How Camp W's choice-driven design was shaped by a new narrative tool

“What’s really interesting about Branching Storywriter is that, while...we made a very text-based game, it’s really not limited to that," says Psyop's Alexei Bochenek in this Camp W design chat.

Visual novels are usually seen as a quite a low-cost venture.

In most cases, they are created on a little to no budget, using free engines such as Ren’py, or software like Tyrano Builder or Visual Novel Maker. This isn’t the case for Camp W, a new visual novel from Psyop.

The developers used a brand-new piece of software called Branching Storywriter to create their game, with the bespoke application enabling them to script things easily, while creating and tracking variables that could be exported to Unity in a human readable JSON format.

In Camp W, you play as a witch who travels through a portal to the human realm and winds up at a summer camp for ordinary kids called Camp Whupiwitchi. There you will meet a number of interesting characters, attend activities, and perform spells, with your choices impacting upon the story that is unfolding. Like most visual novels, much of the gameplay is text-based, with decision-making and some other functionality, like tracing spells, thrown in for good measure.

Arriving at the Camp W idea

Camp W originally began life as a cartoon show to be pitched to Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network. After failing to attract any attention, it was put on the shelf indefinitely. That is, until Alexei Bochenek, a narrative designer at Psyop, rescued it from its development limbo.

It was his idea to take the premise in the direction of a visual novel and to marry it with another project happening behind closed doors at the studio, Branching Storywriter, which had been redeveloped from a tool the studio had acquired from Tall Chair called Active Reader.

"Something that I thought was interesting was visual novels...nobody seemed to be doing anything for kids."

“Something that I thought was interesting was visual novels, although they are typically sort of animated characters or cartoon characters, usually they are of the Japanese variety or they’re in some way very adult,” explains Bochenek, explaining his thought process. “It’s a genre that even though it has a very kid-friendly look, when you dig in most of the time those are adult games. Nobody seemed to be doing anything for kids.”

For Camp W, the team set out to target a younger audience with a more family-friendly tone. They knew that this was a gamble though, given that the demographic for Steam and PC users doesn’t necessarily intersect with the all-ages market.

“My worries for this particular game were sort of a genre worry, in that I feel like we’re doing something that other people aren’t doing, and you have to question, when you walk down that path, why hasn’t anybody been walking down this path before?” says Bochenek. “Is it dangerous? Or is it simply undiscovered?”

Designing Camp W as a demo for the tool

Though there was clearly a passion for bringing Camp W to life, there was also an ulterior motive at play beneath the surface. The game would serve as a demo for the Branching Storywriter app with Bochenek scripting the game himself to test its usability, despite his limited coding skills.

A visual novel project was decided upon, not just because of Bochenek’s affinity for the genre and its limited framework, but as he also believed it was more likely to court the type of indie developers that would benefit from the use of the tool.

The studio wanted to target developers who had grown frustrated with the rigidity of the highly specific visual novel makers on the market, providing a more flexible solution that creators could use to program not only visual novels, but also top down puzzlers and RPGs, if they wanted.

“I think what’s really interesting about Branching Storywriter is that, while in the tutorial it kind of kicks out these text stories that you can play through and we made a very text-based game, it’s really not limited to that,” explains Bochenek. “It could be used to create other much more complicated systems or just to integrate into another engine that is much more complicated and that only uses spreadsheet Storywriter for parts of what it does.”

Using variables to create different endings

Arguably the most impressive feature of the tool is its variable tracking system. It allowed for complex decision-making in Camp W, as well as keeping track of player interactions throughout the story.

“When the Branching Storywriter tool was being made that was one of the most important parts of it – the variable tracking system,” recalls Charlie Volpe, software engineer on the Branching Storywriter app and lead engineer on Camp W. “That way you could do things like depending on how you played the game you could unlock different paths.”

A simple example of this in the game is the choice of camp activity. You are repeatedly tasked with picking between arts and crafts, music and dance, and camp history, with the decision impacting on where the story takes you next and who you interact with.

These choices are then tallied as you play, with the ending dependent on your affinity with specific characters. So, if you spent a lot of time with Wilfred, the conniving, would-be escape-artist over at the archery range, your ending will change to reflect that decision. Whereas, if you spoke more to Sid, the leather-jacket wearing musician in the music room, the game will adjust to that.

Figuring out how stuff works

Given the game is the first to be programmed using the tool, it wasn’t a completely straightforward process. There were still a few issues, for example, that needed to be solved through trial and error. One of these was how to allow players to select multiple options before progressing the story, as is the case at the start of the game when you are allowed to inspect an altar with three items on it.

“What we discovered is that we could automatically select a choice once the specific criteria had been met, and then hide that choice so you don’t know it is a choice that you’re making,” explains Bochenek.

What this essentially means is that the player can examine each item on the altar without the game progressing, with the objects representing three different choices. Unbeknown to the player, there is also a fourth hidden choice in this area, however, that checks whether or not you have looked at all three items and moves you on.

After this was discovered it became a standard feature in the engine and was used time and time again throughout Camp W in a number of interesting ways. There is another scene, for example, where the player can investigate a vandalized bathroom, with the hidden choice being to move the player on after they have found all the clues to the guilty party’s identity.

Still some room for improvement

While Bochenek and Volpe both believe the basic functionality of Branching Storywriter is pretty much locked down, they are still considering some minor improvements to further ease the user experience, informed by the development of Camp W.

“We certainly found things that we could improve upon, but they’re generally fairly mild and a matter of execution rather than concept,” says Bochenek. “You know, copying and pasting a stitch will leave its variables behind and you’ll have to copy those variables separately. Attaching them would make that process a little bit simpler. But generally speaking, it actually had more features than I was able to push to their limits.”

One idea is to introduce a more graphical UI that allows the creator to move the characters around more easily. Right now, there are basic anchor points in Unity, which you can attach images to through calling them in the script.

“Having a graphical UI where I could define those anchors, those positions, rather than text-based commands would make life in branching storywriter definitely a lot easier,” says Bochenek. “So that will sort of be our next thing to explore. But for now, it genuinely has all of the features that we need for this.”

Camp W is now available on Steam, but the team are still working on a release date for Branching Storywriter. At the moment, attention is focused solely on getting Camp W into as many hands as possible, though they are already approaching a small shortlist of developers to see who would be interested in testing the tool.

“I just want the dust to settle on Camp W for probably another couple of weeks,” says Bochenek. “And then – because we still have some more marketing and some more PR to do and opportunities that we’re chasing down – we can kind of switch focus to getting copies of Branching Storywriter out to other developers in sort of a private beta, where people can use it and break it and see just how versatile it is for other games.”

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