Choice of Magics is work from the author of Choice of Robots, one of Choice of Games’ most successful commercial projects. Choice of Robots was appealing to players for a number of reasons, especially the scope of the possibilities available to you and the sheer size of the project. It delivered a sense of narrative agency that a lot of Choice of Games’ audience really responded to. (Gold also wrote Choice of Alexandria, a smaller and more constrained story.)
Choice of Magics is in a similar mold to Choice of Robots: very large, at over half a million words, with room to customize your style of magic and confront different final challenges depending on how your story has developed so far. The story positions itself at that scale, too — the very first page lays out an absolute mass of background information about the current and previous state of the world, which most fantasy novels would be more likely to introduce gradually over the initial chapter or so.
The game also gives you the option of explicitly noting whenever you’re gaining and losing stats, right inline with the rest of the narration. And the stats page has been enhanced, with some special icons and more content than the average CoG stats page, including a journal of major plot points you’ve encountered — again, to help the reader track the game’s extensive machinery.
This foregrounding of mechanics carries through into the rest of the fiction as well. The story needs to rapidly introduce the five major schools of magic, so it runs you through an adventure scenario that teaches you about each in sequence, surprisingly rapidly.
Several of the world-building choices are quite tropey, which makes them generic but easy to communicate to the player in a hurry: there was a lost ancient civilization, they knew various magics, the magics are currently outlawed but you find your way to the ancient academy where you can recover tools and documents which are written in a muddle of Latin, Greek, and old versions of romance languages — played more for humor than for cultural resonance. At the same time, these ancients were also not so very different from modern people and had magical pseudo-airplanes and microwaves. It’s not quite the Great Underground Empire, but it has something of the same flavor.
The Harbinger’s Head is a fantasy horror story from Kim Berkley, in Choice of Games’ Hosted Games category. It’s set in 1820s Ireland, in which the player encounters a supernatural creature — a kind of headless horseman character — and has to agree to help find his missing head.
The story that follows is focused on action and folklore. You’re partly collecting stories to try to piece together what has really happened in this supernatural situation, but there’s also quite a bit of violence, and one moment where it felt like my protagonist was implicitly under sexual threat, though this passed quickly. Descriptions often focus on the physical, and the game’s text doesn’t hesitate to tell you when you’re supposed to be feeling afraid.
The diction of The Harbinger’s Head sometimes feels substantially more modern than its period — there’s a reference to cutting and pasting something, for instance, and while both concepts individually certainly existed in the past, the paired idiom belongs to the computer age.
But for the most part it does deliver on the folkloric feel. There are several types of faerie creatures, but not your standard vampires and werewolves. Promises are made in desperation and redeemed in less than ideal circumstances. Old bonds of family come into play; so does the conflict between Church and Faerie (though fairly lightly, in the playthrough I experienced).
My 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.
From Spring Thing 2018, Spy EYE is a continuation of the Mrs. Wobbles series (Mysterious Floor; Parrot the Pirate; Switcheroo). Like the earlier pieces in the series, it’s an Undum work that tells a part-fantasy, part-reality story about children in foster care. (I also highly recommend Lucian Smith’s guest post about Switcheroo.)
In this case, the protagonists are a Latinx brother and sister whose parents are missing, and the story revolves around going to look for them and rescue them.The story lets you play as either Juan (the older brother) or Ichel (the younger sister), and they have different takes on whether to expect their parents back any time soon. That touch reminded me of a few other stories where the choice of viewpoint character is meant to shed some light on a family situation — Stephen Granade’s Common Ground, most notably.
Known Unknowns is a four-part Twine series by the author of Birdland and set in the same universe. The protagonist is Nadia, a Toronto teenager who is trying to deal with her sexuality, fraught relationships with several of her classmates, various annoying teachers, and the real possibility that she has just encountered a ghost raccoon.
Like Birdland, this is Y/A queer romance — but this time the choices are less about self-characterization and more about how you’re going to interact with the side characters. (And, as in Birdland, the core plot remains the same regardless. This is not as far as I can tell a heavily branching story, but the interpretation of individual scenes can vary a good bit.) Known Unknowns is immensely charming and accessible, solidly structured and well paced — and as it’s now available in its complete form, there’s no waiting between episodes.
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”)