Bad End Theater follows an unlucky cast of four characters as they head towards a series of terrible endings for themselves. The actions of each will affect the stories of the others, though, creating an intertwining storyline that players may shape in unexpected ways. Maybe it can be shaped in such a way that your myriad, interlinked decisions might lead to something good.
Game Developer spoke with NomnomNami, developer of Bad End Theater, about what interested them in having characters affect the stories of others, the challenges that come from keeping this kind of story straight, and what drew the developer to let players toggle these decisions on and off as they chose.
Game Developer: What drew you to create a story with multiple routes to take to its conclusion, and multiple routes you would follow with different characters?
NomnomNami: I thought it would be interesting to make a visual novel where your choices as one character influenced how the story unfolded for the others. The only other game I've played that has a similar mechanic (switching perspectives to reach different endings) is Disgaea Infinite, so I think it's a pretty unexplored gameplay territory!
What challenges came up in the story writing process for this kind of narrative? Did you write one route then spin the others off from that starting point? Write the endings first and craft the journeys knowing the destination?
Yeah, exactly! Basically, I decided on a series of events, and if the outcome for each character seemed worth exploring I would write them in one by one. For example, the hero slays all the demons and reaches the overlord's room to find the maiden. Suddenly, there are three characters in the same room who can bounce off each other. Does the hero stop when he realizes the maiden was never in danger? How does the overlord feel about her army being slaughtered? If the hero tries to finish the job, will the maiden do something to stop him?
So many endings unfolded from such a simple series of events, and your choices unlock even worse possibilities later down the line! Once it was written from one character's perspective, it was easy to write the other versions. I did have to make some cuts though. If the timeline said a character either lived or died, for their version of that ending I'd usually just pick one outcome (usually the more tragic one), since it'd get a little tedious collecting endings that were shortened versions of better (worse?) endings...
Why a game of terrible fates? What interested you in delving into ‘bad ends’ for your characters?
In general, I'm drawn to stories that have a bit of darkness to them. I wanted players to be motivated to explore all the paths they could - the premise of the game makes you wonder if there might be a way to reach a good ending. Trying to puzzle out the way to save all of the characters from tragedy felt like it would be fun, so I tried making it!
The idea of the plot unfolding into worse and worse events the more you interfered with it sounded really exciting to me! Exploring alternate paths through a familiar story is fun on its own, but it can get repetitive. I did my best to keep it concise, so you can puzzle your way through the paths with little resistance.
Another fun note is that the scrolling text on the end map screens changes as you collect more endings, as if the game is taunting you. All of these factors combined to make it really easy to get sucked into the story, or at least I hope that's the case for most players!
What tools did you work with to create your interactive narrative in Bad End Theater? Why work with the tools that you chose?
I created the game with Ren'Py! I've been using it to make visual novels for years and years, so it's a no-brainer for me. The engine is open source and free to use, plus it's super easy to learn! I highly recommend it.
What thoughts went into the visual style for the game? In creating cute characters for a game of "bad ends"?
Cuteness is my specialty! I think having cute characters makes the darker endings more approachable and "safe". I wanted all the emotions of a tragic death without having to show any gruesome details - for me, it's more effective if it remains abstract or stylized. That, and I just like drawing cute things [laughs].
The characters offer a variety of decisions they could make on their route that will affect the story of other characters. What challenges did you face in creating so many different interconnecting pieces? In integrating parts of another character's story into the story the player is currently working through?
It was definitely challenging to account for all the possibilities in each character's timeline. I drew flowcharts as I wrote the script, but during testing it became clear that I needed to make my flowcharts available for players, too.
I'm a completionist, so it would bother me to try to hunt down every path without having some kind of map or guide. It was really time-consuming to plot out a story like this, and I had to limit the outcomes to a manageable number, but making the game felt like putting together a puzzle! I love puzzles <3
How did you adapt your own working dev materials (the flowcharts you said players needed) into something player-helpful? How did you decide how much info to share or not share?
The end maps took a lot of work to lay out in a way that was easy to parse. They went through a few iterations, but I knew it needed to be laid out timeline-style instead of in a burst with the start at the center like in my notes. Each branch needed to tell you which behaviors to choose, but there are a few general ones unlocked from the beginning to explain what's happening in the story at that point.
I tried to keep them brief and spoiler-free as possible! I think I managed to strike a good balance between giving all the answers up front and leaving it open to explore for yourself. I didn't want to make the game too difficult, because I'd really like for everyone to see the full story!
What thoughts went into creating characters and storylines that would be different enough to encourage players to explore your game again? How did you make things different enough to compel players to take another look, but similar enough that they could connect the stories?
I honestly just write whatever sounds fun to me! Each of the main characters has a unique appeal, and I really enjoyed writing the same events from different perspectives. The individual routes are pretty bite-sized with recurring events you can tie directly to certain characters (the underling eating the maiden, the hero slaying the demons, etc.).
Once you reach a bad ending as one character, you might think "Oh, I wonder how this same path turns out for the overlord?" It's so quick and easy to understand that most people clear all the endings in one sitting.
You created a toggle for turning these decisions on and off. Why create this? Can you talk to us about the process you used to give the player control over these narrative decisions with a toggle?
I thought it might be frustrating to have to replay the story as one character just to change a single decision while trying to pursue someone else's ending. It felt obvious to give the player shortcuts to turn things on and off. I couldn't make every choice toggleable (and I'm glad I didn't, because it'd get pretty confusing, but I like the way it turned out. The overlord and maiden ended up having very passive roles, while the hero and underling can drastically alter the plot from the beginning.
Some decisions don't change much on their own, but the right combination can lead you somewhere totally new! Being able to easily set up those situations is really a core appeal of the game.
What interested you in creating an interactive story? What do you hope the player takes away from seeing how the tiniest decision can completely change how their story goes (or how it might not change much at all)?
Originally, I wanted to make a game about empathy. If you control the actions of all the characters, but they're hurting each other, will you feel like you're hurting yourself? If everyone is kind to one another, where will it lead? The game is a little antagonistic (encouraging you to get bad endings and whatnot), so naturally you'd wish to find the path that gives everyone a happy ending. That was my goal, anyway! How you feel about the final ending really depends on having that desire.
What do you feel defines an empathetic game, and what design/narrative choices did they make to encourage players to connect on that level to the story/journey?
For me, it comes down to whether or not the characters are treated as real people. Whatever story you're telling should have respect for the cast as individuals in their unique world and circumstances, and the player should be able to feel connected to them, even if it's only in a small way. When a character is relatable, I think it's natural to wish for their happiness! Even though I tortured the cast of this game a lot, they all deserve a good ending, despite their flaws.
Do you feel like you succeeded in creating an empathetic game?
I'm not sure if it was a success or not [laughs]. That part of it fell to the wayside as I got closer to finishing the story. I think the message of the game is that we should try to understand each other, so it still has empathy at its core. But it's a love story above all else (it's tagged LGBTQ+ for a reason!).