A Brief History of Interactive Fiction Games…

…Choose Your Own Adventure and Visual Novels

by Alana Siebert…

Interactive fiction is a game genre that has been around for quite some time now and has a rather in-depth history to it. We’ve already taken a look at part of the genre, primarily text and graphical adventures. But today I’m going to talk about some other things that are important to interactive fiction!

So, I’m sure that many of us as kids read Choose Your Own Adventure books (or CYOA); novels where at the end of each page you were asked to make a choice as to what to do and then would be directed to a different page depending on your actions. Sometimes you’d make it to the end, sometimes not.

And if you’re wondering just what these books have to do with video games, the answer is a surprising amount! So let’s take a look at these types of books.

Skyjacked © Transworld Publishers Ltd.

Skyjacked © Transworld Publishers Ltd.

If you decide to run away, turn to page 42.

CYOA books are actually a subset of a genre that is simply called gamebooks; CYOAs themselves are branching-plot novels that focus on narrative. There were also role-playing and adventure gamebooks which combined the CYOA technique with a role-playing system, with adventure gamebooks using systems unique to that game or series.

CYOAs were created as early as the 1940s, and by the 1950s, educational books had been published. The first ones written for entertainment began to appear in the late 1960s, but it was in the 1970s that they began to pick up in popularity.

The Tracker series of gamebooks were published in 1972; these are believed to be the first gamebooks to be published as a series, and were aimed at older children. Sugarcane Island, the first branching-plot novel, was published in 1976. Journey Under the Sea was written around the same time, and the authors of these two books approached Bantam about creating a series. In 1979, the Choose Your Own Adventure series began, and would go on to amass nearly 200 books. Several other publishers also wrote similar series.

999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors © Aksys

999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors © Aksys

Interactive Fiction in Japan

Gamebooks heavily influenced the gaming world—they increased interest in Dungeons & Dragons, and I needn’t stress just how important that is to the gaming landscape. But similar to CYOA books are visual novels, a game genre that is primarily seen in Japan, though more and more are being translated for Western audiences. Unlike CYOA books, they are definitely classified as games, but they play more like a CYOA than a graphical adventure game like King’s Quest. They are highly popular in Japan, where they make up nearly 70% of PC game sales.

Visual novels tend to have very minimal gameplay, and are more like watching a story unfold in front of you, with most player interaction consisting of clicking to keep the text or graphics moving. They tend to have multiple storylines and endings, like CYOAs, but generally have a much higher level of plot and character-depth than CYOAs have.

Their non-linear storylines allow for more freedom of choice from the player, as well as leading to many different outcomes. One in particular, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (Nintendo DS) is known for the sheer number of different paths available—nearly every action or dialog choice leads to a different path and you have to experience at least one specific “bad ending” before you can see all of the possible endings for the game!

Many games are focused primarily around character interactions, varying between changing how a non-player character will react to you through the game, depending on how you react to them, to collecting “mood points” in a more role-playing system-based interaction method. Morality systems are also seen in many visual novels, and tend to let you explore more moral grey areas. They are also available in several genres, ranging from the highly emotional and dramatic “crying games” like To Heart and Kanon to the horror-themed games like When They Cry and Corpse Party.

The importance of choice in video games

Both CYOA books and visual novel games are important in gaming today. The Ace Attorney series helped revitalize adventure games when they were translated into English and is very popular on handheld consoles. Lost Odyssey (one of my very favorite games) told part of its story through a series of visual novel-style flashbacks. Depression Quest, a web-based game, not only changes the story as you play, but choices get crossed out based on previous actions.

I have to mention Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls from game designer David Cage if I’m talking about this type of game, as well. Both are games I’ve compared to watching a movie; Heavy Rain has a fair amount of gameplay to it, but Beyond is almost entirely story with minimal gameplay, including several quick-time events. Both are heavily choice-driven, and the game’s plot can change wildly depending on the choices you make and have many different endings—Heavy Rain has something around 20 different endings, while Beyond has 11.


Image 1 of 2

You make a choice here...

There are also The Walking Dead games which are played in an episodic manner; while they don’t have the number of variables as seen in Heavy Rain and Beyond, each choice you make alters the game significantly. One nice touch in The Walking Dead is at the end of each chapter, it will show what percentage of players selected the same choices you did. It’s a little thing I enjoyed.

They’re especially important to the sort of game we’re creating here; to quote Trisha, the Danika Dire games will have “a rich story filled with great characters and an overarching plot”, and Angel has talked about just how important a good story is to her in a game. So don’t be fooled by the forms they come in—CYOAs and visual novels are an important part of interactive fiction, and it just goes to show how flexible a game genre it really is!

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