Choice of Robots Review
From 'Choose Your Own Adventure' to 'Build Your Own Novelette'... with robots!
Choice of Robots makes you scratch your head and wonder why you haven’t played this particular style of game before. We all remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books that our elementary school library had stacked together, over in the corner where the entire Hardy Boys, Babysitter’s Club, and Boxcar Children sets were nicely lined up. Any decent self-respecting fourth-grader got through a few of these plot-branchers, and some of us (cough, cough) may even have devoured dozens of them while the rest of the kids were busy playing handball.
Much of the ‘book-game’ focuses on your own personal robot: build her well!
But then puberty slammed into us, and we suddenly ditched our old reading buddies for more sophisticated literature (you know, like Goosebumps!), leaving choice-based fiction on that shelf by the other “hundred issue” series. It’s honestly puzzling to think that even with the onset of DVDs and modern adventure games, truly variable fiction hasn’t seemed to have caught on much. Enter Choice of Robots, here to either help fix this problem, or show us why it is the case.
Just to save time for that particular half of gamers (we all know that half), let’s say right off the bat: Choice of Robots has no graphics. There… are they gone? Yes, that’s right. No pictures, no logos, not even the decency of a loading screen. It is strictly focused around presentation of text, and player interaction is entirely limited to the choices that they make as the story continues. At first you’re given basic character set-up choices: gender, name, looks, etc, but then as the surprisingly vast slog of options continues, you quickly get into the story-focused choices, familiar to any Telltale fan. Should you go on a date with the tall hunk, or stay and work on your research? Should you run from the dark stranger, or take out your taser and… enlighten him?
The problem with interactive, variable fiction is that the payoff almost never justifies the amount of work required to make it functional. In order to truly make choices meaningful, developers need to double down - no - ‘quadruple down’ on the amount of content produced for the game, most of which will never be seen by the player. This is why Telltale episodes only last 2 hours each, but have to be packed with much more than that amount of material. The advertising for Choice of Robots boasts a robust 300,000 word count for the game, only a fraction of which can be seen in a single playthrough.
Plotlines can verge on melodrama, but then, it’s a story about killer robots, remember?
So it’s to the game’s credit that a novelette-length story really can be so variable, not only giving you such a flood of choices, but also doing an admirable job of showing off the effects of your choices as the game continues. With so many factors combining together, it’s no shame that here and there a few details seem to slip through the cracks (in my first playthrough, my robot started off as a tiny flying hovercopter, but somehow morphed into a sixty-pound anthropomorphic biped).
The game also makes good use of our modern RPG elements; oftentimes, the choices you make won’t have an immediate impact on the story, but will rather affect a character trait that could come into play later. For example, choosing to build your robot more robustly might increase your military stat, but decrease your ‘grace’ stat. Build up enough money as the story progresses, and you’ll be able to unlock choices that only a millionaire could make in the game’s world. It’s a refreshing use of RPG stats, and a clear example of how Choice of Robots simply couldn’t work as a paper-bound book: this type of entertainment could only be a game.
That said, the biggest complaint to be levelled against the experience is also a result of it being so devoted to variability. Sure, there are theoretically hundreds of slightly differentiated stories to be read here… but are any of them any good? Covering an entire 30-year period over only a few chapters makes everything feel very rushed and haphazard: characters must be dropped entirely if their particular story path isn’t chosen, and the tone and development of the story becomes extremely uneven. In one section, I’m worried about which romantic interest I prefer, but in the next, I’m literally talking an army of killer robots into absolute pacifism. Choice of Robots is a changeling novel that can morph as you play it, but the result is that none of the stories you go through are truly focused on a unified conflict or tone.
Your choices reflect your character. Your story reflects your choices.
To once again compare to those beloved Choose Your Own Adventure books, we all remember those stories where our protagonist sets out to solve a murder, gets side-tracked with a pumpkin-picking project, and then makes a wrong turn on the path home and gets eaten by crazed baboons. Not much of a story, really. To make another unfair comparison, the Telltale Walking Dead games are currently a gold standard of variable fiction quality, and yet what makes their stories so compelling is that the player actually has almost no control over the story itself (only characters within the plot). Letting the player hold sway over the events of the story means sacrificing nuance and structure.
However, at only five dollars, Choice Of Robots is definitely worth at least a peek, although more so for those who liked choice-based books during a younger age. Fiddle with the choices, push your character in an odd direction, and see what happens to you as the story unfolds. Just don’t expect a nice Stephen King read out of it.