Creating an inherently pathetic protagonist: Six Months and its “reactive” choice system

I’d like to talk for a moment about the core mechanic of my current long-term IF project, Six Months. I recently asked two friends to do a test-read of the first 60% of the game, and the feedback I got from them has had me thinking about my work in new ways.

I’ve shared gifs of the game before on tumblr and twitter, but Six Months essentially uses the exact same mechanics as Swan Hill: a two-tone link system where black links change the text currently on the page, while red links commit decisions and advance the story. You can play Swan Hill here. Here’s a gif of the mechanic in action:


All red links appear in-line as part of the game’s ordinary narrative. I’m not an enormous fan of choose-your-own-adventure or RPG-style option-choice in my personal projects. I have worked on traditional CYOA-style choice stories for my day job, and for my side projects I’m interested in exploring systems which seem less ludic, less interrogative, and more fluid or seamless in their presentation.

However, every IF choice system enforces certain underlying moods or philosophies upon the story. The system that you use to convey choices to the reader can be as much a tool as a cage– each completely alters  the way the reader will experience your story. Choice systems can affect moment-to-moment narrative rhythm, player-character characterization, story structure, and more.

We often tend to interpret the organizing system behind game choice as a sort of mental model for the protagonist. Let’s imagine a choice system where a bunch of choices are printed on a page, and the player must roll a die to select one. Telling an entire story in this inherently random, uncontrollable way would make the protagonist feel like an inherently random and uncontrollable person, wouldn’t it? Similarly, an “interactive fiction” art exhibit where players made choices by shooting targets with an airsoft gun would make decisions feel difficult and subject to error. The protagonist of such a story would feel like someone who tries hard but is liable to make mistakes. This is very similar to the choice system in Christine Love’s Twine story Even Cowgirls Bleed. Please, take a moment to play that game. Think about the ways that Love has taken advantage of her choice mechanics to convey certain things about the character.

Even traditional CYOA choice-list storytelling enforces certain ways of thinking and choosing, but we use it so often that these inherent characterization elements are often invisible to us.

The biggest difference between list-based storytelling and other methods of presenting choice, I think, is the addition of the list as an extra narrative “space” where ideas and solutions can be presented separately from the “real” continuum of the story. For example, putting choices in a list allows the writer to include unusual or out-of-left-field solutions that have not been presented anywhere else in the story:


A reader may learn something new in the CYOA choice list which changes their understanding of the dialogue they’ve already read. The author can use this to characterize the player character as an initiative-taking leader, capable of surprising enemies (and readers!) at the last moment.

Swan Hill, on the other hand, used a choice mechanic which made it very very hard for me to present moments where the main character surprised people or took initiative through choice. Swan Hill presents all choices through inline prompts. This means that all possible character choices must be “prompted” to the player before they have the opportunity to click one or the other. Sometimes these prompts come from thoughts the player character has. Sometimes these prompts come from things that other characters say:


So I was trapped in a situation where any time the player made a decision, they had to do so in reaction to things other people said to them, or to thoughts that I, the author, decreed from on high that they should have. And because each page has very little text on it– a style choice I clung to very seriously– the red choice prompts must often appear in the same paragraph, or very close to one another in a short conversation snippet. Essentially, every time the character makes a decision, someone has to swoop down and give them options immediately before they decide.

On a choice-organization level– a level deeper into the guts of the story, really, than plot or prose style– this characterizes the protagonist of Swan Hill as an inherently reactive person who is also often very unsure of themselves. Every time the player makes a decision, they do so in reaction to things going on around them. Whenever I wanted to make the player seem like they were taking initiative through choice, I had to make certain decisions for them. A good example of this is when the character gets into a fistfight with his brother. I choose to make that fight begin; the player ends the fight by responding to my prompt that they are about to throw a punch:


When I started planning Six Months, I knew that I wanted to use the same mechanics from Swan Hill and explore them in a deeper way. This time, however, I planned to really lean into their inherently reactive nature. You play SImon, the asshole duke brother of the Swan Hill protagonist. In Six Months, however, we learn that he isn’t really a self-assured countryside potentate– just a confused, overwhelmed, moderately-pathetic homebody who finds himself in trouble way over his head after foolishly declaring that he will personally execute a relative’s murderer. Simon must relentlessly fake it until he makes it. He’s got imposter’s syndrome all over the damn place, and other characters constantly pester him to make decisions without the proper information or context. I want the player to feel overwhelmed and reactive. What better way to do this than to use a decision system which forces the player to choose reactively?

The big challenge, of course, is to tell a story about a reactive, overwhelmed person that still feels exciting and interesting. My recent test readers found Simon’s attitude and problems compelling enough to keep reading; they have not reported that he feels like a sad sack. I’m pretty sure that I’m heading in a good direction with regards to choice systems, interactivity, mood, and character. Anyway, my testers report that I’m doing a decent-enough job.

Six Months is about 60% done and has over a thousand Twine passages in it. I was shocked to learn that it took one of my test readers over three hours to read. You can listen to me mope and groan about it on my twitter.

Surprise: I’m doing games journalism again

As of this week, I’m now the editor of, a site in the Zam Network (which includes LolKing, Wowhead, DestinyDB, and several other sites). While most of the network is game information databases and fansites about specific games, is going to transition to be more of a games news site, with day-to-day news coverage– and everything else I can get for it, including crit, opinion, personal stories, and features.

I’ve been out of the saddle as an editor for about five years now, which means it will be a challenge to get back into the swing of things. But I’m excited to do it. I’m also excited that I’ll have a proper support network this time around.

If you write words and have something you’re itching to say about games, we have pretty damn good freelancer rates and we’d love to get pitches. You can find information about how to contact me in the announcement post on itself.

Here is an astonished HOT TAKE on The Beginner’s Guide

I finished playing The Beginner’s Guide only an hour ago and I’m still on fire about it. Consider this, then, my Hot Take; my Literally On Fire Take. This is the kind of game you really need to talk about with people. It explicitly challenges you to think about and articulate the attitudes you have toward yourself and your creative work, toward yourself and your audience.

If it’s not already obvious, I fuckin loved it. But it also made me deeply uneasy. This is a story that is secretly about incredible acts of betrayal. The narrator of this game disguises a history of dark obsession and near-harassment that, if portrayed in any other way, would be much more explicitly disturbing than it is already.

Spoilers follow, of course.2015-10-01_00006

So, yeah, there a big twist in The Beginner’s Guide. We spend the first 90% of the game before that twist slowly letting the narrator, “Davey Wreden,” slide us into a story about a desperate creator who is stuck in a really negative headspace. As we tour this person’s body of work, these games seem to form a continuous narrative. “Wreden” completely convinces us that these games are an expression of self that follows Coda, their creator, up and down through a series of personal crises which we cannot completely know or understand. Some of the games feel like vague hints toward a secret, tortured inner world; others seem to reference Coda’s problems quite explicitly. Wreden provides a convincing explication of each game. He seems to be leading us toward an answer. What’s wrong with Coda? Can anyone help him?

It’s an alluring conceit. Anyone who has created anything has at least dabbled in the idea of expressing some deep personal truth through artistic work. Right now, I’m working on two simultaneous projects which are very clearly about problems or questions which have plagued me personally for years. I have diabetes; one of the nonlinear short stories in Other Orbits is about someone with an incurable congenital illness. As a child I had fraught relationships with siblings and friends; Six Months is about someone who has a fraught relationship with a sibling and an inherent distrust of would-be friends.

Most of the writers and artists I know have used their art as an outlet for exploring what they think about themselves and the problems in their lives. I suppose many of us wish, on some hidden level, that someone would look at our art and suddenly exclaim, “Wow! I understand you! I empathize! You are a good person! You are right to feel how you feel!”

Wreden wants us, at first, to believe that Coda is in the same place. He wants us to think that Coda is trying to puzzle himself out through these expressive little games, and that reaching back toward Coda– trying to understand him, to connect– is an act of compassion and charity.

And then, in the game’s final cycle, we learn that this isn’t the truth at all.

We learn that the character “Wreden” is not really Coda’s close friend– he’s more like an obsessive fan, someone who engaged closely with Coda for years before his invasive behavior drove Coda out of game development entirely. Coda’s not missing because he had some unsolved inner problem; he quit gamedev because Wreden showed his private work to other people without permission. Wreden hurt Coda by doing to Coda exactly what he’s making us do. We’re complicit in an act of betrayal.

Even worse, Wreden heavily modified all the games in the collection in ways he didn’t ever disclose to us and never had permission to do. We suddenly realize that the games we’ve seen are all hybrid works– some inextricable combination of Coda’s innocent experimentation and curiosity, and Wreden’s trenchant miseries and obsessions. All the heavy shit about feeling terrible, about being locked in a negative headspace– was that ever Coda’s? How much of it did Wreden put in there himself?

Wreden’s character in the game comes very, very close to a terrible personal revelation. In some ways, he comes so close that it’s hard to believe he ever missed Coda’s message. Coda’s final game for Wreden is essentially a breakup game, a plea that Wreden leave him alone and stop poisoning his personal space with the attention, expectation, and self-serving gamecrit-esque gloss Wreden keeps applying to these works. Wreden needs Coda’s work to feel good about himself. He’s addicted to the feeling that Coda understands him. He’s parasitically feeding off Coda’s achievements, modifying them and showing them to other people in order to find affirmation and redemption. By showing these games to us, lying about their origin and authorship, and lying about Coda’s mental health, Wreden has really and deeply hurt Coda– but he refuses to really recognize this. He still sees Coda as a tool. His doesn’t respect Coda as a person, he’s just obsessed.

There are a lot of different stories about creation and authorship in this game. It’s a gigantic meta-exploration of what it means to be a creator and what it means to be a fan. It’s got some pretty explicit arguments in it about the difficulty of ever really connecting with an author or an audience. What “Wreden” does to “Coda’s” games– literally going into the games and redesigning them to better reflect his own fears and desires– is not so different from what we do when we analyze a game and try to understand it. Necessarily we’ll reach different conclusions than the author did. In trying to understand a game, we’ll essentially change it to reflect our own perspectives. If you’re gonna analyze it, like I’m about to, you must do so with the knowing wink that you’re creating a hybrid work, too.

For me, a lot of this game was about what it’s like to make things for an audience that doesn’t really accept you as a real person or need you to be a real person at all. It’s about the inevitable surrender that occurs when you bring art into the world. About “the death of the author,” maybe. But it’s also about the ways in which strangers, in accepting your authorial death and applying their own interpretations, making hybrid works, creating Frankenstein mental models of you while they try to understand what you’re saying and why, can actually do you real harm. If you’re making something very very personal, then it’s possible for those personal things to be turned against you, for your attempt at outreach to fail in a painful way. It’s possible for people to mistake your meaningless experiments for deep and meaningful statements about yourself.

It’s possible for people to see lampposts that aren’t there.


The messages about seeking validation were less affecting to me, but still very interesting. I used to get a not-insignificant amount of coverage for my nonfiction writing about games, but none of the actual games I’ve created as side projects have ever seen massive praise or been covered widely at all. I’m very grateful for the coverage they have received– though small, it’s been almost universally positive and has led me to some good self-examination– but over the last year I’ve grown to accept that the art I’m creating right now may never find a big audience. That no longer bothers me. The stuff I create for my day-job can find a bigger audience; the stuff I create for myself is part of my personal development. It’s self-education and self-exploration. I guess I’m a little more like “Coda” than “Wreden” this regard.

Another theme in the game focuses on obsession and betrayal. The Beginner’s Guide is actually extremely creepy– what Wreden does in hounding and harassing Coda out of games is not dissimilar to what a lot of people do to games creators IRL. Games fans can become so obsessed with a product that they forget that the creators are real people. In “defense of the game,” fans can destroy the ones who made that game in the first place. There’s no reason to love a game more than a person. There’s no reason to “love” a game so much that your experience of it becomes an essential part of your self-worth, as it did to Wreden’s character. Though Davey Wreden named the character in this game after himself, “Wreden” in the game is more a representative of an audience member than an actual game developer, I think. Ironically, though the character “Wreden” reminds us that games are made by real people, he seems to have completely forgotten this himself.

Anyway, this game is fascinating. I consider it a critical play for anyone who makes things and seeks an audience. It’s brilliant, amazingly-written, emotionally draining, and cathartic. A+. A massive round of fucking applause.

And some silence, afterward, to think.