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The Fingereaters: interactive fiction via Facebook polls

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.

1st post of The Fingereaters

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.

Summary

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.

Format

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 3rd post, with image options

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.

The final choice

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.
2nd choice, with links to the previous and next post in the comments

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.

Questions

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.

Rumpel asked:
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.

Meredith asked:
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.

Leno asked:
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).

The Fingereaters
(complete text)

Part 1
(9 votes)

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%)

Part 2
(22 votes)

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%)

Part 3
(16 votes)

The Fingereaters would notice the fire immediately. You decide to grab an Instrument in the dark.

(69%) 😉⭐
(31%)

Part 4
(19 votes)

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%)

Part 5
(46 votes)

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%)

Part 6
(22 votes)

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%)

Part 7
(18 votes)

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%)

Part 8
(13 votes)

“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%)
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My blogs throughout history

I’m going to start off 2021 and this new blog by going through every blog I’ve ever had. They’re not many.

The age of the personal blog came to an end a long time ago. They haven’t stopped existing, but they’ve become a niche space. The protagonism they used to enjoy on the Internet now belongs to social media. I don’t have the desire or the knowledge to analyze that transition, but know that it is a fascinating phenomenon.

The age of the personal blog came to an end a long time ago. I, however, insist on having one. Despite the fact that I barely ever use it. Despite the fact that, personally, I love social media and it doesn’t make me anxious or frustrated like it does many other folks.

I like to have a space for official or personal communications that isn’t surrounded by ads. A space whose appearance I can customize, though I rarely do. A space where my words aren’t immediately lost in a sea of similar, unrelated posts by other people about any other subject. A space that can handle bilingual content, which even in 2021 no free platform for online writing does well or at all.

It’s not a space for using regularly, but one for having just in case, and I wanted to go through my different attempts at generating these spaces in the past decade.

A sort of notepad
(2010-2012, 68 posts, Blogger)

I created my first blog when I was 18. I was studying Literature at UBA, I didn’t have a steady job, and I was 2 years into my first romantic relationship.

Back then in Argentina, papers, magazines, and news shows made a point every once in a while to report the emergence of a shiny new Internet platform. Facebook and Twitter already existed, but MySpace and Fotolog were more likely to ring a bell for me. They didn’t interest me. I saw them as overly rigid structures that didn’t leave much space for creative expression.

Blogs were quite simply the first online presence format that caught my attention. It was the first time a news show said, “Check out what people are using to express themselves on the Internet”, and I went, “Huh, yeah, I could use that to express myself, to publish the essays and short stories I’m writing on my own anyway.”

Besides, I was already regularly reading blogs by Internet folks I admired and I had an idea of their potential. It’s much less common to regularly read someone’s profile on a social media site, without signing up for it first.

On this first blog there are chronicles of my daily life, micro-essays about how my personal philosophy was evolving, digital illustrations that greatly surpass my current ability (1, 2), quite a few comic strips about my college days (1, 2, 3, 4), and a bunch of contextless links and short jokes that would’ve worked better as standalone posts on any social media site. There is an analysis of Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back that I later partially rescued for an article on Matajuegos.

It started out exclusively in Spanish but, from November 2010 on, the blog had its English section. It wasn’t a section, really, but a completely separate blog that I made sure would look the same and have the same content only in the other language. In my teenage anti-imperialism, I insisted on using Spanish’s opening question and exclamation marks regardless of language, ¡¿like this?!, a device that I abandoned as soon as I started having Anglophone friends I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in front of.

Both versions are filled with small customizations made in my recently learned HTML, like the grumpy comments counter below each post, or the blog’s header that switches to a different illustration every time you refresh the site.

The last post was written in a moment of crisis, right after my very first breakup. It doesn’t say much, however. It only announces that I have a new blog. The link goes to the URL I had just bought, davidtm.com.ar, but over at that place there was only a very basic page with a link to my next blog.

Italics on the original
(2012-2013, 31 posts, Blogger)

This blog already starts with my first videogame release announcements (1, 2). I was starting my public life as a game developer—a chapter of my life that continues to this day. I think younger David would marvel at the sheer amount of games I managed to make since then, though it’s just as likely he’d be disappointed in my lack of international fame.

The first posts have some words censored out. I thought of it as an intriguing artistic device, and a good way of hiding the many times I couldn’t come up with a specific word in a sentence or how to resolve a thought. I abandoned the gimmick shortly.

Currently the sidebar has an embedded error page, because it originally had a navigation menu, made in Twine and hosted on my main site. It can still be seen on the saved version over at Archive.org, and it includes a link to the blog in Spanish, both interacting with the same system as in the previous blog.

I don’t go back to this blog as often as the rest. It isn’t distant enough that I’ll feel somebody else created it, but it’s also not close enough that I’ll identify completely. Regardless, I think its content is very superior to what I had been doing up until then. There are micro-essays that are more focused on my artistic philosophy based on the things I had already created, reviews for movies, series, and comics I was consuming at the time, announcements for translations and personal creations, and nearly no contextless link that would read more like a tweet.

The last post, probably written at a point in my life when not much of anything had happened to me in a long time, announces I’m moving to davidtm.com.ar/blog.

David (TM)
(2013-2016, 13 posts, WordPress)

I finally had the dignity to install WordPress with the Polylang plugin so I could have a decent bilingual space of my own that wouldn’t depend on such a limited free service as Blogger. It’s true that I still used a free service for hosting the site, Freehostia, but at any point I could switch it for a paid one and migrate the site without changing anything structural. That was the theory at least.

There are no more social media style posts here. Nearly every review comes at the work with more specificity than before, analyzing a certain aspect of the work instead of just explaining why I liked it or not. It’s not that I hadn’t done that before, but from here on out it became the norm.

There are essays on the nature of language and about diversity in fiction, a subject that I was beginning to experiment with and that I was very new to, so don’t expect any grand revelations there. The article Mechanical Macondo: videogames and Latin America (which I don’t link to directly since Archive.org didn’t save a copy, but you can read it in its entirety on the blog’s main page) is a shy first step towards the topics I would later explore in my videos for Matajuegos—Make games for Latin America and Towards an Aesthetic of Latin American Videogames.

Towards an Aesthetic of Latin American Videogames

Funnily enough, this version of the blog concludes with two posts, both called What I’ve been up to. I find them fascinating, though they must be among the most boring things I ever wrote.

The first post, from June 2016, was written during the saddest time of my life—my job had me getting up every day at 6 in the morning, and I was going through my first (and so far only) unrequited love where I just didn’t get along with the person I liked. Regardless, the post includes the beginning of two fundamental projects that continue in my life through the years, even though they’re a little inactive at the moment: the Matajuegos blog, and my Argentine game parodies.

The second post, from September 2016 (notice this is just three months later), was written during the happiest time of my life—I had quit the last “normal” job I had, I had started a much more fulfilling job that I still have, and I had just begun my second romantic relationship. The post really doesn’t say a lot more.

Some time later, the traffic my site was getting surpassed the traffic that was contemplated on the Freehostia plan and this version of the blog went down.

????
(2018, 2 [additional] posts, WordPress)

In the second half of 2017, and in the same week, I had my second breakup and I started my first office job in a videogame studio. In March 2018 I was going to travel outside of Argentina for the first time and attend my first international conference for game developers. Maybe because of that, I had a sudden urge to have a new personal site, and one that looked shinier and more professional.

Santiago Franzani designed a stunning site for me, hosted for free on 000webhost, which included a blog where the old blog’s posts were also conserved. I remember I didn’t pay him anything for it, and I have the impression I didn’t thank him nearly enough for the terrific work he did, including some beautiful illustrations for each one of my text games.

I only added two not particularly interesting posts to this version: a good review of the webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent and a bad review of the film The Cloverfield Paradox.

I never gave this version of the site the love it deserved. Partly out of sloth and partly because certain aspects of it didn’t scale up too well, like the pressure of having to add a beautiful illustration for each new text game I released. Eventually 000webhost’s free plan also refused to deal with the site’s traffic (which was mostly bots to be honest) and it went down. I’m not sure if there exists a salvageable version of this WordPress install somewhere. At least I have copies of every post on Google Docs.

This blog
(2021-????, 1 post and counting, WordPress)

In 2020 I suddenly found myself in the midst of a global pandemic. Some other people went through the same thing. Luckily, and unlike most folks I know, the resulting quarantine didn’t affect me too much emotionally. I’ve been isolating for nearly a year, going outside only when I need to go to the supermarket or when my mom needs medicine or some other help, and I never really needed or wanted to take advantage of even the flexibilities that the government allows every once in a while.

While other folks have spent the entire pandemic trying not to collapse under the stress, I had the privilege of using that extra time at home to finish a few projects I had wanted to do for years:

  • I translated my longest text game into Spanish,
  • me and my colleagues (one of whom is my latest ex) created a huge game in record time that we had planned years ago and which has received many awards and compliments,
  • I wrote my first novel (which I am now editing and I am dying to show the world),
  • I convinced my mother to let go of her Blogger site so we could get a paid hosting plan for our official sites and blogs (on Hostinger, if you’re curious).

That last point is, obviously, the relevant one for the purposes of this chronicle. I don’t know what the future has in store for my blogging life. If I stand by the constant that each one of my blogs has fewer posts than the previous one, I can’t really publish anything after today. I don’t mind. As I said, this is a space for having just in case, and I already enjoy my time in social media well enough.

Part of me wants to rescue all of those old posts and retroactively publish them here to keep the history of my online writing alive and to give this blog a greater sense of continuity, but on the other hand it also feels good that all of that rookie writing stays archived separately and accessible only to those who are determined to find it.

I bid farewell for now, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of my life. Even if it was from a very specific and limited angle. Even if you just kind of skimmed it. The age of the personal blog came to an end a long time ago, but the format still has a special place in my heart.