Choices as Expression of Genre

   Recently I browsed through some of my old choose your own adventure books. The choices in these books when done well - I think - express the genre's themes. Curious to explore this I went digging for the remains of my childhood library.

   Unfortunately I no longer have the actual "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" brand books so I don't have the seminal examples, but I do have a few of TSR's Endless Quest books, Fighting Fantasy's City of Thieves, and the Lone Wolf series is available online for free. I first cracked open Pillars of Pentegarn and found one of the classic elements of choose-your-own-adventure: the option to refuse the call to adventure. In these books, refusing the call results in an early ending, and moralizes a bit, suggesting "nothing ventured, nothing gained". The problem with this is that it feels cheap from a "game" perspective, and that's why I think the early ending was cut out of later books. Despite this I like that the reader has to elect to be bold to continue beyond the introductory sections and on into the adventure itself, because the option to refuse the call of adventure shows up in ancient myths, and its the most common choice we face in our real lives. City of Thieves does not provide this choice at the beginning, but is filled with scores of potential encounters that are optional, which preserves the choice in a smaller form.

   I decided to take a closer look at the choices in City of Thieves, and concluded that the author did well expressing the Sword & Sorcery genre. The book has a few design problems from a game play perspective, and the ending narrative is unsatisfying, but the setting and the way the conventions of the genre play out more than make up for these shortcomings. As kids my friends and I thought this was the best book of the series which suggests to me that it satisfied its target audience.

   At the start of City of Thieves, the reader is presented with three options. A guard does not want to let the character into the city, and the three potential solutions to this problem involve either honesty, trickery, or violence. Each choice reflects an approach of a different Sword & Sorcery archetype or theme of the genre. Secondary choices follow from these like whether to bribe, whether to search for a hidden object, and whether to accept a deal. But violence, trickery and being true are the staples.

   Regardless of which strategy the reader selects, they are successful, which is appropriate given that they are staples of the genre, but each choice brings different consequences. These consequences communicate to the reader what to expect should they try the same strategy again later in the book. The reader also learns quite a bit about what kind of people live in the city of thieves: dishonest schemers and backstabbers.

  • Honesty brings the most pain, but leads to the biggest reward and the most adventure. You are thrown in a jail cell from which you can escape, picking up some useful stuff on the way out, and are appropriately for the genre forced to resort to violence or trickery before you get away.
  • Trickery offers the potentially least painful solution, but requires you to make a few more choices in order to be successful, reflecting the effort required to think on your feet and make educated guesses based on hints you have been given in the text. The starting section signaled very clearly that attempting a trick requires that you read the book closely for details, and use that to inform your choices. While there are not many tricks like this, they are all done well and all read as a fast talking rogue thinking quickly on their feet which is a staple of the genre.
  • Violence is straightforward but relies on your stats and chance. Depending on how the dice fall your character will be more or less injured. And lastly, a violent solution is final, preventing any further gain from interaction with the NPC which suggests that you won't always want to "shoot first". This last part is important because protagonists of Sword & Sorcery are not just killers. They are supposed to be heroes who, even if full of darkness, still do the right thing when it counts, or face dire consequences from their failure. This book does this throughout. Lots of violence available against monsters, but the few good characters are clearly signaled, and killing them results in harsh punishment. The game is unwinnable if you do.

   City of Thieves also successfully switches up how it rewards the reader's strategy depending on the book's current problem to solve. In the first two thirds of the book, you need to find things, so exploring every location that you come across is the best strategy and is generally rewarded. Here and there are hints as to when exploration is not the right choice. The lesson being that if you obviously are not going to find what you are looking for here, then move on. Then at the end of the book, your task changes. All you need to do at the end is find the bad guy in his castle and destroy him. The book punishes you for trying every room in the big bad's castle. Obviously he is not in a random guest bedroom on a lower floor, so you probably shouldn't search there, and lo and behold, those early rooms are all deathtraps requiring obscure items you might not have found earlier on in the book. Fantasy story logic dictates that the big bad will be higher up in his castle or at the top of a tower, like Sauron's Eye surveying his domain. Indeed if you just keep climbing stairs to the top you will bypass all of the deathtraps, and although the big bad is not waiting for you at the top, his location is nevertheless revealed to you there.

   I have a few problems with the ending, as it lacks the depth of the rest of the book. The ending could have been expanded, if some pointless filler sections had been removed from the city. But this book is titled City of Thieves and even the superfluous sections in the city contribute to the vibe of randomness and villainy which made this book so much fun. Also despite how short and anticlimactic the ending is, the optimal solution makes sense, and was the first thing I tried because it was obvious to me in context. This says to me that as a "game" it worked, but they lacked the space to round out the narrative satisfactorily.

   I think the weak ending of City of Thieves is due to the limitation of 400 entries in these books. Doing a full city stretched the limits of 400 sections. Had they had 20 more, I think this could have been better. Alternatively the extra crap in the city could have been cut, and these entries put to better use at the end. The design choice comes down to the trade off between a richer setting and choices in the city versus a better story and solid ending.

   From the standpoint of expressing genre conventions and signaling how they will be treated within a game, I think City of Thieves is a good example to follow. It is far from perfect, but for someone like myself who normally doesn't think about this when designing a game, this was good fuel for future projects. And as a side note, there were some funny moments with choices as well. In one section the author embedded an anti-smoking public service announcement that was amusing. And in another lets readers know what he thinks about the choice between spitting or swallowing.


Cover image is a photo of the two books I mention in the post.