My Lady’s Choosing (Kitty Curran, Larissa Zageris)

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 2.43.30 PM.pngMy Lady’s Choosing is a branching romance novel — or, arguably, spoof of romance novels. It begins with the heroine as a just-about-penniless lady’s companion, then immediately introduces her to two eligible bachelors and one wealthy and outrageous female friend.

From there, we are offered a buffet of standard tropes. There’s your obligatory Scottish hero with a castle and a lot of dialect-speaking servants who’ve known him since his youth. There’s a Mr Darcy-minus-the-serial-number whose estate is called (I am not making this up) Manberley. There’s a Jane Eyre plot strand with the brooding Man With A Past and a surviving child (and an optional Distraction Vicar if you want to go that way). There’s a subplot with Napoleonic spies and another subplot involving raising the lost tomb of Hathor in Egypt. There’s a side character who is a callback to a side character in Emma, and a sinister servant who owes a lot to Mrs. Danvers, and an obligatory call-out to that summer on the shores of Lake Geneva with Lord Byron. The encyclopedic approach to tropes reminded me of Tough Guide to Fantasyland, as transported to another genre.

The very first seeming choice is an intentional non-option: you’re offered two choices, but immediately told that the second would lead to living on the streets in shame and poverty. Life is hard for penniless heroines in the 19th century, it admits, with little regard for the fourth wall.

Then the choice structure is funneled just enough that we have to encounter two of the heroes and the female romance option. Past that point, it opens up very broad, Sorting Hat-style.

This diagram: is spoilery if you zoom in, intentionally conflates some nodes where there is no branching, and is known to be missing some branches, especially in the Egypt (purple) and Scotland (green) storylines, when I wasn’t taking as good notes. Consider it more an impression than a perfect map. Colors indicate which lover you’re currently making a top priority, and grey nodes represent points where you’re not committed.

After your first few choices, there’s usually one primary romantic interest at the moment, and you’re described as being overwhelmingly, distractingly attracted to that person: a standard romance novel trope that becomes funnier or at least different in tone when our heroine shifts her attention so frequently. It’s hard to get deeply invested in any of these characters or to feel that my protagonist is deeply in love with them, given the rapid rotation of options.

However, you pretty much always have the option to opt out of your involvement with that person and go do something else with someone else. In one playthrough, I was fleetingly enamored of the story’s Darcy-like, but then he got embroiled in a family scandal and looked like losing all his money, so I ran off to Egypt with a lesbian archaeologist instead.

As far as I can tell, every single ending of the story could be considered happy, if you’re inclined that way. The majority involve a life of straight bliss with a major or minor character. A few set you up with a woman, or with solitary freedom to play the field. A couple of the endings are supernatural in nature. But they’re all framed as positive; there are no bad endings that I saw.

As a story, therefore, any given playthrough tends not to be dramatically well-shaped: there may be odd false starts before the meat of your adventure begins, or the ending you find may be a strange pendant to a plot that was mostly about something and someone completely different. And even if you do pick a course of action early and stick with it to the end — for instance, pursuing Mac the Scotsman from the first scene and never leaving him for other adventures — the result is somewhat impressionistic. You have a few sex scenes with your chosen lover, a couple of plot twists — but no slow builds, no suspense. It’s as though someone had saved the key passages out of a 300-page historical and left the rest behind.

But because pretty much all of the plotlines are drawn from familiar sources, I rarely felt like I didn’t know where something was going. The only question was whether I wanted to stay on that track towards its inevitable conclusion, or whether I wanted to switch. This book is not really about being a romance novel heroine. It’s about being a romance novel reader.

See also:

  • This 2008 Gamasutra article I wrote about choice structures in IF romances past, noting that they often take the heroine’s desire for granted but leave up to her what she wants to do about it
  • Tara Reed’s Love Him Not, which I reviewed back when it was still under a different title. That book is structurally very, very different from this one, which makes for an interesting point of comparison
  • Choose Your Erotica, a review I wrote of a few more sex-focused interactive stories

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