Anyone who’s ever been on Instagram or Tumblr has probably seen an ad for a mobile “story game” before. They typically feature scenarios plucked straight out of a soap opera — like discovering a cheating partner, a surprise pregnancy, or saying goodbye to your Roman gladiator beau before he heads off to fight another man to the death. Their general absurdity makes them ripe for ridicule, so people have been making fun of these ads for as long as they’ve been around.
If you’ve ever wondered who on Earth actually plays these games, look no further. I’ve been playing them for the better part of eight years now, ever since I got an iPod Touch in 2012 and was exposed to a whole new gaming platform. Back then, the big story app was Surviving High School: a game about exactly what its title suggested. The app was shut down in 2014, but developer Pixelberry Studios soon came out with its spiritual successor. That is to say Choices: Stories You Play.
For someone who’s been playing Choices since launch, it’s always jarring to see a melodramatic ad for the game that’s clearly meant to generate interest via over-the-top scenarios. The game bears little resemblance to its ads, only occasionally injecting excess drama into its stories. Still, the ads appear to have worked, at least in part; half a million people have downloaded Choices across Android and iOS, and the game has a dedicated following online. Though the gaudy ads may draw people in, hidden beneath each one is the real reason for the game’s popularity: the promise of shameless, low-stakes wish fulfillment.
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Mobile gaming has been on the rise for the better part of a decade, and women have been at its forefront. As smartphones became more commonplace, and more developers used the new platform to market to women, mobile gaming became a hugely profitable industry. The definition of a “gamer” has always been a constantly changing one, but never more so than now, with mobile gaming seeing more gender parity than any other platform.
Nowhere is the role of women in mobile gaming more prominent than in mobile story games. When I first played Surviving High School, I was around the same age as the characters in the story. While my male friends squabbled over League of Legends, I played Surviving High School everywhere, whenever I got the chance. I hid my iPod behind my sheet music during orchestra practice and played during the breaks. It was the first time a game interested me so much — because it was the first time I found a game that was made for me. I consumed copious amounts of American teen media, but growing up in Hong Kong, there were none of the trappings of a typical American upbringing. Through Surviving High School, I could live vicariously through an idealized all-American avatar who made the cheerleader squad and found love in the process. And I did… Again and again.
Choices takes that desire for wish fulfillment and makes it the basis for all its stories. There are all kinds of settings and premises, from being a woman in the Regency era who discovers a family inheritance, to finding love aboard a summer-long cruise ship. Conflicts are significant but easily resolved. It’s drama intended only to make the catharsis even sweeter.
There are two kinds of stories in Choices: the kind with multiple equally viable love interests, and the kind with one main suitor around whom the story revolves. The former applies to “books” where the romance isn’t the focal point. Yet every character plays a role in the main character’s journey. There are never repercussions for courting multiple characters at once, so long as you choose one at the end. The latter is for books where romance is the name of the game — the whole reason to play through the story in the first place. Here, the main love interest is typically customizable in both appearance and gender, allowing the player to tailor their experience to their own preferences.
It’s no coincidence that the majority of Choices books only have the option for a female protagonist. Just like it’s no coincidence that story apps are advertised on Instagram and Tumblr. These stories aren’t merely in service of the player; they’re specifically in service of women. And contrary to popular belief, they aren’t just vehicles for women to live out fantasies of being swept off their feet by a rakish pirate captain (although there’s no shame in that). Many stories feature female protagonists finding self-worth, respect, and power. I hesitate to call Choices a game that espouses feminist ideals, exactly, by virtue of starring women, but when there are hundreds of games specifically made with men in mind, a game that unashamedly panders to women and some non-binary people is a rarity.
There might not be as much drama as it seems, but the writing can come off as contrived and the stakes often feel artificial, throttled by the microtransaction model that governs the games’ storytelling. Key scenes advancing character relationships are locked behind in-game purchases. They simply have little impact on the overarching story to keep it coherent for those not willing to pay.
It’s another product of the way mobile gaming changed not only the way we play games but even the way we tell stories. Unlike games that offer cosmetics for a fee, in Choices, the incentive to spend money isn’t tied to aesthetics, but to emotions. Players don’t pay to win or grow stronger. You just unlock new narrative elements and further your emotional connection to various characters. Pair that with how skill in gaming is so often viewed through a masculinized lens. It’s easy to see how Choices is tailor-made for women. There’s no winning or losing — the ultimate goal is gratification, whatever that means for each player.
The definition of a “gamer” is always changing. People who rack up hundreds of hours playing Candy Crush may still be regarded as “fake gamers,” but recent hit Genshin Impact owes a huge amount of its success to its crossplay capability, just like Fortnite before it.
Mobile gaming is growing. So is the number of women who play games. I’ve played over 300 Choices chapters and found something decently enjoyable in all of them. To me, consuming stories in chapter-sized chunks on the subway is just as valid a gaming experience as dedicating five hours to a PC visual novel. Choices may not translate to any other platform, but it’s found its niche in frothy escapism oriented towards women, and that’s all it needs to do.