A couple days ago, Facebook Memories reminded me of something interesting: an experiment in nonlinear narrative I ran 3 years ago using its poll system.
On Thursday, February 22 of 2018, I posted the beginning of a Choose Your Own Adventure-type story, with votable options about what the protagonist was meant to do to continue the tale.
Anyone who found the post had 24 hours (the minimum allowed by Facebook) to choose an option. Daily, over the course of 8 days (that is until Thursday, March 1), I posted a new installment of the story, in which of course the protagonist acted according to the previous poll’s results.
I’m not by any measure the first person to do something like this. For example,
[research previous cases and put them in this part of the article]. However, the people who participated in the experiment took it as something of a novelty, and it was a very fun week in general.
When I finished the story, I set out to write an article commenting on the experience. I never did. I’m taking advantage of this new blog I have to finally give me the closure I owe myself.
Further down you’ll find the complete text of the story. It’s pretty short, but just in case you want a spoilerful summary:
Nine sisters kidnap the protagonist and take her to an isolated camp in order to use her in a mysterious ritual. The sisters are the Fingereaters (Comededos in the original Spanish), though their individual names are those of the Greek Muses (for whatever reason 🤷♀️). The protagonist’s name is never revealed, but the Fingereaters call her Feast (Festín).
The protagonist escapes the camp and the sisters go out looking for her. She goes back to the camp, believing it to be safe, but the sisters eventually return as well and corner her.
In her desperation, the protagonist overpowers one of them and eats her fingers. For ritual reasons, the Fingereaters can no longer hurt her: the protagonist became one of them. She escapes. A year later, the protagonist goes on vacation with her girlfriend and briefly recalls her kidnapping, with the certainty that she’s now safe.
You’ll notice the resulting story is linear. While the literary devices I used in writing it were those of a branching story, of which I’ve written a few (well, depending on your definition), The Fingereaters was a different beast from its conception.
I never wrote, nor was I interested in writing, the result of the options that lost in the polls. I just wrote each installment in a few minutes, waited for Facebook to tell me the results the next day, and then found some time to come up with the next part based on that.
Those who were there voting in 2018 could choose where the story would go. We who read now can only go over the linear result of their choices.
It was interesting to work within the format’s limitations and possibilities. Facebook polls could only have 2 options, and each one had a maximum of 30 characters. On one occasion I took advantage of the option to create a poll between 2 images (though in practice I put two unreadable silhouettes that were too dark to distinguish anyway). Each installment was super short, in part for my stylistic preference, sure, but also considerably because of the attention span I can expect from my audience in a social media site’s feed.
The protagonist is called Feast because that’s her role at the beginning of the story, and I didn’t expect anyone to remember individual names. The sisters do have names, but they’re all pretty interchangeable plot-wise. The term “Fingereater” is made to directly and transparently evoque their antagonistic role and their immediate goal in regards to the protagonist.
I finished the story when I felt like it. I had to build up the tension each installment for there to be a sense of narrative direction, so when I reached a tension that felt like a climax I put an end to the experiment.
In the last installment I came up against a problem I hadn’t anticipated: I wanted to keep the poll format, for people to understand at first glance that this was another part of the same story, but I didn’t want to suggest there was another choice to further develop the plot. Needless to say, Facebook didn’t allow for one-option polls. I resolved for the options to be the first and second halves of the phrase “Y colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado,” which is a traditional Spanish-language formula for ending fairy tales and children’s stories (similar to “And they lived happily ever after”, which we also have, but more agnostic about the actual content of the story) where the first half is a vague, meaningless reference to the color red that is really only there to rhyme with the second half, which means “This story has ended”. The first half won. I suspect people didn’t want to seem too happy that this story had ended.
I tried to facilitate navigation by adding a pair of comments to each post with links to the rest of the story, but there were still folks who asked for even more affordances:
- for each post to have the entire text of the story so far,
- a hashtag to quickly find all installments,
- a Facebook Event to separate installments from my normal posts and set up reminders.
I took these suggestions cordially, and ignored them completely. I didn’t have the time nor the inclination to do more than what I was doing already. Well, I did start using a hashtag in the end, but I couldn’t apply it retroactively to previous installments because Facebook doesn’t let you edit closed polls.
When the story was done, I asked my friends to leave questions for me to address in the postmortem that I never did but that technically I’m doing right now. I couldn’t finish this without answering them.
Did people chose things you didn’t expect them to? Did you feel there were choices that were a thousand times better than others?
Not too much. I tried for the options to always be balanced, either because they were both sensible, or because neither of them were, or because a sensible option was pitted against a more flashy and/or funny one. I was always a little more inclined towards the funnier ones, but the idea was to obey the voice of the people, so I never wrote a branching option that I wasn’t thrilled to follow. And anyway, as you well know, branching stories have a wide margin for lying, so I could always take the winning option and give it whatever spin I fancied.
Did you have an expectation about what people were going to vote?
A little, at first. I was afraid to have put choices that were too obvious, which would make the act of choosing pointless. However, day after day, I saw that the percentages were relatively even and that gave me some peace of mind. No option lost with less than 25% of the votes (except the last one, which didn’t matter too much). It was a very Godzilla vs. Kong issue: you have to keep in mind there will always be enough people on the Internet supporting the least obvious position.
What was it like to follow the comments and conversations that formed around each poll? How does it feel to see the collective player’s decision-making process?
This was the most gratifying part of the experience. It was like making a videogame but with a lot less effort, for a much more reduced audience of acquaintances who were already in my favor, and who in the very act of interacting with the work were already generating the feedback and validation that is the best part of releasing a game. I normally have to sit and wait for complete strangers to comment on the game or record themselves doing a Let’s Play, if I’m lucky.
Up next, as promised, to be done once and for all with this retrospective, is the complete text of the story. Each installment has a link to the original post, an indication of how many people voted, and the two available optinos (with the winning option in bold and followed by a star).
You make your way through the weeds and reach the entrance of a mystical-looking Grotto. The Fingereaters are following your tracks, but you manage to hide behind a tree before they show up.
“Where’s the Feast? I didn’t expect it to run that fast,” one says.
All Nine of them are here, which means they left the Camp empty. They get closer and closer to the tree, but there’s a moment when they all look East. Now’s your chance.
- Run to the Grotto (33%)
- Go to the Camp (67%) ⭐
You get to the Fingereater’s Camp. Empty, as you expected, or at least it looks that way—the darkness is overwhelming.
You can see the Altar’s silhouette and the Feast’s preparations. The Instruments are arranged around the Altar, but you can’t see them clearly in the dark. You’re going to need one if you want to survive this night.
The fire is recently extinguished, and ready to start again at any moment, but the Fingereaters are still nearby.
- Grab an Instrument at random (68%) ⭐
- Start the fire (32%)
The Fingereaters would notice the fire immediately. You decide to grab an Instrument in the dark.
You extend a hand towards a sort of stick with protrusions. You grab what you think is the handle, but it feels more like a rag, and the rest of the Instrument is made of the same material, except for about ten little sticks tied with strings that hang from the side. They are all the size of a human finger.
“Who goes there?” you hear.
One of the Fingereaters, Talía, has just returned to the Camp. The others must have sent her for something. They had little time to prepare once you escaped the Feast. You don’t know if she’s looking in your direction.
“If someone is there, I swear I’ll have all my Sisters here in less than a minute,” says Talía, as she approaches the fire to start it.
- Attack (26%)
- Hide (74%) ⭐
You quickly get inside one of the tents. Luckily, it’s not one the Fingereaters had you in for hours before you managed to escape.
Outisde, Talía starts the fire and begines walking around the Camp. There’s a sound like she grabbed what she came for. She seems satisfied and about to go back to her eight Sisters, when you start to feel a commanding force near you, something inside the tent that calls you with a mute and urgent voice.
You turn around. It’s a piano.
- Play (65%) ⭐
- Resist (35%)
You begin playing the piano energetically, and it resonates throughout the Camp. There was no way you could have contained the impulse. You improvise an unbridled melody with your right hand, and you try to accompany with the left but without letting go of the raggy Instrument.
You hear Talía whistle and right away you see her entering the tent. Her expression is one of profound disgust, the sound hurts her visibly. The Fingereaters’ laughter starts coming from outside as they get near.
“You’re out of luck, Feast,” she says.
- Keep on playing (41%)
- Use Instrument (59%) ⭐
You take the raggy Instrument and you… shake it around, pointing vaguely towards Talía. She takes a step back, as if confused, and finally starts showing sings of fear. She has no idea what the Instrument can do outside of the controlled context of the Ritual.
In the confusion, you make a sudden gesture and Talía falls backwards, hitting her head against a vase and losing consciousness. You take the knife she had on her belt and you drop the Instrument, which doesn’t seem to have had any special effect.
As you do that, the other eight Fingereaters arrive at the Camp.
“Where are you, Feast?” says Euterpe with her raspy voice, “We’re waiting for you.”
- Use Talía as a hostage (33%)
- Eat her fingers (67%) ⭐
“Come here a minute,” your girlfriend calls you from outside, “The sky’s beautiful.”
You were pretty preoccupied in your search for the nail clipper, but you know it can wait. These vacations are helping you understand all the things that, even though they may not seem like it, can wait. You take a deep breath and exit the tent with a smile.
You remember that other tent, almost exactly one year ago, that you came out of very slowly, your heart racing and your mouth filled with blood. Euterpe had been left speechless. Urania stepped forward a little, threatening, but Clío stopped her with a gesture. You spat one of Talía’s pinkies on the ground and it was clear that they could no longer do anything to you: you were one of them.
You look up at the sky. It is beautiful. Your girlfriend raises her eyebrows as if saying, “See?” and you hug her tight. That night, you left the Camp without looking back in the direction of the nearest town. This morning, you sit on a tree trunk and start the fire to make lunch.
- Y colorín colorado (77%) ⭐
- Este cuento se ha acabado (23%)