Choice of Robots is a recent large-scale Choice of Games piece: you take the role of a gifted young graduate student in robotics, about to make significant breakthroughs in your field, generating a line of robots that might become surgeons, soldiers, companions, factory workers. Your choices include design decisions for the robots and business decisions about how to manufacture and sell them, but also personal decisions about how to relate to your robot creations, and what you think it all means. The scope of your activities is such that you may find yourself flying to Shanghai to take meetings, or spending months in a military jail, or preventing the invasion of Taiwan — and along the way it’s pretty likely that you’ll also make a considerable personal fortune, which you can choose to spend on luxuries, philanthropy, or a mix of things.
The plot flexibility is impressive. CoG boasts that Choice of Robots runs to 300K words, and it shows: two playthroughs can turn out to have relatively little overlap, and the sheer quantity of content is what makes that possible. There are characters who appear in the stat sheet whom I never met in either of my two complete run-throughs of the story; I assume they would have come up if I’d gone a different route. In one story I ended up rather misanthropic and alone, rebelled against by my own creation and without any romantic partners or close friends; in another, I ended up with a wife, an adopted daughter, two robot creations who seemed largely fond of me, and even a talking car, having managed to come through the Sino-American war without contributing too much bloodshed to the conflict. I can easily see some other path types I could have taken. CoG’s games always employ a branch-and-recombine-over-multiple-chapters structure, but here there’s a lot of room for variance, and (I gather) there are some alternate crisis chapters. For those who prize the ability to significantly affect the plot, this is a particularly good choice.
Conversely, the self-creation aspect is maybe a little less strong here than it is in many CoG games. A lot of the stats that you’re affecting — grace, empathy, military awareness, autonomy — are really the stats of your robots, not yourself (though there’s some implication that you and your robots are similar in some ways). As always, you’re allowed to select gender and sexuality, but I didn’t feel that the “me” character was very clearly defined in either of my two playthroughs.
One important exception: the game allows you to dictate the content of some dreams early on, and what you dream here dictates one of the central themes of your story. In my second playthrough I chose “I created a robot whose love I couldn’t return”, then forgot about the dream in a bunch of plot shenanigans, only to have this plot strand turn up again six or so chapters later, in a way that felt like a natural outcome of my other (non-dream) decisions up to this point. This is clever: it gives you both choice and foreshadowing. I don’t think it would have worked in a shorter piece, though — you really need time for the player to have largely forgotten about or moved on from that choice before its implications reappear. Otherwise it just seems a bit forced.
If I have a complaint about Choice of Robots, it has to do with that same scope I mentioned earlier. There’s a huge amount going on in this story. Sometimes years go by in the blink of an eye, and sometimes you spend many choices on a single social encounter. I particularly enjoyed the passage where I brought my robot along to an SCA event and then decided that, on the whole, I wasn’t quite confident enough to let it compete with throwing knives after all. The paranoid character of Silas, who is sometimes helpful and sometimes the opposite, also has some good vignettes. But the effect of this was sometimes that I became invested in a particular character interaction (good!) only to lose track of that character for a long time due to the other things going on in the plot (boo). I became a bit anxious that I wasn’t doing a good job of curating my own story experience, that if I were making other different choices maybe I would have seen those characters again sooner. In my second playthrough, I established that Elly was my college crush but then played many years of life barely (it seemed) in contact with her before eventually winding up married to her (to the consternation of the companion robot who had fallen in love with me). What happened in the middle there? I’m not sure. We must have stayed in touch, but I didn’t hear about her all that much.
This seems a fairly churlish thing to gripe about, however, given how much freedom the story offers and the variety of situations you can get into. With many CoG pieces, I feel like two playthroughs are just about right to give me an overview of the game; with this one, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface, and I could easily do another couple without experiencing all that much repetition.
Incidentally: there are some Easter eggs that acknowledge the IF community: most notably, you can choose to turn your young robot’s machine learning on a corpus of classic IF, and it will run through some CoG games but also namecheck Photopia and Galatea and various others.
Disclaimer: I paid full price for this work and have no past or current financial relationship with Choice of Games. However, we have occasionally discussed the possibility of a future working relationship.