As spicy as you want it: interactive fiction games put forward a new kind of narrative

<span>‘We offer escapism, we offer fantasy. It is a place to go when the things happening around you are not as enjoyable,’ said Kate Fahlsing, director of creative strategy at Chapters.</span><span>Photograph: NETFLIX</span>
‘We offer escapism, we offer fantasy. It is a place to go when the things happening around you are not as enjoyable,’ said Kate Fahlsing, director of creative strategy at Chapters.Photograph: NETFLIX

In late May, in a $58m Bel Air hilltop mansion, influencers, reality stars and other Angelenos milled around Netflix-branded TV screens displaying choices to be made: Are you a Gemini or a Capricorn? What color are your eyes? What is your occupation? The party marked the launch of the streaming giant’s latest offering: a slate of Choose Your Own Adventure-style mobile games inspired by its most popular reality television shows, and attendees were selecting the traits of their digital avatars.

“I better be a character!” Selling Sunset star Jason Oppenheim exclaimed as he paused near the top of a staircase that led to a reflecting pool with the Netflix logo floating in it.

“I would like to be able to buy property – kind of like Monopoly. I would like to be able to win,” he riffed. “I would definitely like my character to be able to beat up my brother.” (His twin, Brett, is also a star on the show.)

“And it would be cool if my character was tall, because that would make no sense,” the famously 5ft 6in real estate broker added. “I would be more likely to play.”

Selling Sunset is one of the popular reality franchises Netflix has integrated into new games set to launch this year. The flashy debut marks a further integration of Choose Your Own Adventure-style games – or interactive fiction, as the genre is more formally known – into the mainstream. Such games, which function like a novel in which a player’s choices determine how the narrative unfurls, have exploded in popularity in recent years, boosted variously by the pandemic, developments in mobile gaming technology and growing public interest.

The four games announced by Netflix this month come after what the company called a great success with past interactive fiction games, beginning with its launch of a game based on the show Too Hot to Handle in 2022. Each new game will launch alongside the latest season of its respective series, with Perfect Match out now and games based on The Ultimatum and Selling Sunset to be rolled out over the course of 2024, along with the latest “season” of Too Hot to Handle.

Meanwhile, mobile apps that have long been popular in the interactive fiction space have soared in user numbers and downloads in recent years. Episode, the most widely used of the interactive fiction platforms, saw an increase in users throughout 2023, culminating in 271,000 weekly active users in the final week of the year. Chapters, another top player in the space, had had 5.5m monthly active users in 2022 - a massive increase from 2.5m monthly active users in 2019

“We were on a path to great success early on, but I think that the pandemic kind of threw gasoline on that,” said Kate Fahlsing, director of creative strategy at Chapters. “People were stuck at home with uncertainty, and had a lot of time to be on their phones. We offer escapism, we offer fantasy. It is a place to go when the things happening around you are not as enjoyable.”

Across all demographics, Fahlsing said, there is a broad appeal to being able to control a story. In a world with countless streaming platforms and options to consume, people are often taking content in, but rarely get to take an active role in shaping it.

“We are so used to passive engagement with stories,” she said. “But when you play a mobile, interactive story game, when you’re physically tapping the screen to get from one line to another – there is a real corporeal effect that happens as you actively engage with the story. People really love having agency.”

The abiding interest in controlling narratives is something Netflix is banking on with its new offerings, Leanne Loombe, the streaming platform’s head of external games, said. “Members can be the stars in the shows they love – they have the ultimate amount of freedom to just play the way that they want to play.”

Interactive fiction games are “definitely having a moment right now”, said Megan Schwarz, who worked as the head of writing at one of the top games in the space for nearly a decade before recently leaving to launch her own venture.

“These kinds of mobile games have been around for a bit, and we’re seeing bigger and bigger players dip their toes in the water,” she said. “But with the launch Netflix is doing, they’re jumping in the deep end.”

To play an interactive fiction game, a user typically selects an avatar, customizing its skin color, name and outfit. Then the story begins, throughout which the player selects from a handful of choices for each stopping point: Do you kiss the mysterious stranger, or hold back? Do you fight your cheating ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, or ignore her? Playing these games replicates the feeling of being immersed in a novel – often a very saucy one. Many of the games can be extremely explicit, verging on outright pornographic literature while still being available to anyone with a smartphone. In sex scenes, the choices are more lewd – though nudity is blocked out.

Often more interesting choices or consequential story paths require payment with in-app currency like diamonds, which can be earned through game play, watching ads or buying packs of diamonds directly. Some games offer subscription services that include more choices, with Chapters offering a VIP membership for $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year.

Netflix’s games mostly work the same way, though the stories center mostly around reality TV shows and do not require in-app purchases to make choices. Game play is included in Netflix subscription costs, and the apps do not have advertisements.

With interactive fiction, creators have found more customizable games are better received. Netflix worked to add inclusive persona choices: players get to choose their pronouns and can make a character with a hearing aid, prosthetics, vitiligo or a glucose monitor, as well as tweaking their eyes, skin and hair color.

At the Netflix launch party, senior game producer Allie Habeeb walked a reporter through the choices players make as they create a persona in the Too Hot to Handle game – from their astrological sign, to their interests, to their profession: “glassblower”, “dog psychologist”, “HR associate”. They also get to personalize the look of their love interest.

“He should be wearing a shirt,” Habeeb mused, as she added piercings to her character’s first date, a German chef with a man bun. The game gets spicy very quickly – a few choices of flirtatious banter in and the characters are making out. A few more moves, and a pink curtain descends over the action. “This is what happens when you get even more intimate,” Habeeb explained, as the explicit text of the game continued.

Habeeb noted that there are always choices that let players avoid a steamy scene if they’re just not feeling it. The game is also designed to be replayable, with different choices leading to different outcomes. The biggest fans of the game will play it again and again. “There were people with Too Hot to Handle – they figured out every possible path,” she said.

As such games have gained fans, it’s likely you’ve come across their racy, sometimes ridiculous advertisements on social media: Your husband is cheating on you, do you throw him out or stay together? Your vampire lover has proposed marriage – do you comply, or will you discover a terrible secret about him? Screenshots of such wacky promotional material have gone viral – not always in a positive light. So for longtime players, the explosion in the games’ recent popularity has been a surprise.

“The ads make it look absolutely insane,” Melody Pond, a 24-year-old who has played the interactive fiction game Episode for more than 10 years. In the past, she felt as if she had to keep her interest in the app under wraps. “People think it’s immature, or for kids, but there are some really insightful stories.”

Schwarz, a veteran of the interactive fiction space, said these apps sit at the intersection of literature and gaming, and are often stigmatized on both fronts. People in the gaming world are less likely to take mobile games seriously, while many in the book world frown upon romance novels – despite the genre’s enduring popularity.

With titles like Billionaire Daddy, Pregnant by My Ex’s Dad and Once Upon a One Night Stand, the stories offered by Chapters may sound like pulp fiction. But many players come for more than just titillation. Pond said she started playing the games because she had a goal to read more. For her, the apps feel like more engaging romance novels, with all of the intrigue and plot twists of a torrid affair in which she gets to choose the ending.

“I like reading books, but they weren’t really cutting it for me any more. I wanted a story I could control,” she said.

Creators at Chapters recognize that appeal, and capitalize on it, said Fahlsing. They take the storytelling aspect as seriously as users do, collaborating with bestselling authors for stories, adapting novels to the app’s structure and hiring writers to create original content in house. And to that end, the company has made a conscious effort to avoid bringing artificial intelligence into the creative process, bucking the wider tech industry’s enthusiasm for new generative AI features.

“I feel strongly that nobody understands big feelings better than people,” Fahlsing said. “In apps like ours, people need to make big, emotional decisions – AI is not built to inform those things.”

Chapters creators are conscious that these games sit at a unique intersection of creative storytelling and technology, said Amanda Glassman, senior narrative designer for the platform. The stories are controlled by users, and are in turn shaped by their desires and their data. Developers gauge user engagement in real time, tweaking content to meet demand – changing the dialogue and play options throughout the games, and emphasizing more popular storylines more broadly. Pregnancy tales, for example, are always a big hit.

The draw to stories that can be controlled, with avatars that can be made to look exactly like the user, may be particularly resonant for members of marginalized communities who have fewer opportunities to see themselves in media. The vast majority of Chapters users – around 80% – are women.

“We’re a team of primarily women telling women’s stories, and our audience is primarily female,” Glassman said. “In the gaming space – and in most industries – that doesn’t exist. It’s an accomplishment we are really proud of.”

Some longstanding apps allow users to generate their own content, making that engagement even more active. Episode in particular allows users, through its feature called Studio, to build their own stories. This has created a cottage industry of coding and design assistance among fans. Perhaps the most widely known in that space is Dara Amarie, an Episode user who created a website to help hobbyists customize games to their liking. She has become so popular in the community that people ask for her autograph at game-related events, she said. After first downloading Episode in 2014, Amarie said she is shocked to see how much the space has grown.

“Being one of the original people who downloaded the app, and seeing where these games are now, I am just proud to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s amazing to see where it has gone.”

  • Lois Beckett contributed reporting

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