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).
Choice of Games pieces also very often involve multiple romantic or career options; and in my WIP, I found that there was kind of a risk of making all the romances be variants of “…and then you ride into the sunset with person X.” From a storytelling point of view, though, I don’t find that very satisfying, because it makes those characters interchangeable and makes it harder for them to have distinctive arcs in the body of the text.
Recently I tried an exercise that helped with this. It is really pretty trivial but I shared it with a few people who found it useful, so now I will share it more widely. The exercise:
The 2015 Windhammer Prize is now running, which means you can download and play any of the 16 PDF gamebooks entered; if you play a reasonable number of them, you may also judge the competition by submitting a list of your top three favorites. (Full details are at the judging site.)
After the Flag Fell tells the story of the life of Peter Lalor, an Australian rebel and politician of whose life story I was embarrassingly ignorant before playing this game. As a piece of historical fiction, it’s pretty light: it serves up an intense-ish scene of battle and wounding and possible amputation at the beginning, but then backs off into a much more summary mode for recounting subsequent events, while allowing very wide branching of Lalor’s life. You can get married or not; you can enter politics (as the real Lalor did); you can run away and hide among Aboriginal peoples. One of the more sustained exchanges after the initial battle involves your romance with another character, and this is portrayed in a highly stylized fashion.
Even for a Windhammer book, this is a short piece. It uses only 63 of its permitted 100 nodes. Of those one is a choiceless introduction, one is a bit that isn’t reachable from anywhere and exists (I think) only to throw people off about how the romance plot might go, and four are easter egg nodes that contain authorial commentary. Brevity is fine, but in this case it also reflects a kind of oversimplification in the story’s later stages. Though the opening of the book suggests that it wants to explore why Lalor behaved the way he did and his effect on Australian history, the segments that deal with the political realities of his age are the briefest and least developed. For example:
“Forgive my impudence, sir, but are you sure you want to prevent women from voting? Your people elected you because they believed you would uphold democratic values.”
I refused to risk the good life I had. Letting women vote was too much.
Go to Page 38.
Under the circumstances, I signed the bill to let women have the vote.
Go to Page 26.
Presenting the situation so starkly gives little sense of how the contemporary people felt about this issue, what ideology (justified or not) might have supported each side, how the politicians were motivated, and how Lalor compared with his colleagues on the issue. So we’re left really only with our own inclinations on whether female suffrage is a good thing, and some of these choices felt to me a bit like “Do you like sexism Y/N?”