Mailbag: Choice of Aesthetics

A while back, you alluded to the aesthetic preferences cultivated by Choice Of Games and their writers.  Is this written down or codified somewhere?  Is there a critical discussion?   Have you written about it?

There’s a lot of advice and material codified for people who are actually working for them, on their website. An obvious starting point would be their three-part series about how they judge good games: 1 2 3

It’s also probably worth looking at their ideas about structure, which covers branch-and-bottleneck (or what they call “stack of bushes”) design, delayed consequence, and stats deployment. Endgames specifically are covered in this post.

Sam Ashwell’s review of Cannonfire Concerto talks about how that work does/does not align with Choice of norms, and there are a few other (admittedly fairly offhand) observations in his review of Hollywood Visionary.

Overall, I’d characterize their preferences like this:

  • a highly customizable protagonist who at a bare minimum can be any gender and romance any gender, but who might also embody many other possible variations
  • a tendency towards bildungsroman, so that the protagonist’s definition can be incorporated into the storytelling, and because the whole brand was inspired by the game Alter Ego; many of their works start with an education and training period
  • less focus on prose style: their structure allows for more verbose writing between choices than inkle or Failbetter, and the undercharacterization of protagonists often precludes using a strong narrative viewpoint
  • an emphasis on plot consequence (you did this and as a result the company failed) over internal or emotional consequence
  • a tendency (though not an absolute rule) in favor of interchangeable characters
  • riffing on core conventions of existing genres (though this is something where they’ve matured over the years, I think — but early pieces sometimes felt focused on “what if we took this standard trope set and then explored the consequence trees possible within it”)

5 thoughts on “Mailbag: Choice of Aesthetics”

  1. What do you think about being able to choose the protagonist’s backstory, as you sometimes see in CoG books? For example, you might read, “You chose to become a private detective because…
    … you flunked out of police training.
    … your dad was a P.I. before you.
    …you wanted to search for your wife’s killer.”
    Sometimes this hits me in an odd way because it feels more natural to me to move my character forward in time through my choices. Do a lot of readers enjoy creating a backstory as well? Is that what you mean by bildungsroman?

    1. I like the backstory choices, because I feel it helps me define the character even as I acknowledge that the story requires whoever I have in mind to have come to the point the story is at. It’s much like picking my name or gender; we assume that the protagonist was named Deathless McDougal at some point before the question is asked by the game, so it’s still defining the character’s past, but the point is how it’ll affect what goes forward.

    2. Like fadeaccompli says, I find it’s a useful technique.

      The alternatives are giving the main character no backstory at all, at least no real details revealed to the reader/player, which doesn’t work for many stories; hard-coding the character’s backstory, which usually conflicts with CoG’s preference to let the player define their character how they like, as far as possible; and starting the story practically from birth, leading the player through all their major life choices up until the present day. This last option usually ends up feeling somewhat ludicrous, at best; but it, along with retrospective/retroactive choices, are the two approaches offering the most character malleability to the player, so I generally favor the latter. Flashbacks and other viewpoint-time changes are old and well-established in fiction, after all.

      I went with retrospective/retroactive choices in my own recent ChoiceScript work, though I also had an explicit flashback mechanic.

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