Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More on Choose Your Own Adventures

We've praised Choose Your Own Adventure books in the past. Having again looked at some of TSR's equivalent Endless Quest books recently, a few other things occurred to me:

Unpredictable Timing

One of the nice things about these books is that you can't predict how close you are to the ending based on your position within the pages of the book. Lots of media you can't say that for -- A normal novel, a standard TV show, a movie whose run-time you have a general sense for. All of these things allow you to glance at your page position, or a clock, and know that you aren't in any real danger of the story ending soon based on that placement compared to that end-time. But Choose Your Own Adventure-style books raise the stakes because they could always legitimately end in catastrophe (or otherwise) with the next page-flip. The drama is not sabotaged by the physical structure of the media itself. (The only other things I can think of like this are video games, or maybe short-story collections.)

Sense of Phatasmagoria

What I mean by this is: The very act of flipping through the book on various "turn to page X" directions causes you to, unavoidably, see little snatches of text from other possible branches, and also glances at illustrations of things that may-or-may-not happen. Personally, I'm pretty scrupulous about my page-flipping, trying as best I can to only scrape open the page numbers themselves (kind of like professional poker players' extraordinary care in flipping up the tiniest possible bit of a card to identify what it is). Nonetheless, I wind up subconsciously picking up new bits of text and illustrations. Are they things in the past, or the future, or possible-futures? It's almost like having vague shamanic visions of alternate timelines. The overall effect, to me, deepens the fantasy world, making me feel surrounded by nearby alternate spirit-worlds (which is certainly not something I actually feel in reality). Consider this excellent link noted by commenter Matthew W. Schmeer, and (at the end) the example of an entirely disconnected branch whose only clue is an enticing two-page splash page of a paradisaic city.

Example of Evolution

This final item, not so much complimentary, but perhaps sympathetic to the troubles we've seen in our other interactive entertainments and the big business of producing them. With Choose Your Own Adventure books you see, early on, a cornucopia of different possible branches and alternate endings; as time and the business progressed, fewer branches and fewer different endings; and in its place (necessarily) much longer narrative chunks of text in which the author gets to tell their "story" (again, see link above for the documentation of this). Gee, what does that sound like?

I would say that it sounds like D&D and the evolution through 2E when the call for "more story", and less player capacity for affecting plot structure, became prominent and irresistible. I would also say that this resembles video games tendency to develop away from "sandbox" or "digital toy" type games in the early years, or layouts with many branches and side-corridors, to more linear story structures in later years. Or more generally, Richard Garfield's seminal (to me) observation in a Game Developer magazine essay (November 2006) that "Historically, games usually evolved in such a way as to reduce the amount of luck in them." Can the same possibly be said about plays, opera, or epic poems (possibly more responsive to a live audience in an earlier era, and becoming fossilized over time)? Maybe even social network websites?

At least with our more modern gaming forms, you can see a number of pressures that would lead to reduced player choice over time: (1) the desire for the creator to be more of an auteur, or at least an honored expert (see Garfield's essay); (2) the promotion of cross-merchandising brands into other properties, via fixed and canonical characters and backstory; and (3) the business efficiency case for having a maximum amount of content generation actually consumed by the audience (and not wasted in undiscovered branches, especially as production values and costs accelerate greatly over time; e.g. see recent New Yorker article on Mass Effect creators grappling with alternate FemShep and BroShep character development). Perhaps every "wild west" ultimately gets its taming, but nevertheless, as we've written here before, we can still regret the loss of freedom that comes with it. Perhaps more of a "devolution", really.


  1. Excellent insights. Thanks for sharing.

  2. These are very interesting observations; I for one never thought to consider how the effect of our external knowledge of a text (i.e. number of pages/minutes remaining) would be altered for CYOA texts. This is fascinating stuff.

    Incidentally, as far as discussing how the physical dimensions of a book bear on our appreciation of the story, you're in very good company: "The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity." --Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, 1817

  3. dwarzel: Great quote, thanks!