The Ballad Singer has four protagonists with their own personality and backstory, but playing this choose-your-own-adventure/visual novel/RPG you might not meet all four of them. Accounting for all potential combinations of characters, their starting points, and all the ways they could die or be hindered along the way, The Ballad Singer ends up with 40 possible endings and 1,700
paths through its story. Of course, plenty of these possible paths will have only slight differences from one another, but The Ballad Singer wants to be played multiple times, and the volume of possibilities gives me hope that there will be surprises to find through each replay.
It's an interesting contrast to the usual mostly linear visual novel or an RPG like Skyrim, which doesn't give you much agency in the main story arc other than when you choose to interact with it. The Dragonborn can make a few large-scale decisions about Skyrim's future, but doesn't have much influence beyond those macro-level choices. Something like Darkest Dungeon, by contrast, allows players a lot of control over characters and their individual stories (assuming horrible phobias and subsequent brothel visits constitute character development), but the overarching plot is largely a backdrop.
The Ballad Singer's narrative system, which its creators call the Domino System, will allow players to make hundreds of choices with those four main characters. Feeling a bit skeptical about the feasibility of this idea, I went to The Ballad Singer's creator, Riccardo Bandera, for the details. Bandera talked me through some of the details of The Ballad Singer’s story system with help from Curtel Games’ marketing manager, Lorenzo Colnaghi. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Build your own ballad
How, I wanted to know, will The Ballad Singer differ from a classic visual novel? Typical visual novels are pretty linear, providing choices that drive the plot down one of a handful of branches on a narrative tree. The Ballad Singer's novelty, Bandera says, is largely thanks to its four protagonists.
"The most interesting aspect that distinguishes the Domino System is undoubtedly the interaction between the different playable characters," he says. "The choices made using one of the characters will influence the ramifications of the other playable characters very strongly. To have defeated a monster, forged an alliance, or simply to have talked with an individual could lead to unexpected implications, not only in the current decision-making process but also in that of all the other protagonists."
Characters can die or be seriously wounded during their adventures and although death means the end of their story, the larger ballad continues. "Death will be a recurring presence in The Ballad Singer. It's a difficult game where death is part of the story. Death will cause players to use another character in a world influenced by the previous one."
Another character can pick up the adventure when the first falls. According to Bandera, a death can create a new wave of possibilities for the remaining adventurers, which he illustrates with the example of Leon the wizard confronting a dragon.
"Leon could subdue the dragon and use it in the most difficult clashes, or die in the attempt and awaken it. In this case, Leon would put other adventurers in that region in trouble. So death and other choices influence the decision-making path of the other characters. From this point of view, we have revised the concept of Game Over. The story created by the player is only one, but with different points of view."
The Ballad Singer, Bandera assures me, will give the player meaningful choices that irreversibly change the characters and the story each time they play. Will those choices be self-contained, though? So often, meaningful choice in narrative games comes in the form of simple detours from the main plot. Bandera says that unlike neatly packaged side quests that do not interfere with the main plot, The Ballad Singer's four characters will have stories that weave through one another.
"The narrative path will always be coherent. In fact there are many stories intertwined with each other. Many videogames create neutral narrative blocks and then mix them together. After choosing a character in The Ballad Singer, you will take a series of choices that will change him."
Playing the part
Another challenge The Ballad Singer faces is how to deal with success and failure in a story that won't always take place in the same order. In one ballad the choice to take on a dragon may have a particular outcome, while in another the choices of a previous character may change all the consequences. The Ballad Singer will judge players based on their ability to effectively play the role of the current protagonist, dishing out death or defeat to those who don't respect the characters' abilities.
"The main measuring instrument used in the Domino System is role-play. The more the player's choices are in line with the character's background, the greater his chances of survival will be. Often, however, more than one choice respects the background of the character, in these cases the Domino System allows access to different decision junctions, ensuring the possibility of accessing one of the branches that will allow access to one of the 40 endings."
What works for one character may not work for another. Leon the magician may be well-suited to a head-on encounter with a dragon while Daragast the warrior bard may have to avoid such a fight entirely.
"Also in the Domino System there is a very important asymmetry: the experience and skills of the characters are completely different. Two characters are very powerful and will be able to face epic battles, while two others will have to use all their cunning to stay alive."
Although each character has a predetermined personality, Bandera says that the team likes to emphasize that the present and future of each character are in the hands of the player. Some characters may be self-centered, but players are free to have them change.
"Each character has goals and ambitions that guide him throughout history. But not everyone is so cynical. They could fall in love, change what they think in the course of history, suffer events, or react and get involved. Each decision-making node presents difficulties and possibilities for the growth of the character."
Each of the four characters has two voice actors, one in English and one in Italian, and the final script is planned to be about the length of a George R. R. Martin fantasy novel. Its creators seem intent on bringing an epic fantasy story into the choose-your-own-adventure format with all the glossy production quality they can muster.
The Ballad Singer was successfully funded on Kickstarter in December of 2017 and is continuing to raise funds on Indiegogo with release planned for late 2018.