Interactive Fiction Lets Diverse Characters Be the Heroes

Choose Your Own Adventure stories challenge the idea of a universal protagonist

An octopus and deep-sea diver underwater
Photo by Mohamed Ahsan on Unsplash

Whether you were a child in the 1980s or the early 2000s, the Choose Your Own Adventure books were a staple in any elementary school library. The books allowed their readers to step into the shoes of the second-person hero “you,” giving kids the option to dictate the path the story took. Flipping between pages could mean the difference between a twist in the narrative or––as often happened to me––my hero’s untimely death.

Journey Under the Sea by R.A. Montgomery

The Choose Your Own Adventure books became popular because of their experimental format: for the first time, the agency of the storyteller was completely blurred, a shared experience built between creator and audience. As a young reader, I believed there was a clear line between who got to make fiction and who got to consume it. When I first read R.A. Montgomery’s Journey Under the Sea, I went from a kid who had to ask my parents to take me to the library to an underwater diver in Atlantis, where my decisions were the only thing separating me from death by killer squids. The book was the first time I ever got to experience what it means to make a story, which was instrumental to my development as a writer. 

The CYOA format has been adapted multiple ways and to varying degrees of success: interactive fiction has often cited as being convoluted, expensive, and something that capitalizes on the illusion of choice. In 2012, Choose Your Own Adventure author R.A. Montgomery and publisher Shannon Gilligan recounted the difficulties of adapting the books to e-reader formats. To Gilligan, the “tactile involvement” that came with physically flipping the pages helped cement, in the reader’s mind, the books’ titular phrase: “You, the hero.” Yet despite these challenges, interactive fiction is still, seemingly, everywhere: in gaming, of course, but also on Netflix, and then also, most unexpectedly, my Instagram feed. 

You may have seen the ads for apps like Episode, Chapters, Choices, and Hooked—mobile games that advertise easy, consumable interactive stories. Through these ten-second ads, I get to make the choice between faking a 5-month pregnancy to teach my cheating boyfriend a lesson, letting the cute guy in my lecture know that I want his number, or wandering into a dark castle to let my hot vampire boyfriend suck my blood. 

In traditional publishing, who gets to “create” and publicize stories is a process deeply marked by inequality, often with the aim of producing stories thought to appeal to the biggest audience.  But with the rise of digital media––and the associated losses in the print industry––a broader group of writers can now access the resources to realize their own stories. The stories in these quick mobile games are simple and accessible––they don’t do anything particularly innovative in their form. But they illustrate how, with the growth of interactive content, the line between a strict “creator” and a powerless, faceless “audience” is no longer clear. We are starting to see more and more people subverting what it means to create a “universal” character.

More and more people are subverting what it means to create a ‘universal’ character.

In the 80’s, Packard and Montgomery committed to making the “you” of each of their stories gender neutral, a decision that later proved difficult to maintain as the books got more popular. According to Packard, Bantam Books, their publisher at the time, stated that in market research, “girls would identify with boys, but boys would never read a book where ‘you’ was a girl.” So more often than not, the covers featured the same adorable, apple-cheeked twelve-year-old white boy, implicitly telling the reader that this was what “you, the hero” were meant to look like. 

My own experience bears this out––I didn’t have much trouble relating to a “you” that was understood to be male, especially if it meant I got to murder aliens or inhabit the mind of a shark for a couple of hours in the library. This also meant that characters I ended up writing were also pleasantly generic: amorphous, blond white blobs that got to kill dragons and romance girls. I didn’t think to question it. 

So imagine my surprise when I opened Instagram and saw an ad about “you,” a black female protagonist, lying about your pregnancy to your ex-boyfriend. Another ad immediately afterward saw the protagonist, still female, kicking your girlfriend out of the janitor’s closet because you thought you heard your boss coming. 

Fast, consumable fiction is under pressure to keep a “universal audience” in mind. Adding an interactive element seems like it would just heighten this problem, as the form attempts to make its audience as broad as possible. However, in recent years, due to its lower barriers to entry and its “ungovernability”  by the market-based publishing industry, interactive fiction has become a go-to genre for marginalized creators. Many LGBT creators are attracted to interactive storytelling as a medium due to the unconventionality of the form, and also because the shared experience of interactive storytelling can function as a kind of healing.

In an interview with Pixelberry, the studio that created the Choices App, lead designer Andrew Schvaltz stated the studio was formed after seeing the passionate response to the team’s previous interactive fiction games—responses that revealed interesting nuances about their audience. They realized that there was a substantial appetite for “stories that deviated from those represented in traditional gaming: stories about romance, focused on character, and frequently about women.” 

These apps have been influenced by feedback from diverse segments of their audience.

These comments mirror a larger trend in the genre: while many games’ original stories and characters began as very generic and straight, these apps have been influenced by the feedback and support from more diverse segments of their audience. For example, in many stories now, Choices’ playable characters have customizable genders and ethnicities, and are not assigned a sexual orientation––features the company added after their fanbase pushed them to add a female love interest to an earlier story.

According to Peyton Thomas, a writer behind Choices’ newest stories Platinum and Bachelorette Party, interactive fiction can be an important venue for exploring different identities, as well as for taking universal tropes, like “bad boy with a heart of gold,” and making them accessible to an audience who is often sidelined. “I think these games offer a really vital resource for closeted and questioning LGBT youth,” Thomas says. “They give you an opportunity to experiment and have relationships and see what that’s like, and how it makes you feel.” 

Many Choices games are simple, ridiculous fun: Platinum is a story about you, the protagonist, trying to win an American Idol-esque singing competition, while also romancing two extremely famous pop stars of customizable genders. In Bachelorette Party you are, fittingly, off to Vegas to celebrate a friend’s upcoming wedding. Across these games, the universal “you” has evolved into what was once considered its antithesis: customizable, ethnically diverse, and sexually fluid.

Moreover, interactive fiction has also been used to explore a variety of other marginalized experiences: coming out, socioeconomic turmoil, mental illness. These properties are often crowdfunded, like Night in the Woods, a game about growing up in a poverty-stricken town in Rust Belt America, and a game Thomas has frequently cited as a big inspiration. Or it is made with little to no resources, like game developer Nicky Case’s Coming Out Simulator, a story that translates the fear, loneliness and frustration that came with their own experience coming out to their family. 

The universal ‘you’ has evolved into what was once considered its antithesis.

“It reached a lot of my fans who weren’t queer who really had something they believed in, or had something that was a part of their identity that their parents or their friends would not accept. So, it’s really about that tension … tension between lying so that you can get by day-to-day and wanting to share the truth so that you can be who you are in public,” they said.

CYOA and its digital offshoots have managed to create a space where a person like me, who has been repeatedly alienated by protagonists, can participate in a shared experience with people whose experiences are entirely distinct from mine. In these games, marginalized communities have fought hard to reclaim the “you” character through creativity, support and vocalization. Maybe if I saw a more diverse “you” earlier, in my elementary school library, I wouldn’t have been so complacent with the default protagonist. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so willing to mold myself in whatever way needed to reach a state of escapism. I would have been allowed to be someone entirely different.

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