were a few things about queer shit here. You could be any gender or sexuality, and other characters even had their gender change based on your alignment, and honestly, it wasn't bad. There weren't any issues arising from it. The characters had some pretty big issues, but none of them were tied to the fact that there genders were interchangeable. All of that stuff worked pretty well, and I had no issues with it, so you win this one, COG.
Really, I think this was the best example of this that I'd seen. The world was close enough to fantasy compared to actual medieval times for it to be fine that there was no sexism, since it was a pretend universe. There were still interesting social problems to not make it seem like some perfect world, namely all the shit resulting from feudalism, and this weird dino-cannibalism thing, which I'm going to make a quick side note on in a bit. Anyhow, the gender thing just wasn't an issue. The lack of sexism was fine and while it made it less of a historical fantasy game, unless that's your goal, it seems fine to do this, and it's the kind of thing done a lot nowadays, like Skyrim, where gender's not that big of a thing compared to, say, Feudal England.
Even the gender switches on characters didn't matter, because their characters weren't really tied to their gender so it didn't matter. They had all these characteristics and features that were separate from gender, so the pronoun switch caused zero issues. In fact, I'll just give CoG a win for this, they nailed it.
Jesus Christ, why would you do this to me?
In the game, I rode a Triceratops, and it showed clear long-term memory, ability to make connections and a level of intelligence and sapience that exists in nothing but humans. It's clear in the world that these creatures are our friends, they're all remarkably intelligent and can understand long-term goals and are generally ridiculously intelligence.
It's also mentioned in the game that Triceratops steak is a common meal.
That's right, in this game, the sapient, friendly, loyal and all-around incredible beings are just casually eaten. This isn't something that you're supposed to be horrified with or even disagree with, it's just casually mentioned in the worldbuilding, and its fucked up beyond measure. These sentient, sapient, happy creatures are being eaten by you for no fucking reason. I mean, we can all be vegetarians, why are we doing this? And there's some dinosaurs that are trained to help out in this, like there's a raptor that helps scrape the meat out of dino hides to make into leather, and it's like, fuck, we're training them to help us eat them. It's fucked up beyond any level of sanity.
Like, I'm fine with gross shit, and dark shit. I'm even fine with casual dark shit. You want to casually reveal that in Fallout all lights are powered by the torture of bunnies? Cool. But it seems like a harsh turn for Dino-Knights to take, of all games. I don't know what the lesson is here, but maybe it's to examine your game for anything where you're secretly awful. Make sure no one's a slave, make sure you don't brainwash people, make sure you don't casually eat sentient beings, make sure your game isn't an accidental (or on purpose) piece on why fascism is good, that sort of thing. Just make sure your game avoids unintentional and horrific implications.
The choices had positives and negatives. One of their best features were the number of small choices, things that varied the experience without leading to any real branching. If you've played any of my games, you'll know I'm a fan of these, and it was used pretty well here. No matter what happened in the grand ball, I ended up in the same place, but my night was different in a lot of ways depending on what I chose.
That all was done really well, and I think it's a good trick to learn. People say that actual branching is better than these choices that don't matter, but I don't know if that's entirely true. Sure, you should have branching and more is better, but every writer is not some endless pit to draw from, and they have limited energy. I think in CYOA's, one should have both a fair amount of branching so choices matter, while still having the little irrelevant choices so that it changes each play through and makes it feel a lot more interactable without requiring a great deal of effort.
The big choices were where it fell down. Mainly, the moral element of choices. The reason to make decisions was gone. I thought the game was going to do something really cool, because there was a whole honor variable based on your loyalty and such, but it was also heavily focused on the fact that you were a commoner and that there was bias against commoners and nobles had more power and the heroes of legend were all rich nobles rather than the commoners who did great shit. I also knew there was a coup in the game, and you as the knight had pledged loyalty and been given your power and knighthood by the Queen.
So obviously, this looked to be going to a cool choice. Should you value loyalty, honour and peace by just upkeeping order for your Queen, someone who is personally kind to you but overall the head of a negative feudal system? Or do you betray the Queen, who the sake of equality and fairness, and implementing a system where the common folk don't suffer for the sake of the rich fucks. That's a really good choice, and one that you can make great arguments for either side, and that's the way I think choices should be. A good choice should be subjective, and me and another reader should be able to pick different things and justify them based on what we value.
That was not the choice, however. Of the three sides you can side with, there's the Queen, her sister who leads a secret coup and the Necromancer. Now, three options isn't bad... but it becomes quiet stupid. The Queen, despite being the head of a feudal nation and having got power on blood alone, is sympathetic to commoners for some reason, while the Aunt openly thinks herself better than commoners because of her noble status. The other coup member is a random lord, who is shown to not care for his people's plight, and to be rude in general for no reason.
So, rather than "Loyalty and honor or equality and democracy", the choice becomes "Loyalty, honor, equality and fairness OR stealing power with the obviously evil guys". So instantly, the choice is reduced to "Good versus evil". But, we have a third option, the Necromancer. So, what's their story.
The Necromancer's reason for taking over is basically "Morality doesn't exist, might makes right, strength rules over all". She wants to take over for power's sake, and that's kind of it. She does mention she'll protect your village, which is a cool moment of "Giving the reader a reason to make a choice other than wanting to be evil", but given killing her will do the same, you have no reason to join her. Even if you are playing an evil character who just wants power, the game's given you two different choices for doing so, which are the exact same. So rather than a serious choice between three factions, which the author already put the effort into making, instead of getting something like "Honor and Loyalty OR Democracy and Equality OR Peace and Order" or something, or even "Honor and Loyalty OR Democracy and Equality OR Be Evil", it's "Good OR Evil OR a different evil."
Seriously, the big choice just isn't. It's your classic "Obvious good versus obvious evil", but the writer put in the effort to make a third choice, that's exactly the same as one of the others. The game's actual choices become nothing. Sure, you can choose how you do what you do, but it doesn't really help. Choose the magic, negotiation or fighting options to defeat enemies. Whatever.
Ultimately, this is the biggest and most irredeemable flaw in the game. There's no reason to choose anything other than the good option, there's no motive, there's no difficult choice. This is where the game crumbles, and it's something we could all learn from. Choices need to be difficult, and subjective choices are good. Choices where neither option is right or wrong, but varies on my values. These are how choices should be, or at least how some of them need to be. Difficult choices and examining of yourself makes for good gameplay in a medium where the gameplay is reading and clicking a few words. Give me a hard choice and a reason to choose, and that's it.
The game had a few other cool things, like a good use of false choices and non-branching choices, that I think all writers should use. It's not great to use false choices INSTEAD of real ones, but as well as just makes your game seem a lot larger and branchier than it is. It's always best to put in a branching choice, of course, but if it's the question of a fake choice or maybe a non-branching choice versus just a single "Continue" link, definitely the former. I know I touched on this, but I think it's a great system.
The use of a traditional party in the game was weird. Basically, it was you, your partner, this kid you pick up for some reason and a bard, and it was strange. One of the things in the game was that there was a lot of choices between talking to people. Naturally, I pursued befriending my partner and romancing some girl, so when it came to the Bard joining my party, I'd had one short conversation with her about dragons, and avoided all future interaction with her because the game's mechanics meant I could easily do that without trying. Thus, when she joined my party, it just seemed like I didn't know her, and her purpose was bizarre. I think that's something to focus on in any story, making sure that you spread the "screentime" for characters, but whatever.
Besides those two notes, I don't have much to say. The gender shit was done well, the choices were awful, the writing good, the characters iffish but fine, and overall it was a weird blend of a well-written, fun game that just had huge flaws.
I hope someone learns something for this, or at least that this didn't come off as insane ramblings, but whatever. Anyhow, if you read until this point, thanks, maybe give Dino-Knights a try, or add dinosaurs to whatever you're writing, because they're delightful.
Read this days ago, but interesting review by the way.