Based on an off-hand comment from Emily Short in one of her posts, I investigated a group called ‘Choice of Games‘ which were making both an engine and a series of interactive fiction games using only multiple choice. In a way, they are attempting to create a Choose Your Own Adventure style experience using a web-based scripting engine. No applications or interpreters are required, only an up-to-date web browser. Also, the games are available on the iPhone and Android market, so there are no issues with availability
The question, that cause Emily to bring it up, is whether you can really get any sense of player agency from this style of gameplay. In other words, can you really identify or feel accountable for the actions of the character you are playing when the extent of your ability to control the situation is to choose one of four or more options every couple of pages?
I gave Choice of Broadsides (their most recent release) a play to see how their engine and storytelling talent work in practice.
Choice of Broadsides is a period game set in a slightly alternate history Medieval Europe. There are two countries represented, Albion (an analogue for England) and Gaul (subbing for France), which are engaged in an on-again off-again war for some reason or another. You play a lowly midshipman (or midshipwoman, if you pick the gender-swapped scenario, which I did) but are told by the game you are destined for greatness IF you can make the right choices in guiding your career.
The game then charts the progress of your character from a career launching moment of being given temporary command of a captured enemy vessel, to his or her eventually promotion to lieutenant and, possibly, captain. The choices you make along the way are frequently situational, but while often all choices will resolve the matter at hand, only a few will put you in the right situation to push your career further.
Honestly, that’s the real heart of the game, and in that context, the multiple choice aspect of the game really seems like a ruse. There are a limited number of options you can make that will let you see the ‘whole’ game (picking a career limiting option will end the game prematurely before you ever reach greatness) and after the first few playthroughs of the game it quickly became an exercise in figuring out the path of logic the creators were following. In many ways this reminds me of the old Sierra adventure games, where sometimes the programmers expected you to come up with some pretty illogical solutions to problems.
The writing of the game (which is, as Adam Cadre says, the implicit reward of succeeding in an IF game) is quite good, I have to admit. It captures the swashbuckling feel quite well and the game focuses on a set of about a dozen situations that not only ARE critical moments in the protagonist’s career, but really FEEL that way too. Many involve combat or near death situations where your choices could very well result in the death of your crew or yourself, so the power behind each choice is initially very strong (until you start grinding to find the best ending).
The choices that you are posed with in each scene (or vignette, as the creators of the game call them) do a good job of presenting several viable solutions to a problem without clearly deliniating a ‘right’ choice. On the other hand, there are some collateral actions that occur as a result of your choice that, at least for me, were totally unintended. This reminds me of Mass Effect, how the little snippet of your dialog choice in the conversation wheel was often misleading as to the tone your Shepard was going to take. In the case of Choice of Broadsides, however, its less a matter of not knowing what your character will say but a matter of not knowing if or what the follow-up choice will be. Sometimes I found myself guiding my character towards a particular temperament only to find the game decided the choices I were picking meant I was indecisive or subordinate.
Overall, though, I was pleased with this game, and sank much more time into it than I had intended. I was even convinced at one point that I had seen the whole game only to go back to try to achieve a particular romantic goal and inadvertently discover a whole new mission I hadn’t reached in previous playthroughs. That was a welcomed change and I’m glad I kept at it.
I’d recommend this game to anyone who likes interactive fiction or choose your own adventure books/games. Given that all you need to play this is a web browser, I’d even consider introducing it to a newcomer to IF and see what they think. Gameplay is so straightforward its almost impossible to get confused.