Choose Your Own Adventure books were, for two generations of children, gateways to worlds of wonder. Each page offered a choice that would plunge you further into a fictional adventure or dispatch your character in any number of undignified ways. The books were astonishingly popular and sold over 250 million copies, in multiple languages, between 1979 and 1998, outstripping the competing Fighting Fantasy series.
Not only did they stimulate the imagination with their tales of faraway lands, but by letting you take control of your destiny they provided a wonderfully immersive experience. It was your decision that determined whether you escaped the undersea cavern or were mauled to death by a giant octopus. Following advances in home entertainment however, their popularity dwindled to the point where you’re lucky to see their modern incarnation on store shelves.
But one company, Choice of Games, has taken the format and run with it, bringing the joys of Choose Your Own Adventure to a whole new audience. Choice of Games isn’t the only company championing interactive fiction; the recently Kickstarted vampire adventure Nighthawks, for example, adopts a similar tack. But it's certainly one of the most prolific and its games are as wonderfully absurd as their inspiration. Available to purchase on PC, iOS, Android and Kindle, each sporting one or two free chapters, Choice of Games’ titles cast you in such diverse roles as an 18th Century Naval Officer, a dragon or a dinosaur-riding knight.
“We’re also carrying on the legacy of both Zork and Dungeon and Dragons,” explains the co-founder of Choice of Games, Jason Stevan Hill, discussing the company’s inspiration, “We’re at a compelling junction between storytelling and gaming.”
Choice of Games’ offerings do have one obvious advantage over old-school text adventures. Because the games present you with several specific choices, you’re never battling the game’s interpreter, which means no more conversations like this:
You can see a sword in the glass cupboard.
>GET THE SWORD OUT OF THE GLASS CUPBOARD
I do not understand “get”.
>TAKE THE SWORD OUT OF THE GLASS CUPBOARD
There is no “sword”.
>OPEN THE DOOR
Which door? The old oak door, or the cupboard door?
>THE CUPBOARD DOOR
I do not understand “the”.
>I HATE YOU
Instead, stripped of puzzles or other diversions, Choice of Games’ titles are free to focus on storytelling. The games are entirely text-based and so rely on the use of description, frequently to great effect. Being informed that “One of the splinters, perhaps a yard long, rips through the stomach of Davies, a sailor under your command”, conjures up a startling mental image. And while not all of Choice of Games’ titles are that gruesome, most of them sport the same on-point prose.
Equally notable is the way that, in the manner of Choose Your Own Adventure, your actions have consequences. Choose to be deliberately abrasive in a Telltale game and all that typically happens is someone later reminds you of your unfeeling conduct. Take a similar approach in a Choice of Games title and there’s every chance your ship’s crew will murder you in your sleep or abandon you on a desert island. Such events are telegraphed to some degree, which is a welcome improvement from the original CYOA format; you’re unlikely to get a metal spike through your face merely because you opened a random chest.
Cheating is not an option; lacking a player-save feature, you’re forced to live with the consequences of your actions. This in turn forces you to consider your choices before you make them, particularly since some options lead you down different paths, wonderful, world-crushing paths - not that I’m setting out to be deliberately evil. Honest.
“A tension exists between allowing player choice and facilitating a satisfying story,” the company explains on their website. “Multiple-choice structures offer a potential way to bridge that problem. It restricts player options, but the pay-off for that is the opportunity to construct stories that work.”
Though, in fairness, using a text-based format does also afford the company a certain degree of freedom that Telltale and others don’t have. Choice of Games don’t have to concern themselves with recording dialogue to reflect your choices or render art for each location you might visit, which is something of a luxury.
It’s a luxury that Choice of Games exploits with their games’ approach to gender and sexuality. Nearly all their titles let you choose whether to be male or female but many go beyond that. Some you the choice to be non-gendered or, in the case of Choice of the Rockstar, simply “Bowie”, and a select few offer the ability to play as a transgender character. Likewise, the games let you adopt a range of sexualities such as straight, gay, bi, asexual, aromantic and more.
Hill explains, “We founded our company on three political principles: feminism, egalitarianism, and sex-positivity. This means that anyone... should not only be able to be the hero, but be able to be themselves and be the hero. So we spend a lot of time internally discussing representation and trying to balance an author's aesthetic vision with our political principles. We haven't always succeeded, but we're always trying to do better.”
The games don’t pretend to delve heavily into gender issues, nor do they claim to, often just exchanging pronouns, but it’s a step in the right direction. And unlike one forthcoming cyberpunk game, their contribution to the genre, Rent-a-Vice, recognises that in a chrome-plated, body-modified future, gender may be much more fluid.
Aside from releasing their own first-party titles, using a range of authors, Choice of Games also hosts other titles that have been created using their own ChoiceScript programming language, giving authors a percentage of the revenue. The quality of writing varies but Choice of Games still puts out plenty of regular, quality content; here are three gems that are worth checking out.
Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance
Despite its innocuous subtitle, Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance is a gloriously Machiavellian game. The game’s (free) opening chapter sees you finding your place in the Royal Court, marrying the King or Queen if you so desire. The subsequent two chapters have you fighting tooth and nail to keep your position, resorting to poisoning, blackmail and all manner of other horrors. Naturally, there’s also the possibility you’ll fall foul to someone else’s machinations. But there’s so much sheer, malevolent joy to be had from becoming your own Cersei Lannister.
A Midsummer Night’s Choice
Less murder, more merriment, A Midsummer Night’s Choice is a fun outing that channels Shakespeare’s less depressing works. Rather than directly copying any of Bard’s comedies it draws upon all of them, delivering an entertaining blend of Shakespearean shenanigans. There’s fairies, magic spells, mistaken identity, cross-dressing confusion, laughter, love and more. If you’ve even a passing familiarity with Shakespeare’s writing, you’ll be right at home.
Choice of Magics
Choice of Magics offers all the usual mystical trappings. There are spells aplenty, forbidden treasures and supernatural monsters; you’re even given to rear a baby dragon. But what sets this game apart, which takes place atop a previous, fallen civilisation, is that casting spells comes with a lasting cost. Using a glamour spell causes the caster to slowly rot from within, while casting negative magic strengthens the unnatural storms plaguing the world. As a result, you’ll find yourself second-guessing your own use of wizardry.
There are a few multi-game titles but there’s always a risk that later chapters won’t materialise. After nearly five years later, I’m still waiting for the third chapter of the Choice of the Vampire series, but that’s still more regular than Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, so there’s still hope.
Interactive fiction is still a relatively niche interest and it’s unlikely to ever bring in the big bucks that mainstream gaming does unless every developer in the world forgets how to use Unreal Engine. But for world-building and sheer atmosphere there’s something special about games that let your imagination take the strain; games which, thanks to the many choices they present you with, are hugely replayable.
Like lead-based paint, space-hoppers and the Playstation Vita, interactive adventure books are largely a thing of the past, but it’s good to know that at least one company has chosen to carry the torch onwards. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s skulduggery to be done – my dragon-riding love rival isn’t going to murder themselves.