I have been a pirate, a medical resident, a courtesan in ancient Rome. I have led armies to victory, and I have taken a sword to my chest. I have been all of them—bound together by our pain and pleasure, heartaches, battle wounds, and scars that run deeper.
The night I found a lump in my breast, I mulled over the impossible for hours: Could this be cancer? I told a friend, “I’m too young to get breast cancer.” In that moment of quiet terror, I wanted to be anyone else, be anywhere but in my own skin. I rolled over in my bed, reaching for my phone to open Choices, the visual interactive game by Pixelberry Studios. I needed an escape, and Choices had been mine, like, always.
On the morning that I had to collect my biopsy reports, I wanted to hold onto the feeling of not knowing what comes next. I wanted to pause that moment in time where I was alive, where I didn’t yet know if everything was going to change. But I was not a character in one of my Choices books. This was not a chapter, and I could not abandon halfway.
My earliest memory of playing Choices: Stories You Play was in journalism school, a few months into the game’s launch in August 2016. When The Freshman, one of the first books released on the app, prompted me to pick a name for my character, I typed mine in full: Somdyuti Datta Ray.
In Choices, players can pick interactive stories or “books” across genres like adventure, romantic drama, horror, fantasy, and mystery. New “chapters” are released every week. You customize your protagonist down to their face, skin tone, hairstyle, clothes—even gender in select books. It's a world where your choices impact the narrative and those around you.
Book after book, chapter after chapter, I was in my characters’ heads. Do I want to be kinder? Do I want to spare a life? Should I betray my friends? I’d find myself carefully choosing my responses (“Would I say this in real life?”) and my actions (“Do I really want to?”). I was treading a fine line between my real self and a version of myself that breathed within the chapters of the books. My characters lived in a fictional world molded by my decisions. It became my safe place: I could feel things and do things that I wouldn’t say aloud.
But, as months rolled into years, these choices—my choices—settled heavier on me. I would open the app and ask, am I lying to myself? I knew that none of my choices were wrong. If selfhood was a spectrum, then the sum of my intentions in the game would make me.
I wanted to be desired, wanted, loved. How does it feel to be ached for wholly and unconditionally, like my counterpart in #LoveHacks?
I wanted to feel empowered. How does it feel to wield my beauty to deceive others, like my counterparts in A Courtesan of Rome and Blades of Light and Shadow?
I wanted to be a hero. How does it feel to lay down my life for the greater good?
I could be more, more, more. So then, if I was living my true self as my characters, who am I?
There was an intimacy in admitting to myself that my characters onscreen were an extension of myself. It was no different than putting myself in the shoes of the hundreds of characters in books and films. And if I was the choices that I make in the game, I was also my other “selves.”
I’d like to think that I have grown as a person in the past four years, as have the characters who wear my name. My characters went from being “Somdyuti Datta Ray” to “Dyuti Ray” in 2018. I was “Queen Dyuti,” “Dr. Dyuti,” “Captain Dyuti.” But only those closest to me call me Dyuti, a shorter version of my name. To then have my name whispered and screamed, by friends, foes, and lovers who exist only in a digital alter-universe made me feel too seen. So, I became “Rhea.” It was just enough to keep myself grounded in my reality.
Is it uncommon to name your main characters (MCs) after yourself? Maybe not. Allison Higgins, 37, tells me, “I always name my MC ‘Allison McQueen,’ which is like an alter ego to me. Using my first name makes me feel like I’m part of the story, and when I write my fan fictions, I always use that name for the MC, although I base her almost entirely off of me as a person.”
Can Our Characters Be Digital Alter Egos?
A quick look at the Choices community would show that, as players, we often talk about our characters or MCs in first-person or possessive pronouns. It’s only natural, I suppose, considering the intimacy of the game—the choices feel like ours. And this has driven players to start Choices fan accounts on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Popular formats include realistic edits, fan art, fan fiction, and walk-throughs of the latest chapters, especially sex scenes.
Moutama Rakshit, a 17-year-old from India, chose to kill a crucial character while playing Bloodbound, an urban fantasy. She wouldn’t kill in real life—but unlike in the game, she doubts whether she’d be able to keep her cool if people betray her.
“I've forgiven people who did the MCs dirty in the books,” she says. She owns a Choices fan account on Instagram under her alias, Mora Powell, where she posts fan edits and memes.
Camille, who asked not to use her real name, is a postgraduate researcher and is inclined to stay true to the moral grounds that she set for her characters. She was stumped when playing Ride-or-Die: A Bad Boy Romance because none of the choices felt right. She says, “Most options involved either doing illegal stuff or putting friends in danger.”
In Choices, I have been deeply invested in the lives of my MCs. I want them to revel in joy, to succeed, to let out their rage. These are but fleeting moments that I want them to experience, and I want to feel the repercussions of those choices.
Eleanor, who also asked not to use her real name, is from Saudi Arabia and maintains a fan account on Instagram. She sees her MCs as an extension of herself because, “I get to take a path that fits my preference. In the midst of reading, I get so invested that I start to think this is my story, and my emotions get really attached to that of the MC.”
Allyrianne Geanne Costes, another fan account owner, becomes invested in her MC's journey when she recognizes parts of herself in them. But as far as parallels go, the 27-year-old from the Philippines says, “I don't aspire to be my MCs … I have more control in my life.”
On living our many identities, the choices that drive our characters mirror our wants. Maybe then, our fantasies are both an escape and a yearning. Who do we want to be? I imagine a life of higher stakes and crueler foes—and, one where I am braver and bolder.
Camille found herself questioning if she’d be brave enough to stand up against the hierarchy in a professional context after playing Open Heart, a medical drama. Rakshit, on the other hand, was able to “live different lives, which wouldn't possibly be lived by one person in their lifetime. I sort of know what it's like to be one of the best doctors of a city, to be the daughter of a president, to be a single mom of a daughter.”
Choices, Representation, and the Parallels to Life
Pixelberry and Choices have repeatedly come under fire for the lack of racial, gender, and sexuality diversity in its books. A few of the prominent concerns have been gender-locked MCs and Love Interests (LIs), meaning you cannot romance a different gender. Appearance matters, and the game has consistently put out thin, able-bodied MCs and LIs, and it lacks hair options that suit Black and brown characters.
On June 15, 2020, Pixelberry issued a statement in light of the Black Lives Matter protests that listed actionable steps to increasing diverse book covers, stories on people of color, diverse LIs, and a diverse writer’s room. Shortly before the statement, the company put Open Heart: Book 2 on hiatus. Several players assumed that Pixelberry had killed one of its characters of color—foreshadowed by a funeral scene in its opening chapters—and were possibly rewriting his storyline. Then, last year, My Two First Loves released a chapter that depicted police brutality and violence, and players had the choice to skip the scene.
I’m a brown South Asian woman, and I am acutely aware of how my characters’ skins are a shade of brown that does not feel like my brown. So, while I’d like to assume that characters with a remotely South Asian name (Ajay Bhandari, Priya Lacroix, Aisha Bhatt, and Shreya Mistry) are, in fact, representative of my ethnicity, fewer books have explicitly centered conversations on race and culture—and by extension, the lived experiences of Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and multiracial people.
Costes also points out the lack of Asian love interests, and even with LIs of color, options are “limited to only Black, caucasian, and Hispanic” characters.
“I believe that being able to identify ethnically and sexually to the MCs is important, and as I am a white caucasian heterosexual woman, I probably benefit from the fact that most stories seem to have a baseline MC that fits with the ‘white caucasian female’ type, with main LIs being males,” Camille says.
There’s room for expression in books that let players choose the gender and race of both the MCs and LIs. Players may romance multiple genders, and sometimes would need to confirm a LI before continuing to its sequel. But for books that emphasize romantic subplots, I’ve frequently rebelled by having my characters maintain a strictly platonic relationship with suggested LIs.
“Many of the choices I make in the game that I wouldn’t make in real life are the romantic ones, like kissing the love interest or even telling them that I love them, rather than being single, even though I’m not into romance at all,” says Higgins, who lives in California. For her, playing as someone else adds “more fun and adventure to things.”
Higgins has Asperger’s syndrome and tells me, “I have noticed that there aren’t a lot of characters in Choices with neurological disabilities like me, so I’m hoping there might be one in future books.”
When I look at my characters, I see a version of myself who doesn’t struggle with anxiety and trauma. She isn’t scared of her mind, and her body doesn’t work against her.
For me, the game's flaws are a reminder that I am of my own agency. I cannot pause or replay my life—there’s only one way forward. And so, I walked into the diagnostic center and grabbed my biopsy reports. I was healthy.