Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual is a website for retro-futuristic illustrated choice-based fiction, set in a shiny chrome and leather universe with lots of Deco machines and mad science. Choices often run to 1-3 options, and there’s an always-present inventory list, reminiscent of but significantly fancier than ChooseYourStory games:
The majority of the choices are exploratory: you are choosing which objects to examine and which questions to ask of NPCs. Very occasionally you’re offered choices that seem like they might affect events, but the plot strands rejoin almost immediately, via standard sorts of agency-denial: you ask a character to come with you, but they refuse; you attempt to head the wrong direction, but it’s blocked. Even the inventory is a bit deceptive: games with inventory usually let you accumulate and drop things in ways that are likely to make a difference later in the story, but as far as I can tell, your inventory is very much determined for you, and it’s impossible to get to a particular story branch with any variation in your inventory list.
You also several times have the option of following the male or the female protagonist, getting a significant portion of the story from their perspective. Later, when the characters meet up again, you get filled in on what happened to the character you did not follow. The overall effect is that the story does contain significant branching, since you see different nodes if you’re playing as Gwen than if you’re playing as Nat, but that branching provides reader agency rather than player agency.
This exploratory mode is borne out by the rest of the aesthetics. The illustrations are lavish and consistently high-quality: the creator of the website is an artist first and came to interactive story authorship second. There’s an action picture for each event in the story, and each inventory item gets a close-up picture and a detailed description:
These close-ups are the reason I mentioned this site long ago in a post on the narrative of objects.
As for the story, it’s modeled on old TV or radio serials, with cliffhangers — and “The Toaster With Two Brains” is not complete, so at the end of the first episode, you’ll find yourself leaving the protagonists in a sticky situation. Meanwhile, the narrative voice is about 90% sass, constantly lampshading tropes and never taking anything seriously:
Big, hulking engines squatted there under the tower and spun, and cycled, and levered themselves in what could easily be a competition for “Loudest Cacophony, Basement Class”.
Just as she’d half suspected, she saw someone throwing the levers and spinning the knobs, a fellow who just had to have that word “henchman” in his resumé. He paused – he actually froze – when he saw her in the mouth of the tunnel.
For me, this is where the piece falls a bit short. The choices that we’re offered are inconsequential — either because they’re on the level of EXAMINE TOASTER or because they’re immediately blocked if they’re not what the author wants us to do — and they’re also placed in the framework of a flippant narrative that doesn’t allow me to feel any real apprehension on behalf of the main characters. I couldn’t help wondering whether an even more object-focused type of game might not have been a better fit for the author’s meticulous interest in the physical setting; maybe something reminiscent of the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers.
Still, the presentation is significantly above average for freeware CYOA in terms of polish and general prettiness.