Mailbag: Mysteries in CYOA

I sometimes print letters I’ve received and what I wrote in response. This is usually for one of two reasons: I’d like to pass on what the writer had to say, or the writer asked a question that requires a long detailed answer, and I think other people might benefit from seeing that as well.

I am experimenting with doing this in a more formal way, with a regular mailbag post. Reprinted letters may be edited for length; if so, I will note that editing has occurred. I do not do this without the permission of the letter-writer, so if you write to me and would be open to seeing your email appear as a blog post, feel free to mention that fact. On the other hand, I do not guarantee to print every letter that grants permission.


[Negotiation redacted, but this letter exchange began with the writer asking how much of a question they could ask before my response started to get into paid consulting territory. Which was considerate! In practice it didn’t seem like we needed to go there yet, so this is just a casual conversation so far.]

Briefly, then, the project is called [redacted] and is an interactive noir in the technological/interface vein of 80 DAYS, SORCERY!, and FIRST DRAFT. I’m using “ink” for the base nonlinear narrative scripting, and will be custom-implementing an interface in Unity (which I’m very experienced with, so won’t need to talk about that.) Broadly, [a previous game in the same world] is about sowing chaos in a city during a coup, and [redacted] is about the ensuing power vacuum, fallout, and human cost, in the general direction of THE THIRD MAN and CHINATOWN. 

That’s the premise, here’s the problem: I want to make something that is current in terms of IF design, and after MAKE IT GOOD, to a lesser extent AISLE/HER STORY, and recent releases (I’m behind on my IFComps), how exactly does one design an interactive mystery narrative? I don’t want to go Keyser Soze, it would be not-trivial-but-understood to just write a mystery novel with interactive stage business, but I don’t think either approach would be responsible to the player/reader. The aim is to make a solid CYOA-style mystery, and there is a very real problem with that format – any investigation is necessarily telegraphed by the options given to the player.

I can think of several approaches, but none are particularly satisfying. Additionally, there’s the problem of presentation/retention: Jon Ingold suggests that the ‘standard’ pace of an ink story should be 1-200 words between choices. I enjoy working within constraints, but the basic problem of a mystery piece with suggested actions complicates this particular guideline.

On top of all this, although I’m an enthusiastic hobbyist and pro-am IF theorist/creator, I’ve primarily used Inform 7 to date, which is entirely different than a multiple-choice approach, so I had also hoped to glean some insight about your work and study of CYOA and hyperlink/Twine narrative in recent years.

CYOA doesn’t at all preclude having puzzles, especially if the choices are backed by a world model of some kind rather than being presented as a transition from one narrative node to the next. What’s more, there are lots of games that have a kind of hybrid construction and present layered choices or menus that are hard to lawnmower. Any of these approaches would give you enough obscurity to make sure that the player is actively thinking of something they’d like to investigate, then performing the investigation, rather than simply stepping through tightly defined options.

For initial examples of at least modestly challenging mysteries in a choice interface, I’d look at

The Axolotl Project (Samantha Vick, Twine)

Detectiveland (Robin Johnson, this year’s IF comp)

Contradiction (adventure with FMV, hammy but fun)

And possibly also Color the Truth (mathbrush, IF Comp this year): that is a parser game but its core mechanic of linking topics to make new ones could be rendered in menus or a drag/drop topic inventory. Open Sorcery (Abigail Corfman) isn’t exactly a mystery but it also has some system mechanics and some clever discoveries; that might be an inspiration as well.

That all assumes that you want to center the player’s action on discovering the truth through evidence (physical evidence or NPC testimony). 

If you see this more as a case for moral decision-making, though — which sounds like a thematic fit, from your description — you might consider mechanics instead focused on revelation, persuasion, and protection: less how you get information and more what you decide to do with it. My instinct is that that type of story could potentially be told through a constantly-progressing CYOA style, where you’re presented with one hard decision after another, and the tale was about how compromises stack on one another. (And of course they always would stack, because there isn’t any good route through a Chinatown game…)

6 thoughts on “Mailbag: Mysteries in CYOA”

  1. I don’t why, for example, Toby’s Nose couldn’t have been done in Twine. You would have lost some undocumented charming bits like being able to bark and eat a cookie, or at least you’d have to make them explicit, but the core mechanic of following trails of clue nodes would work just fine.

    I think a good approach for investigative games is after a certain to let the player decide “okay I know who did it” and just let them pick out the correct options. “Whose rifle was it in the shed” : [all of the people you’ve met]; “Who murdered the Colonel?” : [all of the people you’ve met]; “What was the motive?” : [a list of all the clues you’ve found]. Even with the CYOA explicitly listing everything for you it’s hard to pick out three or five or seven correct conclusions in a row without having a good idea about what happened.

    1. There’s a section in 80 days; and it does exactly that structure of filling in the conclusion from stacks of viable and hard to brute force options. Generally people found it hard!

  2. This is excellent stuff, Emily. I have been banging my head against some of this issues, specially the world model stuff, one of the main reasons I’ve been sticking to Inform 7 so far. Great insights, thanks for sharing this.

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