James Renner on the modern answer to classic Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks

A few months ago I was on my Mac, surfing free online gaming sites with my seven-year-old son — we enjoy those mindless, clickable games like Kingdom Rush and Mushroom Farm Revolution — and I saw that Newgrounds was promoting a new "game" called StoryShift. When I realized what it was, I got all jittery with excitement. For years I'd been thinking about ways someone might update those addictive Choose Your Own Adventure stories from my youth. I could never quite crack it, though. But that's exactly what Canadian app developer Marco Arsenault managed to do with StoryShift.

After working at Ubisoft in Montreal for five years, Arsenault struck out on his own, setting up a small office in his house, where he coded late into the night. He had this idea for an app that would allow comic artists to deliver new content directly to fans. Then he realized his app could allow readers to communicate directly with the artist. Why not make it an interactive experience? Was there a way they could give suggestions for the direction of the story? Why limit it to comics?

When StoryShift launched in February, the first chapters of a dozen stories were offered. There was a really cool scifi comic, Kansas (about a guy coming out of stasis aboard some interstellar ship), an absurdist comedy, Donut Adventure, and a fantasy story called Ashfall that showed a lot of potential. The first chapter of Kansas was fourteen pages long and ended with a choice for readers: what would the main character use for a weapon against the space monster: a shard of glass, a length of rebar, or a sparking cable. The rebar idea got 1,283 votes, more than the others, and so when Chapter 2 was released a month later, author MK Douma wrote it into the story.

Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure stories of yore, there's an element of suspense in the choices; your vote counts as much as anyone else's and while your reactions are shaping the story as it progresses, you have no real control over the combined preferences of the hive mind. You may feel for the characters involved in these stories and want to use your votes to protect them the best you can (from the author and the other voters) but some readers just want to watch the world burn.

Five minutes after learning about StoryShift, I was motivated to contact Marco Arsenault. "I must be a part of this!" I implored. "Who do I have to kill?" I'd been kicking around this idea for YA zombie story that took place twenty years after the apocalypse and followed two young explorers as they made their way across the United States to search for remaining pockets of humanity. I had the basic idea but I didn't quite understand how to shape the story. Why not let readers decide? And so Expedition Z was born. The first chapter ended with a major decision: who would young Adam Foster take with him on his journey across the waste lands of America? Spoiler alert: readers chose the girl.

Voting just wrapped on Chapter 10, and, so far, my readers have voted for Adam to wield a scythe against the zombies, to have sex with the daughter of a community leader, and to spare the life of a turncoat. It's always a bit of a surprise as to how the vote falls and a challenge to write the next chapter in the week turnaround allotted to authors.

Six months in, StoryShift has yet to really catch on. It's one of those ideas that feels five years too early, I think. What it needs is one big-time author, someone of Stephen King's caliber, to jump aboard and start playing with readers. I've reached out to the writers in my rolodex, everyone from John Scalzi to Gillian Flynn, but nobody wants to be the first to test the waters, in case it fizzles out and they're left looking like a boob.
Meanwhile, StoryShift keeps blazing a trail. Readership continues to rise, slowly but steadily. The one thing I've noticed is that the fans of Expedition Z don't go away. There has literally been no drop-off. They return after each chapter to vote on the direction of the next. That shows addiction-level interest, what any great app strives for. And it's free. Totes free.

StoryShift's Newgrounds page

StoryShift's Facebook page.