Cutting To The Choice

Dragon Age: Origins is a game of small decisions, and big ones. The small ones are familiar to anyone who’s slogged through a calendar day’s worth of a western RPG: who do I invite as my sidekicks, how do I balance my tactics, where can I sell all the crap that’s filling my backpack? Then there are the big decisions, where you can sway the rest of the story with a single choice in a dialogue tree. Dragon Age gives you major, difficult decisions in matters of politics, love, and even reproduction, and every time you put someone on a throne or take a chance on a demonic ritual, your decision has an impact.

In fact, the branching narrative is so compelling and the urge to see the other outcomes so strong that I wondered: why not get rid of all the scut work? Why not play a game like it in which I make the big decisions and don’t have to slog through the dungeon crawls to get there? To see how that might look, check out Choice Of Games’ first release, Choice of the Dragon, a multiple choice adventure game that’s available for free on the PC, iPhone and Android.

The game starts by throwing you right into your role: you’re a dragon, and a knight’s coming after you. Do you run away, trip him up, or go straight for his throat? You make your choice by simply clicking an option and reading what happens next. From there, you start to design a character. Through a multiple-choice quiz that’ll either remind you of the intro to Ultima IV or a Myers-Briggs test, you tell the game if you’d rather be cunning or brutal, aloof or a little paranoid. And then the story proper begins.

The game isn’t hard to finish, and you can see most of the variations in under an hour. But I was surprised how attached I grew to my big old text-only lizard – I was wrapped up in every cunning plan, every grave wound, and yes, by the chance to land a mate and enjoy some cold-blooded lizard love. And the text that carries the entire story is witty and concise, drawing us in with obsequious praise and cold damage reports, praising our decisions but forcing us to suffer the consequences.

Not surprisingly, the game’s principal co-creators Dan Fabulich and Adam Strong-Morse have experience with role-playing games – tabletop and live-action, as well as on the computer – and they also read all those multiple-choice Choose Your Own Adventure books that were big when I was a kid in the ‘80s. But Fabulich also cites his experience with the game Alter Ego, originally written in 1986 by the psychologist Peter Favaro. Fabulick explains that Alter Ego “is a multiple choice adventure game, sort of, where you choose your own life. It’s hundreds upon hundreds of multiple choice questions, begining at birth and ending at death, hours later. And it is probably the greatest game I’ve ever played. And I said to myself, ‘What a great game, and there’s nothing else like it in the entire world! That has to change!’”

Fabulich helped port Alter Ego to the web, and he’s also the designer of the ChoiceScript language, a JavaScript-based framework intended to let non-coders make a multiple-choice adventure. It’s a simple mechanic, but says Fabulich, “I feel like modern games are just barely touching it,” pointing to Mass Effect and BioShock as two examples. “It’s definitely happening. It’s just not the centerpiece of the game.”

Choice of the Dragon is the first title for the system. Fabulich and Strong-Morse started talking about it last spring and finally released it last month. The text contains almost 30,000 words. But while it has branching options, each playthrough follows the same arc, which is organized in “vignettes.” Each vignette has branching options, and you may come out better or worse at the end based on the choices you make. But each scene still leads to the next one – which saves Fabulich and Strong-Morse from having to write an exponential number of branches for each decision in the tree.

Their next game, a swashbuckler that casts you as a captain in the Napoleonic Wars, is in progress, and after that, who knows? “We have this huge list of, ‘Maybe there should be superheroes, maybe there should be ninjas, maybe there should be a Jane Austen romance.’ There’s just no end to meaningful choices.”

Chris Dahlen writes about games, music, pop, and tech. You can find him online at @savetherobot, or drop him a line at chris [at] savetherobot.com.

Editor’s note: You may also want to check out Alteraction’s awesome Masq as another example of multiple-choice gaming, and read Randy Smith’s column on techniques for interactive storytelling, in which he maintains that multiple-choice is all a little static and limited.

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