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Shades of Bad and Plaid

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I’ve more or less finished Fifty Shades of Plaid (Parody Brothers, Kindle Unlimited 2014), a bottleneck-and-bottleneck Choose Your Own Adventure story that’s a parody of Fifty Shades of Grey. The technical term is branch and bottleneck, but the branches never get much farther than a choice or two from the trunk before returning there, and at times you are even scolded for trying to make a silly choice (in a parody CYOA!), then sent back to the “correct” choice. Despite the tendency to railroad the reader, there are plenty of endings, though many seem jarringly random in their choice of whether you will stay with the tall, rich, and mysterious Christian Plaid or move on to other men. Still, there are some surprises you can miss if you happen to move on.

The story is far more effective as a parody than as an adventure; the problematic characterization of the original cast is only compounded by their satirization, and what few choices you have never lead to any notable character development or change in the nature of your subsequent options. There are fewer sex scenes than I expected, and most of them were more slapstick than erotic, though you might not want to let this tall tale fall into the hands of the traditional CYOA audience. Still, it’s worth a read for George Takei alone.

I’ve more or less given up on How to Be Bad (Michael La Ronn, EPUB 2014), which is not to say it’s a bad story, but it’s too linear to support much rereading; the bottleneck-and-bottleneck structure is harder to tolerate in a longer story like this one. You start out as lawyer passed up for promotion to partner who makes a deal with a devil to get revenge. Of course the deal is not quite what you thought it would be, and you have to collect some souls or else. Whether you lose your own soul in the process seems as arbitrary as whether you stayed with Christian Plaid or not in Fifty Shades of Plaid, though it wasn’t clear to me whether this was intentional on the author’s part or just an unintended result of bugs in the story.

Otherwise, the writing was good, the tale was entertaining, and there were some clever do-over options to keep the reader from having to start over after getting deep into your third soul. But I’m not expecting any sequels; though the author trademarked his series title (Decision Select: Every Choice Counts) and wrote a how-to book, he seems to have abandoned both the story (which is no longer available on his website, only at Goodreads) and the genre itself in favor of SFF.

I took a look under the hood (the EPUB is free as in beer and as in speech) to figure out how the games were done. They felt scripted, but there was no scripting inside the epub, only 2,776 individual files, of which 464 were oops, you didn’t make a decision pages. And not all of those followed genuine choices; about 170 such warnings followed single chokepoint links (Continue), and many of the remaining choices were merely a means of re-inputting the decisions you’d made earlier in the story. While the author discussed the book back in the day, he didn’t mention how he constructed it. Once upon a time Inkle Studios would convert stories with scripting to Kindle eBooks without it, and I wonder if that service was involved here.

In any event, scripting was definitely involved; [in the version I downloaded] there were some consistent typos that can only have been created and overlooked by a computer. For example, there were 64 occurrences of “n out 5” that should have been “n out of 5” in your trivia quiz results. On the other hand, inputting your soul colors sometimes fails—something a computer ought to do well—and my manual search around the book for the correct list may have led to my impression that the final outcome was unpredictable, because it turned out there was more than one way to reach at least some of the eight possible soul-color collections. A more serious failure of navigation was your opponent’s final decision in the game show showdown, which often contradicted both the previous events and the subsequent reactions of the characters; it seemed like another computer-generated typo.

Of course I’m a tiny bit tempted to code a Twine-to-EPUB converter not unlike the old Inklewriter-to-Kindle converter. The intermediate step of actually being able to autoplay an entire Twine story tree is something I’ve thought about before; it would be useful for testing. But I know the Twine ecosystem too well to underestimate the task; I’m not about to make a deal with that devil.