Imagine if someone hands you a small plastic or wooden box. There are four buttons on the top of the unit, and a small slit in black plastic. You push one of the buttons, and a piece of paper slides out of the top with a slight "whirrrrr" noise.
"This is the Choosatron," the words on the thermal paper read. "I'm a new way to share and create interactive fiction. Would you like to..."
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The Choosatron uses an Arduino system rigged with a thermal printer and those four buttons to share tales that amount to choose your own adventure stories. The printer works quickly, you're given your choices, and when the story is over you get to tear off the receipt-like paper and keep the story for yourself. It's a whimsical, fun device that encourages the enjoyment of interactive fiction, and it was fun watching people become smitten with the hardware at GDC.
"The Choosatron is a way to interact with a story," Jerry Belich, the creator of the project and the software behind it, told Polygon. "It's created from our new writing platform, but you don't need the Choosatron to experience the writing platform."
And the software that allows this to happen is part of the magic of the Choosatron. Belich is adding the ability to add variables to a story, so every time it's played you may have a character described in a different way.
The software will track the choices people make, so you can learn about what makes people make one choice over the other. What if the lonely man was changed to a beautiful woman? What if it was a goat talking to the player instead of a lamb? Belich has the ability to tie in the internal clock so certain narrative options open at certain times.
"The thermal printer is actually 203 dpi resolution across. High enough that you can do really interesting and cool simulated grayscale images," he said. It sounds complicated, but all of these features will be easy to use, with the stories laid out in a graphical manner that will be easy to understand, especially when experienced through the Choosatron itself.
"It all still distills down to the same choice-based gameplay," he explained. "It's always easy to play, but people can get as intricate and crazy with the design of their stories as they want. They can share them online and play them with other people online." The software will be made available for everyone to use, even without the purchase of the hardware.
The software is interesting, although Belich says the software is the bottleneck that's currently holding up the release of the product itself. However, the act of playing these stories using the Choosatron is what makes all this work seem so special and, in some ways, magical.
Watching a story unfold through the thermal printer, seeing the results of your choices manifest as the words scroll up and being able to keep your own version of the story are all powerful things. Twine is a popular tool in the interactive fiction community, but the Choosatron allows you to create a physical artifact of your story, and to see people interact with your work in a physical way.
You have to hold the unit in your hand, or read the text as it's printed. The player has to touch the button, and it's fun watching people agonize over a hard choice. You don't have to flip through the pages as you would with a choose your own adventure story; the results of every decision are printed directly on the paper. You only have to see the results of your own story, and then you get to keep the paper. It feels collaborative and real, even if the only thing the player brings to the story are the decisions and the button presses.
Twine users are in luck, as they'll be able to import or export the stories in Twine as well as the custom software. You can pre-order one of the first batches of the hardware now for $200. It's hard to understand the appeal of the hardware until you sit down and play through a story, or watch someone else do the same. I may pick one up so I can write stories for my kids, complete with their names and details and have play through their own adventures.
Or they could write me stories. Belich has had great success with using the Choosatron to interest kids in writing. "They get to put the kit together, they get to read stories, play stories, learn about the structure, and they finally get to write stories and share them with each other," he said. "Getting to see their own words in print, and seeing their name at the end is very exciting for them."