After I saw that a Nalini Singh story, Cherish Hard, had been optioned by the Chapters Interactive Stories app, I decided to download it and give it a try. While I really want a game that does what Chapters is trying to do, my experience with this app is, on the whole, deeply frustrating.

What does it mean to be “interactive?” Well, not as much as it could. While you click through Chapters stories to advance the narrative, and you can decide certain things for your character to do, wear, or say, these stories are not choose-your-own-adventure. When you make a choice, generally you affect the next minute or so of the story. You might share a secret about your past, ask the hero more about himself, or, most typically, have sex. But you won’t change the overall story.

For instance, I opted not to sleep with one book’s hero, but the book was a secret baby story. So after that scene, an intertitle popped up that said “You spend the next week together, seeing Paris and making love.” My choice didn’t change the narrative arc; it just meant I didn’t get an on-screen sex scene. (When this happens, it’s frustrating – but in other situations, it can be really satisfying that the heroes have to be gracious and accepting when you decline consent, since the next scene has to work for both options).

I have found a couple of stories where, at the very end, you can make a pivot to an unhappy ending. I don’t want to put those in detail here because it’s spoilery but still… that’s not a true choose-your-own story.

I do enjoy styling, so it’s fun to set up my heroine’s appearance (there is currently one m/m story alongside some f/fs, and some stories let you adjust the hero, but this is mostly a heroine thing). Your choices are narrow, though. The four face/body looks for both men and women have a range of skin tones, but unfortunately the feature variation is limited. There is no body diversity, and while you can choose from a set of hair styles, they’re generally based on Caucasian hair.

Body and hair choices are free, but you’ll be asked to choose a wardrobe look next, and this is where the spending kicks in. There are usually three wardrobe options: seventeen diamonds, twelve diamonds, and free. (When I started on Chapters a week ago, everything came in those increments; now I keep seeing the even-more exorbitant thirty and twenty, and I don’t know why). 

The poses and many of the outfits also have serious male-gaze going on. These, for instance, were one heroine’s choices for workout gear.

The finances are deliberately confusing. In addition to diamonds, you earn maple coins, usually in increments of five or ten, and when you collect forty of them, you can convert that for one diamond. And you have to spend a ticket to read the chapter.

Tickets are bought, unless you get below two, in which case they regenerate two per hour. And there’s a VIP option which – for a fee – changes all your conversion rates and purchase prices.

Is your head spinning? It’s intentional. Making in-game currencies bewildering is a strategy used by apps to create more mental distance between you and the real-life money you’re spending, making it harder for you to realize that you’re paying $2.40 for an imaginary character to wear a different set of pixels for fifteen minutes.

What does this actually mean in terms of money? I did some calculations using the prices in my non-VIP app and this is what I came up with.

The base cost to read a hypothetical 25-chapter story would be twenty-four tickets (one per chapter, and the first chapter is usually free). Since each ticket costs about 30 cents, you’re in for $7.20 just to get through the story.

You’re offered at least two and usually more premium choices per chapter.

  • Cost choosing one twelve-diamond (~96 cent) option per chapter: add $24, or $31.20.
  • Choosing two seventeen-diamond ($1.36) options per chapter add $68, for $75.20 all-in.

Which is… yikes.

Many stories have more than twenty-five chapters. Poison Study by Maria Snyder has thirty seven chapters, which, with two premium choices a chapter, could cost you well over $100. Plus, most newer releases have four to six choices a chapter, not the two I used here.

It’s a freemium app, so what of this can you get for free? You can cut the ticket cost if you are willing to wait the two hours for tickets to regenerate (a trick – if you open a chapter right before bed but don’t read it, you’ll be able to read 3 in a row in the morning instead of just two). There are occasional twenty-four hour passes that waive tickets for one book. For diamonds, you can earn two per chapter by watching an ad, plus you can send them to other players and hopefully get some back. You can also watch ads independently of reading. Still, an app where I spend more time watching ads to earn content than actually consuming the content is not my idea of recreation.

The other option is to avoid spending the diamonds. This usually gets you the same story, because most of the stories only have one plot outcome. You’re only paying for how you want to get there. But that’s frustrating too, because you’re especially likely to be charged if you want to not be a jerk, or if you do want to do anything independent, professional, or feminist, like stand up for yourself or make a move on your love interest. If you don’t spend money, therefore, you can end up a badly dressed, underpaid, sexually-unsatisfied incompetent doormat asshole.

Also, there are some glitches:

AND YET.

I really, really love interactive video-game style reading. When I used a free ticket pass on Poison Study (which I loved as a book), and avoided spending on anything except things I couldn’t bear to pass up, I had a great binge experience. I enjoyed Jenny Holiday’s Saving the CEO, Tessa Bailey’s Getaway Girl, and Samanthe Beck’s Private Practice (contemp), and Tiffany Reisz’s The Red (erotic). There’s F/F and M/M options, strong-romantic-elements stories like Cixin Liu’s short stories, historicals, and Spanish stories.

So Chapters, if you’re reading this – here’s what I wish for.

Let me buy the book. None of this diamond-and-ticket nonsense. Let me buy an all-inclusive, choose-whatever-the-heck-you-want digital story for a price that isn’t an exploitative rip-off, one not massively out of whack with what it would cost me to buy the actual book, or an RPG (I can get The Sims, with no ads, for $20!). If you MUST keep the diamond system, simplify and be transparent in your finances and stop making the free options degrading. And make our choices matter – that’s the real value of your format. (If you need advice on this, call Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris and option the hilarious and delightful My Lady’s Choosing.)

Otherwise… well, those stories I was enjoying? They’re based on novels. I gave up on the Chapters and got the ebooks instead.

Buy it at iTunes

~ Caroline Russomanno