We’ve talked more than once about touchscreen devices being a natural venue for Lucasarts-style point-and-click adventure games. With Pendulo Studios making a big push on iOS and releases from Wadjet Eye and Jane Jensen en route, we’re going to be doing a lot more adventuring on our devices this year.
There’s another genre that’s equally at home on a touchscreen that hasn’t received quite as much airtime: interactive fiction. Choice of Games is an outfit that specializes in IF in the style of the choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks that entertained so many children in the barbarous pre-Internet days of the 1970s and 80s. The Fleet was my first brush with Choice of Games, but they’ve got quite an extensive catalog, including a newer title: Choice of Kung Fu.
The Fleet casts you as the captain of a flotilla of civilian and military ships escaping the occupation of their homeworld by a pitiless alien race. You are responsible for the disposition of your fleet’s gunners and fighter pilots to protect your refugees, keeping the peace with the coalition of aliens who may (or may not) come to your aid, and maintaining the loyalty of your xenophobic first officer. It’s not difficult to spot the scaffolding of influences around The Fleet: quite a lot of Battlestar Galactica‘s interstellar exodus, a touch of Mass Effect’s conversational dueling, some Star Trek-style interspecies Realpolitik.
Science fiction pedants like myself will spot the occasional implausibility (deep space combat taking place between ships just a handful of kilometers from one another) but taken on the whole, the script by Jonathan Valuckas is a thrilling pulp paperback adventure, peppered with enough grit and cynicism as to feel contemporary. The game tracks certain attributes and statistics (the relative skill of your gunners, for example, or the amount of fuel in your reserves – all figures you can refer to at any time), and these numbers bear on the decisions you make. If your half-trained fighter pilots have a hard time keeping port and starboard straight, then asking them to perform intricate combat maneuvers won’t lead to a good result for you.
It’s occasionally difficult to determine which numbers are weighing on which decisions, but the choices in The Fleet rarely feel contrived the way interactive fiction often does – on the contrary, I found myself quite fully bought into the narrative and genuinely surprised at the ending of my first playthrough. Quibbles aside, that’s pretty effective writing.
There’s also quite a lot of it – and I don’t mean that in terms of sheer length. A full playthrough of The Fleet will occupy an hour, perhaps, for an average-speed reader – but multiple playthroughs reveal quite a lot of subtlety in the choices. There’s very little branching in the storyline, but your dealings with various characters can come off quite differently. There’s certainly multiple endings – some of the wildly divergent from one another.
One thing that should be said about The Fleet (and apparently, Choice of Games titles generally) is that once you’re past the cover image, there’s no other graphics at all, nor any sound effects. That’s a pity, given the capabilities of the device in your hands. Compared to something like The Message, The Fleet is a visually bland experience.
But on the other hand, that also makes The Fleet more like a book – a novella that you’re steering, if not exactly composing. Reading on an iPad or an iPhone is also something we’re quite used to, thanks to Kindle and iBooks, and adds to the feeling that interactive fiction has found a real home on mobile devices. Reading from a computer screen is what we do for work, reading from a tablet is what we do after hours – preferably with a cognac.