CYOA structure: IF

IF has always had a rather mixed relationship with CYOA. Part of this, certainly, is about audience expectations: IF’s conception, like mainstream CYOA’s, lay in storytelling to children. But IF was incubated in a college environment, and since then has been written mainly for people of that age and reading level, with precocious children cheerfully admitted but seldom directly catered to. The overwhelming majority of CYOA has always been for an audience of children and teenagers, it’s vastly quicker to produce and to play than IF. It’s therefore a common view among IF players — and not always an entirely unjustified one — that CYOA is the refuge of writers too lazy for IF.

There’s a certain amount of self-fulfilling prophecy to this: because IF authors don’t consider CYOA to be a serious genre, they tend to write CYOA that isn’t serious. Most IF-derived CYOA is short and silly. But it’s also true that lower-investment systems are more likely to attract lower-investment writers; things seem to be kind of overdetermined. But the forms have the shared appeal of text-based interactive narrative, and their nostalgia zones largely coincide.

The general rule in computer text CYOA is that IF-based systems conceal their state-tracking by default, while browser-based systems reveal it by default. Even with revealed states, they present problems for mapping; I haven’t tried to map Choice Of Games pieces because they rely so extensively on state-tracking that diagramming them would be impractical (in the style I’m using, at least). Some presentations also make it harder to distinguish between nodes. The concealed states of computer CYOA are powerful tools, but they make analysis harder: the accuracy of these diagrams may be a little more erratic than usual.

Warning: includes discussion of a pornographic game that deals with BDSM and abuse.

A dark and stormy entry, Emily Short (as Lord Lulwer-Bytton), 2001

Written for LOTECH Comp, this depicts, in rather exaggerated form, the process of brainstorming a story. There is no single, unifying narrative; the story can go in a great many directions, and the suggestion is that it could go anywhere. Choices are framed in terms of things like “Choose a setting” or “This isn’t working. Try switching viewpoint.” The great majority of the stories are never finished; the game ends when the writer either gives up or feels they have enough material to write something. It’s consciously Borgesian in that it mostly plays with many possible stories, rather than attempting to develop and detail a sustained one. (One of the major branches is explicitly Calvino-inspired.)

It is not a very deep piece, and the title and pseudonym set expectations as low as possible. Most of the stories are fairly silly, the products of wacky genre-blending or flights of fancy; some end up being rather more serious, but in general the tone is light, full of IF references and ridiculous tangents. It’s very clearly meant to be read not as a single playthrough but as the sum of many, but it’s only secondarily an ocean-of-story story: mostly it’s about the fun and anxiety of writing, and the difficulty of constraining broad interests in order to produce a narrow, coherent narrative.

Certain names and figures recur in different plots, but not enough to make you feel that they’re significant. Most of the stories involve only two characters, but that’s largely because they’re too short to introduce more (at one point the author rejects the introduction of a third character for reasons of economy). A lot of the stories involve isolated, damaged characters and their conflicted re-engagement with the world.

The game gives us various glimpses of the writer, who is not always the same person, sometimes resembling Emily rather closely and sometimes not at all. (The influence of Aisle is fairly clear here.) Most of the themes are conspicuously Emilyish: a fascination and frustration with genre and gender, inspired flights of high-concept worldbuilding, cheese. In most playthroughs the author is fairly morose, even though many of the stories themselves turn out fairly light.


So, this looks like an extra-bushy time cave, with a lot more variability; there are lots and lots of three- or four-choice nodes, play sessions can be as short as 3 nodes or as long as 13, and all of the merges are with very closely related twigs.

All branches are not equal: the first two, Scotland and Io, produce stories that are more heavily genre-driven and, in consequence, require fewer and less interesting decisions — in fact, in both branches you make the same kinds of decisions.

The content loudly advertises the structure: it’s very clear that very different stories are going to be told, and that there will be very little interaction between distant branches. (I knew on the first turn that I’d have to draw a radial diagram.) Most time caves have the quality of a story told off the cuff, which is precisely the subject matter of this game.

I’ve been talking about time caves as the sort of structure that typifies naive CYOA, and sometimes this is true, but this obviously isn’t true here. Of course, time caves are really easy to design and write for, but this doesn’t mean that only inexperienced designers will use them. Rather, the time cave is the result of authorial interest in broad, open possibility. Open possibility is the most obvious feature of interactive narrative, and often newcomers to the form will conclude that it’s the entire point; but the fact that they’re wrong doesn’t mean that it’s not an important element.

And the impression of vast, open freedom is not dealt with uncritically; the presentation of the bad endings (‘No, I can’t really pull off that sort of thing’), the way that the longer threads often run away with themselves (‘there is only one way that I can tell this story’) and the tendency of late-stage forks to immediately merge back all work to give the impression that writing is a heavily constrained activity. The ocean is infinite, but there are only so many navigable routes. This is largely a game, then, about the pathos of coming to terms with limitations.

choicesChoices, David Whyld, 2004

A hugely prolific IF author, Whyld has written a number of straight-CYOA games, and much of his IF tends to veer into CYOA; his work generally suggests an impatience with the kind of meticulous, slow-paced narrative that’s the ideal in mainline IF.

Choices, the first of a four-part series, is a pornographic piece implemented in ADRIFT. Melissa, a sixteen-year-old mostly-lesbian in the lower- to lower-middle-class UK, sets out to seduce her twentysomething teacher Miss Harris. The early game is mostly about frustrated teenage fantasy, perving (‘voyeurism’ is too classy a word) and pitiful attempts at seduction; while the protagonist’s choices are almost all driven by sex, it’s eminently possible to play through the game without ever getting beyond a flash of boob.

Its world is a deeply hostile one; the protagonist is surrounded by vicious homophobia and is constantly aware of the risk of being outed, her family is unsympathetic and falling apart, her peers are boring and cruel, and sexual violence is a recurring theme. There is rarely an obviously good choice. Strategically, you’re faced with the classic underprivileged dilemma: take dire risks to get what you want, or be totally passive and get nothing. Melissa is generally too wrapped up in her own angst to care very much about anybody else, and the same is true of everyone around her; she seems fundamentally uninterested in non-sexual friendship, but the suggestion is that this is because she’s surrounded by horrible people. This is all presented in a way that invites more serious consideration than the baseline AIF romp.

From this generalised nastiness emerges a plot: Miss Harris and her sister are being blackmailed and abused by the shadowy pornographer Morgan. In the winning thread, Melissa conspires with the sisters and they haphazardly manage to kill him. The treatment of compulsion and abuse is not enormously subtle; it has the template feel of a TV movie or, yeah, a porn treatment.

There are two axes of anxiety that AIF generally struggles with; one is the tension between realism and porn-logic, and the other, deeply related but not identical, is the tension between real-world sexual ethics and the ethics of fantasy scenarios. Choices is uninterested in the former — the real world and the porn-logic one are not treated as distinct — but deeply conflicted about the latter. Melissa is very interested in pornography and views sex through rather porn-tinted eyes, with a strong component of British-tabloid Phwoar, but the actual production of pornography is treated as an inherently awful thing; similarly, her growing interest in BDSM is made problematic by the game’s presentation of abuse and domination as always authentic, never enacted.

I can’t speak to its representation of lesbianism (though it’s obviously male-gazey in, e.g., its assumption that women mostly think about problem-solving in terms of sexual favours they might offer), but it’s certainly a good representation of the perspective of an oversexed, isolated male teenager. The default in AIF is for the PC’s all-sex motivation to be taken for granted, a non-statement; this is not quite the case here. Sex scenes are dealt with in less detail than is usual in AIF (none of your choices control how you have sex) but are still pretty graphic.

Whyld is a workmanlike prose writer, and his stories tend to have a made-for-TV quality about them; they often aim to be gritty or sensationalist, but tend to do so in a staid and undistinctive style. (See also: Stephen King.) None of the characters are striking creations; how much their generic feel is intentional I don’t really know.

StructureThe most obvious thing about this is that it’s extremely long and linear; until the endgame there’s really only one path, and even then there’s only really one good path. It’s also very regular: most choices present the opportunity to go on a side-branch. These are also typically very linear: most side-branch options either continue or return you to the trunk at the next node after the fork. Certain side-branches may need to be unlocked by actions you carried out several scenes earlier; usually only one side-branch is presented at a time, and the few cases where there are two available are usually predetermined. This structure puts me rather in mind of Japanese-style visual novels, although I haven’t plotted out any of those.

The game’s structure gets increasingly complex as it progresses, but only if the exploitation plot is revealed; if you haven’t investigated it enough, the story cuts off before reaching the endgame.

The rhetoric of a state-tracking game that conceals its states is very different from one that makes you record them. For instance, a lot of choices seem to be about investing time in your family, peers or schoolwork, but — like your cack-handed attempts at getting laid — these can seem not to have any effect; but while you can do nothing of substance to salvage your family or build friendships, your hopeless, floundering attempts at seduction can get you laid. That this isn’t clear means that metagaming will usually lead you down the no-sex path on the first playthrough: the automatic assumption is that your familycan be salvaged and is worth salvaging, that friendships with one’s peers are possible and valuable, and that gameplay is going to be about balancing these. The total collapse of these assumptions, possibly over several playthroughs, is a key element of the experience.

On the other hand, the story’s tendency to revert to a central linear track is immediately obvious; thus, the structure strongly encourages you to identify with the protagonist’s cynical nihilism in a similar way to the not-quite-CYOA IF Rameses. Many sections centrally reinforce the idea that your choices are meaningless — such as the scene where your mother outs you. There’s a strong element of commentary on the normal moral-instruction component of CYOA, where the heavily-signaled Good Moral Choice is obvious and delivers an immediate reward.

But the nihilism isn’t total; there are ways to get laid, even if there’s no reasonable way to predict what they are, and doing well at school requires only trivial effort. And the endgame does drop into more traditional Moral Choice territory — but only, weirdly, as it moves more heavily towards fantasy space. Working to help Susan and Michelle gives good endings; exploiting them gives bad ones, though the player’s still rewarded with sex scenes.

On the whole, then, this has a totally opposite vector to A dark and stormy entry: it’s a story about freedom breaking out of limitation. The literal, direct abuse and compulsion of Susan and Michelle is obviously a mirror to the more distributed abuse and compulsion that Melissa faces from her family and peers, which is mirrored in the game’s tightly constrained plot. I shouldn’t overstate the case here: Choices does not engage very deeply with the themes it raises, and it’s quite clearly not one of those games that explicitly depicts the relationship between player/PC and game as one of abusive control. But it’s in the same neighbourhood.

These two games represent quite extreme examples of CYOA design; the computer format and non-commercial publishing remove a lot of restrictions. IF-derived CYOA is not a large field, and not heavily discussed, so there are no standard approaches. Both are obviously shaped by their respective contexts — Choices by the pornographic conventions of AIF, A dark and stormy entry by the literary leanings of mainline IF — but neither are particularly orthodox.

CYOA in an IF context has not, to date, formed a particularly coherent genre; rather, it’s a collection of freaks and oddities, divergences and holidays from IF. Often it’s an expression of frustration at the difficulty of IF authorship, or the slow pacing and small-scale plots that IF tends towards.

This might change; Choicescript games are increasingly engaged with the IF community, and they have, thus far, a very consistent design approach in both content and structure. (Undum, on the other hand, has yet to generate any major defining works and has mostly been used for experiments.) I’ll restrain the urge to write an And What of the Future? paragraph here, because you’re perfectly capable of writing your own.

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2 Responses to CYOA structure: IF

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2014: Origins | These Heterogenous Tasks

  2. Pingback: Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games | These Heterogenous Tasks

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