Thoughts on the choice-based trope of offering one single option to advance the story

Just to be explicit, the trope I am referring to looks like this, a horrible bit of doggerel I wrote myself for the sake of example:

I was curious how others feel about this storytelling method.

While it is certainly one of many tools in any author’s toolbox, and no tool should be discarded out of hand, I must confess that it grates on me a bit every time I see it.

In fact, it feels much worse than simply clicking (more) or (next) for me personally. I understand the importance of fitting all text on the screen without scrolling, wherever possible. Often a link like this is employed as a separator just to get you to the next page. But (more) or (next) serve the same purpose and are much more neutral, in my opinion. I suppose that could also just be my own perspective, and others might find them clunky or annoying, but seeking that perspective is partly why I wanted to pose this to the community.

What I don’t like about it is the implication that I have chosen an action for a character to take when it’s clear that I have made no choice at all and simply advanced the text. I come to interactive fiction for the interaction, and this does not feel like interaction. I haven’t told my character to “breathe,” I’ve just clicked the only link on the page you allowed me to click. There’s a sense of being talked-down-to, or being railroaded. A lack of agency. In fact I would even prefer two options providing the illusion of choice, both leading to the same page, over the single option.

I also understand that sometimes the single choice has a specific purpose, usually to demonstrate that in this moment the character lacks agency, or is only going through the motions/doing the next natural thing in the course of their situation. However, I feel like this comes up so often in choice-based IF that it’s become more of a distraction than a meaningful statement. Some games have used this tool really well, but in most of those cases they have taken steps to earn it.

Whenever I encounter this, it feels as if I am reading a book, and the bottom of every page says “if you would like Michael to hurry to catch the bus, read the next page.”

This is probably also just my own malfunction, but I almost feel a compulsion to click through these single choices more rapidly than I might otherwise. Seeing several choices at the bottom of a passage encourages more careful reading; it makes me think “oh! There’s a pivotal decision point here.”

Another part of the reason I bring this up is that it seems it may be one of those topics commonly understood or felt, but not articulated. I don’t wish to call anyone out or make anyone feel bad, but on occasion I’ve gone back through past IFComps and looked through various entries…for the past few years, there always seems to be one entrant at or near the bottom of the list that uses this technique extensively. There may be a correlation between filling a game with these single choices and a dislike among the community, and it could be worth talking about why that is.

What are your thoughts?

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While I tend to prefer games that don’t deprive the player of agency, I don’t mind the occasional single option choice per se.
As you said, functionally it’s just a disguised (more) prompt, but (to me at least) it does a better job of keeping you in the story.

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My opinion is that a single “choice” is okay when used sparingly. It’s like a flavor text version of “continue” and serves the same purpose: to break up long blocks of text.

My issue with this style of choice is when it happens multiple times in a row, or makes up the majority of the story. It’s like saying turning a page in a paperback novel makes it an interactive fiction.

On the other hand, there are many games of this style (and also visual novels) that don’t have any meaningful choices and use the medium to great effect. Babyface is a good example, IMO. But if they’re going to be as bland as that screenshot (couldn’t even bother to change the CSS), I’m going to guess that’s not the case.

Edit: Oops. I just noticed it was a quick demo. I take back that last statement regarding the screenshot. However I’ve seen this in released games way more often than I’d like, to the point that I just assumed.

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I’m going to follow that up with a new comment because I think I originally missed the point of your question. Sorry about that.

I think your feelings on the implication that you’re being forced to breathe (which I imagine the character should probably be doing anyway, or else it’ll be a short story) all depends on your viewpoint of player agency.

Some people like their characters to be mute faceless genderless blobs and others like them fleshed out. Sometimes the fleshed out characters have a bit of autonomy to them. Otherwise it’d be like invasion of the body snatchers and everyone would wonder why John never smiles or speaks anymore.

If you’re okay with your characters having actions they’re likely to take, the “breathe” is okay. It’s probably more aggravating if you want 100% control. But then you probably should be playing a parser game and not a CYOA.

Edit: Oops. I just noticed it was a quick demo. I take back that last statement regarding the screenshot. However I’ve seen this in released games way more often than I’d like, to the point that I just assumed.

Oh, no offense taken at all. I didn’t want to pick on anyone by targeting some random game. The fact that it’s so easy to churn something out that looks exactly like what you’d expect from a single-choice option like that is part of what prompted this; it’s just that prevalent.

If you’re okay with your characters having actions they’re likely to take, the “breathe” is okay. It’s probably more aggravating if you want 100% control.

I don’t think it’s an issue at all as long as there are multiple choices. That’s far less than 100% control, it’s distilling things down as far as possible to the minimum amount of interactivity, but it still counts as an option.

There’s something deep in the human psyche that appreciates choice, even false choice, like I mentioned. It’s like when you give a toddler the choice between peas or carrots, because if you left it an open-ended question they would choose candy, but they need to eat their vegetables. I think to some extent this tactic keeps working on us no matter how old we get. All I need in the moment is to feel like I’ve been able to make some sort of decision, even if that breaks down on replays. (Telltale’s games are starting to fade from public consciousness but to me they’ve always been the quintessential example of this.)

If a character has actions they’re likely to take, they should simply take them. Usually they’re taking them anyway throughout the rest of the text…why am I now being asked to make them breathe, when earlier I was told that they woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across their head? I am accustomed to characters doing as they please most of the time in literature, but it’s the choice that makes IF different. Let me know when there are several possible actions they might take, and then give me the wheel. At least, in my opinion.

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I pretty much agree with what you’ve said. I think I felt the same way subconsciously, which is why I just use a “continue” prompt in the couple demos I’ve written.

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I can’t stand the trope.

Choice based games are largely on rails, so the trick is offer interesting choices that make you forget you are on rails. I also have an aversion to choices where it doesn’t matter at all what you select. If there is no interactivity, then do not fake interactivity, and do not force the player to make choices that they don’t want to make. There must be agency in everything the player does.

I’m not a massive fan of the nihilistic trope that choices don’t matter at all. I was a massive fan of fighting fantasy books when I was young, and you always had the sense that everything you did mattered, even if it didn’t.

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I think every choice should offer you a reason for clicking it. Even if it doesn’t have any impact on the story and immediately funnels you back into the main path, it should reward you with something, like a bit of banter between characters, or internal thoughts on a topic, etc.

I forget who I heard say this (I kind of want to attribute it to zarf, but I could be wrong), but they said that when making a text adventure, every action should be rewarded, whether it be story progression or a humorous/interesting parser response. This is how you get a player invested in your game.

CYOA games are no different. Just think of “meaningless choices” as a parser response that dumps you back to the prompt. As an example of what not to do, there’s Bandersnatch’s “which cereal would you like?” choice that has absolutely no meaning. They might as well have just photoshopped in the different box labels because it meant nothing. For one they should have had the father commending him for a healthy diet and the other being a lecture about eating sugary cereal, as an example. Just, something. Otherwise, just have the character pick a random cereal and eat it without my input.

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I think the “click to advance the story” approach demands really strong writing, because it makes the interaction entirely about pacing and language. I’m also more willing to roll with it if there’s an audio-visual component, so that the story progression is paired with some other change in my experience. I agree with you that it’s not my preferred style of story, but I do think there are ways it could be the right choice for the project.

I’m with you, I would rather see (more) or (next) or something. Maybe it gets repetitive but the thing about standard repeated text is that you stop reading it as text and it just becomes functional, so I’m not bothered by the repetition at all.

However, I much prefer the single choice at the bottom to the more common style of having the (next) link be the last word in the text, or, worse, some random other word in the last sentence, or, worst of all, some random word in the middle of the page. I get that there is maybe room for some subtle signaling by the choice of which word is linkified, but I always find it distracting and it pulls me out of the story. And if it’s not the last word, I’m more likely to click before I finish reading.

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I prefer interaction vs no interaction at all. That means that I’m ok with only one verb present, if that has sense in the context of the current action and flow of the story.

Also, this kind of trope works nicely for the very last option of the game. The finale. Or for the very las option of a conversation with a NPC.

See also But Thou Must! on TV Tropes.

There’s definitely good ways to use the trope:

  • The “multiple synonymous answers” variant is a cute, fourth-wall-breaking way to (perhaps temporarily) sever the connection between the player and the protagonist.
  • The “dead end” variant (where one choice just ends the game, or loops back until you answer “correctly”) encourages the player to engage and identify with the dramatic tension at hand: it’s not just the character who wants to slay the dragon, the player said they would. Even though there’s no effective choice within the story, the player could have quit the game and walked away, but they didn’t.
  • The “meaningless choice” variant (where both choices have effectively the same outcome) can give the player a sense of sprawling possibility (roads not taken!) as long as you don’t let them look too closely.
  • The “single choice” variant can be more flavorful than just “continue” or “more”, and lets you add narrative pauses where the protagonist does something instead of burying them under an onslaught of events with no chance to react.

As an example of the “dead end” variant, in Final Fantasy IV when the King of Fabul asks you to help defend their kingdom, if you answer “no” a fourth-wall breaking “director” yells “cut!” and then the king asks you again. That’s a terrible lurch of tone and pacing, even as a joke, but not many people realise that easter-egg exists: it only shows up a few hours into the game, at which point the player is almost certainly invested enough to answer “yes” immediately.

This is the main reason I use them. There are juncture where it just doesn’t make sense to offer the player a choice (or if you do, it’d only be a contrived one or blatantly empty one). Just having a generic next button isn’t as clear as a particular action if the character is doing something.

Ex.

Text: God you’re tired. Time to hit the hay.

It’s just a bit easier to follow as a reader Imo if the next button says “Sleep” rather than “Continue”.

As for using spararingly or not, I think it only matters if you’re using it for some thematic effect, unlike what I’m describing above because yeah, I think everyone’s tired of choice games explaining to us haugtily that there is no real choice because it’s a game, as if we all did not know we were playing games here when we sit down and play.

Curious to see a lot of people’s frustration with it though. I wonder if it’s a matter of expectation?

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I feel similarly about this too. It reads like “well, I wrote this entire page and need to link to the next one, I’ll just highlight some of the text and make it a link, whatever.”

I see this as an opportunity to flex writing chops instead. “God, you’re tired. You’re half asleep by the time you hit the bed, without even the energy to pull over the covers. Your dreams are no more fruitful at pulling together the tattered threads of this mystery than your investigation today, and when you wake you find yourself rested and exhausted, all at the same time.”

“Sleep” is simple and boring by comparison, and again, I don’t feel like I needed to tell my character to sleep if they were already dead tired.

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I like this Twine convention because “Continue” links are boring and act like a STOP sign. And the fact this ancient trick is still around means it’s good for someone, right?

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I don’t have a problem with it. tayruh said it serves to break up blocks of texts, and I personally find them more interesting than a simple “Continue”, which kind of takes you out of the action a little.

A couple of this year’s Ectocomp 2020 games, “Duck Diary” and “Toadstools” both used this a lot, and I thought it was good for both of them. Specifically, Toadstools uses the “last word/sentence is a link” thing which I kind of like, and Duck Diary uses the “verb at the bottom is the link” thing, which is preferable to continue IMO because it sets an expectation for the next page.

“Continue” is okay I guess, but, particularly if it’s supposed to be a dramatic moment, I don’t want a flashing light to basically say “You are playing a game”. And as someone(s) else said, some PCs have their own voice, and you could view all the choices given as “anything this PC would be willing to do in this situation”.

Really, there’s nothing “inherently” wrong with either style; like anything, it can work if it’s done well.

Also, one last thought:

I see this as an opportunity to flex writing chops instead. “God, you’re tired. You’re half asleep by the time you hit the bed, without even the energy to pull over the covers. Your dreams are no more fruitful at pulling together the tattered threads of this mystery than your investigation today, and when you wake you find yourself rested and exhausted, all at the same time.”

I mean you could write everything after “tired.” on the other side of the “Sleep” choice, and get a little bit of a break in there.

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While Twine mostly leans toward text-based links, a small arrow icon is doable with a bit of code and is even more ancient and accepted in the gaming community. In fact that’s what most visual novels do. It’s neutral, ignorable “white noise” in terms of UI design that doesn’t really take anyone out of the experience.

Also most visual novels set their font size to at least 20pt, have a fixed text window, so an arrow icon has a constant position right under the text, and allow you to proceed by clicking anywhere.

Yes, having some actual UI design is much better than going with a text link. Doesn’t matter if the text link is part of the story or not.

If we’re talking about a bog-standard game, it would take quite a lot of effort to make an arrow that would be screenreader-accessible, always positioned near the text (there’s a huge space between a text passage and screen corners on a desktop monitor) and visually pleasing. By that point, you’re already designing actual custom UI around your engine.

That’s not always true. A lot of games have the animated “next” icon following the last word of text. This is especially true for games in novel mode like Tsukihime, Fate/Stay Night, Higurashi etc. “Novel mode” being that instead of using a small JRPG-like text box, it instead has a transparent full screen window that is overlayed on top of the character portraits and backgrounds. It’s still written one paragraph at a time, but it doesn’t clear the written text with each new paragraph, until the screen is nearly full.

As for the “continue” icon, isn’t that what alt text is for on images and links? I’m not sure what would make navigating to that more difficult than navigating to a text link.

Yes it is.
However as far as I recall in the case of Twine based stories (except for an advance feature of SugarCube) none of the standard methods for generating a link included in the default Story Formats support directly assigning an ALT text to the HTML element(s) of the link.