Disdain for Set Main Characters

That doesn’t mean that everything is open to choosing, however. Even in the games with the greatest customizability, the author has to set some parameters.

Nor is character-creation the only kind of choice that exists. “Choose Your Own Adventure” books have “Choose” in the title, and they don’t allow you to customize a character at all.


Also interesting to note that, although customization is popular, when you talk about choice, customization is many times, rarely, if ever mentioned after you created which means that a lot of times, it’s just a series of fake choices


I would not say i hate “set” mc’s but im not a fan of them either but really this is kinda hard to answer since everyone has a different definition for what a “set” MC constitutes so its more of a spectrum rather then a definable singular thing. We all also tend to have different lines in the sand for when a MC is too “set”. For me personally, my line in the sand is the characters name and their personality/feelings on the things taking place during the time the story takes place(because those are the things i associate with identity i suppose). Im happy for the author to define their background/past and pretty much everything else(even their appearance, though i would prefer to have input on that) but the two above mentioned things i feel i need to have a say in if im to enjoy the game as IF.

When i feel like a MC is too “set” im not frustrated at the author or the story but rather that the potential of the story is held back by the constraints of the medium. What i mean is that often these stories would be better as traditional novels imo rather then IF since the authors clearly have a very vivid/specific idea of how they want the story to go and mc to react etc and it being IF seems to get in the way of that vision.

On the flipside im also not a fan of MC’s that are too “blank”(would that be the word for it?) since they feel like less of an actual realized character and more of a amorphous mouth piece for the player. The feeling of potential going to waste is the same since in this case its like the author is focused more on giving the player as much agency as possible despite what it may do to the overarching story.

The best IF in my opinion find a wonderful balance between the two extremes in order to leverage the pros and minimize the cons of IF as a genre/medium.


I feel that most characters in CoG and HG books could be referred to as set. Their backstory is usually set and when it’s not, it usually is only used for skillchecks, they have certain traits… and honestly, when they don’t, it feels weird and makes character feel like a plank.

A main character is main character for a reason. He or she are supposed to resonate with story themes, they are a core upon which the foundation is built, they’re the spine of the story. They should feel like their own character you can guide, not as a cutout you can dress, fashion and sorta-kinda affect their decision making until you suddenly can’t.


Yes, one could argue that every main character is set in some way or another. Some characters are just more set than others. In my case, I like to have control over name, gender and stats, as they are the main things used in games. As a previous poster said, many of the other things aren’t even mentioned.

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This reaction comes up a lot in these conversations, with a more or less explicit critique of authors for not picking the medium best suited to their vision. I’d just like to pop up a note that from my own taste and perspective as a reader, IF with a set MC can work very well as IF, not as a failed novel.

The aspect of IF I enjoy most is exploration, and fiction offers lots of different things to explore. Variable plots and subplots; different possibilities for character development and growth; a rich and interesting setting (which as I’ve written before is I think an underpraised pleasure of good literature).

IF with a set MC can still offer me that chance to explore all of those things. Horizon Zero Dawn, one of my favorite AAA games of the past few years, had a terrifically rich story and setting. A CoG that let me explore a similarly narrative-rich world, even without graphics, would be well worth my time. Aloy doesn’t change much as a character, she’s just set loose on the world to explore (and becomes more herself as she does so, intensifying characteristics that she clearly had from the beginning), but discovering it through her distinct perspective as a marginalized outcast moving to the heart of power is part of the fun.

And when it comes to exploring character development and growth… that can work with a set MC too, often even better than with a customizable MC. Geralt in Witcher 3 is a character you can explore and (to a meaningful extent) develop through your choices in game. With lots of IF, there’s nothing of the MC for a reader to explore or learn because it’s all in their hands; which can make it hard for the author to write an arc that emerges satisfyingly from the character’s past. Often custom MCs end up just being a viewpoint from which to explore the plot and setting, rather than themselves being a character worth digging into.

And that can work great! I don’t at all think a customizable MC is bad, as you could see from my own IF work so far. MC customization (like second-person perspective) can be a great authorial tactic to get readers fully engaged with the story and world – and in the context of the wider gaming world, it has the additional benefit of “not othering” readers who until recently have had few opportunities to play protagonists who are like them. I just also think that a great IF can be written with a set MC.

In a case where the protagonist is set, and the plot is on hard rails, and the setting isn’t one I’m particularly excited to run around digging into (even if it’s otherwise a perfectly fine setting)… then, sure, I’d have the “why isn’t this a novel” reaction. But if any of the above are genuinely explorable, I’ll understand why it was written as IF.


This makes a lot of sense - I’d add that there’s a swathe of very well respected, high quality IF with genuinely “set” MCs - I think immediately of inkle’s work like 80 Days. It perhaps runs into the same thing as Study in Steampunk in riffing very successfully on a well-known work, so it does have a head start, but Overboard is also acclaimed. On the other end of the commercial spectrum, a ton of non-commercial IF has set protagonists - off the top of my head, Birdland and its sequels, and a lot of what you see in the IF Comp, are very praised for their well-realised main characters.

I find that the MCs I get most attached to in ChoiceScript games are the ones where I can direct their actions and personalities, but they don’t need to be an entirely blank canvas because if they are, I don’t have a frame of reference about who my character is. When writing, I allow myself a few assumptions about the MC - if I’m writing about a spy, say, I can assume a base level of stealth or deception ability even if it’s not their main strength. When I was writing about romance-related reality TV, I assumed a base level of extroversion and interest in being on such a show. I wouldn’t call any of them “set”, necessarily, if the player is able to personalise the character and make choices about what they do in the world.

The novel vs IF is a really interesting question. When I was coming up with game concepts recently, I came up with one that I realised would work a lot better with a set character or a linear story - it was to do with being a teacher saving a school from peril and I struggled to think of other goals for the MC. For a CoG, those multiple end goals are vital - for an action/adventure game, or a novel, not so much.


On the other hand, it can give the player the power to decide the MC’s character arc. (One of my favourite ones went through a lot of hardship… and learnt nothing. Which wouldn’t happen with an author who wants to build a satisfying character arc. But sometimes you just want it that way.)


Love it. :slight_smile: Yes, one of the bonuses of the “co-authorship” of IF is that you can have possibilities like this.


I believe this is key to understanding the genre of Interactive Fiction in general, not just a Choice Script game.

First-person shooters have stories written for them. Sometimes these stories are very well-developed and often written by experienced and acclaimed authors. Tom Clancy is the author that comes to mind immediately, but there are others as well.

What differentiates a First-person shooter story from an Interactive Fiction story are the end-goals and “end-states”. A First-person shooter’s goal is to shoot and loot. No matter how complex or in-depth the story you are following, in the game, the goal will always be to shoot and then loot your way through the story.

Don’t get me wrong … Tom Clancy’s Division and Division 2 stories are well done … so well done that they are being adapted to streaming series on Netflix. The Last of Us is a genuine hit on HBO, and up to the most recent episode, the show followed the game’s story without deviation.

The First-person shooters often offer MC customization, and the level of customization rivals, if not exceeds, the level offered in Choice Script games. You would think that such a feature in a game would attract almost every self-insert gamer that can buy the game.

Yet, because there is a singular goal, these games do not appeal to most who seek interactive fiction in its many forms. No matter if the gamer chooses a virtual novel, or a choice script game, the multiple goals baked in is what attracts, hooks, and retains the gamer.


Personally, I don’t mind set backstories (they’re usually the crux of the story). And I don’t mind a set personality trait, if the story requires it (ex. I’m not an adventurous person, but some IF requires my character to be, and that’s fine). But I want to grow my character up from that starting place. There are lots of aspects of a person that don’t directly control the plot, but indirectly affect it (ex. The adventurer can be a rough cowboy type, or a bubbly party girl. The plot would play out the same way). You can’t get this with a purely set MC. So I’m on camp “set what’s required for the plot, leave the rest up to me”


The author places themself at the mercy of the reader the moment they refer to them as “you”. It’s next to impossible for a reader not to take it personally when you refer to them so directly. An obvious benefit to this is that it allows for very easy and instant immersion. The drawbacks are more subtle, but they all stem from a lack of narrative control from the author.

I think a lot of authors get into choicegames without much experience in or understanding of writing in 2nd person tense. I was certainly one of them! For those who enjoy it, all the power to them, but for me, it’s creative castration.

The future demographic of these games is inevitably more mature and almost certainly more female (to replicate traditional fiction audiences). It’ll be interesting to see how “choicegame expectations” change accordingly. For those paying attention, they already have!


The expectations of reader vs writer is always going to determine what is possible for a reader to do versus what a writer is capable of doing with the type of interactive medium. It would be virtually impossible for someone to take a interactive RPG like Skyrim or Fallout and convert it into a physical book, for example. The closest thing to that would probably be the Fabled Lands and Steam Highwayman books and they take a lot of planning to give a reader such flexibility as to choose how the story begins and ends as much as continues. AI Dungeon and ChatGPT show that AI can possibly reach that level of decision making, but without the flexibility and style of a human writer something would ultimately feel lacking (added to the self imposed limits placed on the AI in terms of what content and context they are allowed to make).

Stuff that is set in a game can be annoying but it often means that something else can be possibly more flexible since the writer isn’t having to factor in both aspects. An accurate Pride and Prejudice game as what exists on the Hosted Games app would need to be totally different if it offered player the choice to be a male character- it would likely need the ability to play as Darcy or Bingley instead of an Elizabeth style character. Even if it was still female only but there was the option to play as a character like Jane or Lydia it would have required a lot more effort on the part of the writer to essentially create an entirely different story. Of course we have an example of this with the Cinderella and Prince Charming story so one can see the appeal, but as stated that requires more work by the writer.

It is a tricky question but I think ultimately it is up to the writer what they are comfortable doing rather than us readers.


I never play self inserts, I tailor the MC to what I think fits the story the best, there is more freedom in shaping a MC and seeing the world react to different types. That for me is the beauty of choice of games.
Again, it IS personal preference, if I don’t like the main character no matter if they come from an if or a classic console game, then my enjoyment is automatically hampered by that fact. It is the sole reason why I personally cannot read certain books(or games) or drop one because more often than not I’m not a fan of the protagonist and find myself thinking “Wonder how the story would turn out if MC reacted differently.” Neither is good or bad, but the power of choice is what I’m looking for in a choice game, the whole stat based aspect of the genre isn’t what I’m interested in, it’s the ability to see the MC interact with the cast/world in a way that I want.

A set MC for me means = set personality, set reactions to events with no player input.
Not = set background story, set family, set occupation, set cosmetic features that lean into MC’s past (like the gloved hand in Golden Rose for example). If anything, it’s a powerful foundation to any MC, self insert or not.


Personally, I have seen more ire by (presumably) male players because certain games, mainly in the Heart’s Choice line, were not catering to their expectations of what an appropriate romance for cishet guys should look like. I would also say that, from my experience, female readers tend to be more open to male POVs considering that’s what they largely grow up with.

Back to the topic: I don’t generally mind preset characters as long as I still have certain ways to shape them, their personality, or the ways they react to people, things, and conflicts. To be fair, though, it would definitely put me off not to be able to choose the MC’s first name. There are definitely good reasons why the MC’s name could be pre-determined but it should be more than “because the author felt like it”.

For example, in Mind Blind, we are established as Nick Wiseman’s sibling with a preset backstory. However, we can decide how we feel about our brother, our parents, and our circumstances (ranging from being largely accepting to being deeply traumatized). There are also certain trait flags that are remembered at later points, contributing to the feel of our MC as the person we have shaped them to be.


I read “set cosmic features” and now I wonder…


Probably I was one of those! :sweat_smile: Whilst you are definitely not wrong I would point out only three out of numerous games on HC offer a M/F option, so that they are probably lacking choices to begin with. I should say that I have enjoyed several female only games on there though (Pirates and Werewolves to be specific).

Choice of the Divine, anyone? :slight_smile:


Personally speaking, I just find Heart’s Choice romances a bit… well, boring. There’s just nothing to grasp there for me, they feel either vanilla or very… quick to fall out of my memory.

MCs there fall into same pitfalls that often befall their older sister, Choice of Games. They’re both set and too… general, too generic. There’s almost nothing to grasp in some games and thus I prefer games from CoG line that limit MC and their character in some way, give them anchors and something to grasp onto. A good example of such an MC would be Mecha Ace one. Their strong sense of personality and different reactions to their character and values from other characters make the game feel alive to me.


I totally agree with the feeling for those two branches of publishing, but I don’t think that’s necessarily due to the protagonist not having enough to work with. I think that’s mostly due to the very intense style guidelines that at least CoG-published games have to abide by (don’t know how bad it is for HC; it’s at least not quite as bad as CoG but obviously still way more strict than HG). There is a certain push for broad appeal there, absolutely, but I’ve actually found much of the CoG lineup’s MCs to be too set, like having a very distinct and immutable, if kinda generic, personality that I can’t affect meaningfully, and that’s where I really need a character to not be predetermined (unless it just ends up working out for me like Fallen Hero) to feel like I have any agency.