Tin Man Games has an app called Choices — rather confusingly, since there is another well-known mobile IF platform called Choices that I wrote about recently. Tin Man’s Choices app contains two episodic stories: And the Sun Went Out and And Their Souls Were Eaten. [As always, I should frame the rest of this by saying that I have done some work with companies that compete in this space. Be warned, if that is a concern to you.]
Like the other Choices and Episode, Tin Man’s content is initially free to play, but handles monetization differently: after a certain point, you’re invited to subscribe to the app to receive additional chapters, rather than paying to unlock specific choices in the body of the story. You can buy a monthly, quarterly, or half-yearly subscription, but they all are subscriptions, with recurring payments — something that generally puts me off unless I’ve decided I definitely want to commit. I tend to forget to cancel subscriptions I no longer want and then six months later remember to go clean up, having accidentally spent $40 on an eFax service I only wanted to use once. On the other hand, it’s a clear pay-for-content model rather than pay-to-win or pay-to-seduce-Chris. So I approve in theory while still being a little hesitant about committing money to it in practice.
Tin Man’s Choices also borrows some Lifeline-esque features: in And the Sun Went Out you have an assistant AI called Moti who tells you what to do, forming a conversational interaction; apparently if you have an Apple Watch, Moti’s messages can appear there as well. (I don’t.) There’s a conversation partner in And Their Souls Were Eaten, too — one I found considerably more surprising and entertaining. But I won’t spoil that.
Tin Man has polished their interface a bit less than any of the competitors I just listed: one of the major challenges for me was simply the font size: tiny white writing on a black ground meant that I had to hold the phone pretty close to my face. There is a settings option to turn up the font size, but I only discovered this after quite a lot of squinting — I mention this now so that other readers have the opportunity to make that change early on. And in contrast with the other Choices and Episode, there are occasional facial animations for Moti, but otherwise, you don’t see the characters you’re interacting with, let alone get full-color background images.
And what of the content? It’s comparatively branchy and plot-heavy, focused more on how you navigate various dangers than on either role-play or relationships. And the Sun Went Out branches hard right at the beginning — do you visit this character or that one? — and you don’t have time to reach both of them before the story starts to move along.
It is also huge. Felicity Banks was one of the several writers on this project, and wrote to me:
It’s a near-future sci-fi story with literally thousands of choices for the reader to make including where to travel around the world (featuring, among other nations, the US, Peru, Canada, Kenya, Italy, China, Russia, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and Egypt) and who to fall in love with (or not). It is just over 600,000 words, and each read-through is about 150,000 words. It’s a branch and bottleneck structure, with around 2-6 branches happening simultaneously between bottleneck choices.
For comparison, even large Choice of Games pieces like Choice of Robots are typically in the 200-300K word range, while Choices and Episode pieces are generally much shorter than this.
The premise of And the Sun Went Out is as it says on the tin: the sun has recently had “an outage” but has come back on (temporarily?). No one seems to know quite what is going on. Street preachers worn of the frozen hell to come. It snows a lot.
And Their Souls Were Eaten casts the protagonist as a soul eater, a magical/theological role that involves accepting responsibility for the souls of the dead, and carrying them to The Other Land when you die yourself. You are wandering Britain with only a piece of magically-activated silver in your possession.
Those familiar with Felicity Banks’ previous work will recognize this idea, which appears in After the Flag Fell (a traditional-format PDF gamebook) and Attack of the Clockwork Army. Banks has clearly given a lot of thought to what the different metals do, who would use them, and how they would be deployed in machinery. In several of her previous works, I felt as though the world was almost too hefty for the plot; we spent too long reading about all these metallic functions and not enough time using them.
And Their Souls Were Eaten is a longer story, though, and that means there’s more room for the exposition to breathe; more different ways for the magical system to weave into the plot. Besides, because the story is delivered a sentence or two at a time, the author is discouraged from info-dumping too much. There were still a few moments that I felt were slightly awkward, but in general I found the reading experience smoother, and the plot better integrated with the world, than in Banks’ previous work.
So in both the Tin Man Choices series, one senses that the authors enjoy and are invested in the world-building, and that we’re not being served generic tropes for the sake of it.
The two series weren’t equally strong, though, at least when judged by the first few chapters. When I tried And the Sun Went Out do the first time, I found myself pretty bewildered about what was going on, and it wasn’t until I replayed the first chapter with a different set of choices that I felt the exposition unfolded in the way the authors seem to have intended.
The writing in And the Sun… is at once urgent and weightless: say a friend is shot, their murderer is on the run, you have the option to pursue; you’re concentrated on the question of whether to try to run after the murderer down an alley, but not so much on your feelings about your friend, or the relationship you had before the shooting.
Sometimes, especially in those early segments of And the Sun Went Out, you’re being asked to make potentially high-stakes decisions but with no information: which of these two retreating backs do you want to follow, given that one is the murderer but you don’t know which? Which is admittedly a more interesting scenario than “You are in a cave; do you go left or right?” but still lacks much sense of control or agency.
In other instances, you’re asked to make choices where the protagonist would know the implications, but you don’t: do you want to meet with Dolores or the Professor first? Well, it would be helpful to know more about who those characters are — as your protagonist certainly does. But you’re forced to choose without information.
The result, at least for me: I was more intrigued by the backstory of And the Sun Went Out than by the story portions of [the other] Choices: The Freshman or [the other] Choices: The Crown & the Flame. But I wasn’t always any more engaged by the options themselves; indeed, sometimes I was rather less engaged, because at least in The Freshman I could see the implications (however anodyne) of the decision I was making. “Flirt or act cold” is always a stronger choice than “run left or run right.”
And Their Souls Were Eaten worked much better for me: the exposition unfolded more naturally, characters were more developed, and the options were better defined. Character interactions are sometimes a bit on the nose, but there are fun aspects as well. Even where I didn’t know every implication of my choices, I usually had enough information to be reasonably invested. There’s a twist late in chapter one that I found pretty satisfying and that did coax me into buying the subscription in spite of my general antipathy to subscriptions. (Now I just have to remember to cancel later. Wish me luck.)
I haven’t finished And Their Souls… — indeed, I’m not completely sure the whole arc is written yet, but it’s a long piece. Still, if you liked Banks’ previous work but wanted more of (or from) it, this might be for you. Each individual chapter (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is pretty sizable, and the feel is reminiscent of a chunky, multi-volume fantasy series.