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Non-Linearity and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure

By BBBen

Interactive fiction and games in general have a largely under-realised potential for story telling that is different to anything available in either books or movies. Many computer games seem to offer the opportunity for the experience of an ‘interactive movie’, while adult interactive fiction, being text-based, seems to offer the chance of an interactive erotic story, or perhaps even an erotic ‘choose your own adventure’. In my opinion, both these perspectives are a little off; what games in general in AIF in particular offers is, I think, a little better in its potential.

The idea of a ‘choose your own adventure’ story can seem exciting at first, but I think once the novelty wears off the results tend to be a bit disappointing. This is because good writing fundamentally is not about giving the reader what they want and expect all the time. Good writing is about making the reader want something, and while the field of AIF does have a strong element of fantasy gratification, nevertheless even in AIF the best writing will surprise the reader.

In a ‘choose your own adventure’ story, the choices you get are limited and if they are going to surprise the reader, then there will probably be an element of annoyance, rather than appreciation at the result. Imagine a circumstance that is reminiscent of some of the ‘choose your own adventure’ writing that I read as a kid:

You are riding on the train when at the other end of the car you see Alfonzo, the gangster, playing solitaire on his tray table. Alfonzo doesn’t know what you look like, so what do you do?

If you want to sit quietly and keep a discrete eye on Alfonzo, turn to page 17.

If you want to run to the end of the car and jump out of the moving train, turn to page 23.

The sensible choice seems to be page 17, so let’s turn to it.

You sit quietly, observing Alfonzo when you feel a knife get pressed against your throat from behind. A voice whispers in your ear, “Mr Alfonzo, he don’t like to be watched!”

You are murdered in front of a train car full of witnesses.

You are dead.

Okay, that didn’t work, so let’s try page 23.

You run to the end of the carriage, fling the door open and leap out as bullets whiz through the air behind you. You roll and tumble onto a fortunately soft patch of foliage. As the train shoots off into the distance, a beautiful woman in a race car pulls up and says, “Get in! I’ve been sent to help you! And let me get this clear right away, I don’t date people I’m working with!”

Maybe this isn’t the best example of how to use the medium or in fact how to write a half-decent story, but it illustrates the point that being surprised by the results of your choices is not particularly gratifying. If you are making a choice, you want the results of that choice to be reasonably predictable. Unpredictability of this kind is only fun when you are taking in the story in a more passive way.

What’s more, a really good story should have an ending that resonates somehow with the story and characters as a whole. If you want to create the story, perhaps you would be better off actually going out and writing something, because the results of something where the plot is truly guided by the reader are generally going to be rather unsatisfying. Of course, multiple endings that are up to the player can be really good in some circumstances. In some games getting to pick the girl that you end up with can be very gratifying, such as in the classic hentai game True Love. This is however because in this case the story is not so critical an element, and the game is more about character interaction. The game plays in largely the same way except that you focus on different girls in different run-throughs of the game; the basic plot doesn’t differ too much except at the end.

So how then do we take advantage of this great potential that I mentioned? Well, books and movies have an element of subtlety in them, if they are any good. There are layers to what goes on that you pick up, while only being given the apparent surface information. It’s not a great example, but if you take the passage I wrote above, there are probably a range of things inherent in the stupid little world I created that you can pick up instantly without being told.

1.      The hero is probably some kind of sleuth or investigator.

2.      Alfonzo has henchmen, probably a gang, and presumably some sort of means of wealth creation or importance.

3.      The beautiful woman is some kind of special agent, because who else, when chasing a murderer, would drive a race car?

4.      The woman will almost certainly be a love interest. She has some kind of past with guys she worked with trying or succeeding to pick her up, and it didn’t go well, but her icy demeanour will thaw…

Anyway, I don’t just mean to point out what’s predictable, but rather to point out how we read a lot into a situation that is put before us in a narrative without ever having to be told all of it. In such a weak and clichéd set-up you can almost extrapolate the whole story from one little passage. In a good story however, the writer will lead you to think certain things without telling you them, and because you figured them out yourself they are more engaging and feel more real. If the writer is really good, they will often then surprise you by turning what you’ve figured out onto its head.

In games and AIF we can have this level of subtlety, though it is rarely applied. What we can also have to make the story more immersive however, is another layer of discovery, a more active form of discovery. A player can come into a room and see a description:

This room is lushly furnished, with fine paintings all over the walls. There is a Persian rug on the floor and several bookshelves packed with those old-style books without dust jackets or interesting covers that only ever appear in rooms in old mansions like this one.

Since the player is looking for a safe, and since the main character in this particular AIF game is “Shirley Holmes – the world’s greatest sextective”, the player checks out the paintings.

x paintings

These are portraits of dead, rich people. One of them, a portrait of the current owner of the house, Lord Vunderflibilt, is hung a little crooked.

get portrait of lord vunderflibilt

You take the portrait of the handsome Lord Vunderflibilt off the wall and behind it is a safe!

Here what has happened is the player has read the surroundings, understood the world, thought for him or herself, and then figured out what had to be done. What would be a poor scene in a book or movie is much more interesting simply because the player has experienced it as if it were actually happening to them. This principle applies much more strongly to a sex scene, where the player can enjoy the sex scene in what feels like a much less vicarious and voyeuristic way than if they were watching a porno. 

Another thing that this form of fiction has is the possibility for a level of detail and involvement that is largely dictated by the player’s own interest. If a player finds a particular sex scene boring in AIF, they can usually get through it rather quickly and onto something that engages them more, without having to hit a fast-forward button or skip a few pages like you would in a film or book. You just continue with the next step without stopping to smell the roses. If the game is good, it will then allow the player to become more immersed in parts that they do like, examining the other characters in great detail, trying all sorts of different positions etc.

If you’ve played the computer game Half-Life 2, you will probably realise that while the game can be played as a simple shoot-em-up action spectacular with little in the way of breaks or thought, the game also has a lot of depth and careful exploration will reveal a lot of detail. Talking to people you don’t need to talk to, stopping to hear announcements over the tv, reading posters and graffiti on the walls and doing quite a lot of reading between the lines, none of these things are in any way useful to you in killing the next zombie that pops up, but they will give you a story and a world that is very clever and carefully constructed. The information is withheld from the player, and must be sought out and discovered if the player wants the whole story. Failing to answer the reader’s questions about a story is the best motivator for the reader to keep reading.

Any form of fiction will be interpreted differently by each reader. Each reader will create a different reading based on their own perspective and how much they take in, even if many people’s readings will be quite similar to each others. Non-linearity could be used very effectively to enhance this; not to allow people to try and write their own story (which will never really work in my opinion) but to read their own story. You can have plot divergences in such a method but they each have to resonate and be worthwhile. Non-linearity should not just be a gimmick. It should not be included for its own sake, but rather you should use it if you actually have something interesting to do with it. Extra detail or plot possibilities are pointless if it they are boring, and sometimes I feel it is better to limit interactivity in order to promote a more carefully crafted piece of fiction.

A ‘choose your own adventure’ story is not, in my opinion, the best way to exploit the possibilities of the non-linearity of games. Rather, I prefer a depth and complexity to be woven into the setting and characters that takes work and interest from the player to discover. This is not of course to say that some level of branching plots can’t be a good thing, just that the best fiction ever written has not been ‘choose your own adventure’, Dickens, for example, never wrote in that particular form, and the story-telling power of games can be used in a more subtle and smooth way. Non-linearity does not have to take over a game, but it certainly should be used where it can to deepen a game.

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