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.