Choose Your Own Adventure
How The Cave of Time taught us to love interactive entertainment.
For Montgomery and Packard, the market appeared to be insatiable; it was inevitable that the two occasionally worked on automatic pilot. "I wrote several sports books, about which I knew very little," Packard says. "I wrote a book called Soccer Star, even though I'd never played soccer, and I'd never watched a full game. I read a book on coaching soccer and it seemed to work. That book became a very good seller in Germany."
Both men wrote separately, often completely ignorant of the titles the other was producing, trusting that Bantam would coordinate the line. 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."
The no-gender policy proved difficult to maintain when Bantam hired artists to draw covers and illustrations for the series. "In the text I was always extremely rigorous never to have anyone refer to the reader as 'he.' " Packard says. "But Bantam insisted it be a boy because they had market research that said girls would identify with boys but boys would never read a book where 'you' was a girl. That was a big problem because most of the covers were of boys and most of the illustrations were of boys."
It was a move that Packard believes lost readers: "I think we lost a huge number of girls to The Babysitter's Club." Two other problems led to the decline of the series. One was competition from dozens of other Choose Your Own Adventure style series: TSR's Endless Quest, Britain's Fighting Fantasy, Infocom's spin-off Zork books, R.L. Stine's Give Yourself Goosebumps, the Which Waybooks, Twistaplot, Lone Wolf, Lazer Tag Adventures, and hundreds more.
"A lot of the competing series were published by our own publisher, Bantam!" Montgomery recalls. "They knew a good thing when they saw it, I guess. I don't remember any particular response to it. We were competing with ourselves at that point." The second reason the series ended was built into the structure of the books themselves: the tension between narrative and interactivity. It's the same tension that was found in the emerging genre of computer games.
David Lebling says, "When you think about narrative and interaction you're thinking about the degree of control the player has over the story. You can make sandbox games where you wander around and do things. There's no way you can really die and there are many paths exploring your sandbox, but if you want to get something closer to a traditional narrative you can't do that. You have to push, entice, or otherwise drag the player along through your narrative."
Choose Your Own Adventure created a demand for interactivity among its readers, but the series itself was becoming less interactive as time went on. "In the early days of CYOA, we—when I say we, I mean myself and the other writers—had quite a few more endings than later on in the series," Montgomery says. "We had as many as 30 to 40 endings in the first 10 to 15 titles. We were burning up story lines like crazy with all of those different endings. And it was fun, but even if it only took six, seven pages to get to an ending, there wasn't a lot of room for character development, or plot development, or all the kinds of descriptive phrases that you need to build a scene."
It was a simple matter of page count, imposed by the physical restrictions of book publishing: A 118-page story can only let you deviate from the main narrative so far. "A Choose Your Own Adventure is almost the epitome of not giving you choices," says Lebling. "They're—what? One hundred fifty pages, max? So each page or every other page usually gives you two or three choices, and if you multiply that out that's not an enormous number of possible states." Christian Swinehart has charted how the number of endings declined as the series progressed, a sure sign that narrative was taking precedence over interactivity. But interactivity wasn't vanishing, it was evolving and books were no longer the optimal medium with which to deliver it.
"Gamebooks were getting more complex," Swinehart says, referring to series like Fighting Fantasy, which used dice rolls and had combat systems. "Suddenly you needed to have a pencil and paper and do math to move along, and at that point what a computer is there for is to keep track of a set of numbers and crunch them for you."
When Lebling encountered the Choose Your Own Adventure series, he had already written and programmed Zork. "I saw the Choose Your Own Adventure books as being a knock-off," he says. "I saw them after Infocom started up and thought, 'Oh, this is trying to do an adventure game as a book. How strange.' I thought of them as being less interactive and less open than even the smallest adventure games."
The end of the series was hardly a surprise for Packard. "I knew that, like all series, they get very popular, sales shoot up and then trail off," he says. "I could see the peak being reached and then things going off."
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.