Choose Your Own Adventure books: How The Cave of Time taught us to love interactive entertainment.

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Feb. 18 2011 7:08 AM

Choose Your Own Adventure

How The Cave of Time taught us to love interactive entertainment.

Click here to view a slideshow on Choose Your Own Adventure books.

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.

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."

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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."

At least in America.

"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."

Coincidentally, Choose Your Own Adventure books ceased publication in 1998. Packard and Montgomery had a falling out and no are no longer on speaking terms, but each continues to fly the interactive-fiction flag. In 2000, they regained the copyright for their respective titles. Packard took his to Simon & Schuster where he's developing them into full-blown apps under the name U-Ventures, while Montgomery picked up the rights to use the Choose Your Own Adventure name, and he and several of his authors have started ChooseCo, a company that's reprinting the old books and publishing new ones.

For Montgomery, the choice is to keep publishing the books, aiming at young readers who will still be enticed by the novelty of interactive fiction. "I think that the later books with fewer endings actually helped kids make the transition from Choose Your Own Adventure books to regular, full-length books with third person narratives and no choices," he says. Packard's U-Ventures are e-books with features that make them more like games, with codes that need to be entered and timed challenges. "We want to take advantage of the format and do things you couldn't do in the printed books," he says.

But the books will never again achieve the massive impact they once had. "These books were the gateway drugs of interactive entertainment," says Swinehart. "The Infocom people and the Choose Your Own Adventure people are hybrid folks. You don't often see people combining the hacker perspective with the literary perspective. You don't see typing and programming mix together that much." David Lebling agrees, "Computers push graphics, books push reading, but there was a brief shining moment when computers pushed reading." And, inversely, during that same time, the Choose Your Own Adventure books pushed programming.

"The most important thing is to get people reading," Montgomery says. "It's not the format. It's not even the writing. It's the reading. And the reading happened because kids were put in the driver's seat. They were the mountain climber, they were the doctor, they were the deep sea explorer. They made choices, and so they read." The Choose Your Own Adventure books were part of a cultural shift that saw entertainment become more interactive. It was a moment when entertainment became, in a way, more like real life. As the introduction to each of the books states:       

"Remember—you cannot go back! Think carefully before you make a move! One mistake can be your last … or it may lead to fame and fortune.

"Good luck!"

Click here to view a slide show on Choose Your Own Adventure books. Correction, Feb. 18, 2011: This article originally misspelled Christian Swinehart's last name.

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Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.