The Player - both Spectator AND Writer
In Karaski, player not only influence what will be, but what was, and what is right now. Player choices are not just about how the story unfolds, but what the story actually is. They influence not only what the characters will do, but who they are intricately. In a way, the Player is not a mere participant, but also the writer.
While the main arch and progression remains the same, numerous subtle details change. Whom the player is working for, what each character is hiding, or who the saboteur really is, are not questions with predefined answers. Is a character an ideological madman or a victim of a crazy stalker? If someone recognizes you, what is your shared backstory? Your choices becomes correct the moment you make them. The plot may follow the same path, but mean very different things to each player. It is truly for YOU to decide.
Subtlety vs. Feedback
I spent last Saturday watching my friend Renee trudge through my still somewhat buggy but entirely complete and semi-polished game, start to finish. The first private Beta Test of Karaski took 4.5 hours to beat, and Renee uncovered a good chunk of clues. She was told a compelling narrative. The characters all had their motives. The saboteur was chosen based on evidence. The ship's fate unfolded.
In the following interview, the main complaint was lack of feedback about player choices in the end. As we discussed the various story elements and I, disappointed by my apparent failure, explained the alternatives, something suddenly dawned on me. The numerous nuanced choices and outcomes fit so well together Renee never realized she influenced them, truly believing her decisions WERE the story, just as I intended it.
Paradoxically, once I explained how she influenced the narrative, Renee complimented the game for never having any overt "you are making important decision, choose now!" moments that many modern RPGs get criticized for (the infamous Deus Ex Human Revolution 3-button ending comes to mind). But had I not pointed it out, she wouldn't have been the wiser. If a tree falls in the woods...
So here is my dilemma: keeping the choices sublime, or stressing their influence more? The first creates a seamlessly personalized narrative, but robs the player of the satisfaction of their agency. The second breaks that smooth suspicion of disbelief, but explicitly rewards the player for their choices. My experience teachers me to go with the latter, making the influences far more explicit. But if everything meshes together so well the player is genuinely convinced the story they shaped is what it's supposed to be, isn't that a laudible narrative achievement worth celebrating? Do I put the game before the story, or the story before the game?
Telltale's games are definitely my role model, but even they get occasionally criticized for the obtuse "Clementine will remember this" indicators. I could add a finale screen similar to "you and x% of players chose...", but I feel it's a cheap solution akin to me haphazardly explaining stuff because the game failed to do it properly.
Decisions, decisions... Even after playing and crafting interactive stories for two decades I still sometimes feel like I'm only scratching the surface. Perhaps a sign of inexperience? Perhaps a proof I'm really pushing boundaries?
I guess we'll find out!
Replayability, Not a Pragmatic Answer?
I wanted to address an obvious counter argument - the numerous influences would become apparent if one was to re-play the game to deliberately try different approaches. Which is great in theory but fails in practice. As I learned from my first game "Postmortem: one must die" (which could be beaten in mere 30 minutes) and chatting with other gamers, very few players re-play story-driven games immediately after completion, especially with the endless onslaught of new indies. In Karaski, replaying is further discouraged by much greater time investment compared to Postmortem and failure to communicate that the story CAN change at all.
I believe that, save for some genres like strategy or roguelikes, replayability should be a rewarding addition to the core game, not a requirement to experience it fully. Yes, I deliberately designed Karaski so the player can never uncover every clue or go into every room in a single playthrough. I want to leave a bit of mystery and encourage replays, but I still want player to understand what the heart of the game is about on their first run.
Karaski is a game about investigation, treachery and open skies where each of your actions has an impact. You control the destiny of world's first Airship!