Forget Graphics: Why Interactive Novels Are Such Good Games


The joy of playing simplistic text-based adventures.

Who here likes reading? Who likes video games? Who likes both? This gal, and hopefully some of y’all, too! One of my favorite style of games is the interactive novel. While this includes visual novels, which I also like, I’m referring more to text-based games where you read, make your choices, and deal with the consequences. While some might argue that these aren’t exactly video games, I disagree. Interactive novels, or choose your own adventure games, tend to have characteristic gameplay, role-playing progression, and lots and lots of choices.

Now you might ask, “How can a game where you just choose from a list of options have unique gameplay?” To that I say, “The same way one shooter can from another.” Most of my experience in CYOA games involves games either created or hosted by ChoiceofGames.com, and are all programmed in the same format, but even so, they all bring something unique to the table. My other major experience is with the web game Fallen London, which if you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it.

Not that kind of US Marshal.

No hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse and dog house in the area, though.

Now, on point, these games offer different things. Fallen London is an intriguing and dark fantasy story set in the ruins of London. Tin Star has you as a Deputy US Marshal in the heyday of roving bandits and the destruction wrought by Manifest Destiny. Choice of the Deathless lets you be an attorney dealing in demonic contracts! Zombie Exodus lets you try to avoid dying in the zombie apocalypse. With mixed results in my experience. FUN!

How these games play is closely tied to their story, especially with the ChoiceScript (ChoiceofGames proprietary game development tool) titles, but Fallen London also has time based play, similar to so-called casual games, and while this normally bugs me, I find it to be a welcome addition. As with books, I tend to blaze through choose your own adventure games in a flurry of rapid eye movements and literary consumption. I love a good story and so I want to digest it as fast as possible. This doesn’t let me ruminate on what I’ve read, though, and I sometimes miss valuable parts. With Fallen London, I have that time to think on what I’ve done, what I face, and then decide.

ChoiceScript games rely heavily on stats-based choices, so the game play tends to revolve around a rock-paper-scissors where you try to match your best stats to the best option. If you’re a sharpshooter in Tin Star, you might be better off choosing to shoot a bad guy from afar than try to punch them in the face. In Life of a Wizard, you even get to form a team and equip them for situations you have to deal with. It’s like playing a video game, just without the graphics. And do we really need those all the time?

IMAGINAAAAAAATION!

IMAGINAAAAAAATION!

Because of the focus on story and choice, these games are almost always role playing games. In Choice of the Deathless, I was an honorable lawyer who loved to drink and who fell in love with one of her co-workers. In Tin Star, I was an honorable marshal who loved to drink and… so forth. I somehow end up playing variations of the same character. But you don’t have to! One of the benefits of all the resources being spent on story and choice means you can play your way! And then use your imagination to fill in the rest. Can’t get much higher def than the inside of your head.

Fallen London has so many branches that it’s often hard to tell where you’re going, and that’s really great. The story and world builds itself around you. Rather than have a codex and so forth like Bioware is fond of, you figure out the world and the story as you go along. It’s like being the small fish in a big conspiracy. You’ll eventually find your way to the surface and you’ll have the entire picture. Or at least what you perceive to be the entire picture.

In all of these games, the big picture tends to be the sum of your actions, as your character does live in the game world, but they have the unparalleled ability to shape it, much like any video game or story protagonist in general. Here, though, as mentioned before, there is so much more room for choice as the entire point of these games is to make choices. Take out all of the graphics based gameplay and you end up with occasional puzzles, which are interesting when you have to imagine all of the moving parts, and lots and lots of big and small decisions to make.

Often times I’ll rush a decision and then regret it, but you can’t go back! No takebacks! Rather than just reloading like most games, you have to deal with the consequences of your actions for an entire game. This makes every choice, even the small ones, significant, as you don’t necessarily know if they’ll doom you or save you.

Zombie Exodus, for instance, asks you what all equipment you want to carry when you go out on scouting and supply trips. Sometimes you’ll need to trade supplies with people, or they’ll clue you in to a suspicious element. Anything. So something as simple as forgetting your binoculars could end up with your best friend becoming a main course.

Everything has to be calculated and thought out, though you’ll usually still be able to finish the game, one way or another. And, if your imagination is as active as mind, you’ll be thinking two steps ahead and picturing the grisly consequences if you don’t bring just ooooone more thing. This kind of experience is rather unique in my gaming history and I love it. Sometimes you’ll make a wrong move and there’s no escaping the consequences. No cheesing your way through, you just have to deal with the fallout.

The player debates how to deal with someone in Alpha Protocol

For one of the best examples of choice based gameplay, you have relatively few choices. You just get a lot of opportunities to make them.

Many of my favorite games rely around making major choices. Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, and Alpha Protocol all have systems where your actions have consequences. And, even as amazing as the choice system was in Alpha Protocol, it still doesn’t compare to the possibilities of a game where my imagination handles the graphics. The Walking Dead probably comes closest, as it’s a choice-based adventure game with less focus on constant interactive gameplay, but even it can’t beat my ol’ noggin.

What those games do offer is a different kind of game play, and I’m not shaming that. I love playing Mass Effect, strapping scram rails and explosive ammo to my sniper rifle and pretending I’m an anthropomorphic Mako tank. I like the story those games told, too. But, when I have to have a game where I can fully customize my character and decide all of their story, both in my mind and in the game, I’ll play the heck out of it.

Interactive novels, choose your own adventure games, or whatever you want to call them, are a glorious fusion of some of my most favorite things.I get to engage my imagination more than most games let me, and I get to make more choices than most books let me. Even if the story goes horribly wrong, it was mine and I could watch in my mind’s eye as it all played out. At the end of a play, that’s what I call a win.

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About Savannah Winter

Contributor for Gamemoir.com, professional internet surfer, and shippaholic. Seriously, don't ask me about my favorite ships unless you want me to eat up half your day gushing about them.

There are 2 comments

    1. Savannah Winter

      Many of them are really good. Choice of Games hosts and produces many good games, and they’re not all that expensive. Most have demos if you want to try them; some are a bit weak and the early writing shows it. Zombie Exodus is the most expensive at ten dollars, but it’s extremely long since it’s the compilation of five parts. It’s far better than COG’s Choice of Zombies, so I recommend the price. Choice of Zombies is just too short, even if the writing is good. Tin Star was like 3USD, I think, and it was really amazing. Waywalkers University, parts one and two, were both really interesting as well, and they’re like two or three bucks a pop. Oh, and the Affairs of the Court series (Tales of Romance, et cetera) were really cheap and really awesome, too. There’s love and intrigue and betrayal and all kinds of good stuff. They have lots of good games and I’ve spent a little money and a lot of time playing them.

      Fallen London and other StoryNexus games are essentially free, but they run on a casual, pay for extra actions model. I will say that I prefer these less than the harder novel games, but that’s also because these are more choice than they are story, and you have to put together the bits and pieces instead of having narratorial exposition. Both work, and sparseness is something I loved about Dark Souls, but for these choose your own adventure games, I like being able to immerse myself completely in the stories.

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