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.

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