How ClickHole Crafts the Web’s Most Hilarious Adventure Games
I was dueling Anthony Bourdain to decide which one of us was more human.
I had arrived at this moment via a surreal and silly journey that began with a question: “Can you pass the Turing Test?” I’d found this rabbit hole on ClickHole, the Buzzfeed-parodying offshoot of The Onion that has, however improbably, become a tiny haven for hilarious, often surprisingly complex Choose Your Own Adventure style interactive fiction games. (Disclosure: I used to freelance for The AV Club, also owned by The Onion.)
Clickventures, as they’re called, are exercises in absurdist escalation. They typically begin modestly, but quickly shift into the unexpected and ridiculous. To pass the Turing Test, I journeyed from a home computer office to an ersatz version of a Pokémon gym on the world stage. Others have you journeying into the woods to find a cultist’s rapture, or collecting a glass of milk from increasingly off-putting farm animals.
The ClickVenture “descends from a format, the slideshow, that’s a pretty useless format that I think almost everyone finds frustrating,” says Jamie Brew, ClickHole’s lead writer. “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? So the first decision to make was, let’s have some control over what shows up from slide to slide. We just happened to be approaching Choose Your Own Adventure-style games from a strange, awkward place.”
Interactive fiction, stories in which the player chooses where to go next, is one of the earliest forms of computer games, having its origins in the 1970s with games like Zork. The form has made something of a comeback as of late with experimental games like Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest. The ease of programming simple interactive fiction games has led it to be embraced by indie designers like Quinn—and also led ClickHole to embrace the form accidentally.
“We thought of [ClickVenture] originally as souped-up quizzes,” says Brew. “A quiz is clearly something you would expect to see on an internet aggregation site like the ones that ClickHole… was modeled after.” Of course, since it was ClickHole, the writers’ concepts for quizzes got real weird, real fast. They also wanted the questions to change, based on your answers.
“The way ClickHole has always worked, the writers might have some idea, and then they will push it to the absolute limit,” says Kristi-Lynn Jacovino, the website’s UI designer. “I don’t know if we ever really looked at them as games, weirdly,” she said, laughing.
“In the very early stages, we were thinking of scenarios for these adaptive quizzes, and they were posed like quiz questions,” says ClickHole managing editor Anthony Easton. “Like, do you possess the skills necessary to survive a bear attack? And then you get the results, you would not survive or you would survive based on the way you were answering these questions.”
ClickHole’s writers wanted to create quizzes that got incredibly complicated, but they became difficult to build. Eventually, a member of the site’s product team built a “slideshow tree” that allowed the designers to link together a whole network of cascading scenarios. In February 2015, the first ClickVenture, “Would You Survive a Bear Attack,” was born.
But “Would You Survive a Bear Attack?” was still a headline you might expect to read on an earnest, unironic website. What Easton calls the “big turning point” was “The Mysterious Shadows of Skullshadow Island.” Written by Cullen Crawford (now a writer on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert), it’s a Hardy Boys parody with actual puzzles and a non-linear game flow.
At one point early in the adventure, you and your mystery-loving brother find a message in a bottle, washed up on shore. You eagerly read the letter to find that it is only the lyrics to “Night Moves,” Bob Seger’s 1976 ode to awkward teen sex. You laugh, and move on. Much later in the adventure, it turns out to have been a vital clue.
“That particular quiz is where we realized we could get more narratively ambitious and also find ways to make it seem like a real videogame, even though we’re working with a lot fewer tools than a conventional videogame developer might be working with,” said Easton.
ClickHole’s internet slideshow tool is pretty complex for an internet slideshow tool, but restrictive for interactive fiction design. “When we built out the user interface for the backend, we didn’t quite foresee how complex they would become,” said Jacovino.
For ClickHole’s writers, who handle the design work themselves, it becomes a task of not only writing something engaging and funny, but that works within the constraints of a very basic game design system. “Some features that are easy to implement if you’re working in any interactive fiction platform for real, like picking up items or changing clothes or any basic change of an attribute, are incredibly cumbersome to implement in ClickVenture,” says Brew. “It would entail duplicating all of the slides. Every variable that you want to have control over entails doubling the section.”
As such, the ClickVenture have tended to stick with directly narrative conceits, telling jokes through player-led stories. The most recent ones simply supply the player a basic role and throw them out the door. “You’re a Grocery Delivery Boy,” reads the title of one. “Can You Deliver a Pound of Ground Beef to the Astronauts on the International Space Station?”
Your first two dialogue options:
- Is it necessary to be a boy in order to be a ‘Delivery Boy?’
- Okay. I understand that I am a Delivery Boy at the grocery store.
But even within the awkward constraints of the slideshow, ClickHole’s writers have figured out how to do some complicated things. Due to the length and complexity of the ClickVenture—each one might run anywhere from one to a few hundred slides, and a new one drops every Thursday—each is assigned to a single writer, who carries it from conception to a finished product with little oversight.
“When you’re writing a regular ClickHole article or quiz, you’re seeing a bunch of people trying to write in the same voice. When you get a ClickVenture, it’s that one writer, their style unfiltered,” said Adam Levine, another of the site’s staff writers.
“It’s gotta be funny,” said Levine. “We see them as comedy pieces rather than games, and we can shape them to be like games but at the end of the day we’re trying to tell different types of jokes.”
That individual freedom gives the writers a chance to cut loose. The Turing Test game features a Game Boy-style visual overlay and music written by Jamie Brew in the style of Pokémon. To implement different music for different “areas” in the game, a slide pops up now and then, with a link to a new track to start and play in the site’s background. It feels hacked together in a participatory, almost anarchic way; the slideshow format essentially gives the player, in instances like this, a chance to opt in or out of more elaborate game features.
Brew says he’s a fan of more serious interactive fiction, like The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo by Michael Lutz: “I would be thrilled to have a ClickVenture that approaches the tone and story that told.”
Another game, ““Fight for the Glory of Rome!”, incorporates arcade-style buttons and battles with enemies, designed by the writer Alex Blechman. Watching comedy writers become unintentional game designers is another illustration of the power of interactive fiction to open up the field of game creation to anyone. Zoe Quinn uses it to serious ends, ClickHole makes jokes, but it’s all the same phenomenon.
Designed by accident and bearing no resemblance to the content that ClickHole was originally created to parody, ClickVentures somehow seem to represent the unlikely apotheosis of the site’s reason for being.
“I think the ClickVenture in a way is the essence of what ClickHole is,” says Andrew Easton. “You have this engrossing thing that a lot of times is nonsensical and insane, but you can’t stop clicking.”