Loose Strands is a choice-based interactive story app for kids ages 9+. It tells the story of Roland Bartholomew Dexter the Third, a boy who lives in an impoverished barbershop and is never allowed to go outside. His parents fashion clothes and even food out of hair leavings. Since he can’t go outside to school, he reads books about history and dinosaurs and airplanes, but these books have been so rigorously censored that they aren’t much fun. It never seems to be his birthday.
The only bright spot, if you want to call it that, is that Roland has unusually vivid dreams about the might-have-beens, the things that would have occurred if only he’d made a different decision from the one he did take.
Loose Strands is a story about regret: about being debilitated by the desire to erase the past, or, conversely, plagued by the inability to learn from our mistakes. It handles this with a kind of Lemony Snicket gloss. The villain is cartoonishly evil, the world a fantastic rendition of a totalitarian dystopia. The characters are charming, but not enormously nuanced. Now and then the narrator addresses the reader in a condescending Let Me Tell You About The World fashion, and the pacing around the end of part 1 felt a bit slow to me. Nonetheless, it’s a story about the nature of choices that makes a strong use of the choose-your-path structure.
Whenever you get to a choice point, you can swipe the page in one of two (or occasionally three) directions in order to proceed to the next portion:
And when you’ve made a choice, the book immediately zooms to the overall story map and blacks out a bunch of spots — showing you how your decision has prevented you from ever seeing certain possible futures. It’s partly a reminder that what you do matters, a “Clementine will remember that” tag — but it’s expressed in an explicitly negative way.
Likewise, you can sometimes use the map to go to an earlier page, but if you’re trying to rewind too much, you’ll get a message saying you’re not allowed to go back.
Later in the story, the map becomes more powerful, more necessary. Occasionally there are points when you can tug the story in a direction that isn’t explicitly shown, or where you see outcomes that aren’t the ones you chose, or where story space and physical space are explicitly related. The story contains optional puzzles that aren’t solvable unless you work out how pages are related to one another on this grid. But the main point of the map is to show you what you’ve lost by making choices.
We mostly tend to take it for granted that choice-based stories will not be self-mapping, that showing a map is akin to providing a walkthrough. But Loose Strands, 80 Days, and If constitute a range of counter-examples in which an explicit plot map contributes fundamentally to the experience of the work. In If, the map assists the reader in making sure to see the whole novel, in a way that’s fairly important to its reading. In 80 Days, the map displaying multiple player routes suggests that any given playthrough is only one way through a much larger possibility space, a message suited to the story’s themes of cultural and personal diversity.
In Loose Strands, the map helps the reader understand the meaning of their choices even without replaying. It evokes an emotional dread of losing options that is later grounded in the narrative. And it demonstrates that the total possibility space is actually somewhat limited. As the villain argues near the end, many of the things Roland encounters are the result of choices made by other people, often before he was born.
Loose Strands belongs to the children’s book-app market, and as such it is working from a different set of traditions than game-based CYOA. Their blog post on the uses of interactivity, for instance, defends against the complaint that interactivity is distracting. I’ve spent a lot of time arguing against people who think that interactivity destroys a story because it gives the player too much freedom, but “interactivity is distracting” is a new one on me. It presumes the primacy not only of the story, but of the reading experience, the intake of words.
That said, the interactivity in question in children’s book apps often consists of tappable animations rather than narrative choices — elements similar to a pop-up book, rather than CYOA. Still, mechanic and theme can fail to match up here just as they often do in gaming. An example from the blog of children’s book app creator Nosy Crow:
Of course (and I would say this, wouldn’t I?), we see terrible examples of picture book apps where the multimedia and the interactivity do interrupt the story, and where there are features that are introduced just because the developer can introduce them. I have, for example, seen Three Little Pigs apps in which the straw and stick houses, having been destroyed with some kind of interactive touch, spring back into shape again immediately, so the child can knock them down again. Fun, maybe, but narratively all wrong: the point – the moral – of the story is that those two lazy pigs’ houses are destroyed completely by the wolf’s huffing and puffing, and the child must understand that the resilience of the brick house is what makes the third pig different…
And the comment on the same blog post:
I think most storybook apps has been produced very carefully and are true to the story. But I believe in some cases the publisher simply outsource the work to a game developer who don’t really know what is expected from them. So result is as your bad Three Pigs example.
Game developers, you know? Tracking ludonarrative dissonance all over the good carpet.
(Disclaimer: I received a copy of Loose Strands as part of the judging process for Wordplay 2014, the Toronto-based festival for text games.)