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Writing a Choose Your Own Adventure Game

Originally written for Indie Book Blog

Certainly writing is challenging: you need things like plots, character development, thorough research into anything from which flowers blossom at which time of year, to the sort of weapons related matters that might result in some very serious men knocking at your door. But is it really enough? Have you ever wished, not just to paint a picture for your readers, but to plonk them in the midst of the action and let them wander into however many dangers and traps you choose to throw at them? If, like me, you’re a power-hungry sadist who spent large chunks of childhood drawing maps for Legend of Zelda and the like, then writing a Choose Your Own Adventure game might just be the answer.

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, these game books are written in small sections which end by giving the reader a choice of actions which move them on to different parts of the book. In a regular paper book, they’d do this by flicking through the pages, but with an e-book, they just have to click the links. My own game, Witches and Bandits and Swords Oh My (out now on Amazon at a very reasonable price for 20,000 words, hint hint) has a traditionalish fantasy setting, but you can use this format for any genre. To pick a film at random, a Home Alone adventure book might read:

“Section 1,
You are in your large family home by yourself, your extended family having accidentally left you behind while going on holiday. Several preceding incidents have led you to conclude that two burglars are about to rob your house. Do you…

Attempt to contact your family? Go to section 154
Find a local friend’s house, or trusted adult to visit? Go to section 23
Contact the police with a detailed description of the felons? Go to section 70
Set about on a murderous campaign of violence against said felons? Pick up a blowtorch and go to section 13”

Assuming you’ll want to write something more complex than this, first of all, you’ll need a map. Depending on how you structure your game, this could resemble an original Zelda view (i.e. squares arranged in a grid pattern), interconnected spider diagrams, or even an MC Escher-style mind fuck if you really dislike your readers. Keeping these linked in with your prose sections is absolutely essential. It really can’t be stressed enough that a single broken link has the potential to ruin your game.

The format has other challenges to keep you constantly frustrated entertained. How and when to introduce information, for example, is difficult enough with regular prose, but when the reader can reach the same point through different paths, this becomes more of a challenge. If you decide to introduce the feared purple-tentacled monster of Xhighazyx as an opponent, then you’ll need a system for fighting. Requiring the readers to use dice, and to keep track of their health is one idea, but I favoured keeping it simple and giving options based on items you may have picked up beforehand, some of which result in instant purple-tentacled death. In all cases, fairness is key and dropping some preceding hints can help. Having a high difficulty level is one thing but, like a murder-mystery novel that wheels out a long-lost twin brother in the last three chapters, nobody wants to feel cheated.

Of course, you’ll face other obstacles too. One significant problem I found (that my test readers didn’t always appreciate) is the difficulty of introducing the same section after an event- let’s say that the reader’s meeting the High Priestess Doris, but may have stolen her chocolate biscuits in another scene. Clearly, if she knows about the biccie theft then the scene would have to be written differently, but allowing for both events is tricky. The most naturalistic way of doing this (for the reader) would be to duplicate the whole book with the new sections following a path from stealing the biscuits, to Doris being annoyed with you. It doesn’t take a High Priestess, however, to realise that this isn’t a sensible idea, and the book would exponentially increase in size every time you had to do this. Other options include leading into the section by asking the reader whether or not they stole the biscuits (not ideal as this gives too much warning) or writing your book in short, standalone chapters (the downside being that this reduces the reader’s freedom to explore). One device I used was to lead into a similar section with an apparently unrelated question; let’s say, “Have you acquired the blue ring”? If you’ve made it so that the blue ring could only have been obtained from the biscuit theft- don’t ask me how, maybe it was a free gift in the pack or something- then that solves the problem without giving too much away.

There will be plenty of other hurdles too, not least when you attempt to format the thing (here speaks the voice of bitter experience), but I find that one of the great joys of writing is solving problems your own way; there’s something special about that moment when you feel the whole project’s hopeless and then an idea strikes you that sorts it all out.

Hopefully this hasn’t put you off too much, just let you know what you’re getting into. Choose You Own Adventure games are tough to make, but rewarding. No other style of writing allows you to have quite the same relationship with your reader, nor them to experience the story in quite the same way.