Choose Your Own Adventure
How The Cave of Time taught us to love interactive entertainment.
Between 1978 and 1982, entertainment went interactive, and, for myself and many others, Choose Your Own Adventurebooks were the catalyst. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, which required friends; or computer games, which required your parents to spend a lot of money; or arcade games, which required your sister to drive you to the mall, Choose Your Own Adventure books cost $1.75, and you could read them on your own.
The idea for interactive fiction was laid out by Jorge Luis Borges in 1941 in his short story "The Garden of Forking Paths": A Chinese spy for Germany living in Great Britain discusses his ancestor's ambition to write a vastly complex novel that is also a labyrinth wherein every branching path is determined by the reader's choices. A more prosaic early attempt at interactive texts were psychologist B.F. Skinner's "programmed learning" books that culminated with Doubleday's interactive TutorText series, which debuted in 1958 with the thrilling The Arithmetic of Computers. Basically an extended multiple-choice quiz, a correct answer sent you forward in the text while an incorrect answer sent you to a page explaining just how wrong you were. But all of these efforts were eclipsed by the bedtime story Edward Packard told his two daughters in 1969.
While telling his daughters their story, Packard, then a lawyer who was "never comfortable with the law," asked them what happened next. They each gave a different answer and he turned this branching path story into what would one day become the Choose Your Own Adventure book Sugarcane Island. "I had written a couple of children's stories that I hadn't been able to sell," he says, "And I couldn't sell this one either. It went in the desk drawer."
In 1976, he saw an ad for Vermont Crossroads Press, a small publishing house run by Raymond Montgomery and his wife, Constance Cappel, that was looking for innovative children's books. Packard sent them Sugarcane Island. Montgomery was a big advocate of experiential learning and he had been designing role-playing exercises for Abt Associates, a consulting company that applied social sciences to government and military problems. Recognizing the value of Packard's idea, he bought the book and announced a line of interactive stories for children called "The Adventures of You."
What happened next involves a complicated series of shuffles that essentially saw Packard leave VCP, followed by Montgomery signing a six book contract with Bantam. The publishing house retitled the books "Choose Your Own Adventure" and Packard returned to help write them. In 1980, Bantam signed Packard and Montgomery to separate deals that allowed them each to write Choose Your Own Adventure books.
From the start, the books were full of innovative page hacks. Readers would be trapped in the occasional time loop, forced to flip back and forth between two pages. Most memorable was Inside UFO 54-40,a book in which the most desired outcome, discovering the Planet Ultima, could only be achieved by readers who cheated and flipped through the book until they reached the page on their own. At that point, the book congratulated the reader for breaking the rules.
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." Over time, the series evolved from straight adventure stories like The Cave of Time, Your Code Name is Jonah, and Who Killed Harlow Thrombey? to more immersive books that took full advantage of the second-person narrator like You Are a Shark, You Are a Genius!, You Are a Monster and the downright existential, Who Are You? There were sports books ( Stock Car Champion, Skateboard Champion, Roller Star) and even 11 martial arts books (Master of Tae Kwon Do, Master of Karate, Master of Judo).
Montgomery and Packard were the most prolific authors of the series, with Packard held in especially high regard by serious fans. "Packard was more of the writer," Demian Katz, the archivist behind a massive online gamebooks catalog, says. "I'm not a fan of the inconsistent books. I like exploring the world, but having the world stay the same despite my choices." A book like Packard's The Mystery of Chimney Rock is narratively simple: You choose to investigate, or not, a spooky house, inhabited by an old lady, a cat, and a groundskeeper. Packard takes these simple elements and weaves a near-infinite series of choices from them like a jazz musician expanding a riff. "36 possible endings," the cover proclaims, and every one of them appears logical.
Montgomery, on the other hand, often eschewed internal consistency in favor of big ideas, and his books have their own bizarre charm. While Packard was writing the standard sword-and-sorcery story The Forbidden Castle about dragons, knights, and princesses, Montgomery unleashed the berserk House of Dangerwhich involved super-intelligent monkeys plotting to destabilize the world economy via counterfeiting, psychic detectives, Civil War ghosts, alien abduction, holograms, age regression, cannibalism, secret environmental conspiracies, and one ending that has the reader turned into Genghis Khan.
The books were a hit and, with more than 250 million copies in print, it felt as if everyone read them at some point. In a world before Nintendo DS, where the only games you could play on your own were Merlin or Simon Says, a book like The Cave of Time was a comparatively sophisticated portable entertainment system. And, even better, adults were suckers for kids reading books.
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.