Making CYOA Challenging

Al-Khwarizmi wrote (in the Offering Typing and clicking Thread):
“That said, I don’t think it’s an interface problem but just that I don’t like the so-called choice-based IF at all. Games with a parser make me actually think, choice-based games don’t require that, they are just like exploring a maze, maybe backtracking from time to time.”

Would you see CYOA differently if more CYOA authors actually made the branch points divert the narrative in different directions, each leading to a different conclusion? This isn’t like a maze, which always has one path and exit. And what if the choices were “hard” to make:

You can research the Ghost of Zimbabu at the library, but by the time you finish the demon spawn may have already scared everyone out of town.
[I know; how many people use the library for research anymore? But work with me here. Pretend the story is set in 1980]
Just grab your Sword of Banishment, take on the ghost, and hope it sends the abomination back to hell. There just isn’t enough time to lolligag.

The particularly astute author will also sprinkle the text with a hint that the townsfolk are very reluctant to leave and imply that the PC has enough time to do the research.

I agree that too much CYOA out there resembles static fiction and the choices are superfluous and arbitrary. But would either of the two approaches mentioned above make CYOA more challenging? Would they distance it from static fiction sufficiently that some parser preferers give CYOA a second look? This assumes, of course, that said parserists don’t mind giving up the illusion that they have unlimited actions available to them.


I grew up on CYOA books, and loved the Lone Wolf series, and played other choice games in the past, and have played through a few Twine games. Personally, I don’t see the difference between turning a page and clicking a button. A CYOA is a CYOA – love it or hate it. I checked out a Let’s play recently of The Yawhg, which is getting good reviews: … -DUED2byso

I think what makes this game successful is the light RPG elements – the feel that you are progressing, and making an impact. There’s also a rogue element to it – you can’t go back until you’ve finished the story. My recommendation, if you want to give the person a more personal play-through, would be to create a short story with many branches, and prevent going back until you’ve finished it, and have to start over. A shorter game would be more replayable, and if there are multiple endings (which is the hallmark of old school CYOA), that would do it.

Personally, I can remember tons of bad CYOA endings from reading them as a kid. The fact that my choices led me to them, made them stick more in my memory. IMO, this is the strength of the medium.

wikipedia says the difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that the latter is the one with a single route, a maze is branching

besides parser-based IF, I’ve ocasionally been playing twine games and modern digital converts from old gamebooks (CYOA+RPG battles). I never played CYOA (or any IF for that matter) as a kid. What I find is that gamebooks and old cyoa are usually too puerile in tone and try to grab the player’s attention by dice rolling combat (every 3 or 5 steps ahead, there’s a new creature to challenge you). Twine is really more about poetic hyperfiction, though it’s flexible enough that I’ve seen quite a good dosage or traditional parser-like gameplay or simple, plain (bad) static fiction paced by clicks. ChoiceScript games are like that too, but they tend to focus on gender-making so you can have a broad choice of sex partners while reading an excuse of an adventure.

when all your “significant choices” in a game are about battling a troll or trying to argue with it - or where you’re sticking your interactive dick next - I fear I’m better served by traditional puzzle-and-exploration parser-based IF: they give me reasons to reason about my actions rather than just read along and ocasionally choosing this or that…

No thanks for the completely unhelpful, puerile, and worthless comment. If you don’t like CYOA games, don’t play them.

Very ironic statement.

Doesn’t everyone just have Namekusejin on their foe list? I know I do. It makes his input to the board so much less annoying.

The thread is about what a CYOA system is capable of - not what has been done already. Even if you don’t like what’s been done in the system, it’s off topic to the thread.

Carrying on…

I also often feel like I’m clicking blindly in CYOA games without a feeling of consequence. But there are ways to mitigate that. In particular, two things I’ve been contemplating lately:

  1. The lessons of parser games can be used to bring concreteness to a CYOA world. Several authors have been experimenting with location-based directional movement in a CYOA world, and that gives a greater feeling of immediacy and responsiveness. (Examples in parts of Hallowmoor, Chemistry and Physics, and their angelical understanding)

  2. Be clear about the potential consequences. If my choice feels like the flip of a coin, I’ll treat it the same way. If there’s something actually riding on the line for the protagonist, let me know what it is and give me some criteria with which to evaluate the situation.

So I’m just gonna get this out of the way right now: most parser puzzles would work in CYOA languages to a greater or lesser degree. A good CYOA language supports inventory and world models just fine, and can even handle text input if you really wanna shoehorn text in there.

But what puzzles are suited to CYOA is a different question.

Puzzles that involve switches are very easy to build and look good in hypertext. Lock-and-key puzzles are best kept simple, since implementing an inventory is awkward and can take up screen space in bad-looking ways. Visual and word puzzles can be effective. Resource or time management puzzles work well in CYOA, but can be not infrequently frustrating for players and should be used carefully.

Short CYOA games that offer a lot of meaningful choices and have different endings that the player can influence effectively are fun to play and replay.

I know this is a graphical game, so forgive me if this is more off-topic than I suspect it might be. I am admittedly not very familiar with many recent CYOA games. But as I’ve been following the topics about choice-based games that have been up recently, one game keeps coming to mind as a particularly well-done CYOA story, and that’s The Wolf Among Us, even if it is graphic and not text-based.

My first reaction upon playing this game was that it was a pretty boring game because I wasn’t mashing enough buttons to solve the puzzles. When I realized that one of the big things that drew me to the game is the story and my impact my choices have on it, I realized that it is actually Interactive Fiction. Granted, I was probably a bit slow/dense in how long it took me to reach that minor epiphany, but my friend had been going on about this great “action/adventure” game that had such great plot lines. There are some great action sequences in TWAU, but they are few and far between and the game wasn’t quite what I expected.

That said, I think this graphic CYOA game has shown me quite a bit about what I want from a CYOA game, whatever the medium. The puzzles revolve around exploring a scene and making the right deductions, such as

If you choose to investigate Toad’s apartment after receiving his call. My first time playing through that scene, I thought he was beating up on his kid, and treated him accordingly. I felt like an asshole when the story finally pointed out that he was the victim and was trying to protect his kid. My next playthrough I sure treated him differently knowing that distinction.

The choices that I make in that game when interacting with NPCs will affect my relationship with them. This in turn can affect the story as in places like

the interactions between Beauty and Beast and getting drawn in or not to their relationship issues. I suspect that the scene at the hotel when Beast finds us together plays out differently depending on previous interactions, but I haven’t finished multiple start/finish playthroughs, so I cannot confirm

And one of the most challenging puzzles in that series so far:

Happens at the end of Episode 1, when you need to make the choice of who to catch based on the information you’ve collected so far. If you catch the wrong guy, you don’t gain any useful information in the interrogation scene later.

I think that with careful consideration, attention to details, and solid writing that a CYOA can be more challenging than some people currently give it credit for, often including myself. I’ve yet to see it properly showcased in a medium like Twine, but that’s not to say it won’t ever be. I’m certain that I won’t be the one to pull it off, because honestly I’m not that clever. But for what their worth, those are my two cents, hopefully not too off topic.

ADDED AFTER PREVIEW: I think that puzzles best suited to CYOA are the types that focus around relationships and world building/story-telling. I hadn’t considered it, but switches sound like an excellent fit. I would likely avoid games with lock-and-key puzzles or inventory management puzzles though, but that’s me.

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A problem with some games is that after one play it felt very non-interactive and no need to go back to try different choices because they all provably result in the same story anyway, even if in fact the game can branch out many different ways.

In the Tin Man Games digital gamebooks they always write out, like in simple paper gamebooks things that could have happened (eg “if you have the cloak of awesomeness taken from a vampire in the tower of awesome adventures, see 41”) making it very obvious that there are intetesting alternative paths to explore. Feels like cheating though, and even many paprer gamebooks hide such meta-knowledge using keywords. Not sure what the best ways are to hint the player without telling them outright out-of-story, which kind of breaks suspension of.disbelief a bit.

Good and challenging CYOA? Seriously? I have only one word for you.


Well, ok, two words: Sorcery! 2.

I know this is unfair and cruel of me, because it’s iOS only, so not everyone can play it, but whenever I think of really, really good CYOA, Inklestudios is what I think of. And possibly the odd Twine game or other, like Castle, Forest, Island, Sea.

EDIT - Mind, we might have to define “challenging”… the challenge of solving a puzzle in parser-IF is a benchmark we can’t use to define “challenging” in CYOA.

That’s what I concluded after making my hypertext version of Cloak of Darkness: basically, it can be done; everything beyond that is just a matter of complexity.

Kingdom Without End is an excellent example of the text adventure “dry goods” puzzles made good in hypertext.

Namekuseijin, can you give an example of an enjoyable parser-based game, and a particular part of it, that gave you “reasons to reason?” Is it even possible to replicate this with hyperlinks? It seems to me that opinions on whether or not choices and their consequences are significant are subjective. And if that is right, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the work uses links or a parser, at least with respect to the importance of the decisions the player needs to make.

Cvaneseltine commented:

“2) Be clear about the potential consequences. If my choice feels like the flip of a coin, I’ll treat it the same way. If there’s something actually riding on the line for the protagonist, let me know what it is and give me some criteria with which to evaluate the situation.”

This is the idea I tried to convey in my example. I wonder, though, about the element of surprise. I think that this approach doesn’t diminish the curiousity factor (what would have happened had I …) since player’s would hopefully still want to know where the narrative is going. But I think there still might be a place for the odd set of choices for which the consequences are not known.

Inurashii contributed:

“… most parser puzzles would work in CYOA languages to a greater or lesser degree.”

Mechanically, yes. But, at least for me, having the solution to a puzzle as one of four choices spelled out for you removes the “Aha! I got it!” moment of puzzle-solving. I remain a bit skeptical about the role of traditional puzzles in CYOA. But I think Emily Short commented on this somewhere and pointed out that a skilled author might be able to write a puzzle that goes through a series of choices. The player needs to have some idea of how to solve the puzzle before the choice selection process begins, and hopefully the author has accomodated the player’s thought process.

Inurashii continued:

“Short CYOA games that offer a lot of meaningful choices and have different endings that the player can influence effectively are fun to play and replay.”

I agree, and I hope people judging Shuffle Comp share our opinion …



here’s a short vignette from Jigsaw:

search dishes
Glancing through the piles of dishes, you come across one with a (rather revolting) circular pattern of mould.

examine mould
It seems to have been contaminated by a spore of mould, because a circular colony of mould has grown across the surface of the agar. Interestingly, near the edge of the mould, the bacteria seem to have gone, leaving only a faint ghost image.

Alexander Fleming, a tall Scotsman in his late forties, strides confidently in and puts down a suitcase. As you hastily hide behind a cupboard, he looks around for something, fails to find it and leaves again.

examine case
A solid slab of a trunk, it bears chalk-marks suggesting that its owner has just returned from the Continent.

get it
It’s far too heavy to actually pick up, except for athletic Scotsmen.

Time passes.

Fleming comes in again, and you hide once more. Something catches his eye on the pile of Petri dishes, and he begins looking through them, in the process burying the only interesting one again. Disheartened, he wanders out.

From here on, the point is clear: you should bring Fleming’s attention to the dish with mould. But how? In a parser game you have to think about it, not being given a few links to click.

But yeah, some cyoa do try to make you think about it. Those are the ones that try to emulate parser IF

Not to swim against the tide, but I can understand where namekuseijian is coming from with the “puerile” bit. A lot of early CYOAs were what I consider “broad” works – “You are a deep sea diver!” – and the text was brief enough (by necessity, because there were so many branches) that it really wouldn’t be satisfying from an emotional perspective or a narrative one as an adult. But as a kid, man, those were awesome.

I look at CYOAs as a different animal from parser IF. If I want puzzles and leisure to explore, I go to parser IF. If I want a strong story that I can direct to some extent, I look to CYOA. Just like if I want a good detective novel I don’t look in the cookbooks and vice versa. Personally, I don’t care for straight fiction with faux choices that just turn pages, so avoid those if possible. But the point is, I don’t demand or expect complicated puzzles from CYOAs. I do demand a good story and engaging writing that keeps me interested.

It all comes down to the craft and skill of the author. If the story is engaging, I’m a lot more likely to forgive a coin toss choice (I think cvaneseltine said it pretty perfectly). I read a CYOA recently that was really entertaining, with a lot of action and what I’d consider just plain fun choices. When my character was running through the sewers, chasing after a kidnapped friend, and skidded to a stop in front of a “go left” or “go right” choice, it felt like a justified gamble rather than a failure on the author’s part. That same choice offered during a jaunt in the woods, with no context, would have been incredibly arbitrary.

And the choices have to serve the story, of course. One thing I don’t appreciate is choices that are misleading or cruel at my expense. I don’t mind if there’s an accidental miscommunication, but if I click “pick up the shotgun”, it shouldn’t result in “you pick up the shotgun and shoot the friendly old man in the face” or “you’re so clumsy you shoot your own head off and die”. Which isn’t to say there can’t be surprising or unexpected events, just that they have to be presented properly. “You pick up the shotgun. The old man, previously friendly, glares at you and grabs his own gun” would be fine.

Just the thoughts of someone who likes parser IF and choice-based IF.

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Is this self-consciously evoking the My Shitty Apartment genre? Had the My Shitty Apartment genre even got off the ground by then?

[rant]Actually, it’s a scenario in Jigsaw. Those dishes are petri dishes. A cute example too, because it’s one of those where the solution consists entirely in manipulating your environment in mechanical ways. There are no pre-set responses to your actions as you move things around, or put things in/on/under other things, there’s only you trying to create a situation that you hope will evoke a response.

It’s a small puzzle that happens to be one of those you can’t really transpose to CYOA. I mean, you can certainly adapt it, but it won’t be the same thing.

Whether one is superior to the other is something I won’t pronounce myself on. I mean, this is a puzzle designed for parser-IF through and through. Of course it’ll take advantage of the medium.[/rant]

EDIT - Tagged the post as “rant” because I now think I misunderstood your post completely, matt w.

Yeah, it was a joke – from the first exchange I thought it took place in a filthy apartment, but then it became clear that it was Alexander Fleming’s historical lab and that the “dishes” were Petri dishes rather than the dishes you eat off of.

Following through with some comments made by absinth and cvaneseltine, I think a few things need to be kep in mind when writing choice-consequence combinations. In life, making choices is similar to throwing a multisided, weighted die, which has a set of outcomes, and each has a probability. What we expect to happen may not actually happen. And we can never know what every surface of the die says, or we may not even know what any of the sides say. So, while spelling out consequences should improve decision-making, a variety of these three choice-consequence designs should, I think, make a hyperlinked work more interesting, as it does in life.

Wow. When I started this thread, I never realized how complicated it can be to design a single choice, set of choices, and series of these sets throughout a hyperlinked narrative. For authors who care about such things, anyway.

I really appreciate the volume of feedback I’ve received in this thread and the other I sdtarted about clicking and typing. It is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusion from data based on a small n and taken from a nonrandom population. Thanks to everyone who increased my n.


I realize that life has no guarantees, but fiction is the illusion of reality and it should have a few. For example, I trust the author to not mislead me unless it’ll be thought-provoking or fun; if he does so out of malice or laziness, I lose that trust. I also trust that the author won’t suddenly change the rules, ie, throw an obscene photo into the middle of a text-based game or suddenly require me to have the sound on to catch a vital clue. I’m aware that what makes me lose trust might not make someone else do so; that’s why it’s an art and not a science, and any rule can be broken if someone has enough skill to pull it off.

But I really don’t like having actions I couldn’t have predicted from the choice offered being dictated to my character. I don’t mind, say, the world interrupting. If I click a link to answer a question posed by a bank teller NPC and a masked man bursts in waving a gun, I’m not annoyed if the action I selected never actually happens. If, on the other hand, the option I selected is “I’m here to cash a check” and that results in my character whipping out a gun and shouting “this is a stick-up”, I’m going to be really annoyed unless the author is extremely good at his job.

Likewise, I don’t mind a “left/right” choice, as long as it feels natural for my character to be there and prior choices have built up my trust in the author. In the game I mentioned above, there were losing endings, some unforeseeable, but never arbitrary. There were also lots of choices that required actual decision making. “Go left” or “go right” is always, ultimately, a coin toss. “Jump off cliff” and “stay on the path” has a pretty obvious right and wrong answer. But when a friend is in danger, and you’re give the option to do something rash that might succeed or retreat sensibly and call for help but risk losing track of them, that’s a choice that requires some thinking, and that’s interesting.

To me, as an avid reader, choice-based games are an extension of books; instead of traveling with the hero and enjoying his sense of agency (or being disgusted by the lack of it) along the way, I get to steer those choices myself. I guess that’s why I don’t care if there are puzzles, in the strict sense, and why I don’t care for the more avant garde or “literary” games.

The problem is that even this kind of choice doesn’t seem to me like it requires much thinking. Maybe the author has written that if you try to save your friend then you fail and he dies, or maybe he has written that that’s the best thing to do and he survives. You are only blindly guessing which path the author decided was the best one. To me, it doesn’t feel much more meaningful than left vs. right.

To this, you may argue that this also happens with choices in parser-based IF (the author may as well have coded that if you try to save your friend, he dies, etc.) But the thing is that in most parser-based IF, the vast majority of the thinking that you need to do is not about choosing between several possible things that you can do, it’s about coming up with the things themselves. If my friend has fallen into a pit and I realize that I can make a rope for him by cutting strips from a bed sheet that I have, that requires actual thinking, and doing it successfully (or even doing it and failing because the sheet was not sturdy enough!) gives me a sense of accomplishment. If the option “try to help your fried climb by using your bed sheet to make a rope” is in plain sight, I don’t need to think. Maybe I do need to ponder if it is sensible to do that because it takes time and an enemy might come, or my friend might be drowned by the water slowly filling the pit, or something like that… but that still boils down to reading the author’s mind and guessing which path she thought was the right one, and ultimately it can be solved by just trying both options.

To this day I still haven’t tried any choice-based IF that actually makes me think, except for some with RPG combat elements with a random factor where you have to think about die rolls and so on.

I guess it’s just I don’t like the genre, I’d rather play a subpar parser-based game made by a newbie than the best choice-based game, but to each their own!

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