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Analysis: Choose Your Own Adventure, 21st Century Style

Exploring what constitutes meaningful choices, writer and designer Emily Short examines what the multiple-choice game format could offer -- and where two multiple choice games fall short.

Emily Short, Blogger

April 23, 2010

6 Min Read

[Writer and designer Emily Short looks at two multiple-choice games, Choice of Dragons and Choice of Broadsides, by Choice of Games, exploring what the format could offer -- and where these titles fall short.] I have a love-hate relationship with multiple-choice interactive stories. (I'm talking about the kind of thing commonly called CYOA-style or "Choose Your Own Adventure" style, but that name is associated with the publisher of the original books, and Choice of Games uses the term multiple-choice game instead.) On the one hand, I like story-heavy games, and I'm all in favor of more games that explore the potential of text. Moreover, while I love interactive fiction, I realize that the parser puts a lot of demands on the novice player, and that poses a serious accessibility problem. Giving the player a straightforward list of options -- each of them guaranteed to advance the story in some way -- certainly makes things move faster. On the other hand, I've tended to find multiple-choice stories deeply unsatisfying. Some of this has to do with structural decisions made by early authors in this format. The original Choose Your Own Adventure books were often full of stupid dead ends, places where taking the left path rather than the right led to an instant death room with no preparation. This kept the number of major branch points low, but at the cost of removing any kind of significant agency from the player. At worst, the player was not meaningfully directing the story; I controlled outcomes as little as if I were flipping a coin to decide which branch to follow. The addition of some persistent variables -- a primitive world model -- helps a lot, because it means the author can give the player a choice early in the game, return to the main story branch, and then have that decision turn out to be important later on. Even with computer mediation, though, not all multiple-choice works bother with any kind of world modeling or persistent variables, even at the most primitive level. Choice of Games is a company writing games in ChoiceScript, a language designed for writing multiple-choice games with a small number of variables, mostly RPG-like character stats. So far they have published two games, Choice of Dragons and Choice of Broadsides -- the first a somewhat generic fairy-tale-esque game in which you kidnap princesses and accumulate gold, the second a Napoleonic-era naval career simulator. Their manifesto defends text-based gaming and argues for a game style that is all about meaningful choices. I find it hard to argue with that in theory. In practice, I enjoyed but was not overwhelmed by either of them, even though the underlying mechanic addresses most of my traditional problems with multiple-choice storytelling. Some of that has to do with the writing, on both the large and the small scale. At the small scale, the prose is blandly competent. There's no strong personal voice, vividly imagined detail, or pyrotechnic verbal adroitness. The larger plot arcs suffer a bit from a confusion about the nature of "meaningful choice." The designers rightly argue that "several different things can make a choice meaningful": "In some cases, it determines the flow of the game from then on, even whether the protagonist lives or dies. In other cases, the choices are meaningful because they help the player explore and define who their character is. What makes your character tick can be among the most meaningful sorts of choices, even if it has no direct effect on the outcomes of the game." This is good stuff, especially the realization that a choice doesn't have to cause a branch immediately to count as meaningful. Some of my favorite choices in games have been about character motivation and backstory, from choosing a motivating trauma for Commander Shepard in Mass Effect to answering the extremely creepy motive questions in Victor Gijsbers' The Baron. And the games do deliver on that theoretical premise, by offering a number of occasions when you can decide why you're taking a particular action. Meaningful choices also depend somewhat on the player's degree of engagement in the story, though, and that's where both Choice of Dragons and Choice of Broadsides fell down for me (though the latter was the better of the two). Both pieces have an RPG-like attitude towards the initial stats, allowing the player to create a character who is brutal or subtle, brainy or brawny. That leaves a lot of freedom to shape the avatar, but it also means that choices within the story have to be very broadly drawn in order to encompass actions that fall under these different rubrics. It also means that the protagonist can't come to the story with much personality of his own: so much is left up to the player that the results of player choice are a bit generic. As a result, when I played each game for the first time, I found myself making choices that are at heart the same choices I make in every RPG: strong and brutish or small and cunning? (I always go with cunning, personally.) Then I replayed, trying antithetical strategies. Choice of Broadsides does offer some setting-specific skill trade-offs -- whether to train in sailing, fencing, or leadership skills, for instance -- but even there the choices felt like they mapped without much difficulty to similar choices I've made in many another RPG. The catch is that these multiple-choice games do not offer the big open world to explore and the opportunities for environmental and emergent narrative that one finds in, say, Fable 2 or Fallout 3. RPG-style stats don't correspond at all well to the level of storytelling and agency at work in a multiple choice game. Multiple-choice games in ChoiceScript could offer a much stronger narrative voice, more surprising statistics, and a deeper sense of connection with the game world if they established a more strongly-defined protagonist at the outset. Instead of asking, "Are you tough or are you clever?", they might ask, "Why are you seeking revenge on this character?" More particular choices are typically more meaningful than big open ones. So far I see no reason to think that ChoiceScript couldn't produce more effective multiple-choice stories. It isn't, and isn't meant to be, an especially powerful programming language; it has about the same range of features for storytelling as Ren'Py, minus the mechanisms for displaying images. I'm also encouraged by Choice of Games' decision to explore a genre that doesn't appear much in the conventional game scene with Choice of Broadsides, which was more interesting all around than Choice of Dragons and did some interesting things with the recurring villain/friend character of Villeneuve. I see potential for their future work, especially if they move away from RPG-like avatar creation toward stories that explore a particular theme or character in depth. (Disclosure: These games are free to play. I have had no commercial interactions with the authors at the time of writing.) [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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