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Interactive Fiction: A History of Questing

Discussion in 'Fiction Discussion' started by Ralson, Jun 30, 2015.

  1. Threadmark: 2015 Sufficiently Summer winner: Non-Fiction Essay

    Ralson Horrible Cat

    Thanks, @LordSquishy, for encouraging me to write this. Blame him if it isn't funny enough.


    Let’s all talk about SV’s great, big, undying fad.

    No, not Worm. Even bigger. So big you wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t read the title. Part of the landscape.

    Questing is roleplaying-but-different. Or maybe it's writing-but-different. It’s a fresh new medium, though maybe not so new as you think.

    What’s a Quest?

    I'm skeptical that you can post here without knowing that, but here we go.

    ‘Quests’ are form of play-by-post, collaborative storytelling. There’s nothing approaching a formal definition by anyone anywhere. On a niche wiki (http://tgchan.org/wiki/Quests), Quests are defined as “interactive games in which one person posts pictures and events, and the other posts decide how to behave. This produces a collaborative story.”

    By this definition, mandating illustrations and implying an open framework of decisionmaking, SV has almost no quests. More on this later.

    For our purposes, a Quest is an interactive play-by-post game where several posters (called players) collaboratively make choices to influence one part of the setting, usually a character or organization, while one poster (called a GM, QM, or author) controls the rest of the setting and determines outcomes influenced by those choices.

    Why should I care?

    You best start caring about Quest sites. You’re on one.

    When SV was first set up, there was much confusion and argument and gnashing of teeth about what sort of identity the site would have. Like the last time I joined a splinter board, I knew it’d have to grow organically into a role, not have one designed. And like the last splinter board, it ended up becoming a Quest site, with creative and discussion bits tastefully arranged around the sides.

    SV’s Quests subforum is slowly but steadily approaching two million posts. I remember when Spacebattles.com didn’t have two million posts. It’s by far the most successful part of the site, and part of a small constellation of communities, for better or worse, devoted to the medium.

    This didn’t spring up out of nowhere. There’s a lineage, never before seriously analyzed, with influences traced back, from cesspit to cesspit, all the way back to the greatest cesspit of them all. Plus a bit further.

    This all started with Choose Your Own Adventure books, right?


    Mostly wrong, anyway. I can’t look you in the eye and say CYOA had no influence. Certainly, SV’s average quest more closely resembles an interactive CYOA than anything else, but that’s not where the medium came from. You can see elements of CYOAs, and pulp serials where readers could write in to influence the outcome, and probably half a dozen other forms of interactivity layered on literature.

    However, Quests didn’t come from literature. They came from video games. Obsolete video games.


    Early adventure games, known then as "interactive fiction," (which tells you how long ago the term was coined) the immediate predecessors to the first quests. For those of you fortunate enough to have never played one, a player would interact with their environment by typing commands, in English, into a text interface.

    This started with purely text-based games, like Zork, where you'd read a description and then enter commands. As time went on, crude, and then increasingly sophisticated graphics were layered on, to better orient a player to their surroundings. These illustrations would help provide a player with immediate situational awareness, with the text interface sticking out like a mutant baby sticking out of someone's chest, holding a tiny notepad and waiting to take your dinner order.

    King's Quest interface. Type in a command. What command? Shit, I don't know.

    How did the computer parse plain English commands?

    Usually, it didn't. It would fuck up and you'd type tons of guesses and cuss words until you finally figured out what string of text the game designer figured you'd type. It wasn't a very good system, and that's why it was abandoned as soon as people got the hang of using mice to more efficiently make Guybrush rub every pixel on every other pixel until two of them fall in love.

    Favicon of Tgchan.org, a quest site.

    It might have ended there. Text-based commands were a dead end of video game UIs. You can't program a computer to respond meaningfully to every possible input, not even the ones that make perfect sense. The player could never devise an unexpected solution, or interact meaningfully with characters, or do anything except guess what the game designer wanted them to type in next. To do anything more elaborate, you need a human at the other end of the screen, doing fresh writing and creating art assets on the fly.

    This is an absurd prospect, except that people started doing it anyway. At first, they didn't even realize it. This brings us to the cesspits I mentioned.

    Does that mean 4chan? I bet it means 4chan.

    Not just 4chan. I mean motherfucking /b/. 4chan’s 4chan.

    /b/, as they say, was never good. But it used to be a more interesting kind of bad.

    Let’s take a trip back to 2005. 4chan was only about two years old, but /b/ had already been a clusterfuck for as long as anyone could remember. It was, by any standard, awful, but the chaotic swirling soup of stupid garbage had not yet decayed into a completely stagnant sludge.

    In poetic terms, this was a primordial soup of suffering from which a new art form could arise.

    Sans bullshit: People wanted attention. If there was ever an art form popular on /b/, it was begging for attention. They turned attention whoring into an art, and made it big. Posting amusing stories, lies, greentext stories, lies, ridiculous stories, and lies, could be entertaining enough that you'll still see reposts to this day, on this very website. But an easier strategy was to post a picture of yourself to attract total creeps. This was exactly as weird and unhealthy as it sounds, so let's just skip past it as quickly as possible. "Attention whore" begat "Cam whore" which, getting us back on topic, begat "Draw whore."

    Getting in front of a camera and asking /b/ for suggestions is only slightly less soiling than bathing in sewage, but put a cartoon character in front of that same baying horde and you get family-friendly fun. Well, maybe not strictly family-friendly. Or fun. The result is basically a simple, interactive comic. People ate it up. Faster drawings, funnier writing, and more exaggerated characterization (or porn, but never mind) generated more responses. Soon, the board had a stable of recurring characters and an audience of followers.

    One of these characters, a stick figure wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, became so popular that he became 4chan's unofficial mascot for several years.

    This is the reason they would wear those things IRL. I am not kidding.

    So that's Questing?

    Not yet. This brings us to late 2006. Meanwhile, in a completely different part of the internet, which was not yet known as MSPA, a guy named Andrew Hussie started a forum game called Jailbreak. He posted a picture of a person trapped in a jail cell and asked for suggestions about what to do.


    When someone asked to examine the pumpkin, he erased it and asserted there had never been a pumpkin there, thus establishing a new genre and the bedrock of his later artistic career. Somehow.

    This was basically a goofy parody of Interactive Fiction/Adventure Games, where people would write a post as if it were the computer's text interface, and the author would dutifully jerk them around and frustrate them, as is traditional for such games. Only with hindsight do we call it a Quest. I can't say for certain that it was the first, but it's the first I've found a record of.

    In 2007, Hussie made another one: Bard Quest. This was a more direct parody of King's Quest. It's also the first Quest named "<Something> Quest."


    (The multiple entries represent multiple commands, branching the game with interactive decision trees, in an already interactive medium. This was a pretty shit idea.)

    What's this have to do with 4chan, again?

    Quests aren't called Quests because of Bard Quest. They're named after Ruby Quest.

    Like reverse Midas, /b/'s touch transforms gold into shit. In 2007/08, ambient board toxicity had reached dangerous levels for any creative effort. Original content was a dinner bell for trolling. While the environment was not yet unworkable, it was unwelcoming, and soon, the board's stable of artists abandoned the site. During this time, it was suddenly revealed that something like half of the most popular characters had secretly all been the work of a single poster, working at great speed. Even the one with the Guy Fawkes mask.

    Near the end, that artist, now under the pseudonym 'Weaver,' experimented with a thread called Ruby Quest. Inspired by Jailbreak and Bard Quest, but with a much different aim in mind, Ruby Quest represented a more serious, narrative approach to the medium. However, by then, it was on the wrong board. Weaver left /b/ to try again in greener pastures: /tg/, 4chan's 'traditional gaming' board.

    Ruby Quest, by Weaver, aka TGWeaver

    /tg/ had been founded as a place to spam Warhammer 40k image macros and share "your most unhygenic D&D group" anecdotes, so it was an odd and arguably off-topic place to run a quest about a cartoon rabbit. However, although /tg/ wasn't intended for roleplaying, it was intended for roleplayers. In the past, when so-called 'drawwhores' had run fantasy-themed character interaction threads on the board, they evolved naturally into narratives. (Seen in hindsight, the first 4chan Quest was probably 'Drew the Lich.')

    Ruby Quest, however, was intended as a game and a narrative, from the ground up. Instead of mocking the Adventure Game paradigm, Weaver embraced it. He leveraged the medium to create tension. Audience interaction created immersion. Bad suggestions could result in failure and character death, and for perhaps the first time, the audience actually gave a shit about that.


    Early threads used mystery and puzzle solving to create audience investment in the character, and then leveraged that investment to create a compelling horror story. The art was simple but expressive, and created a stylistic clash between the simplistic, cartoonish innocence of the character designs and their increasingly dangerous, increasingly surreal environment.


    Just as importantly, it was quick to draw. Input created output in minutes, creating a sense of immediacy to further heighten tension. No quest before (and arguably, since) has managed to combine speed and quality in this way.

    And this made quests Quests?

    Ruby Quest was wildly successful. Discussion threads littered the boards for its entire run, and for many months afterwards. Speculation, shared planning, speculation, arguments, speculation, and speculation. The audience grew immersed enough in the quest that the mere question of "what the fuck is going on?" transformed into a compelling mystery, with fanon messily spiraling in all directions. Artists came out of the woodwork to generate fanart, and soon, began running quests of their own.

    As before, these were mostly of a joking, improvisational nature, but now there were lots of them. Quests had transformed from an experiment to a medium. Soon, "Ruby Quest Discussion" threads became "Quest Discussion," and the medium had a name.

    This is still 4chan we're talking about?


    By mid 2009, the part of /tg/ uninterested in Quests had gotten right sick of all this nonsense. It was seen, increasingly, as off-topic, disruptive, contentious, and worst of all, furry. Ruby Quest had talking animals, and so did a fair number of new quests. 4chan has a blanket ban on furry content, and Quests were no longer popular enough for them to look the other way.

    The administration, with the usual nuance, issued a blanket ban on all quests, quest discussion, authors, and artists, returning the board to its roots of D&D and 40k-flavored Skub.

    So, that was the end of that?

    I'm typing this on Sufficient Velocity, lol. What do you think happened next?

    The wronged parties banded together and fucked off to a splinter board, called Tgchan. We They have been doing their own thing, running 2009-style Art Quests ever since.

    Static on the Wire, by @Bromeliad

    4chan/tg/'s mod action was like the goddamn asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs. Drawing sketches from user input wouldn't guarantee a ban, but there was a legitimate risk. The mods meant business, and kept all Quest content actively suppressed for many months.

    When the asteroid-metaphor dust finally settled, and the mods grew disinterested in enforcing their ban (eventually rescinding it in 2011), niches had opened up. The old Quest community was gone; all the old artists, all the old writers, banned and/or fucked off to Internet Galt's Gulch. Now, instead of the old illustration-and-description style, new authors began making quests of the style we'd recognize on SV: Posts consisting of very large blocks of text.

    This creates a problem: Average human reading comprehension is around 70-80%. Reading takes a long time, in a fast moving place like 4chan, and old threads fall off the forum and are deleted. You need to be able to bring a new reader up to speed, and fast. If they don't know the plot so far, they at least need a way to quickly orient themselves.

    In Art Quests, the illustrations serve this purpose. You can see the character, their surroundings, their overall situation, disposition, and whatever else a skilled artist can quickly portray. Everything from facial expressions to backgrounds is rapidly feeding a reader information. A picture is, in fact, worth a thousand words.

    Text Quests that use tricks to quickly give readers information, which can generate immediate interest and leverage it with action instead of lengthy exposition, will succeed over those that don't.

    The answer is fanfiction.

    Using an established universe allows an author to leverage preexisting interest in a setting, in characters, in events. An audience simply arrives at the first post already knowing what the setting is, how it works, its major players, and what sort of action you have in store for them.

    Apparently this one was called Zeonquest but don't quote me on that.

    /tg/ was not oblivious to its roots. They had the same basic principle of what a Quest was. But everything else had changed or was changing. The slate had been wiped clean, and the prior rules, everything from the inside jokes to the culture surrounding making suggestions, were overturned. The narrative focus of the previous version of the community was lessened. Game-like stats and number crunching played a larger role. With so much text being thrown around, why not include some numbers as well? Game stat optimization gives the fanbase another thing to chew on between updates.

    In short, there are two major schools of Questing: Art Quests and Text Quests. 4chan/tg/ is arguably the birthplace of both. (Arguably, MSPA/MSPFA quests are a third school.)

    Where does SV fit into this?

    After 4chan/tg/ created its second quest community, which I'm going to label 4chan/tg/ II on the chart. (It's like how archaeology identifies Troy as multiple settlements in the same spot, I through IX. :V) 4chan/tg/ II had a lot of cross pollination with Spacebattles in 2010-2012. You'd see a lot of Ork and Angry Marine avatars on Spacebattles, and see rambling what-ifs posted on /tg/ in the usual Spacebattles style. Sometimes, you could guess which SB poster it was.

    Around this time, so-called BROB threads were growing in popularity on Spacebattles, and evolving. In the general discussion forum, users would submit threads about the hypothetical meddling of a 'Random Omnipotent Being,' presumably of the variety that had been causing all of the versus threads in the versus forum. Given the sadistic nature of most scenarios, 'ROB' gave way to 'Bastard ROB,' for 'BROB.' Over time, these scenarios became increasingly elaborate. Increasingly, the posters themselves would be involved. Slowly, scenario discussion gave way to increasingly elaborate roleplaying.

    Soon, there was a large and growing community of roleplayers founded on the principle of being unable or unwilling to locate the actual roleplaying forum. As was the case on /tg/, a large body of roleplayers created a receptive environment for quests.

    Roleplaying, fanfiction, and Quests got very, very big on Spacebattles, and the communities interacted to further modify one another. Original-setting Quests became even more rare, and unlike /tg/, Spacebattles was largely oblivious to the medium's Art Quest roots. You had an entire community of Quest authors who had never even heard of Ruby Quest, much less Jailbreak.

    How did things change on SB?

    Spacebattles' community wasn't entirely derivative. In fact, the first text quest I'm aware of ran on Spacebattles, back in 2009: "Tactics: Lets Conquer an Alien Planet," created by @foamy. As the name suggests, this was a play by post wargame, where players collectively controlled a civilization of human-descended robot invaders attacking a planet of aliens with roughly modern technology. As with many early examples, this game's influence is hard to define. Only in hindsight is it identifiable as a Quest at all.

    (In theory, Tactics is still running today, even though it hasn't updated since 2013. WHERE ARE THE LAMPREYS, FOAMY? YOU SAID THERE WOULD BE LAMPREYS.)

    In addition to different community culture, Spacebattles benefited from more thread permanence. On 4chan, unless archived, anything posted on any thread would be gone in a day. On SB, it would remain indefinitely. This incentivized a slower, more thoughtful approach to Questing.

    The old ">_" suggestion-based system evolved, in part, to the "[X]" vote-based system we're now familiar with. The question of how to handle large numbers of suggestions had always been a tricky one. Do you pick the best suggestion? The most in-character? Do you choose one at random, or do you try to follow the majority, which may not be easily identifiable in a mass of people shouting various ideas? SB/SV's answer is the vote system. A write-in needs a swell of support to even merit a mention. Otherwise, the players (previously "suggesters," now "voters") simply pick options from a list.

    There's advantages to this, and disadvantages. Above all, it's another cultural shift from 4chan/tg/ II. Over the years, changes of this nature have added up. Today, 2009-style Art Quests are practically a different medium entirely.

    How does this lead to SV?

    SB's hands-off approach to moderation eventually allowed some seedy environments to form. The details of the schism between SB and QQ is an aspect of this you guys probably know better than I do. It happened as a result of increased moderator intervention, around late 2012 to early 2013. NSFW content had always been disallowed, but now, the rules had teeth, and many posters felt stifled or wronged. Quest culture on SB had deviated sufficiently from the original /tg/ community that they were largely unaware that quest sites allowing NSFW content already existed. As such, they founded their own, and QQ remains active to this day.

    SB's quest community remained large and robust. Then, the Athene non-retirement debacle resulted in SV's formation. You couldn't load SB's front page without smelling a distant electrical fire, and their administration demonstrated the responsiveness of a dead horse. Allured by the promise of less out-of-touch moderation, and a larger, more healthy hamster powering the server, SB quest authors migrated to SV en masse.

    The web of quest communities I've described looks something like this (plus Anonkun, but who cares about Anonkun?):


    Quests continue to mature as an art form. For better or worse, this means people tend to take them more and more seriously. A few years ago, the idea of commissioning a painter or other professional artist to make a cover image or title for a fanfic Text Quest would have seemed utterly absurd, but here we are.

    Coming to a bookstore near you literally never.
    Art by @thongnguyen; Quest by @Droman

    Quests have large, devoted readerships. Many threads on SV have view counts measured in the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps it'll peter out over time, as CYOA books did before them. However, if there's one thing I've learned about the medium, it's that Quests keep running for as long as people keep running them. The medium's faced disinterested audiences, outright hostile audiences, even a blanket ban across the only site where it existed at the time. That wasn't enough to kill it. I suspect it's here to stay, here and elsewhere.

    SV's Quest community is new and unique, but not quite as new or unique as it might first appear. It bears influences from across the internet; most obviously from SB, but in turn from the first and second /tg/ communities, with cross-pollination from MSPA and MSPFA, from Tgchan, even from QQ.

    And down, deep down, where we don't like to admit it, in the scummy bits near the edges, there's traces of old /b/ still floating around.

    I'm so sorry.
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  2. This is probably the most impressive analysis of the concept of questing I have read. In fact, it's the first. You did an exellent job with the research, as well as exploring the roots of the medium, and it's evolution to where it stands now. I'm absolutely impressed, and consider this a must-read for any QM- prospective, rookie, or veteran.
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  3. Acatalepsy

    Acatalepsy Firewall Proxy Moderator

    The Diamond Age
    I want to kill the Lampreys.
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  4. FBH

    FBH Write drunk. Edit Hungover

    Can a mod sticky this?
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  5. It's a pity we don't have more art quests, but we just don't have the critical mass of casual artists. Bromeliad is on tour.
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  6. Strigon

    Strigon Fluffy Thing

    Good read. Solid. But I've said this elsewhere.

    I miss the old days on /tg/, still. But you know what. I still have things to read and sometimes make me smile in things.

    ... And things that make my muse go bonkers like the ADHD entity that it is.
  7. Troglodyte

    Troglodyte The Evolving Overlord

    I want to thank you for making this.

    The question of how quests and such started as always been a thought drifting through the back of my mind every so often.
  8. FBH

    FBH Write drunk. Edit Hungover

    Shouldn't you have a link from TGchan to SV given we're getting some crossover now?
  9. We are?
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  10. tankdrop24

    tankdrop24 Tread first into hell

    The sad thing is that this is a better cover than most professional novels.
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  11. Havocfett

    Havocfett Support Gaza Moderator

    This is a pr great essay, @Ralson!

    I know right?
    • Like Like x 7
  12. sasahara17

    sasahara17 Just Another Random Author Self-Requested Ban

    Brisbane City
    I am totally saving this whole damn thing to my hard drive.

    Damn, some academic documents I've seen don't read as well as this.
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  13. Flectarn

    Flectarn A Las Baricadas


    I've always sort of imagined quests as being like a digital D&D game or slow-motion MUD.

    Very informative.
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  14. Fivemarks

    Fivemarks Temp Banned Suspended

    Ralson forget one very important thing about quests: Your main character will, 75% of the time more or less, be a cute lesbian girl looking to have sex with other cute girls. Don't ask me why, It just happened this way.

    But yes this does seem to be a great essay, Ralson.
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  15. Questing is certainly the most prolific part of the website, in terms of rate of posts, but I'm not sure that's really the best measure, given that the quest format encourages large numbers of 'vote' posts, often totally devoid of any feedback or debate, or featuring only token amounts. If the website design allowed for each authorial quest post to have a built in polls, my guess is that the total posts in Questing would drop to a fraction of what it currently is.

    I mean for starters, while the Questing subforum represents slightly under 50% of posting, it represents only 14% of all threads. My guess is that other measures, such as what proportion of SV members frequent it regularly or irregularly, and total words of content not counting quotes/signatures, are probably all considerably less than 50%. Also how do views work? Does each poster get counted only once for views? Because that would cover the "regularly" and "irregularly" measure combined on the individual thread level.

    Also it just occurred to me:
    There this chart of posts per day on SB:
    If the text style Quests migrated to SB during the 2010-2012 period, that'd explain SB, which had been under 2,000 posts a day for years and years, would suddenly quadruple over 2 years, then triple over 2 more years. If my above theories about Questing are correct, it also indicates that my initial assumption that the size of SB ballooned was off-base, while it certainly grew, the growth being lopsided towards post heavy Quests makes the growth seem larger than it was.

    Hmm just did a check. User Fiction has 80 threads that break 100k views. Quest has 108 threads that break 100k views. Granted this is skewed by both of them having sequel threads. Here's a look at the biggest for User Fiction and Quest respectively:
    Though as I noted, sequel threads skew things. While A Cloudy Path is number 1 in terms of most views for a thread in User Fiction, given that the two most recent threads for Halkegenia Online have 500k+ and 300k+ views, with there being 21 other threads, I'm gonna go on a limb and guess that they're the true number 1. Similarly the Dragon of the North and Warhammer Fantasy quests by Droman and torroar are over a million views just based on the sequel threads immediately visible.
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
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  16. Arcus2611


    I would like to file a complaint against @LordSquishy
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
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  17. Ralson

    Ralson Horrible Cat

    There's probably some truth to this. My thinking might be skewed by my own history of using open-prompt suggestions instead of votes. With an open prompt, player posts are more of an active contribution, by necessity. I still tend to think of responses in terms of "suggestions" rather than "votes."

    However, those vote posts still represent a poster carefully (one hopes) reading the update and thinking about its contents before posting a reply. That's more than you can say for a lot of Current Affairs...

    If we could compare total View numbers per subforum, that would help clear things up.
    It wasn't only BROBs/Quests that did it. That was also when SB's fanfiction section did a hard takeoff.

    It's hard to do anything resembling a proper analysis (where'd you get that chart?), especially because SB conflates Roleplaying and Questing. They're stuck together in the same subforum to this day, for some strange reason, precluding any meaningful comparison of activity.
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
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  18. IIRC from the same guy who did that analysis of fanfiction.net trends for various media works over time.
  19. Entropy

    Entropy Moonface

    FBH cabal 2stronk4u :(
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  20. tankdrop24

    tankdrop24 Tread first into hell

    I blame Madoka.
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  21. Jace911

    Jace911 Spider-Dork

    As someone who came to SB in 2010 and quickly got sucked into the takeoff of BROB (It was a different time!) this was a very interesting read. Props to @Ralson for assembling this.
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  22. torrmercury

    torrmercury I'm increasing my tiddle count. Are you?

    Shit son. That's amazing as all hell to read. I sent in a report to have this stickied and hopefully it will be but if not, I'll be linking it in Intro to Questing. :)
  23. Fivemarks

    Fivemarks Temp Banned Suspended

    I had a better response, but then I lost it, but then I found it again.

    Whereas FBH just has a Joss Whedonesque love of hot, competent women making out with other hot, competent women, the average person in /tg/ quests has a less noble reason for demanding the yuri.

    ... Mostly in that they're too insecure to have a female character pursue a romance with a male NPC, and that quests on /tg/ tend to have female playable characters.
  24. foamy

    foamy Lying liar who lies. Executive Director

    Note to self: Make @Ralson a liar.
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  25. Tekomandor

    Tekomandor Social Justice Gish Moderator

    People are bad at voting "IC", so to speak, and tend to default what they would do/would want to do. Thus, as most quest players are hetro guys, they go for the female romance option regardless of PC gender.
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