Writing A "Choose Your Own Adventure" Story On Twitter


I've spent the last few days writing a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) game on Twitter. This blog post briefly discusses how I did it - and what pitfalls I discovered when creating it.

But, first, if you want to play....

Background

I'm by no means the first person to attempt running a CYOA on Twitter. Two notable examples are:

What's interesting is that they both use URLs to direct the user to the next step of the game. That's certainly a time-saver for the creator (as we shall see) but has a few disadvantages.

  • URLs eat into your character count. Each URL counts for 23 characters. So two choices really reduces the amount of space you have for story telling.
  • URLs also don't work well if users are not on the Twitter website. If you're using an app, you're likely to be redirected to your web browser.
  • It's easy to see the whole game just by scrolling through the Twitter feed.
  • You have to write the game in a linear fashion. That is, you need to write a Tweet before you can point a URL at it.

Inspiration

Last Hallowe'en Mel Seckington started live-Tweeting the horror that was unfolding in London.

While it was great fun watching the tweets roll by, I thought it would be more fun to allow people to direct the action themselves.

I had also just finished reading The Wanderer by Timothy J Jarvis - an eldritch horror novel. It's creepy tones inspired me to see if I could write that well. (Spoiler alert - not really!)

I thought I'd try my hand at creating a viral "teaser trailer" for Timothy's book. With his blessing, I got cracking.

Crafting The Story

Drawing out the paths for a CYOA is surprisingly hard. You can start with a large sheet of paper, or post-it notes and string, or trying to write an interlinking HTML document - but that's effort!

Instead, I used the marvellous InkleWriter. It's a web tool specifically for writing Interactive Fiction.

You start by writing in a fairly linear fashion:
Inkle Writer Story

Then, as your paths get more tangled and interlinked, you can switch to a "map" view:

Inkle Writer Map

InkleWriter really is a fabulous piece of software. It's intuitive to use, and gives you several options for how people can play the game - including publishing it as an ebook.

After writing the story, it was time to publish it on Twitter. This is where things get tricky!

Twitter

The CYOA I have written is modest - there are only 23 "points" in my story. So that's 23 Twitter accounts needed. I thought it would be a bit of a laborious process to sign up and configure them...

After I had created the first two accounts, I hit a snag. Twitter won't allow you to sign up to multiple accounts from the same IP address. I found I could create two accounts at most. I tried different browsers, proxies, clearing cookies - all to no avail. I used my phones' data connection - but even that only netted me half a dozen more.

That's a fair enough policy from Twitter. They don't want bulk accounts created and used for spamming their users. So, how did I get all the other Twitter accounts?

It turns out that there are a lot of dodgy websites which will sell you Twitter accounts. Frankly, I didn't much fancy my chances with them.

So, I went back through my email history and found every single Twitter account I'd signed up for. All the joke ones, the business ideas where I registered the Twitter account before realising it was a waste of time, and the accounts which I had simply forgotten about.

That had the advantage of making the idea look like it had been brewing for years!

(In fact, I deleted the tweets from those accounts - so the "Account Created" date is old, but the Tweets are new.)

Even all my dormant accounts weren't enough - I was only half way there.

I put the call out on Twitter - and was most grateful to Ed Jefferson for saving the day by supplying me with ten old accounts.

Finally! The 23 accounts I needed. On to the next stage. Configuring them.

It's possible to use the Twitter API to configure the accounts' appearance. But as I was going in to each account to set contact preferences and write the tweets, I decided to do it manually.

Even with "only" 23 accounts, it was still an evening's work to get them all set up correctly. And, despite all my efforts, I didn't quite manage to turn off all the email notifications. I woke up to a phone clogged up with these:

Wander Inbox

Play Testing

As with any "interactive" thing, it's wise to test before release. I sent the demo game to a few friends and, based on their suggestions, I fixed some typos, logical bugs, and tidied up the story.

Had I been using URLs to link between accounts, it would have been a lot harder to fix these problems. Instead, I just deleted a tweet and wrote a new one. I'm sure there are tools to help you manage multiple accounts - I just used a bunch of incognito browser windows though.

Next Steps

If this is a success (as measured by the number of people saying how much they enjoyed it) I'm going to look at automating the process.

At the moment, I have to...

  1. Write the story.
  2. Link each decision in the story to a Twitter account.
  3. Log in to each individual account.
  4. Post the Tweet (and customise the page appearance if necessary).

If this is to be a regularly updated game, I'm going to need to have a system to export my story and auto-update it on Twitter. Probably not too difficult given that InkleWriter offer a JSON API to their stories.

I'll also need a lot more Twitter accounts!

But, for now, wait until just before midnight and start your adventure...

Quick Update

Well! That went a lot better than I expected 🙂

As you can see from the above tweets, the story has very quickly gone viral. I wasn't able to see everyone who mentioned or retweeted it - although I did catch a few of my favourite authors talking about it - which was immensely gratifying. I also had the somewhat recursive experience of being mentioned on Twitter by Twitter.

There were so many people Tweeting me that I couldn't reply to all of them. It was hard enough to read them. Although, this review did catch my eye

Thus far, the story has been mentioned in Quartz, Gizmodo, The Independent, IO9, FastCo Design, The Telegraph, Huffington Post, CNET, The Next Web, Slate.fr, Gamer.no, Kotaku (with too many spoilers IMO), Kill Screen Daily, The Mirror and The Mirror (again), Vice, and this epic review from the Guardian. No doubt there are a few more that I've failed to mention.

Phew!

I'll also leave these two reviews here, just for fun.

I like the use of exophoric references to force the reader to create the narrative themselves. So it's still interactive even when you aren't making choices. It's a good way of making a narrative complicated without actually explaining those complications!
(Friend of a friend on Facebook)

Review

*nods sagely*

Thanks so much for all the retweets and the positive feedback.

11 thoughts on “Writing A "Choose Your Own Adventure" Story On Twitter

  1. Bravo. After years of doing automated Twitter Story projects, I finally plunked down a few hundred bucks to hire a programmer to build me a custom solution. It's made SUCH a huge difference. Happy to compare notes if it helps

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