Friday, January 6, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 27 Part 1: The Purloined Pony

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

Six people sent in reviews of this story!  Six!  Here I thought I'd be lucky to get one, and instead it's a half dozen.  Clearly, I underestimated the siren call of anonymous unpaid internet labor.

Of course, this raises the question of how best to post six complete story reviews.  I want to post them in a format that encourages visitors to read them all, or failing that, at least in a format that doesn't actually reward people for reading one and skipping the rest.  And I want the presentation to be interesting to read in its own right.  To that end, I've decided to split this up into two posts.

Interestingly, half of the people who wrote a review started their introduction with some variation of "I hated these stories when I was a kid, but I'll give this a try."  I say it's interesting because I have always found CYOAs to be a great way to get kids, especially boys, to read.  A lot of children who "hate reading" will nevertheless dive right into these kinds of stories, and show genuine interest in the fate of their alter-ego.  So I'm a little surprised that so many folks seem to have had such bad experiences with them growing up.

In any case, I've decided to save those three for the moment, and begin with the reviews by people who had a more positive/neutral attitude towards the genre.  The three CYOA skeptics I'll put in post that's going up tomorrow, so make sure you check what they have to say as well.  I split them up this way because I think it's interesting to compare how the different attitudes towards the genre influenced their impressions.

Speaking of comparing, I'm going to present the three reviews that are being posted today by section, rather than by author:  I'll give everyone's Impressions before reading, then summary, etc.  I'm doing it this way rather than just tossing up each author's review in order for two reasons: first, I think it's interesting to compare side-by-side what each of the reviewers had to say, and to see what similarities (and differences) of opinion they had.  Second, I hope it will encourage people to read the entire post, rather than just getting one reviewer's take and skipping the rest.  It's not manipulative if I tell you why I'm doing it, right?

So, without further ado, the first three reviews of The Purloined Pony.  All after the break, as always.

[I'm also going to continue to make comments in these handy little brackets, because this is my blog and I reserve the right to interject my opinion at any time.  Don't worry though: I haven't edited one word of any of the reviews themselves (except for a couple of spelling errors-I won't say whose or what, to preserve the dignity of everyone involved).  Our first reviewer, who earns the heady honor of going at the top of the list by virtue of sending his review in first, is InquisitorM:]

InquisitorM:  So even before I had thought to accept Chris' challenge to review his story The Purloined Pony, I noticed there were already a few readers tossing their hats into the ring. I might not have considered going head-to-head with other would-be reviewers if it were not for the nature of Chris' story: Choose your own adventure.

Now, if you're as old as me (poor you), you may well remember these things from back in the late 80's/early 90's called Fighting Fantasy books. A very popular series of choose your own adventure books which didn't tend to pull punches on the difficulty scale. If you’ve ever tried book 7, House of Hell you’ll know what I mean, lots of people never finished it [I remember those books.  My story's based, structurally speaking, on the rival CYOA® series, which were slightly different and much simpler.  Though some made it just as frustratingly easy to get yourself killed while reading]. These were an important part of my childhood, and if you're never tried one, quit this review and just follow the link here to the story. Seriously, do yourself a favour.

For everyone else, let's get down to business.

[Next, we have TheEmeraldPage:]

TheEmeraldPage: It was only recently that I came across this blog. Since I have not yet completed or published a work of my own I feel that I am woefully unqualified to to offer a review of the same quality that Chris seems to produce. Though I doubt that I will get far if I only do things that I think I’m qualified for. Perhaps my naive ignorance might expose me to some insight that a trained eye might have overlooked or dismissed. After all, you got to start somewhere. [That's the spirit!]

[And finally, Alan De Smet, a man so confident in himself that not only does he use his real name, he also didn't bother with an introductory paragraph.  I want to note before we go any farther that both Emerald and Alan were kind enough to point out a few grammar problems in the story, which I guiltily slunk back into the document to fix.  Thanks guys!]

Impressions before reading

InquisitorM:  Having never heard of this story before, I had no idea of what to expect beyond the classic choose-your-own-adventure format, and ponies. The old Fighting Fantasy books I was used to play actually had dice, and combat, and occasionally inventory items. I felt safe assuming those would not be present here. Thus, I had a little think about the pitfalls that such a project might entail. Could it be failed? Would there be multiple successful paths? Were there multiple endings? These only made me more intrigued however, so I dove right in on page 1...

TheEmeraldPage:  It has been quite some time since I read a choose your own adventure (CYOA) story . There's only one I can directly recall reading, it being a Goosebumps one that I got for free back in the fifth grade. While I can not remember the story, I can clearly remember constantly peeking ahead to get to the best ending. I certainly plan to be much more honest this time around.

I wonder though how choosing my own adventure will affect the story, or more specifically how it will affect the characters. Will it feel like it is really the protagonist making the decisions or will it feel more like a textual video game where the main character is just an extension of myself. One of the most important parts of a story is the ‘immersive-ness’. I love it when I can lose myself in the story, the characters, and the world. Even though this is not a normal story, I hope I can at least treat it like one and still get that same feeling. Maybe because it is not your normal type of fic that the usual rules won’t apply?

Alan De Smet:  A choose your own adventure? I’m intrigued by the possiblity of something unusual in pony fan fiction, but interactive stories are a minefield of potential problems. The author needs solid storytelling skills, the ability to weave together a dozen or more different storylines, and the game design skill to ensure that the choices are meaningful. As a fan of modern text adventures and game theory, I have high standards for interactive stories, so I’m not optimistic.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:

InquisitorM:  Carrot Top discovers that a foal has gone missing! It's all hands to the wheel as everypony pitches in to find and rescue one of Ponyville’s littlest residents. Whose aid will you enlist? Where will you go first? More importantly, how many ways can you find to fail your quest horribly and possibly painfully?

TheEmeraldPage:  When Apple Bloom goes missing Carrot Top will have to make a series of decisions to save her.

Alan De Smet:  Twilight Sparkle recruits Carrot Top to help with the search when Applebloom disappears. Twilight fears faeries may have kidnapped the filly.

Thoughts after reading:

InquisitorM:  To very succinctly blow my own trumpet, I think I nailed all the things that were going to make or break this adventure. That is of course, aside from the quality of writing, so let's start with that.

The writing is much more concise that any normal fan fiction. This serves a couple of very necessary purposes; firstly, the nature of choose-your-own-adventure means you can come at many scenes from different directions, and cross referencing every description must be balanced against describing something multiple times; secondly, you will almost certainly end up reading some passages several times, even in a single play-through. Therefore, brevity is important.

There are several key points, mostly early on, that are noticeably wordier however. To me, this established a smooth curve between the setup phase and the adventure phase. The further you go, the less detail you are naturally inclined to read before making the choice at the bottom of the page.

Beyond that, the second person perspective might throw anyone unaccustomed to it, or role-playing in general. Again, it serves very important concepts regarding how the choose your own adventure works, beyond just the story. Most obviously, it gives you the chance to feel personally invested in the story. I think its more important function however, is to 'fill you in' on what your character is thinking, so that the choices for each page feel natural. It would be very easy for some of the page options to feel forced or artificial, but I couldn't find one that did.

Now, the first thing I mentioned before starting was how the old FF books I knew were harsh. I wasn't sure how Chris was going to handle this, but fortunately my concerns were unfounded. Sometimes you just fail and that's it. Sometimes you will know you've failed but be able to try a different path. The 'right' answers to the options are almost never all that obvious, and have repeated appeals to moral intuition, as My Little Pony should. Some of the choices will feel a lot harder than you would expect!

I also mentioned inventory items. The old books used to use it to track sub-plots you have completed, and The Purloined Pony uses the same principal, but dispenses with the paper tracking for simplicity. Some options will simply not be available if you have not made certain previous choices. Yet again, this method adds very specific strengths to the story. When you come across a scene, you know there are multiple routes from that scene which may not be available to you. This adds serious encouragement to go through and do things differently next time, trying to experience the whole story. It also reinforces the feeling that YOU made the choices that brought you to this point, and that's a powerful feature.

Lastly, the flip side to making it genuinely tricky is that you actually get to have a sense of completion when you succeed. I'm not sure how many 'good' ending there are. I found two, one of which was less interesting, the other was a full on epic-win ending that will make any pony fan beam with a sense of pride. I dare you not to. Then I dare you not to go and look for the other endings and all the paths you missed. Have you tried doing it Twilight's way? How about Applejack's way? Did you get to see Rarity and Sweetie Belle? How about that visit to Sugar Cube Corner you know you always wanted? Actually, I take it back, I don't dare you not to. Go, do it now, have fun with it.

TheEmeraldPage:  I decided that it would be best to give my thoughts on it after one read through. After all, one doesn’t usually read a story over several times when writing a review. If I was to compare it to a regular story the best way would be to do so after I had only read it once.

In past reviews Chris would always note the frequency of errors, both spelling and grammatical, that would pull him out of the story. In my first read through I only came across one instance of error. It forced me to reread the sentence but it was hardly anything to dwell on and certainly not something to condemn the entire piece. I feel I am woefully under qualified to comment on the structure of the writing as I am not familiar with the more advanced techniques that writers use. I did not spot any of said techniques while reading though but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. What I can comment on, however, was how the story itself felt. Beyond the major dilemmas I encountered while reading this (which I will talk about below), the story was adequate. It was not amazing, and lacked a lot of the polish and feel you would get from a traditional story, but it was also far from under developed. All the characters were for the most part believable though it didn’t have that “This could have been the plot for an episode!” feel to it. I could tell that there was a good deal of though put into making the story and the world it takes place in . The story does add on to the mythology of the pony-verse but not in any world breaking way.

My original thought as to how immersive the story would be proved to be partially untrue. As I recalled Chris once saying in an earlier review, the first-person perspective can be a fickle thing. Used properly, and in the right context, it can help the reader to view the story from the proper perspective. If misused, it can be jarring, pulling the reader out of the story. In the case of this story, the context not only allowed for this perspective, but actually demanded it. It would probably be more jarring to have read this in third-person. As to how it was used, there was never a situation where I felt that it was miss-written for the third-person perspective. To be fair, most of my focus through out the piece was focused on something else.

By the time it came for me to make the second decision in my adventure (I made seven total decisions on my way through my first adventure. Nine if you count a decision I had to make three times.) I knew that this story could not just simply stand in for a normal story. The story put me in a position to choose one of six different ‘paths.’ The first five being all equally viable options and the last being a rather ‘douchy’ choice. Striking the last one from my mind, I tried to decide which way to go. That is when it occurred to me. Given the information that ‘I’ had just been given if it was me actually standing there I would have possibly tried a combination of the different options available. And just like that I was out of it. Suddenly I was thinking, trying to reason which way to go. I was not reading the story. I was out of it. Now I (the human ‘I’ not the Carrot Top ‘I’) was in the equation. Should I choose what Reid would do in this situation or what Carrot Top would? Up to that point, the story had given me a fair sense of what she might be like, so I chose to make that first decision on the closest guess of what she might have done.

The next decision left me in an even further bind. I struggled with how the qualities that had been written so far for the main character would weigh in the decision, a decision the would have probably stirred conflict in Carrot top. Eventually it was a small detail that moved me to make my choice. As I began to read the next page all that reasoning and inner turmoil i had stirred up on Carrot’s behalf was abruptly throw out the window. The Carrot Top in the story acted on completely different line of logic, one that I quickly passed as I dove deeper. Just like that all the heart and meaning I had put into making that decision was gone. After that decision I could never fully rekindle my connection with Carrot Top. I continued to do my best with each following decision to do stick to what decisions I though she would have made but it was hard as her thoughts seamed jump in random directions either before or after a decision.

When I came to the end, I’m not going to lie, I was a little disappointed. Not because it was poorly written or out of place. On the contrary, everything was written as it should have been. What bothered me was the lack of that final conflict. That special twist that is supposed to happen just as a story reaches its climax to keep you clinging on to the narrative until it finally resolves itself. There was a final choice at the end that I could have intentionally chosen the wrong move to create conflict, but that would have required me to break from every thing I had done up till that point. The other thing that bothered me about the ending to this what the lack of closure to some of the decisions I had made. One decision in particular would definitely have had a lasting affect on somepony (Look at me, being all non-spoilery) but was never mentioned on the final page.

To sum up my thoughts, this doesn’t rate well as a regular story. By having the reader make major choices as to how the plot unfolds, they have to make the choices that the author normally would make and yet not have the satisfaction of total control were they actually writing out the story. Then again this isn’t a regular story, its a CYOA. To judge it like it is a normal story is unfair. It’s like judging a movie based on the criteria for judging a videogame. Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve read enough CYOA type book’s to really know what would be the criteria for a good one. So I guess I would have to base it on the criteria that I judged the last CYOA story: How much fun is it?

Thoughts after reading several times through: Now that all the serious reviewing was over, I cut loose from the mind-racking decision making and set off to make my own damn adventure. It it was great. On my second time through, I went in a direction that I had almost gone on the first time but had decided against at the last second. This lead me through an entirely different way of going through the story, with an ending that was actually more exciting that my first and so far is my favorite. After that I soon branched out to all sorts of different paths. I quickly found that there were a much greater number of “bad” endings than good and that this CYOA was not very forgiving for foolishness [You think I'm not very forgiving?  The old CYOAs had crap like "If it's a weekday, go to page 65."  And then you die.  The end.  Yes, I'm still bitter over that one]. The choice making itself was fairly easy. It gave enough variety to make each decision fun and usually fairly exciting. After a while though, many of the ‘paths’ would lead me to the same situation that I had been in before and it started to lose a little of its charm. I still have yet to read all the endings but I think I have seen all the positive ones, and most of the negative ones. I will probably come back and finish the rest of the endings but I think that is enough adventure for now, and hopefully enough to write this review.

Alan De Smet:  The second person voice for Carrot Top trips me up. Within a few paragraphs I feel like a participant in author wish fulfillment. Choose your own adventures (CYOAs) typically use the second person, addressing the reader as “you.” It’s easier to immerse yourself and emotionally invest in choices when “you” are the protagonist. In contrast, first and third person can feel like you’re controlling a puppet at a distance. Second person isn’t a problem in CYOAs set in an entirely original setting. In CYOAs where you are dropped into an existing setting, you are typically the protagonist from the source material with expected connections to other characters. Here, we are Carrot Top, an original character based on a background character from the show. There is no canon relationship between Carrot Top and the Mane Six, so I was wary when the story begins with Twilight seeking Carrot Top out for help. As I met other Mane Six characters and was greeted as an old friend, I started feeling a bit guilty of being a Mary Sue.

I suspect that casting the reader into the role of one of the major characters would solve the problem, as their relationships with other canon characters would feel more natural. The other solution would be to minimize contact with major characters, and indeed The Purloined Pony begins to shine when we start spending time with new characters.

Unsurprisingly, Twilight Sparkle’s suspicions are correct and faeries are involved in Applebloom’s disappearance. Carrot Top spends much of the story dealing with new characters in the form of brownies and boggies, brownies turned bad. The faeries are strongly inspired by the myths of our world while having interesting original aspects. Their culture is a well blended mix of odd faerie rules, unusual powers, and otherwise rational behavior. The faerie feel like a magical foreign culture, one that fits well into the strange realm of the Everfree Forest.

After my initial read-through, I was satisfied. The rough start paid off in a well told short story that fit into the Friendship is Magic world while simultaneously being a fairy tale. As I started exploring paths I had passed, my appreciation grew. The failure endings are understandably downbeat, but are executed with solid if unmemorable worksmanship and provide a bit of danger to make your choices feel more meaningful. The winning endings are almost uniformly great, covering the range of suitable fairy tale and FiM endings: there are heroic endings, quiet victories, and several minor sacrifices you can make. With one notable exception in which Carrot Top is “punished” with something positive, the endings flow naturally from the story and wrap things up just right.

A big challenge of CYOAs is having a smooth story when multiple branches merge. Without merging branches CYOAs tend to be wide and varied but short and shallow. Merging branches allows for longer, more involved stories, but each merge introduces an opportunity for the chopped up nature of the prose to become clear. The author handles this elegantly. On my initial read through I didn’t notice any merge points, and only after exploring a number of other branches did I discover them and noticed the tricks the author used to conceal them. Several stand out, but since it might be distracting to know about them in advance, I’ll mark them as a spoiler.

The merges aren’t always ideal. In particular, you can arrive at the same ending through several different routes and sometimes the routes would suggest slightly different endings emphasizing how you arrived there. The most likely routes through the story flow smoothly, but a few paths don’t tie things together quite as well in the end.

The combination of a CYOA and FiM fandom creates an unusual problem on one branch. Carrot Top is given an opportunity to do something ill considered. It’s the sort of mistake that one of the Mane Six would make. That’s the problem: the target audience for this story is the same group that will immediately see the choice as a mistake, making it less of a choice.  The choice is also poorly justified; it supposes details about Carrot Top’s personality that are plausible, but are not established earlier.

Choose your own adventures sometimes track information about what you have chosen in the past to change your options later. The story does use state in a few places, asking if you’ve met one pony or another. The number of things to remember is small enough and memorable enough and the story short enough that recalling those decisions isn’t a problem. It is jarring in one path when the story suddenly asks about another pony that has not appeared in the story previously. The question is phrased differently from every other choice in the story, making it unclear who is asking the question and why. It turns out that in that one case, the story is not asking about what happened earlier in the story, but is asking you to decide on your relationship with another pony. It is such an strikingly different event that the story would have been stronger without it.

The characterization of most of the canon characters is fine, but unremarkable. They generally sound true to themselves, but never grabbed me. Pinkie Pie is an exception with a brief but strong appearance in which she uses Pinkie logic and inexplicable specialized knowledge to leap to very accurate conclusions. A low point is Zecora’s appearance. Uncharacteristic behavior on her part is explained, but depends on non-canon justification. It may work for some readers, but collided with my expectations for her.

The story’s tone is solidly FiM, well blended into a fairy tale. One brief section stumbles twice, first introducing a generic and cliched monster out of Dungeons & Dragons, then inflicting a surprisingly grisly wound. It’s an unfortunate pair of missteps, as there are more interesting creatures that could have been used, and more pony-appropriate injuries. Beyond that, the story stays consistently within the range of FiM and fairy tales.

As a game the story works well. Choices have a real impact on the story while largely providing the reader with enough information to make informed decisions. Two exceptions stick out. Early in the story one path provides an unusual but tempting option. At that point Carrot Top has a range of options and is given the opportunity to try several of them. The unusual option, however, appears to be a one-time opportunity, but there is no narrative reason why that would be so. I felt like I was cheating when I chose to explore other paths, then returned to that option.

In another branch of the story, Carrot Top haggles over a price. You are offered a variety of choices for offers to make, but don’t know how Carrot Top plans to fulfill her offer. It turns out that in some cases Carrot Top can deliver, but in some she can’t. The paths from there work well as story, but because the choice is blind it’s a frustrating moment of gameplay.

While The Purloined Pony has some rough moments, the author has successfully told a good story that fuses My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and fairy tales, added original ideas to both, and created a brief but enjoyable game. That’s a lot to pull off. The author went well past my expectations and delivered a 6-star experience.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)  


I’m pretty sure I’ve already given you all the reasons you need to know why this is clearly a 6-star story all-day-long. I really can't find any fault that isn't me being picky, and even those things are personal choices not actual criticisms. I have a pretty good idea how much of a bitch this thing must have been to put together. I’m almost ashamed that I can’t find it in my heart to give it a full five, but sadly, I just don’t think it’s the kind of fiction deserving of that mark.


If I was to judge this like I would judge a normal story it would be a different case. But as a fun little ‘adventure’ it preforms admirably. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but has everything it needs to provide a great time.

Alan De Smet:


InquisitorM:  Since we're not talking some 200 page fic that will eat several days of your life, and we ARE talking about something thoroughly off the beaten track, just try it. I'm hard pressed to imagine a pony fan that won't get something from it, even if it’s just the 10 minutes it takes you to fail the first time. If that doesn’t immediately spark the desire to do it right this time, then The Purloined Pony probably isn’t for you.

Thanks for the ride Chris!

Right you lot, go be Carrot Top, and be AWESOME!

TheEmeraldPage:  If you are looking for a great fic with a well written story that will enchant and astound you from start to finish this will probably leave you wanting more. But if you are a fan of CYOA type stories or just want to relax and have a little fun for a few hours you definitely want to put this on your list.

Alan De Smet:  Most fans of Friendship is Magic will likely enjoy at least one read through. Fans of fairy tales or CYOAs will find much to like here.

[My thanks to these three gentlemen for their reviews.  I think all three made some interesting points, and the energy they put into this shows.  Don't forget, the next post will have the other three reviews I received.  They're definitely worth reading, and I'm going to include my own closing thoughts at the  end of it, so make sure you check it out!]


  1. It never really occurred to me until I see my review up against the others that I instinctively took off my literary hat because I wasn't thinking about it that way. I automatically went into 'game review' mode, although I don't think that's a bad thing. It's just interesting in an introspective sense.

    I think it probably just demonstrates that I've been following the path of positive thinking too long to be a good critic! In retrospect, I do kinda with I hadn't put such effort into keeping things trim (I was assuming others would be shorter for some reason), but it was fun to practice that too. See? Ever the optimist.

    On the other hand: Chris, "a man so confident in himself that not only does he use his real name," I feel is more than a tad harsh! Some of us just happen to like the history of our monikers. Fortunately, I still keep giggling every time I think of "Fluttershy chirped pheasantly," so you're forgiven.

    Scott 'Inquisitor' Mence.
    So there.

  2. This was the perfect way to handle getting so many reviews. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the batch.

    To InquisitorM, coming at it from a game perspective was actually a good thing. Since we're getting multiple reviews of this story, a non-literary perspective is the perfect way to stand out and keep the whole thing fresh. :)