HUNTING UNICORN postmortem; or, Better Late Than Never

Perhaps it’s silly to write a postmortem for HUNTING UNICORN. I released it last year. It wasn’t in any competition. It didn’t make any splash. Only one person reviewed it. But I wrote postmortems for Toby’s Nose and Down, the Serpent and the Sun, and a lot more care went into the unicorn than went into the snake, and even in some respects than went into the dog. Besides that, a recent topic talks about how discussing theory on the forums is something we ought to do more. So here’s what I have to say about it.

First, I don’t consider HUNTING UNICORN a proper game. It’s very much a choose-your-own-adventure in the old-fashioned style: a simple narrative with branches. But I do consider it to be interactive fiction, and the interactivity matters a lot.

The subject matter had been floating around in my head for years. Unicorns aren’t often written about seriously in my experience. They’re always associated with rainbows and sparkles. They’re used as an easy reference to signal outlandishness. But I find the folklore about them, and especially about how to capture them, fascinating.

I tried to write this story as a short story. It didn’t work. I tried it again a few times and it still didn’t work. Then I played howling dogs and that opened me to interactive fiction (thank you Porpentine for being amazing). I tried writing the story again in Twine, and it worked.

The player-character is a maiden whose livelihood revolves around guiding hunters through a forest to track unicorns. This is a woman whose social role is taken for granted, whose value nobody perceives except in monetary terms, and who has very little apparent agency. What choices she can make – whether she can make any – is what the story is about.

Telling the story as a branched narrative in Twine allowed me to marry the form and content in a manner impossible with static fiction. When playing the game, the format ensures that the player is constantly aware that other outcomes are possible. Whether these different outcomes actually exist for the characters in the various branches then becomes an interpretive problem. There’s a lot wrapped up in the question.

That brings me to my philosophy on branching narratives with multiple endings. My first exposure to the concept was through some choose-your-own-adventure books that I read as a kid. I still remember the anticlimax that would come from picking the “wrong path.” You’d turn the page and the story would instantly end. What choice was that? One book I remember involved exploring a haunted house, and at the beginning you had the choice not to enter, which would end the book within two pages. A two-page book? The story was essentially browbeating you into picking what it wanted.

When I wrote HUNTING UNICORN, I wanted every choice available to the player to carry the story forward. I’ve since then played many other games with branching narratives, and whenever I pick a “wrong path,” it still feels just as anticlimactic as it did when I was younger. I view it as poor design because it means the game is presenting you with choices only as an illusion. Every choice, whether “wrong” or “right,” should lead to a gameplay experience that’s somehow fulfilling. There is a way to do this even if the maybe-illusion of choice is thematically important. It’s important in HUNTING UNICORN.

But that still doesn’t address how I feel about multiple endings.

When I go into a game that’s driven by a narrative, just as when I go into a book, what I want is a complete experience. This can be achieved in many ways, but for me one way to hamper it is for a game to have multiple endings that you must reach in order to fully grasp what’s happening. As a player, you’re pulled from the story and forced to view it as a mechanical contraption. You learn that the game has different cogs that could be slotted into different spots, and your attention narrows to focus on those cogs as you concentrate on swapping them out to see how they each work. Any pacing that the game had is destroyed as you push the overarching story into the background to mess with these specific cogs.

One way to deal with this is to make the pacing’s destruction relevant. But most games I’ve played don’t do that. They don’t seem to consider it.

I want to make a distinction here, too, between video games and text games. Video games with multiple endings also expose their mechanics and make you fiddle with the cogs, but at least you’re experiencing a spatial environment while you do it. When you replay a sequence over and over in a video game, you still see the world, the characters, you take in the atmosphere automatically. But with text games, what you do is skim the text, rushing through to get back to whatever component you need to change to trigger a new ending.

I realize that some people like to do this. There are completionists out there whose main concern is seeing all the content in a game, no matter what it takes. But since I’m not a completionist, I don’t enjoy it. Playing through a game multiple times begins to feel like a chore to me.

When I wrote HUNTING UNICORN, I hadn’t played many text games, but I had already developed this outlook. Afterward, as I did play more text games, my opinion only became more entrenched. Now I look back on HUNTING UNICORN and I’m more satisfied than before with the design.

The game has sixteen endings, but to call them endings isn’t quite accurate. They are all variations on the same themes. Some are very similar and some are very different. And the final screens are always identical, but those screens have a different meaning depending on what comes before. This is why I described the game as having “sixteen narrative variants” on IFDB.

Whatever pathways players choose, they will always hit certain major scenes in the story’s middle. Those scenes will change, sometimes dramatically, depending on the player’s choices, but every player will experience scenes with equivalent weight. Nobody will miss out by making the “wrong” choice.

As for the endings, as I mentioned earlier, in this game it’s important that players realize there are multiple potential outcomes. But even though I wanted players to recognize that, I also tried my best to write every ending to be satisfactory, so that players will not feel obligated upon completion to go back through and lawnmower every different branch. The single review the game’s gotten on IFDB doesn’t say much, but it does mention this design choice: “I was satisfied enough by the endings I got that I had no interest in exploring what happened if we didn’t capture the unicorn.” The reviewer here doesn’t even realize that “not being interested in more exploration” was a design choice, which means the design succeeded.

Of course, if any players do want to go back and lawnmower the branches, that remains a viable option. But I tried my best to write the game in a such a way that players shouldn’t feel an obligation to take that course. When the game ends, whatever the ending, it ought to feel like a complete package.

This game serves as my proof-of-concept for how to approach divergent narratives both thematically and mechanically in a manner I consider rewarding. It was also a trial by fire for me to see if I could write fiction that required interactivity, not as a superficial aesthetic, but as a core element to tell a story.

Thanks for writing this up. I hadn’t read it (and I’m not sure I’d actually heard of it) before now. I really liked it.

I think there are cases where “how the cogs work” can actually itself be part of the message, or cases that allow non-repetitive exploration to reach those alternate endings. (Slouching Towards Bedlam, for instance, has several very different endings, but they’re reached via quite dissimilar walkthroughs, which made it feel more the way you describe video games, I think.)

But I know what you mean. This is probably the biggest reason I struggle with visual novels, a genre in many ways close to IF but often with a stronger emphasis on character relationships. Sounds like a natural fit for me. But there’s a strong tendency for VNs to insist on really thorough explorations of the state space: play this to all 5 or 8 or 12 basic endings and you unlock the last “real”, “bonus” ending! And even with Ren’Py’s option to fast forward through scenes you’ve already read once, I’ve usually lost a lot of my will to replay by playthrough 5 or so. It usually seems like a better idea to look for a wiki somewhere that can fill me in on the endings I missed, and then move on. Hatoful Boyfriend at least mercifully lets you at the “bonus” ending after you’ve only done a few of the initially-available endings.

I’d be interested to see more pieces that provide an explicit narrative map: it seems to me like this is a way to show people the structural possibilities (and thus a part of the rhetoric of the story) without making them visit all of them. I haven’t seen all that many stories that do this, though.

I’m still thinking about how much I think Hunting Unicorn succeeded at freeing me from the need to replay. So far I’ve played once, and it felt pretty satisfactory as a story; I liked the ending, I enjoyed the milieu, and I found the depiction of the unicorn effective but not over-explained, which is good.

At the same time, though, I am wondering whether a couple of specific actions/outcomes are possible here: I feel like the presence or absence of those outcomes might affect how I understand the story as a whole, and so I have this itchy feeling that I should try to find out. And yet I can see thematically that part of the point of the story is about not having access to the full alternatives list for one’s own life. Conflict!

Specifically: in my ending, the protagonist had sex with the groom, then freed the unicorn, whom she had contrived to bring home alive. That felt like a pretty solid story to me, one with a good emotional arc for her that was supported by the imagery of the other events. But I’m curious about which of those outcomes are inevitable and which are linked (does she always have sex, or does she sometimes stay a virgin until the end? are those choices paired with the unicorn’s survival? does the unicorn always survive?).

Have you played Texas Instruments Theater in Shufflecomp? If you click on “Options” it gives you a list of branch nodes that you’ve seen (classified by what kind of choice they are) and gives you the opportunity to hop to them. It very much encourages lawnmowering so this is useful. (Disclosure: I suggested one of the songs for this though the game pretty much only uses its title.)

Oh, and Chandler, if you’re interested in gritty unicorns I highly recommend The Horned Man by James Lasdun; it has a lot of hackneyed satire of attempts to fight sexual harassment, which I don’t agree with at all, but it’s also legitimately chilling.

I tried it and kind of bounced off it, but with that in mind I’ll give it another go.

I don’t think I’ve played a game with a narrative map at the end. I’ve seen such maps created by players as walkthroughs, although that’s not the same. On one hand, maps like that might relieve players from having to explore all the branches themselves. But on the other hand, they might seem like those “one out of X endings reached” screens that you mentioned. I guess it would depend on how the game itself plays before you reach the map at the end.

When I think about “one out of X endings reached” screens, the uncle who works for nintendo is the first thing that comes to mind. On my first playthrough, that game was creepy, but it concluded by practically demanding me to play again. And on my second playthrough, it wasn’t creepy anymore. By my last playthrough, it was irritating. I finally finished the game wishing that I had only played it once, but it had forced me to replay it over and over to get the “real” ending.

At least that somewhat fit the game thematically, since its ultimate point was to explore how gaming culture can swallow some people and alienate others. But in order to deliver that point, the game turned itself into what it was criticizing. And most games with multiple endings meant to be checked off aren’t self-conscious. I’m not even sure whether the uncle who works for nintento was self-conscious about this particular mechanic.

Porpentine’s metrolith is a game that I think succeeds in asking for multiple playthroughs. The game is short, so it’s not a hassle, and every time you see something different.

I haven’t played Slouching Towards Bedlam, but it is on my list!

HUNTING UNICORN should make you itch a little. That’s a good sign! It means you’re engaged with the story. But an itch like that isn’t the same as feeling that you haven’t reached “the real ending” yet, and that now you’ll need to roll up your sleeves and do it again. At least I hope that’s not how anyone feels!

One thing I did want was for the story to be re-readable. You always see stories with a different perspective when you read them again. But I didn’t want the game to demand this like the uncle who works for nintendo. After finishing it once, players should be satisfied enough to set it aside if they want, and maybe come back and revisit it in the future. Like having a book on your shelf you can pull down again.

To answer your questions about the different possibilities:

The unicorn doesn’t always survive, the maiden doesn’t always have sex, and whether she stays a virgin doesn’t have to depend on the unicorn’s survival.

I will definitely look into The Horned Man! Although it’s not exactly that I prefer my unicorns gritty. I just like them to be treated with some respect rather than as a joke. My favorite representation is the classic tapestry series. There’s also a really great unicorn hunt in The Once and Future King. And of course there’s The Last Unicorn. But we usually get things more like Charlie the Unicorn these days. That stuff can be entertaining, but I prefer to go back to the folklore.

Was this in twine? I thought I played this as a demo for Ramus.

It is a Twine game. I’m not sure what Ramus is.

Conrad Cook (RIP) wrote a game called Unicorn Story in Felix Plesolianu’s Ramus.

That was a great little game! See, that’s what I’m talking about: respect for the unicorn. It can be a violent, haughty, imposing mythical beast. Sometimes more imposing than monsters like dragons. There’s so much ego wrapped up in unicorns. That Unicorn Story nailed the tone.

Yeah, I’m not thinking just of “one of X endings reached” but of something that’s showing you a certain amount of information as you go along, about where you are in the story and where there were other turn-offs that you could in theory have taken. That kind of information is generally somewhat surfaced in an old-style CYOA book, and Meanwhile, for instance, is a map of its own territory; but it’s more concealed in Twine projects and a lot of current gamebook apps.

This also reminds me that a few months ago someone recommended I look at Virtue’s Last Reward, a visual novel that does apparently feature moving through an explicit narrative map, but hooks it into a time/universe hopping storyline to make the resequencing part of the story rather than a meta-story feature.

Finally, I’ve been wondering about, Hadean-Lands-like, allowing different types of play on the replays. So you play through something once in detail, and then after a while you earn the ability to auto-pilot, say, maxing or avoiding a particular stat, or pursuing a particular date. However, this still doesn’t get you out of having to do a lot of re-reading, unless you also have some way of making the story into a synopsis, and then making sure that synopsis is still interesting enough to be worth it.

Funny thing to bring up since Endless, Nameless features prominently in another thread, but EN found an ingenious way to do it - encouraging use of the REPLAY command. I doubt anyone ever uses it much. And in EN the very fact that it was such a game-y solution was part of the whole “flavour”. But ayway, just saying that EN found a way to deal with that.

And, of course, Rematch is rather unique.

And, I’m talking parser games whereas you’re talking about a visual novel. But hey.

Okay, I’ve now tried this long enough to get a number of the endings (though not quite all of them).

I see what you mean – it’s effectively auto-bookmarking, and that is fairly useful. It’s not quite the same thing I was imagining, an actual visual plot graph, but it’s another possible tool in this arsenal; if anything I think the technique might be more effective in a slightly less surreal game, since it would be easier to guess about the causal links and likely outcomes.

I loved when a unicorn was one of the monsters in CABIN IN THE WOODS.

I think that Hadean Lands is a great example in how to make replays work, and yet at the same time it’s not quite an example because the “replays” occur within the game itself. The “automatic repetition” mechanic for rituals works amazingly. Not only does it streamline the gameplay, but it ties into the narrative, and this second part is important to me. Performing the same rituals over and over as you “die” and “awake” isn’t really performing them over and over; you’re creating a kind of aggregate, mass ritual as you go, and your “deaths” sometimes change the environment.

Hadean Lands does have multiple endings. They’re very slight tweaks to the epilogue. But in order to view all these, you’d have to replay the game for real and alter your interactions with the NPCs and dragons along the way. And that would be a pain, which is why people came together in the Hadean Lands discussion thread to compile the different endings.

But Hadean Lands handles this aspect well too, because when you reach any ending, you’re satisfied. You don’t feel like the game is twisting your elbow to play again to see the “real” outcome. However, that’s partially because the game doesn’t obviously indicate that different endings are possible, as CYOAs do by their very nature; and it’s also because the endings are truly very similar. See one, you’ve basically seen them all.

I actually thought that Counterfeit Monkey had a great approach to multiple endings as well. When I finished the story, I knew I had left something important unresolved in a certain private chamber. The game warned me about this and I chose to push ahead anyway, and yet I still got a satisfying conclusion that wrapped up the story and took into consideration the unresolved plot point. I didn’t feel as though I had missed out. My decision not to act was treated as a viable decision that deserved its own resolution.

And for players unlike me who enjoy going back to collect all the points, Counterfeit Monkey accommodated them too. But it didn’t punish me for not being a completionist!

The only thing is that Counterfeit Monkey’s potential for multiple endings wasn’t tied into the narrative. But it didn’t need to be because the game had other goals. Also, it would probably get boring anyway if every game with multiple endings were self-aware about that mechanic.

I do think, though, that if a narrative game is going to require multiple replays like Hadean Lands (even though those were “faux” replays) then it does need to be self-aware. Because the game is then breaking the fourth wall by instructing the player to play again. There needs to be an in-game reason for that.

I never finished Rematch, but I played Aisle and wasn’t too keen on the replay mechanic there.

Well, after this discussion, I am going to try to make a visual map for HUNTING UNICORN. I don’t know how I feel about attaching it to the game itself, because that still seems like it might suggest to players that they need to lawnmower the branches, but I think that making it available for someone who wants to see it would be helpful.

As for the unicorn in Cabin in the Woods, I agree it was great! But I think it falls more into the “outlandish unicorn” category. We see monster after monster appear, some frightening and some hilarious, and then to top it off there’s a unicorn. It worked very well for what the movie was doing. That whole sequence was good!

I should definitely reiterate my recommendation for The Horned Man; “gritty” was not the right description for it. The depictions of the unicorn in it focus around the unicorn tapestries (the actual tapestries in the Cloisters in New York play a big role) and Julius Solinus. It really is exactly the kind of treatment of unicorns you’ve been longing for. (I should say that it isn’t about unicorns wandering around or anything; it’s a campus novel.)

I checked with the library, and one branch has The Horned Man, so I’m slotting that into my queue!

I also made a game map: … rn_Map.jpg

I’m afraid it could be designed better. The branches are all pretty much parallel, which makes the tree short and wide. I didn’t want to stagger the branches to make the image longer because that would suggest that some branches go “farther” than others, which isn’t really the case. Even still, this map does inaccurately suggest that.

I also realized, going back through the game to map it, that although it has sixteen paths, it only has fifteen endings. At one point it had twenty-six, and when I cut down the number (too unwieldy) I must’ve miscounted the remaining total.

Woo, thanks for this!

Well I got The Horned Man from the library and finished reading it this morning. It was a good book, but not what I was expecting! It did take unicorns seriously, although they weren’t featured too much. More just background symbolism for the dual poisonous/curative properties of their horns, and of course how “duplicitous young women” lure these “unicorns” into traps. The unicorn horn here is basically meant to be the ultimate cuckold’s horn.

What I found most interesting were all the bizarre goings-on and irrational links the main character was always forming between events. It reminded me a lot of Roland Topor’s The Tenant, even down to specific elements like how the guy adopted the identity of a dead female predecessor. It didn’t quite work as horror for me, but that doesn’t matter, because I love stuff like this. I’m going to try reading some more by James Lasdun now!