Elusive Pathways in Unearthed Stories

Why write? Why fantasy or sci-fi at all? To me, at least, the gist is speculative fiction which was defined as “an encompassing genre that freely explores possibility and impossibility alike”1. That definition captures what writing means for me, as I generally use it to explore themes or ideas of interest to me and find new things.

I began reading as a child, and back then, I wanted more; new things, new ideas, new characters. Books that would show me something different, something I hadn’t encountered before, something to awe me with whatever I hadn’t considered so far… and that stuck throughout my life. In terms of writing, that search for novelty manifests in a desire to learn how to do something I haven’t yet done as a challenge to myself.

Both learning and novelty are present in Unearthed Stories… so when we (i.e., partner and I) started working on it, we decided that our updates would be themed. With this, I can pursue that exploration in two ways:

  • First, to examine specific themes or topics to develop thought-provoking stories that are perceived differently by the reader’s personal experience. Whether I managed it or not is for my readers to decide, but I certainly try.

  • Second, to test new mechanics (i.e., the interactive element)… mainly because the interplay of storytelling and mechanics is crucial. I will elaborate more on this one below.

With that said, our first two updates (Cats Take Over, which brought Herald: A Flawless Spy, and Gifts Season in December 2023) centred on cosy stories… and although Herald taught me a lot, the newest update tops everything I’ve written both in complexity and experimental features.

As an update, Elusive Pathways is about escaping and finding a path. It offers two books, each with different moods.

  • Reflections is darker and more introspective. The main character is (unconsciously) aiming to escape from their own past; thus, searching for a path refers more to what that character can do to move forward; the ’escape’ is figurative, not literal. As a reader, you need to uncover what past events the character is escaping from and whether they need to flee.

  • Means of Egress is more adventurous since it is set as a dungeon-crawler. Nope, it is not about somebody playing a game but an actual character tasked with traversing and surviving the dungeon to find glory… whatever that means. So, while you have a literal theme of escaping, there is also a more nuanced and overarching question of ‘what is the path’ in a figurative, metaphorical way. After all, the dungeon as a setting is an allegory for the broader philosophy within this one.

However, I wanted to focus on the mechanics and how the interactivity happens in these books. Allow me to, finally, dive deep into it.

Elusive Pathways: The Mechanics

There are many definitions for this, mechanics are “the aspects of the game design, or rules, in which the player follows within the game world”. In other words, what the player does to interact with the game—thus, in Mario Bros, you jump and avoid; in Pokemon, you catch them all, and so on.

At a fundamental level, in Unearthed Stories, you make choices to change the plot of a book… but early on, when I started writing, I went haywire and decided to exploit the medium of interactivity to influence the engagement. I wrote about this in Jamedi’s blog, but if you read my other books with choices, you may have noticed that I used lack of choice to make the reader feel as trapped as the main character (Restorers), to deprive them of knowledge (Mien), and to make them ’live through’ some side-effects of depression (Dance With Me). In the particular case of Elusive Pathways, I wanted to do two things:

  • Give the reader partial control by having stories with multiple points-of-view (PoV), where the reader controls only one. This is curious because books-with-choices (or choose-your-own-adventure, as they are often called) are, almost always (to my knowledge)2, written from a single PoV. But given my penchant for novelty and learning, I wanted to try multiple PoVs in a text-based interactive story… and guess what? I did it.

  • To break the fourth wall in a way that would contribute to the actual plot. If you’re ever played Doki Doki Literature Club3, then you likely know what I mean.

Multiple Points-of-View (PoV)

Unearthed Stories is text-based, meaning that the interface differs little from an ebook, and the primary type of engagement is reading. In single-PoV stories (like Restorers, Herald, Mien, or Dance With Me), you know the choices offered belong to the narrating character. This is also aided by the fact that both the narration and the choice are always in the same style—namely, first-person present tense.

However, in Elusive Pathways I wanted to introduce a simple (spoiler alert: easier said than done) mechanic:

  • There are two PoVs,
  • which may or may not narrate the same thing (e.g., they alternate or overlap), and
  • the reader controls one PoV only (henceforth, the controlled PoV).

You can imagine that I was promptly and thoroughly swarmed by questions. How can I make the PoV switch clear? How can I indicate which PoV the choice corresponds to? How long can the uncontrolled PoV go for? How can I show the bias of each PoV? How would the bias of PoV affect the interactivity and choosing?

They were not easy questions, but I ended up resorting to something I tried in Restorers and Herald. In Restorers, the robot’s choices are written as pseudocode, for example: accept_message(). Meanwhile, in Herald, when the cat protagonist wants to speak, he meows… which are the sounds of his language, Felinish, and thus written in another font.

However, I didn’t want to change the font permanently because we chose Noto for readability, especially after doing a thorough study on good fonts for dyslexics. Thus, I decanted for something simpler: using text alignment and styling (i.e., italics vs normal font).

This way, one character speaks in normal right-aligned text, while the other uses left-aligned italicised text. Since the single-PoV stories use the former only, I chose that one for whatever character controlled the narrative. By extension, the choices are styled as per the corresponding PoV; see screenshots below.

Interestingly, while the reader only explicitly controls one PoV, they implicitly affect the other. You could say that the consequences of a reader’s choices develop two characters and not only one. Of course, the effect doesn’t have the same impact on the controlled character compared to the uncontrolled one.

Something else that comes from this is the narrowness of the narrators. In one story, one PoV gets ahead of the other by assuming that some events that have not yet happened have already happened… but when the choices are offered, they are not prescriptive. For example, CharacterA (uncontrolled) assumes Option2 is taken, but CharacterB can take Option1 and Option2. See the screenshot below:

That opposition is jarring at first (at least, according to beta readers), and it is exactly what I was going for. How often has somebody attempted to prescribe how you behave, but you knew very well you could still act differently? In those cases, the options have two meanings:

  • A literal meaning, which is the actual action described in the choice, and
  • An implied meaning which is obey (and act like the uncontrolled character assumed) or disobey.

Both meanings (literal and implied) affect the storyline in multiple ways. At a bird’s eye view, these choices seem quite simplistic (e.g., go here or there, think this or that), but there is a lot more to unpack from them.

What can I say? I find such possibilities very enthralling.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

I once played Doki Doki Literature Club3 and decided that I had to one day try to break the fourth wall, I will not claim to be at that level of mind-blowing magnificence. My attempt was very different, and the only thing in common was the goal of doing so in a way that was part of the plot.

But what is the fourth wall? It is “a performance convention in which an invisible, imaginary wall separates actors from the audience”4 and, thus, breaking the fourth wall is basically making references from within the in-book world to the outside world. Now, in literature, a writer can incur in metalepsis, namely, when a character acknowledges they are fictitious… but I didn’t want that either!

Instead, I aimed to somehow induce an interaction between reality and story5. I don’t think I managed to do it with the complexity and extent I envisioned (I had a case of scope creep in this particular book), but I’m a bit satisfied with how it ended.

What did I do, then? I’ll keep this short since I don’t want to spoil the experience, but to entice you to read it:

  • In one book, the uncontrolled character expulses the controlled character (within the narrative), which results in the reader-player being expelled from the story… and back to the menu.

  • In that same book, there is an acknowledgement that the narrative is a narrative; however, that doesn’t mean it acknowledges to be fictitious. There is a reason for this, and the plot (and my author notes!) will explain it.

  • There is a tiny moment (whose occurrence is randomised and can be missed) in which it is implied that the player is the main character’s consciousness.

  • One book remembers you. If you play it from beginning to end, it will change forever, and you won’t be able to read the original. There is both an in-book reason and an allegorical reason for it (this story is highly philosophical). I was attempting to get the reader to experience something similar to what the main character does, as I did with Dance With Me.

Cover Reveal

Before signing off, I need to thank those that helped us with the cover reveals! Also, check their sites, because it’s really worth it!

Overall, Elusive Pathways brings the most complex and unusual stories I have written so far, and it accomplished exactly what I wanted—I learned so much. While I have written many unpublished books (which I hope one day to publish), interactive fiction allows me to tell diverse stories and be creative through a different medium.

I promise the next book-with-choices will be mildly more standard (don’t take my word for it). I don’t want Wolfe-level-of-strangeness either (I recently read Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and it was mind-blowing), but enough to learn and satiate that need for novel exploration.

That said, the Elusive Pathways update lands on both Android and iOS on April 16th, 2024… but that’s Australia’s time, and since we are in the future (GMT+11, to be accurate), it may very well mean April 15th for everybody else.

You can prepare yourself by installing Unearthed Stories from now! It’s free, and you’ll make me very, very happy!

  1. Southern New Hampshire University’s definition of speculative fiction↩︎

  2. I say ‘almost always’ with the caveat that such a statement is ’to my knowledge’. Meaning that I have played text-based CYOA games and have not encountered multiple points-of-view in them. I have, however, found story-based games (with visuals!) that have multiple points-of-view (e.g., play with one character, then play with another). Nevertheless, adding visuals opens up an entirely new paradigm, simplifying many of the constraints of a text-based environment. This comparison could be a blog post on its own, so I’ll leave it here. ↩︎

  3. Doki Doki Literature Club is free to play. Do not let the visuals deceive you; it is purposefully meant to ‘downplay’ the game until the amazing revelation of how it breaks the fourth wall. To give you a hint, Doki Doki’s genre is considered to be “metafictional psychological horror” (!!). Make of that what you will. ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Wikipedia has a nice article on the fourth wall, and although Wikipedia shouldn’t be cited, I found that one to be a good summary. TV Tropes has another quirky article, which is also an easy read. ↩︎

  5. Yes, it would be valid to argue that “inducing an interaction between reality and story” where “a fictional character does not acknowledge to be fictitious” is not breaking the fourth wall. It’s a great meta-discussion to have, to be honest, and there may be another name for what I did… but I don’t know such a name. However, positing the nuances of what ‘breaking the fourth wall’ is or isn’t was not the goal of this blog post, and I ought to remain on-topic. ↩︎