Friday, February 25, 2011

On Choose Your Own Adventures

Last week, Slate had an interesting retrospective on Choose Your Own Adventure books. (James Mal also pointed to this article a few days ago.) In many ways it's downright jarring how much the development of these books parallels the arc of classic D&D as a publishing and artistic concern -- as you might guess from the opening line, "Between 1978 and 1982, entertainment went interactive... Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, which required friends... you could read them on your own." Here are some points to ponder.

The Timeline

According to the article, what would become the first Choose Your Own Adventure book had its inception as "the bedtime story Edward Packard told his two daughters in 1969." It was actually sold to a publishing house in 1976; transferred rights to Bantam in 1980; had an explosive "peak" of growth (hundreds of millions of copies sold), followed by a trailing off of sales; and finally cancellation in 1998. By way of comparison, note that Chainmail with its fantasy supplement was developed in the late 60's and published in 1971; D&D had its biggest spike in sales circa 1979-1982; and that a near-bankrupt TSR was bought out by WOTC in 1997.
"Researching interactive books," Demian Katz, gamebooks archivist, says, "There's pretty much the same pattern in every country. A few come out, they become explosively popular, a flood of knock-offs are released, they reach critical mass and then drop off into nothing. When I first started cataloguing them, around 1998, it was happening in the Czech Republic. That was one of the last booms."
If this trend is true in many countries at many different times, one which starkly resembles that of D&D itself, might we not wonder that such would have been the case regardless of any decisions that might have been made differently regarding the business or game design at TSR in the 1980's?

The Absence of Pre-Defined Characters

I remember one time in school being informed by an English teacher that stories could be written in either 1st-person or 3rd-person, but not 2nd-person -- which of course prompted myself and one or two friends to dedicate ourselves to writing second-person stories as much as we could. Likewise:

But they were committed to Choose Your Own Adventure and in total agreement about the series' voice: the second-person you. After all, the series was called "Choose Your Own Adventure" not "Choose a Fictional Character's Adventure." Using the second person also had another key benefit: "From the outset, we wanted Choose Your Own Adventure books to be non-gender specific," Montgomery says. "It was a conscious decision."

It's also a counterintuitive one, making the books resemble games far more than books. David Lebling, one of the fathers of computer gaming and one of the programmers behind the pioneering text-adventure series, Zork, says, "When you think about the way books work, for the most part the protagonist is a well-defined person and the book is about that well-defined person and it makes sense to say this is a man or a woman. The details are critical to the story. Second-person books, in my experience, have not been all that successful. Second-person games have been pretty successful."

Note that this is exactly the point that makes Dungeons & Dragons itself an awkward fit when attempting to expand the brand as a mark into other media (TV, movies, books, etc.); there aren't any "famous characters" at the core of the property itself. (And now that I think of it, I've heard the same criticism leveled at the way the Twilight books' female protagonist is written -- as something of a blank template onto which the reader can map their own personality and/or desires -- and corresponding weakness as a movie character. Ewww, now I feel a bit icky for having broached that subject.)

The Ubiquity of Death

Classic D&D had a high body count, many "insta-death" effects, and the expectation that destruction could result even from "good" decisions in the face of "bad" die-rolls. Meanwhile:

Many Choose Your Own Adventure fans at the time noted how fixated the books were on death. "One of the running jokes," says Christian Swinehart, a graphic designer who has spent a lot of time studying the structure of the series, "is that every choice leads to death, more or less." Packard and Montgomery were determined to make the books feel "real." Whereas most children's literature comes out of an educational tradition, which requires "good" choices to result in victory and "bad" choices to result in death, they wanted to keep the reader guessing. "My intent was to try to make it like life as much as possible," Packard says. "I didn't want it to be a random lottery but I didn't want it to be didactic so that if you always did the smart thing you always succeeded. I tried to balance it."... "There's no way we could have programmed a moral ending for every story line," Montgomery concurs. "Life isn't that way. Choose Your Own Adventure is not that way. Choose Your Own Adventure is a simulation that approximates the choices that we face in our lives."

2 comments:

  1. I have some more info on Gamebooks and RPGs you might find interesting. :)

    My approach to D&D has remained largely the way it was introduced to me as a CYOA style adventure game.

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  2. Hey Stuart, very interesting blogs -- you do indeed have a valuable POV coming from CYOA first, then D&D. (I must say, I still get a jolt when I hear the title to "The Cave of Time"). Good stuff.

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