Choose Your Erotica

Parser-based AIF — “adult interactive fiction” — has been around for a long time, though it has generally had its own forums and meeting places; every once in a while someone would turn up on rec.arts.int-fiction with a coding question about layered clothing, or submit an adult game to a competition, but for the most part AIF didn’t overlap much with the main IF community. I did play a few pieces, but they were usually aimed unambiguously at heterosexual men. A common structure was to have a series of puzzles that would “unlock” sex scenes with assorted partners. (Here’s a review I did back in 2006 of Ron Weasley and the Quest for Hermione, for instance.) Sometimes these were cut-scenes, but sometimes you could use parser commands to do a play-by-play of which parts went where.

As choice-based IF has become more prevalent, so has choice-based, female-POV erotica. Here I take a look at several. I’m not going to be quoting long passages or posting images, but this may still not qualify as SFW depending on where you are.

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Tales from The House (Cassie Alexander) is a Twine implementation of the author’s paper CYOA of the same name. The premise is that you’re recently divorced from an unpleasant marriage (what happened with your ex doesn’t really come up again, but establishes that you don’t have any current relationship commitments) and you receive an invitation to “The House”. It’s a variant on the “inexplicably invited to a sex party” concept, with a side of the “eccentric billionaire decides to make you the object of his eccentricity” trope.

You get a couple of “opt out” chances right at the beginning, where you can decide not to get involved and end the experience entirely instead. In general I tend to find choices like that unproductive, since they simply let the player stop participating before story has happened. Here I suppose they may have a little more of a point, encoding the idea that the protagonist’s consent is explicitly required at every step along the way.

After the initial “join in or not” decision, most choices are about what kind of experience you want to sign up for — do you go through the door that leads to two naked men, or the one that leads to a bathtub and a robed woman? will you take on a dominant role or a submissive one? — rather than what you want to do once involved in a scene. Quite a lot of text goes by between choice points, and a fair amount of it describes things that your character chooses to do, without the player’s further intervention. As a result, though you have agency over which scenes you’re going to participate in, you have little agency over the scenes themselves when they happen.

The experiences you choose are not mutually exclusive. If you have the bath, you can come back and visit the naked gentlemen later. In fact the story strongly encourages you to try everything that interests you before proceeding to the endgame. It is thus structured less for repeated playing/reading than for a single, comprehensive read-through. I found that comprehensive experience a bit overwhelming, though — there’s a lot of content here, and there are only so many sex scenes I can read in a row before glazing over a little bit. (“Doesn’t the protagonist just want a NAP at this point?” I found myself thinking, after her seventh or eighth partner.)

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Fetish Fair (Erzabet Bishop) is a SilkWords story about a woman who winds up unexpectedly at a BDSM convention through the connivance of her friends; she doesn’t realize where they’re dragging her, but she has to play along when she gets there. As is common for SilkWords, individual playthroughs are pretty short, with only three or four choice points before the ending, and long prose passages in between. Though various partners are available, any given playthrough of the story will feature just one main encounter: a hands-on “demonstration” on food play, a visit to the stall of a custom corset-maker.

Bishop has written a number of other SilkWords pieces, including Temptation Resorts, where a young woman is persuaded by more adventurous friends to try out a kinky resort; and Holiday Cruise, in which a young woman is brought on a cruise by her friends, whereupon sexy things happen. This premise of wanting-but-not-wanting-to-admit-it, of finding oneself at the edge of a possibility one hasn’t instigated, seems to be a favorite here.

The actual application of the choice, though, is not really about whether the protagonist is willing to be there, but, as in “Tales from The House”, about picking a preferred experience type. Several times, choices are labeled depending on whether they’re going to lead you to an M/F or an F/F scene next. The choice mechanic is not replicating the sense of pushing boundaries with any “keep going? or bow out now?” decisions during the scenes themselves.

Thematically the content of the text may be about bondage and submission scenes, but the choice structure is about affirming the player’s right to select from a wide variety of possible experiences, and the possibility of self-expression through these decisions. In “Temptation Resorts”, the protagonist has even filled out a questionnaire about preferred activities, though we don’t see her do this; but it would be easy to imagine a piece that started out with such a questionnaire and then customized the resulting scene according to the player’s stated preferences, without being at all interactive past that point. The sex scene itself is the result of choice, a commodity selected for consumption.

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This isn’t the only possible model of choice-based erotica, obviously.

After playing these, I realized I needed to replay Anna Anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuckme and the Vanishing Entree, which (despite the title) lies on the boundary between pornography and horror: the woman who wishes to dominate you also wants to eat you for dinner, in the literal and non-sexy sense, and what starts off playful quickly becomes a fight for your life. The piece is not at all interested in catering to the player’s preferences — so much so that Mattie Brice made this the hook of her Death of the Player article. It also doesn’t try to hide the ways in which it’s railroading the player; very frequently there are two choices available that are functionally identical, reinforcing the sense that you don’t get to pick what is going to happen. It is using its choice mechanism to intensify, to express the protagonist’s excitement and the way it gives way to panic and the need to escape. It doesn’t treat the NPC as a construction whose only purpose is to serve you.

Personally I find that I like romantic and sexual stories more the more they convince me that the other characters have some subjectivity, some autonomy (though that in turn can be bruising, as witness some of the sequences in Cara Ellison’s Sacrilege, a story about trying to pick up men on the dance floor).

But YMMV. In all of these cases there’s a lot more interpersonal context than you get in the average piece of parser AIF, a lot less focus on individual body parts and more on scenarios and situations and the protagonist’s emotional reaction to what’s going on.

6 thoughts on “Choose Your Erotica

  1. Your post about SilkWords almost a year ago got me thinking. No matter whether I had tried parser AIF or choice-based stuff, the more effective fantasies (for me) were the ones that put the player in a passive role, and even those were sort of clumsy: IIRC, the start of intimacy was often sudden and railroaded (making consent into a matter of suspension of disbelief), and along the way there wasn’t much of an option to tease, nor to coyfully make myself prone in particular ways, nor to express approval.

    Maybe there’s something inherent about the medium here, stemming from the fact that the player doesn’t have as much creative input as the narrator — but I think I already know that’s BS. I’ve been titillated in an assertive role by non-interactive smut, and surprisingly also by Counterfeit Monkey (which isn’t especially erotic). Counterfeit Monkey’s mechanic requires some amount of character-establishing mind-reading exploration (“what’ll happen when I do this…”) and yet it encourages the planning of sophisticated chains of manipulations. Together this was not just a power trip, but one that arose from a sort of invited conquest of the mind-reading mechanic at work there, and somehow this was sexy to me. (I guess the main characters’ charming interaction didn’t hurt either.)

    It would be great to find a particularly clever game mechanic for use in erotica, something with a predictable enough game model to enable advance planning, but unpredictable enough to accommodate a character’s preferences. I think this would give the player a satisfying way to take assertive roles, which would transform even passive roles into more of a willful experience.

  2. Now that you mention it I miss the old CYOA books and it’s interesting how some authors adapt it into Twine. Although I’m not 100% if I’m dedicated enough to read say a novel length game on my PC yet. I have heard of AiF but I always thought it was meant to be some kind of satire or parody.

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