There are a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure type games on Android, probably because they’re brain-dead simple to control and likely not much harder to program. They’re also hugely budget-friendly as the inclusion of graphics or sound is not a requisite. Some of these titles, like those from Tin Man Games, amp up the production values all the same, packing their games full of orchestral tracks and graphical flourishes, but none of this can mask the fundamental problems with most interactive fiction: frustrating gameplay and boring prose. Though it was clearly produced on a shoestring budget, The Traveler does a better job of sidestepping these issues, making it the best interactive fiction I’ve experienced on Android.
The Traveler places you in the role of a tough bastard named Ba’rook, who takes down his opposition with brutal knife slashings and expertly fired arrows. The world through which he travels is a downtrodden one of desolate landscapes and scattered pockets of civilization. What’s most interesting about the story’s setting is that, based on Ba’rook’s weaponry and his mode of travel, it at first feels like it might be yet another fantasy outing set in the medieval era. However, you’ll eventually face enemies with firearms and even more telling is that Ba’rook’s quest is one of riches guaranteed him by a being known only as the Messenger, who periodically communicates with him via a device called an MPC.
Using the Messenger as the driving force of the narrative is interesting as you’re dropped in knowing nothing about him except that Ba’rook has been following his commands for some time now. It’s especially cool because, being that interactive fiction is a genre with gameplay built upon making decisions, another layer is added by often having the Messenger demanding you make one choice over another. It makes you consider why you should trust him, why you should do as he says, and of the very nature of decision-making and nonlinearity in games.
Thus far I’ve been analyzing this title in terms of its story and that’s because, as a game, The Traveler barely exists. There’s no music or sound effects and graphics consist of a handful of pleasant pencil drawings at a few key points. Other than that, you’re simply scrolling through sizable pages of prose, then tapping a selection of what you want to do next. And, all said and done, the vast majority of your choices don’t matter. The events on the page following a choice might be slightly altered and there are quite a few situations in which a bad decision will kill you, but, if you make it all the way through, all choices lead to the same endpoint wherein you are given three options that decide which of three endings you will receive.
I recognize that, for some, this won’t even qualify as a game. However, nearly every video game is based on an illusion of choice when in truth the player’s options are limited by the rules and constraints set by the developer. The Traveler is just more honest about it. You learn pretty early on that disobeying the Messenger is almost always a bad move, driving home the point all the more that, like in any game, you have no free will. Also, the linearity of the story means that it doesn’t have to overexert itself accommodating the player’s actions, so the narrative stays strong and focused throughout with well-written prose impressively depicting the ruined world and the deformed monstrosities you encounter. On the whole, The Traveler deserves some credit for actually trying to build its world, rather than, as with so many interactive fictions, throwing constant action at you and asking you repeatedly which direction you want to go.
Though the game still at times falls victim to the standard problem of forcing you to guess what the writer was thinking, this doesn’t happen quite as often as in other games of the genre. For one, again, few of your choices actually matter and, also again, you can at least usually guess that going against the Messenger’s wishes will lead to an early end. Still, when you do die, it’s a bit frustrating, but getting back to where you were will literally take only seconds and there are also a few checkpoints (though there’s no indication given as to when you’ve reached them).
The Traveler does a fantastic job of generally avoiding cliché and it’s an atypically palatable and entertaining interactive narrative experience because of it. The setting and descriptions keep you curious and interested and the dynamic of Ba’rook and the Messenger introduces questions about morality and free will. Some people will have trouble calling this a game at all, but gamers open to its minimalist approach will discover one of the best narratives available on their phone. I’m bumping it up a half-point because it only costs a buck. In fact, I feel bad saying this, but there’s even a free version that just adds an unobtrusive ad to the bottom of the screen. So check it out.