Idol-eyes is a visual novel, but I've tried to include elements of other games that I felt worked well. A lot of the design of the game has been inspired by other visual novels that I played and liked and so really it's a huge combination of those, plus my own ideas. Visual novels usually don't include mini-games or much interactivity, but I decided to try a couple of those things in Idol-eyes because I think it's important in this case to make the player feel immersed in the environment.
Mini-games and Interactivity
A lot of visual novel games don't include mini-games at all because the focus is on the story. Mini-games can be executed well as long as they aren't superficial; I have seen games that just use mini-games for no real reason and they don't contribute well to the atmosphere of the game. If a game is in the middle of a story element and then has you playing a version of pair-matching card game, it can sometimes hinder the progress of a story rather than help it. (I've seen this in games before.)
I've tried to include mini-games or interactive features that make sense and make the user feel engaged in the story. The writer of Idol-eyes had an idea for one of the earlier games. One of the first interactive features that is included at the start is a basic game in which the user has to put an ID card into the correct slot; the correct district is given previously in the story and the user has to remember which district they are from. This is during a key part of the story where the user is giving the machine their identity (something they player can input themselves.) I thought including this part was important because the user is physically using the ID card, and it also gives the player an early indication that learning parts of the story and remembering what NPC's tell you is important. One of the key elements of a visual novel is engaging in dialogue with other characters and making choices based on those dialogues; working out who is friend or foe by the subtleties in their language.
At first there was no mechanism in which you could 'fail' Idol-eyes and in some visual novels, there is no element of risk there at all. But I thought it was important that Idol-eyes does have some risk because it is set in a chaotic environment in which a war takes place; I want the player to feel like the choices they make may lead to negative consequences and so they should put thought into what they will choose. As such, making too many incorrect choices will increase the characters 'Stress' meter. If this is maxed out, the user will be given a 'bad ending' that shows they haven't managed their choices well.
There are some other mini-games that include elements of exploration; there is an inventory system that I designed that enables the user to use money acquired in game to buy items. These items may look like they won't be much use; a keychain with a light, for example, but later they will be key points in the story. There is a mini-game that includes the keychain you are able to buy from the store early on in the game. If you have it, you can use the light on it to explore an area of the Promise Project building and find a way out when you are locked in a storage facility, unlocking an extra part of the story that you can't achieve without having that item. I want the player to feel like even the smallest of choices, such as choosing to buy a keychain, can have a big impact on the story later on. There will be more examples of this in Idol-eyes.
Visual novels are mostly always meant to be played through more than once, and as such the player will be able to buy different items at different times in the story during multiple playthroughs. This means there can be a lot of variation as to what dialogue a player will see. I don't want the player to need to pick blind though, there will be hints in-game as to what item might be good to choose at that point in the story.
I've thought about other ways to make the game seem more personal and interactive. The story is meant to be emotive and so it's important the player feels engaged. I was thinking about adding a system in which a player can type a message to another NPC and the game will recognise what the message was and respond accordingly, but this is a really easy system to mess up. If the system doesn't recognise a sentence, it can be a little jarring and the player can become frustrated if the message isn't recognised multiple times in a row... so this is something I'm still thinking about. Maybe I'll test it out and see if the players feel it adds depth to the game.
Another related feature that I think works well is something I've seen in Animal Crossing. You can write letters to NPC's and then later on they will show you the message in your letter, and make a comment about it. Even though most of the time it's generic, it is engaging when they show you something you wrote in the past and you feel like you've changed the game even if it's in just a small way. But, this feature is easily abused. A player can write something totally off-topic, rude, or humorous and even though it can be funny, Idol-eyes isn't really that tone of game unlike Animal Crossing. But because it's a game based around a war, I thought it'd be a nice touch if you as a player could write letters to your loved ones, for them to talk about later. It's hard to say whether that'll work or not, so I'll probably need to test it out.
One of my worries is that the interaction in Idol-eyes will be too easy, so the player is just going through the motions. But if it's too hard, it'll stop people playing through the story elements which is not what you want at all.
I played a game recently that I reviewed called The Dreaming. Getting most of the endings was simple, but the final ending which revealed all the information to the player was rock solid. Most of the player feedback was that acquiring this ending was way too difficult (to get it, you need to have one specific combination of choices, some of them are timed, too.) In the end, getting the final ending just ended up being a superficial practice of clicking through various combinations and not being smart about my selections at all. While the story was amazing, that was a let down for me; it's lucky the mystery was so good that you needed to find out the ending, otherwise I doubt most people will have bothered. And I know a lot didn't despite the good story. I think as a designer you need to not expect too much from the player. Clues that might be obvious to you won't be obvious to a player at all; it's very difficult to see things from a player perspective because you know the game inside out. At the same time, of course I wouldn't want everything to be obvious. But I wanted there to be at least half of a hint that I need to do something a certain way to achieve the ending I want. I'm playing Hakuoki at the moment, and it's difficulty curve is good, imo. It suggests things to the player, and you can guess what you may need to do, but you still have that element of doubt when you've made your choice. It's difficult, but it hints without hand-holding.
So that's what I'm planning for Idol-eyes. There is way more I'd like to do but I don't want to go beyond the scope of what I'm capable of. I've played hundreds of visual novels now and I've seen some examples of some great... and not so great, mini-games. Some of the best I've seen are usually on the Nintendo DS, I thought Another Code DS (Also known as Trace Memory) had some really nice, yet unusual puzzles. One of the coolest ones I saw in Another Code was a mini-game where you had to use the reflection of the twin screens to see a code that appears. I still remember that even though I played it years ago because it was something I had to physically do in the real world to solve, and put me in the protagonists shoes. I really like Hotel Dusk for that, too. Those are examples of visual novels that have quite a big gameplay and puzzle focus though, Idol-eyes isn't really that type of point and click game, but I'm hoping to draw inspiration from those types in order to improve the quality of our game. Oh, and 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is an amazing puzzle/story game. I just think it's really smart in the way it presents information to the player, and it's a combination of great puzzles and good storytelling, a huge part of the game is finding out who amongst you is a traitor, so as well as the puzzles there is the ongoing mystery surrounding the person who may or may not be the bad guy. Just like the characters, you can often feel a sense of paranoia that effects your choices; can you trust the person you are with?
Also I love games that have some sort of story on truth. A lot of 999's story has elements of truth and factual information in there, games that make me need to google things to check if they are real are awesome.
Hah. Maybe my next game should be a puzzle game?