Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

Giving CYOAs a bad name; but then, CYOA is a bad name


Reading a post on Grand Text Auto I came across this; one slide from an interesting-looking GDC talk by Noah-Wardrip Fruin. The talk discusses approaches to making interactive stories and covers the basic concepts of branching, and stats, and currency and conflict through systems.

While I liked the talk, he said something about CYOAs that I didn’t like, so I thought I’d briefly beat on that.

He briefly makes the point that CYOA games don’t work with the following two slides:

While I can see the point he’s making, I felt both of these were rather too simplistic to dismiss the CYOA-format (which I’ve recently been playing around with, thanks to the rather lovely Undum js framework.)

Primarily, making a game a CYOA is a choice about complexity of interface for the reader: by offering clearly delimited options, a player knows exactly what choice he’s making at any given turn, he has no rules to learn and no conventions or UI to grapple with. This makes the story very accessible, at the expense of rich, finely-grained actions.

So to look at those two slides, in reverse order: the second slide is perfectly possible to implement in a CYOA fashion. You’d only have to break the choices in several stages, rather than presenting them all on one turn: how much on gold? Now how much on gas?

There’s no reason that CYOA games need to be stat-free – they weren’t in the days of gamebooks, they certainly don’t need to be now.  There’s no reason that the options offered shouldn’t adapt to the state of internal variables.

Above all, there’s no reason to assume that the old, book-based model of “few options, large text chunks” is appropriate or even desirable if you’re building your CYOA on a computer. Screen-based text is generally most successfully delivered in small units (think Twitter, status updates, or the one-sentence-one-paragraph layout of BBC News online).

Then there’s the first slide, implying uncontrollable explosions of content. Ignoring for the moment that text can vary on the state of variables, and you don’t need a separate paragraph for every eventuality, the  slide is still built on the process-orientated assumption that different play experiences should result in computer-differentiable outcomes: that is, in alternative endings, or at least alternative stat values by the time the ending is reached.

But the story being told isn’t being told inside the computer, it’s being told inside the head of the reader, and the reader is tracking everything in a lot more finely-grained detail than the computer is. Our readers, if they’re interested in the story, care about the flow of the conversation, they’re interested in the back-story and detail acquired, they will find a human differentiability between, say, a character decisively taking an action, and one forced into an action by circumstance. We don’t need a stat to track it, we don’t even need another state. (But a stat would be nice.)

Perhaps a good CYOA is light on interface, easy to read, and probably not worth replaying more than a few exploratory times. That makes it a terrible game, maybe, but not a bad story or experience.

(And it’s maybe not so much about choice. Or you. Or adventures. Unravel your own narrative, maybe?)


Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

6 thoughts on “Giving CYOAs a bad name; but then, CYOA is a bad name

  1. At the least, I think he’s considering Gamebooks and CYOA to be two different things.

    But yes, that second slide is ridiculous. Something like Fabled Lands keeps _more_ detailed stats than many computer games.

    • What is considered to be the distinction between CYOA and gamebook? A consistent world for the player to interact with? The existence of stats/possessions/other variables that must be tracked instead of a plot branching purely at each choice?

      If the latter, it’s interesting because it creates a clear distinction between these two types of fiction that would be obviously perceived by the player if they were playing in book format and thus having to track stats themselves, but could look exactly the same to the player in a computer game version… and they aren’t thought of as different kinds of games in the visual novel world. At least, not that I’ve noticed.

  2. I read that slideshow, and got a lot out of it, if not from those particular slides you’ve quoted. He did say he was covering many alternatives very quickly, so you’d have to forgive him if he didn’t detail some mitigating techniques for the problems of the pure CYOA. Indeed, after drafting a scene-centric tutorial for Inform 7 — which resulted in a very CYOA-like approach with adaptable text — I see CYOA as a point on a continuum which includes parser IF. In my WIP I’m aiming to replace the beg-your-pardon error with a CYOA-like menu partly to teach what the parser is capable of. (“If you’d like to…, try typing in something like…”)

    (Said tutorial sits at for the interested. It is draft-y and incomplete.)

  3. Jason: I left a lengthy comment on said blog post. (Also, you should really stick your name on your blog pages. No one on the internet knows it belongs to you unless they already know you first. Jon has a who-am-i box as one example, but a name in fine print in a margin would work too.)

    Jon: Ah, I see. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with you there, but ok.

    Thanks, re: the tutorial. I feel it’s worth my returning to it someday, and I get asked about it every so often, but right now I’ve little idea where to go with it. I like the bits explaining the differences between what’s beginner in typical writing vs. I-F writing (for example, 2nd person is considered advanced normally, but beginner in IF), but I haven’t been keeping a repository of such differences as I’ve been learning, as I should have.

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