2016: The Freshman
Update: Find out more about the 50 Years of Text Games book and the revised final version of this article!
by Pixelberry writers including Wendy Briggs, Max Doty, Chelsa Lauderdale, Royal McGraw, Keyan Mohsenin, Maya Poulson, Saran Walker, Jennifer Young, and Rachel Zilberg
Published by: Pixelberry
Released: August 7, 2016 (Book 1); August 22 - December 1, 2016 (Book 2); December 22, 2016 - April 26, 2017 (Book 3); May 3 - June 21, 2017 (Book 4)
Platform: Choices (iOS/Android)
Welcome to Hartfeld University, one of North America’s most elite academic institutions!
It’s the first day of college, and you walk across a bustling campus...
[Note: contains spoilers for Book 1 of The Freshman.]
The highest-grossing digital game of 2016, according to leading market research firm the NPD Group, was Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which sold 1.8 million copies for PC, Xbox One, and PS4 in its first week of release, and reached lifetime sales figures of 13 million. Biggest gross, though, does not equal most played. Dozens of mobile games that year had far more downloads, due to cheaper or free price points and more ubiquitous platforms. Yet media coverage of digital games rarely reflects this. It might surprise even readers of this blog to know that an interactive fiction romance called The Freshman, released the same year as Infinite Warfare, has reached a vastly larger audience: it had been played nearly 45 million times as of 2020. Despite this it’s never been reviewed on a mainstream gaming site. Even most catalogues of interactive fiction don't include it.
The reasons why have to do with the politics of gender and game genres; with cultural baggage around divisions between hardcore and casual players; with the ethical concerns of free-to-play monetization models; with the definitions of “interactive fiction” and their relationships with visual art and UI design; and with the way most fans and scholars have been trained to think about which games “matter,” and why. But if we’re taking seriously the project of examining the continuing impact of interactive prose in each decade of its history, it’s impossible to leave out the app in which The Freshman and its sequels were published: Pixelberry’s Choices, and its many competitors.
Pixelberry had its origins in the early 2000s when Asian American Stanford grad Oliver Miao founded a game company, Centerscore, with a handful of friends. They “lived and worked out of a small apartment next to the railroad tracks,” Miao remembers, “putting business calls on hold whenever a train passed by.” After a few years of fitful success, Centerscore broke into the emerging mobile games market, and realized that high schoolers—in particular, high school girls—were a massively underserved market. In 2005 they released a subscription-based episodic story game, Surviving High School, which broke the top five on Verizon’s “Get It Now” service, then the biggest mobile app storefront—and filled mostly with Pac-Man, Tetris, and Snake clones. Surviving High School became the first successful text-driven and story-centric hit for a mobile phone platform, and remained hugely popular, releasing weekly content updates for nearly a decade. Miao “thought a text based game was a perfect fit” for the pre-iPhone mobile market, with processors too underpowered for impressive graphics. “Our belief was that with limited information, our players would use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.”
On the basis of their success the team was acquired and passed around between gaming giants like Vivendi and Electronic Arts, remaking Surviving High School for iPhone in the early 2010s before escaping in 2013 to start over as a new independent company, now dubbed Pixelberry. Despite the team’s earlier hits, story games on mobile were still seen by the industry as a dubious proposition. Story made titles harder to localize to other languages, and blocks of text were less “juicy” than simple, addictive game mechanics. As late as 2014, a games journalist could still say that mobile storytelling “has been for the most part untapped in today’s app market... As powerful as a good storyline can be many mobile games have little to no plot.” Pixelberry set out to change this with a new game in the old mode, High School Story; but still felt the need to disguise their story-heavy game inside a strange hybrid of city-builder and RPG, which had then been a successful mobile game formula.
Then in 2014, two mobile games served as wake-up calls to the industry. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood launched that summer on app stores with little to no fanfare in the mainstream gaming press, and instantly became an enormous success. Within days it had grossed nearly two million dollars, with projections of bringing in as much as 200 million annually. It flew to the top of app store charts, and for years was the only top ten game on Apple’s store with a 5-star average rating. “Like everyone else on earth, we noticed [the game’s success],” wrote Royal McGraw, a producer at Pixelberry. “Who could miss it?” That same year, an app called Episode let players build their own interactive romance stories with characters who could be posed and animated like paper dolls: the company described it as “an interactive animated television show” and a “modern, mobile-first Choose Your Own Adventure.” Episode also became wildly popular, especially with teenage girls able to play through huge libraries of stories built by their peers.
Pixelberry’s takeaway from these two successes was clear: young women were desperate to find mobile games that spoke to them, and stories could be a powerful way of retaining users and building a devoted fanbase, key concerns in a marketplace where getting even a few percent of the users who downloaded your app to keep playing was a win. The company brought in more writers to break and develop stories, most of them women, and announced that their goal was to “[bring] interactive fiction to a whole new audience that would never have considered themselves gamers before.” McGraw noted that story would inform “every single design decision that we make” at Pixelberry going forward. Rather than window dressing on top of unrelated game mechanics, the story would be the gameplay. The team looked at the interactivity provided by choice points as a smart business decision for the all-important retention problem: “Every choice a player makes makes the experience theirs. The more ‘theirs’ it is, the more likely they are to come back.” It would prove a massively successful philosophy.
It’s frankly embarrassing it took the games industry and its marketing teams so long to realize that women were valuable customers. Earlier experiments in writing feminine-coded interactive fiction like Plundered Hearts were made by companies with no experience selling games to anyone other than geeks, increasingly culturally stereotyped through the 1980s as male. In the 1990s, studios like Purple Moon (founded by Brenda Laurel) tried to find publishers for CD-ROM games aimed at teenage girls, with little success. Later decades brought amateur game scenes with fewer gatekeepers, allowing for the rise of genres like visual novels which appealed to wider sensibilities. Yet perhaps it took the arrival of a platform like the mobile phone—obviously and very publicly used by everyone, regardless of gender—for marketing teams to realize what they’d been missing out on.
Women had of course been making and playing games in every decade since the beginning, yet always against a narrative that they were outsiders: “pushing their way into a space not originally intended for them,” in the words of game scholar Shira Chess. While early advertisements for computers and gaming systems often framed them as something boys, girls, and parents could all enjoy equally—part of a general trend away from gendered toy advertising—that changed through the 1980s for a myriad of reasons, with marketers and gamemakers increasingly focusing more on boys than girls. The attitude eventually became entrenched that “real” digital games were the kind real men liked to play, and anything else could be dismissed, ridiculed, silenced, or attacked. In one of many examples, Chess quotes a 2007 editorial from Game Informer magazine, dismissing the rise of casual games on mobile and their audience of “middle-aged women in the suburbs [who] love playing games... when they aren’t watching Oprah. ...is this really what the industry needs?” The bias, whether as blatantly conscious as this or not, created “a massive blind spot” in the discourse around games, as Chess notes:
We have a problem. Because when we—as a culture—talk about video games, when we talk about players, when we talk about consoles and peripherals, the focus is largely on “core games”—a term short-handing “hardcore,” but implying a slightly larger corpus. By focusing on “core,” the video game industry, game culture, and academia has gotten to define which games get talked about and which games are important. They get to determine which games we choose to care about on a cultural level.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood was widely critiqued for blatantly and perhaps even harmfully trafficking in feminine stereotypes. Did it do so more than Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare had done for masculine ones? Left as an exercise for the reader. In any case, the “blind spot” was starting to shift as more and more companies smelled an opportunity: a new gender to pander to, for better and worse. In a world where repeatable formulas were absolutely crucial to remaining in business, the front lines then moved from one-off hits to reliable successes—and one of the easiest ways to achieve them was episodic storytelling.
Where Pixelberry’s earlier hits had been singular stories, their new app would be a platform for them: a collection of “books” focusing on different flavors of romance, with weekly playable “chapters.” (Despite the literary metaphor, the stories are told almost entirely through written character dialogue, making them closer to plays or TV episodes.) The stories were designed to appeal to younger women, with a simple art style that replaced the janky puppet-show animation of earlier mobile romance games with static but high-quality character art and an emphasis on snappy text and relatable characters. The app launched with three books, including The Freshman; by 2020 there were well over a hundred, most with a dozen or more chapters each taking a mobile-friendly ten or fifteen minutes to read.
The Freshman, most successful of the launch stories, begins firmly in the mode of a college rom-com, with your female character literally bumping into a hunky football player the second she steps on campus. The first few chapters unfold predictably, with love interests and rivals introduced and best friendships forged. But the story begins to develop deeper layers a few chapters in, when a financial crisis lands your character an internship with grumpy middle-aged Professor Vasquez, in the midst of writing a novel about college life called, yes, The Freshman. Vasquez gives you “assignments” to engage and report back on traditional college activities—joining a sorority, throwing a raging party—to add touches of authenticity to his novel. This excuse for “performing” as a stereotypical college freshman adds some welcome self-aware humor:
Vasquez: I’d rather focus on finishing The Freshman. Hopefully it will serve as a cautionary tale to today’s youth.
Jane (the player): Yeah... a cautionary tale.
Jane: As in...
* Never trust your professor! [tap]
* Try not to date three people at once!
Vasquez: You’ve clearly misidentified the theme of my book, Jane.
Vasquez: Whether you trust me or not is a moot point. You have to work for me.
Jane: So it’s a book about the way millennials are subjugated by a corrupt power structure set up by your generation?
Vasquez: Interesting take. I like that angle...
Vasquez: But... it still ignores the main character’s central flaws.
Jane: What flaws? I bet you can’t even come up with one example.
Vasquez: Actually, I've got half a book’s worth of examples. And by the end of the year, I should have enough to finish this thing.
The acerbic relationship becomes more complex when you learn Vasquez is dying of cancer, a secret he’s keeping from his family and favorite students.
Jane: You need to tell him.
Vasquez: Don’t you dare try to tell me what I need to do.
Vasquez: You need to remember who’s in charge here... who holds your future in the palm of his hand.
* At least I have a future!
* I’m sorry. [tap]
Vasquez: Interesting. Last semester, you would have barked back some insult at me.
Vasquez: Perhaps you're capable of evolving as a character.
Jane: I’m not a character. I’m a person.
Vasquez: We’ll see.
In later chapters you can end up helping Vasquez reconcile with his estranged family, forming a genuine friendship in the process. When the professor dies, he leaves your character with the unfinished manuscript to The Freshman, trusting her to finish the story in whatever way she likes.
Choices stories have mechanical similarities with visual novels, with long stretches of dialogue interrupted relatively infrequently by choice points: a typical chapter of The Freshman offers about ten decisions across its length. Character portraits can show different expressions and change their background color to indicate the speaker’s emotion, but are not animated, keeping the player’s focus on reading the text. The player can name their character and customize her appearance to some degree, and change into different outfits at key moments. Choices are sometimes just for flavor, but can also lead to alternate sequences, or affect invisible stats that control dialogue variants: someone who’s a love interest in one playthrough might use different language than if they were just a friend. Occasionally other mechanics break up the dialogue, such as timed choices, or recall choices that check whether you were paying attention to earlier details; but stories tend not to have major branches. Chapters generally end with cliffhangers, encouraging players to return next week to continue the story.
Choices also makes use freemium or free-to-play mechanics, already well-established on mobile by the time of the app’s release. “Diamond choices” appearing two or three times per episode offer tantalizing story rewards, like a date night with a love interest or a makeover with a friend. These choices are unlocked with in-app currency, with most costing between 12 and 25 diamonds. Finishing a chapter and watching in-game ads both earn you diamonds, but slowly: players are thus encouraged to purchase packs of them from within the app. Keys, a second in-game currency, unlock new chapters or allow for restarting one to try different choices; a key can be claimed after a three-hour waiting period, or packs of them bought in the store. Each diamond choice generally costs around a dollar or two in real money, usually unlocking a two- or three-minute scene of narratively rewarding (or at least wish-fulfilling) content.
The ethics of free-to-play were endlessly debated in the 2010s as they became the most profitable way to monetize games on mobile: by 2011, free-to-play revenue on the App Store had overtaken revenue from traditional up-front purchases. A distinguishing feature of free-to-play is its use of the same kinds of psychological manipulation seen in gambling and casino games: tricking players into spending more money than they’d normally be inclined to part with. In-app currencies, for instance, take advantage of a well-documented psychological effect where uncertain or complex conversion rates decrease people’s natural tendency to be frugal with their spending: since it’s hard to know exactly how many dollars each diamond corresponds to, it’s harder to feel guilty about spending them. Studies have shown that these effects are more pronounced in teens and young adults. The narratively charged nature of the diamond rewards in Choices stories also engage the player’s empathy and guilt as tools to get them to spend more money. It’s hard to turn down a depressed friend who’s asked you to take her for a girl’s night out, even when doing so costs real-world cash.
In their earlier games, Pixelberry had made responsible messaging to their teenage audience a primary goal. For High School Story they’d partnered with groups like the National Eating Disorder Association and the Cybersmile Foundation (a group fighting online bullying) to work positive messages into their storylines, and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to these charities. This social consciousness rests uneasily with the manipulative mechanics of free-to-play. Oliver Miao has been unsentimental about the company’s change in strategy, framing it as a matter of survival: “we decided... we would focus on commercial success first, because that’s hard enough to do as a game studio; and if we were able to be successful commercially, then we’d later on add elements of social education.” These weren’t decisions made in the abstract: the team had voted in early 2016 to take an across-the-board pay cut rather than go out of business before Choices could be finished and launched.
Despite this problematic marriage, Pixelberry still implements free-to-play in a more ethical manner than many competitors. Though often framed as deathly important, players soon learn that diamond scenes are merely fun bonus content that won’t affect a game’s overall plot. “We tried to design Choices so that if you play through the whole game with no premium choices, you’re still able to have a rewarding ending,” the team has stated. The stories also tend to be less aggressive about pushing premium choices than similar apps. For example, a diamond choice in The Freshman gives the option of dressing up for a social event, but doesn’t punish you for not choosing it:
Kaitlyn: But let’s focus on Jane! What are you wearing to the dance?
Jane: Hmm... I haven’t really thought about it.
Kaitlyn: Are you kidding me? Picking the right dress is everything!
Kaitlyn: With the right dress, your crushes will drool over you... and your enemies will be insanely jealous!
Jane: I guess I’d better choose wisely!
What should I wear?
[Player chooses the free dress instead of one of two premium options costing 20 and 25 diamonds.]
You walk back out of your room wearing a little black dress and heels.
Jane: What do you think?
Abbie: Did you decide what you’re going to wear yet, Kaitlyn?
Compare this to a similar “gem choice” in Love on Fire, a story from competitor Episode where you’re a contestant on a reality TV show:
Ashley: You need to make a REALLY good first impression, because...
Ashley: Everyone will be voting on who gets to stay!
Player: Make a killer first impression—I’ve got this!
Ashley: Great! I designed a super hot bikini for you...
[Animation of your character dancing and looking sexy in the premium bikini]
Ashley: Imagine joining the party and making everyone’s jaw drop!
Player: First impressions are SO important! I definitely want to turn heads when I walk in!
* Be UNFORGETTABLE in this HOT AF look! [14 gems]
* Wear a plain bikini. [tap]
[Animation of your character in a basic bikini, looking embarrassed]
Ashley: You’re breaking my heart...
Ashley: This is your ONE chance to make your first impression on Love on Fire!
Player: I definitely want to look my best!
* Wear something fabulous! [premium]
* Stick with basic. [tap]
Ashley (looking disappointed): You do you.
While The Freshman is steeped in college movie tropes, as chapters unfold it often challenges and complicates some of the genre’s assumptions. Drinking is rampant on campus; but some characters don’t drink and the others respect that. Choices author Jennifer Hepler has spoken about intentionally designing her dialogue and choice points to show positive examples of consent: love interests, even those framed as aggressive “bad boys,” always ask for permission and never pressure you to do things you don’t assent to being comfortable with.
The company also took representation more seriously than many of its rivals. Roughly half the company’s employees circa 2016 were Asian American and half were women; the company had blogged about representation mattering since “many of us have faced discrimination simply for being ourselves.” The Freshman has a multiethnic cast and several queer main characters (regardless of who the player decides to romance). One of them is Kaitlyn Liao, a close friend and potential love interest. Kaitlyn is queer but not out to her family, an issue that later becomes a central plot thread. One lesbian reviewer appreciated that unlike nearly any other mobile romance game at the time, The Freshman didn’t just make a gay character’s struggles interchangeable with straight ones, acknowledging that “Y’know there’s actually a lot of homophobia around... Being gay and a POC. And all that shit that comes with it. Like people don’t get how hard it is being gay and East Asian.” In Book 2 Kaitlyn is cast in a gender-swapped role in a play, with an on-stage kiss with your character, a woman. When she’s surprised opening night by seeing a friend from back home in the audience, she freaks out backstage:
Kaitlyn: Arjun’s family is super close with my parents. My extremely traditional parents.
Kaitlyn: If word gets back to them that I’m, you know, up on stage making out with girls... I... I don’t know what they’ll do.
Jane: I think...
* You shouldn’t be afraid to be yourself. [tap]
* Maybe we could just hug instead?
Jane: You can’t hide who you are forever.
Kaitlyn: I never said forever...
Kaitlyn: I know I’m going to have to tell people back home eventually...
Kaitlyn: But when I do, I want it to be on my own terms.
Jane: I get that. We don’t have to do the kiss if it makes you uncomfortable.
Kaitlyn: I... I don’t know. I don’t want to let James [the director] down...
Kaitlyn: And I don’t want to let myself down.
Jane: What do you mean?
Kaitlyn: If I don’t kiss you onstage, it’ll mean abandoning all of the progress I’ve made since coming to Hartfeld.
Kaitlyn: All through high school I dreamed of leaving home and all my insecurities behind me. I don’t want to go back to the way things were.
Jane: So... you can’t kiss me, but you also can’t not kiss me?
Kaitlyn: Clearly, the only solution is for us to stay standing in this same spot forever.
“It’s melodramatic. Cheesy. And you do get yourself kinda addicted at some point despite all the very obvious flaws,” the same reviewer wrote. “And also because out of all the MC’s [main characters], I feel closest to the one here because I too am a melodramatic lesbian ho who solves all her friends’ problems.” While one might assume from the framing that the choice of whether to do the on-stage kiss might end up resting with the player, in the end it’s Kaitlyn’s to make. Your only choice is how to support her afterwards.
Choices, and most apps like it, have flown almost entirely under the radar of mainstream gaming discourse despite incredible popularity. Oliver Miao remembers that “when we launched High School Story, not a single gaming site reviewed our game.” If you look for coverage of Choices on the sites that come up when you google “game reviews”—sites like IGN, Gamespot, GamesRadar, Polygon, or even mobile-specific outlets like Pocket Tactics—you’ll find no editorial coverage of the app, let alone reviews of any of its individual stories. Popular rating aggregator Metacritic had only two reviews for Choices as of 2020: both from users, not critics. Both were negative. For comparison, Metacritic tracks over two thousand reviews for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
And yet Choices stories have been thoroughly played. In September 2016 Pixelberry wrote “we are addressing the requests for more stories by having all our writers write as if a hurricane of keyboard eating moths is about to descend upon our office.” By February 2017, six months after release, Choices had garnered five million installs; three months later it hit ten million. It broke the top five in the App Store in 2016 and has consistently ranked in the top thirty ever since. Choices has a 4.5 out of 5 rating on both major app stores as of 2020, and over nine hundred thousand five-star ratings on Google Play alone. “I don’t know exactly how much each of them [Choices and Episode] makes,” wrote Dan Fabulich, founder of Choice Of Games, “but I’m pretty sure they each make more in a year than Infocom made in its entire lifetime.”
Fans have created enormous wikis tracking tens of thousands of choice points across hundreds of stories; blogged obsessively about their favorite plotlines and characters; authored strategy guides for achieving desired endings and the most efficient methods of “diamond mining” (acquiring the in-game currency without purchasing it); written fan fiction and novelizations and directed audio book adaptations. The Freshman spawned three sequels and various spin-offs, and new books in many other series are still published on a regular basis. “The stories themselves won’t be winning any prizes for originality or flair,” wrote PocketGamer in one of the few professional reviews of the app after launch, “but it’s how they’re told that makes them so well-suited to mobile play: short, action-packed chapters with accessible writing and punctuated by meaningful choices.” Pixelberry’s winning formula has since been copied by countless other games, including apps like Chapters (2017) and What’s Your Story? (2018).
The company has shown some signs of making good on their promise to bring back more social consciousness once reaching profitability. In 2020 they released the Choices story “Rising Tides,” produced in association with a United Nations program hoping to educate younger players about climate change. In June 2020 in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, Miao announced concrete steps the company would take to continue to increase diversity in their stories, cover art, and hiring, as well as ongoing donations to groups like Black Girls Code. Chelsa Lauderdale, a writer on some of the Freshman books, has talked about pushing for characters and storylines in Choices titles where she can “insert little pieces of my experience” as a woman of color, noting that “stories can perpetuate stereotypes or they can change narratives. That’s really up to the people who write them.” And while Pixelberry and the mobile industry as a whole continue to have an uneasy relationship with the ethics of free-to-play, the company has charted a more thoughtful path than many competitors, and introduced tens of millions of new players to text-driven interactive stories in the process.
The impact that might have on the medium in the decades to come is still a blind spot for many. But there are fewer and fewer excuses for not seeing it.
Next week: Release the HypnoDrones.
You can download Choices for iOS or Android devices; “The Freshman” is free-to-play, with diamond choices costing extra. Choices does not reveal author bylines for their stories, so the list of writers at the top of this article was assembled from various sources; any omissions are not intentional. Thanks to PocketGamer.biz for being one of the few mobile gaming sites to consistently cover Choices over the years. Shira Chess’s book “Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity” and Michele Willson and Tama Leaver’s “Social, Casual and Mobile Games: The Changing Gaming Landscape” were both useful supplements to this piece’s research, in addition to sources linked inline. The archives of the Pixelberry blog and fan documentation preserved on the Choices subreddit and wiki were also invaluable.