The Brave New World of Choicefic

by Joseph Jaynes Rositano

Interactive fiction (often referred to as IF or choicefic) has been the province of children’s books, humor, and puzzle-like digital games — but it’s also fertile ground for serious literary fiction. The medium goes by many names: gamebooks, hyperfiction, or choose your own adventure (CYOA) — as in the children’s series of the ’80s and ’90s. The essential feature of choicefic is that it treats readers as players, letting them decide what the protagonist will do.

Here are some opportunities for how the medium opens new vistas for literary fiction:

  • Character: Choicefic offers revolutionary potential for character development. Branching path narrative allows the author to show how a character’s evolution depends on his or her decisions: if the reader chooses violence, the protagonist may commit more violence later — without the reader having a choice. Choicefic can illustrate how our actions change and define us; it’s the ideal medium for representing free will operating within the constraints of character. Heather McElhatton explores this in her choicefic novel Pretty Little Mistakes: A Do-Over Novel (William Morrow), by showing how her protagonist is transformed by the relationships the reader selects for her.
  • Theme: Nowhere is the McLuhan mantra, “the medium is the message,” more apt: choicefic is uniquely equipped to explore themes of free will and moral responsibility. Choicefic could be used to represent a world in which minor moral failings have profound consequences — or one in which choice is illusory and all paths twist around to the same outcome. Imagine if Fight Club gave you your choice of havoc to wreak.
  • Plot: More radical than multiple endings is the opportunity for intricate tapestries of plot lines. A literary choicefic novel can be enjoyed one plot line at a time, but full appreciation demands the reader consider how the plot lines relate to each other, perhaps in subtle ways. Though not choicefic, Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey (reprint by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) points to this possibility with its 44 contrasting versions of the epic’s narrative.

Book-form choicefic has been dominated by the CYOA kids’ adventure genre — and humor. Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure, a $580,000 Kickstarter mega-success, is a goofball farce of Hamlet. The 110 endings include dozens of droll and grisly ways for the prince to die. A tongue-in-cheek score assigned for each ending gives a nod to interactive fiction’’s roots in digital gaming.

The line between narrative games and interactive literature is fuzzy — and each has its place — but the difference is crucial. Sherry Jones, a philosopher who studies interactive fiction, told me about the debate between narratologists, who view story as central to choicefic, with gaming elements built around it, and ludologists who see story as decoration for the underlying structure of a game. Jones says that digital choicefic has grown from its gaming roots to thoroughly embrace narrative — though she says its creators could still benefit from absorbing more influence from traditional literature.

It’s an exciting time: the great choicefic novels remain to be written.

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