In the past couple of weeks I have both befriended and been eaten by a Yeti. I have brought death and chaos to the noble people of Atlantis, while at the same time becoming one with the collective consciousness of the gill people. I have also lost and found and lost again the jewels of the unfortunately named Nabooti*.
No, my efforts to travel back and forth through time have not progressed much beyond the refrigerator box I drew a flux capacitor on twenty-five years ago. I know, I’m a little disappointed in me, too. Instead, I have dived head-first into the wild world of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
For those uninitiated, “Choose Your Own Adventure” is a brand** of children’s books that saw their heyday in the 80’s and 90’s, that allowed you—the reader—to make decisions that, given the branched nature of the storytelling, determined the course of the plot.
In some of the off-brand variations on the form, you guide the direction of a third-person narration, although in these cases the story invariable ends well for the characters you guide. Before you ask, yes: It is a little disconcerting to float through a narrative with the authority to dictate the direction, but not the power to control precisely how matters conclude.
In the purer versions of these books, you take on the role of the protagonist, and your decisions effect your efforts to get through the story much more directly. Did you make the wrong turn at the market near Machu Picchu? You’re going to get attacked by a wild band of trolls. Do you enter the glowing nebula, despite the advice of the inter-dimensional aliens to the contrary? That’s a great way to have your spaceship invaded by trolls. Do you decide not to bother with the adventure at all? Sadly, you now have troll squatters in your house.
The point is, it doesn’t really matter what you do, you’re going to get killed by a troll. Seriously, the books are not afraid to eschew the need for a happy ending. What’s more, the author—R.A. Montgomery for many of the original branded books—isn’t afraid to instruct children that sometimes, you can make the all of the right choices, and still reap a disastrous result. I, for one, think it is never too early to introduce children to a rudimentary form of existential nihilism, and “Choose Your Own Adventure” seems to agree with me.
Branched-storytelling always seemed like slim, simple fun. The books are short*** and easy to read. Maybe the writing in the genre is simple, but the construction of these stories is complex to the point of being almost counter-intuitive. Writing in second person is mind-boggling enough, but the twists and turns lead those (i.e. me) trying to reverse engineer the structure of these stories to have to re-think story structure at it’s very basic level.
Normally, one (again, me) will write a story using some variation on Joseph Campbell’s template for the hero’s journey****. To successfully create a branched-storytelling work, you have to throw Campbell out with the bathwater. The hero can not merely answer the call to adventure, and then change in some significant way in the pursuit, although some version of the story should have that basic construction. Different story paths need to be interrupted, diverted, folded in on themselves, restarted, contorted into a potentially infinite loop, and terminated with no obvious notice to the reader.
In short, the form can begin to resemble the vagaries of mundane life far more than other fiction. I’m going to continue working on cracking the format, and who knows? Maybe I’ll have my own version of the gamebook to enter into the pantheon. Stay tuned.
If you believe I will write a gamebook in the future, watch this space. If you think my fear of trolls has finally reached its peak, turn to page 116*****.
*Which continues to remind me of a warm afternoon in the spring of 1994, where I played a small part in finding the equally unfortunate title “Horny” by Carolyn Emery tucked away in the Lee Elementary School library. Our endless amusement at the description of a day-in-the-life of a horned lizard during her egg-laying period attracted the ire of the powers-that-be, and the book was never heard from again.
**Or “gamebooks” to avoid the kind of unconscious brand identification that has lead to the tyranny of Band-Aids.
***Naturally, as they were primarily written for a younger audience.
****For a good, quick distillation of Campbell’s monomyth form, I can recommend no greater source than Dan Harmon’s story embryo/circle. Find a quick breakdown here.
*****And sometimes there isn’t even a page 116!