By Katherine Morayati
It’s hard to out-wacky a field whose acclaimed titles include The Gostak, HIGH END CUSTOMIZABLE SAUNA EXPERIENCE and Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me and whose recent works include Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World, The Epic Ass-Kicking Quest For Awesome Glory and GROWBOTICS, but it’s been done in quality and quantity by one author, or rather house: ClickHole, which released a whopping 20 games eligible for XYZZY Awards in 2015 via its ClickVentures vertical. (IF works are eligible if they are complete, publicly available and listed on IFDB.) They’re not the first comedy writers to attempt IF – others include Rob Dubbin, Robb Sherwin, and even people not named Rob – but they are ,lately, the most prolific.
The XYZZY eligibility list, of course, collapses nicely to a dozen or so stories when finalists are announced, but it’s easy to imagine at least one of these in the running. ClickHole produces one game per week – a breakneck pace by IF standards. Like ClickHole’s more traditional writing, they range from reflexively meta (Get The Whole Online Experience By Trying Our Internet Simulator) to ripped-from-realtime (You’re A Germ! Can You Make Bruce Springsteen Sick Enough To Cancel A Concert?) to self-conscious weird Twitter horror (The Mysterious Shadows Of Skullshadow Island), but always geared toward mass appeal. Only their presentation – mobile-interface stylings on dialogue options, achievements to unlock – gives them away as non-hobbyist works. And as one would (should?) expect from a professional media outlet, they are well-written, immaculately polished and gussied up with all the design resources of the modern digital studio – and all the priorities.
Everything on ClickHole walks a fine line: ruthlessly satirizing online clickbait while itself serving as viable clickbait. The Onion, after all, is a major publishing entity that also produces sponsored content – generally with a sheepish dismissal of the thing it has deigned to publish – and comprises an in-house advertising agency whose clients include EA, Hilton and Dove. (Currently, ClickVentures run alongside sponsored posts for Totino’s Pizza Rolls.) Clickhole may target a snarkier-wiser audience than Buzzfeed, but their core goal is the same: to produce #content at #scalable #volume, to drive shares, clicks, engagement and everything else you’d hear on the biz side of any other digital outlet, and to grow an 18-34 audience.
The process of growing that audience can be politely described as flailing upon the early Web and rehauling anything cool or gimmicky you touch. The resurrection of the BBS-staple GIF has been well documented to the point where it’s possible to forget that “animated GIF” once connoted Geocities. The Facebook-courting part of the Internet is aglow with what are basically Quizilla quizzes – whether user-generated (read: free) like the first ones, or professionally designed for maximum lead generation and data collection. And yes, among all these were choose-your-own –adventure games – when I was growing up, my main outlet was the thousands-strong archive of collaborative stories on the since-rebranded stories.com, but there were others. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal candidate for clickyfication than CYOA, if you think like a suit – it’s a genre whose association among the masses is kitschy ‘80s nostalgia, which calls for lengthy, attentive engagement from audiences, and that is designed to produce large amounts of clicks.
And indeed, this is exactly how ClickVenture was founded. The genre “descends from a format, the slideshow, that’s a pretty useless format that I think almost everyone finds frustrating,” ClickHole lead writer Jamie Brew told Wired. “It’s typically used online to delay the presentation of information that any normal person would want immediately. We basically said, what can we do to make these enjoyable?” This repurposing isn’t unheard of – Twine, for instance, grew out of the more generalized wiki framework TiddlyWiki, and Choice Of Games grew out of the code and principles of the old C64 game Alter Ego. And like most authoring systems, ClickHole found itself grappling with the same problems IF designers have for decades. Slideshows, after all, have no world model and very little ability to affect variables behind the scenes, restricting ClickHole (at least for the moment) to simple lightly branching narrative. You can watch it happen in real time, almost. Early work The Mysterious Shadows flirts with parser construction – one branch prompts you to go NORTH or SOUTH, capitalized as such – before abandoning it for a more typical deadly gauntlet; later works are often punctuated solely by the little emotional quips (“capiche? Capiche”) popularized in Twine by Porpentine and others.
Indeed, whether by coincidence, by constraint (there are only so many lightly branching concepts, even for the most creative among us) or by being suffused in the same influences – writer Jamie Brew is a fan of Michael Lutz, and comedy writers and Twine designers share more than a few Twitter followers – a lot of the ClickHole adventures come off as alternate-universe takes on the hypertext canon. Can You Find The Mole In This Spy Organization? is a mildly more sedate version of the comedy half of SPY INTRIGUE. Can You Keep Up a Conversation with Your Dad? is like a goofy, atopical take on works like Conversations With My Mother or Coming Out Simulator.Games like You’re A Grocery much Store Delivery Boy. Can You Deliver A Pound Of Ground Beef To The Astronauts On The International Space Station? parody the deliberate gender-neutral PCs (and subsequently maximized audience? Like everything ClickHole, it’s hard to say) of both commercial IF and more social-justice oriented hobbyist works. Build Your Ideal Boyfriend is a toy like the IF-adjacent game Boyfriend Maker. The list goes on, and becomes more sophisticated: a comedy machine becoming ever more efficient.
It’s not a perfect machine, mind. At their most derivative, ClickVentures come off as endless lightly spun versions of You’re an X, Can You Y? or, worse, the exact sort of tedious, stingily dispensed paragraphs Each ClickVenture is the work of one author, but ClickHole’s writing team is overwhelmingly male – much unlike the current slate of IF authors – and entirely in-house; perhaps as a result, certain entries read like Oglaf-via-fratire. And like everything clickbait or clickbait-satire, ClickVentures are subject to online publishing whims and trends; for every successful quiz concept there’s an unsuccessful rubbable GIF. But unlike the work of countless, best-unnamed corporations-come-lately who dabbled in IF as a fun new gimmick, ClickVentures actually function as solid, enjoyable diversions. As Wired describes it, we’re all “watching comedy writers become unintentional game designers.” Lots of us can say the same.