TO BEGIN AT THE END
You died a thousand times a week, back in those days.
Interesting deaths, too. You were eaten by alligators, stabbed by spooky monks, or flung from the battlements by an angry knight clad in crimson. When there were monsters, the monsters got you. When there were landslides, you were buried alive. When the theme was faintly historical, it was the faintly historical who did you in: the Wright Brothers might club you with a wrench, or perhaps Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, would submerge you in a tank filled with sharks and poisonous cuttlefish.
Is it fair to classify the Choose Your Own Adventure books as games? Their creator thinks they almost certainly weren’t (I asked him), but I’m not so sure. There’s all that death and mayhem you can cause, for one thing – they present worlds of limited agency, which definitely feels very gameish. Beyond that, with each book, the unspoken objective should seem familiar to a video game audience, as well. Last as long as you can. Get the best ending. Beat M. Bison on a single 50 pence piece.
Besides, if I, as a reader, think they were games, maybe there’s something in that. After all, the reader was always the single most important person in any adventure book.
All that’s to come, however. As for right now, what do you want to do?
What would you do if you were Pete?
“I thought of the idea while making up bedtime stories for my kids,” says Edward Packard, the key creative force behind the Choose Your Own Adventure books, when you decide to email him for an interview one bright, cloudless day in May. “One story was about a boy named Pete, who was cast up on an uncharted island. So I had Pete on the beach, but I couldn’t think what should come next in the story.
“I asked the kids, “What would you do if you were Pete? Walk along the beach or climb the rocky hill?” We had fun talking about what would be best. I plotted out multiple plot lines from there, wrote them up, and expanded on them, and the result was Sugarcane Island, which became the exact prototype for Bantam’s classic Choose Your Own Adventure series.”
Packard tells you that there are three crucial elements to any Choose Your Own Adventure title. Firstly, the protagonist is always you, the reader. Secondly, you always make choices leading to multiple plot lines. Thirdly, those multiple plot lines always lead to multiple endings. Often the books would advertise exactly how many endings they had at the top of the front cover, the same way games these days might shout about multiplayer features, DLC, or the dozens of different dresses you can win for your pony.
Finally, Packard mentions that he had a hard time getting the first book into stores. “When I was first trying to find a publisher for Sugarcane Island –– this was years before the Choose Your Own Adventure series was launched –– one of the publishers who rejected it said that it was more of a game than a book. Of course that was a dumb reason to reject it, but that’s what they felt. You might say it’s a book with game-like characteristics.”
Quite right. Also, all of a sudden, you are attacked by a huge cloud of bees. Do you want to fight off the bees and learn about STRUCTURE, or give into the glorious death of a thousand stings, and read about THE FIRST BOOK, AND OTHER FAVOURITES?
Plenty of options
Life was boring in the early 1980s. There were only a handful of TV channels, sports were all prohibitively violent, and colour itself would not be invented until 1986, when Prince Charles came up with it by accident. (Even then, it was only available in black and white at first.) Jas Mann off of Babylon Zoo would not redefine popular music in its gaudy entirety for at least a decade, and the only video game anybody owned was Pong: a good one for the history books, certainly, but about as thrilling to interact with as a dialling tone.
There was one hope, though. Back then, books and games weren’t enemies like they are today. They were friends – friends that got together and went on adventures. The very best books of all even sent you on adventures in which you made the decisions.
There were plenty of options to select from in this department, but I was always drawn to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. They were short on fantasy lore, which was something I wouldn’t be remotely interested in until, ooh, let’s say 1992, and you didn’t need dice or a pencil to play them. Also, the covers weren’t as scary.
Also also, Choose Your Own Adventure books were commonly based on the kind of Saturday matinee topics that appealed to me at the time. What would it be like to travel on a UFO? What’s really going down at the centre of the sun? What if you were a tweed-jacketed super-spy who could talk to whales? You could blast through dozens of adventures – and make hundreds of choices – in a single night. That’s a lot of talking to whales, buddy.
Best of all, using a piece of quick-save technology known as a “finger”, you could sneakily mark a previous page, and then turn back the clock if you didn’t like the way things were going. Drowning in quicksand? Sliced open by a clumsy robot chef? Balloon gone down on a radioactive atoll? That’s not how it happened. All thanks to fingers. It was like starring in a mid-range action movie and getting a practical course in tendonitis at the same time. Oh, but we were blessed in the 1980s: this alone made up for the constant threat of nuclear apocalypse and all those woolly sweaters that were worryingly fashionable, especially if you pushed the sleeves up.
“Usually, but not always”
Picture a single narrative as a bold, unbroken line sketched across an empty page. Now picture a narrative choice as a junction point in that line. Each choice leads to more choices: some choices go nowhere, some choices go back to a place you’ve been before, and some choices go somewhere altogether new. Sometimes, multiple lines can lead to the same choice, and sometimes, choices can form little loops, taking you back to an earlier point, but with a different set of experiences behind you. Now scream, and decide to have a lie down instead.
“I got tangled up as I tried to write the book,” says Packard, when you ask him about the challenges of structuring a single text containing so many possible narratives trajectories. “It took me a while to figure out that I had to set up a flow chart looking something like a horizontal tree, with each branch or twig representing a page, and key words over each choice so I could keep the plots straight and achieve continuity and consistency.”
Little by little, however, Packard picked up the hidden tricks of the genre he had helped to invent. “I set up a situation on the choice page so as to offer two or three plausible choices,” he tells you. “I didn’t want to have a right choice that was obvious. My idea was that you should be able to construct arguments for and against any choice.
“That’s not to say that the arguments should be perfectly balanced,” he counters. “My idea was that, like life, a wise decision will usually, but not always, lead to a good result. After constructing the choices at the end of a page, I would take each one and imagine what might ensue. For example: you decide to walk along the beach, you’re tremendously thirsty, and you find clams, which sets the situation up for two more choices: Should you eat them? Or look for drinkable water first? Writing the book, I would imagine that I made each choice and then imagine what the consequences would be of each, and what new options would arise. I didn’t think it all out ahead.”
Don’t eat the clams. Before you ask your next question – and I know it’s just brilliant - a runaway mine cart smashes through the wall of your living room, headed right at you!
THE FIRST BOOK, AND OTHER FAVOURITES
Inspired by Conrad
Sugarcane Island was the first interactive book that Packard, who trained as a lawyer, ever wrote. In 1975, it was released by a small publishing house, and eventually became title number one in the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
Unsurprisingly, ask Packard about his favourite books in the canon, and that simple story of exploration and adventure is right near the top. “Sugarcane Island was special, of course,” he tells you. “It was clearly inspired by Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, my two favorite books as a kid. [But there are other favourites.] For adventures: taking it to the limit is not only visiting another planet, but another universe, and the way to get there is Through the Black Hole, a book inspired by my longstanding interest in outer space and cosmology.
“Another book I think is special is Typhoon,” he continues. “This was a natural because I’ve been a life-long sailor and lover of the sea, and I think that experiencing a typhoon in a sailboat would be a huge adventure; it could also be a fatal one, but that’s not a problem in interactive adventure fiction. This book was inspired in part by Joseph Conrad’s great novella with the same title.”
Angered by this reference, the skeletal ghost of Joseph Conrad yanks himself from his grave and races towards you, shedding loose dirt and shaking a bony finger in your direction. Do you invite him to join you in reading about STRUCTURAL EXPERIMENTS?, or fight him off – using VIOLENCE?
Beyond the Great Wall
The bomb never fell, but my bookshelves did. They came down on 23rd February, 2001, in a small flat I was renting in Brighton. Casualties were kept to a minimum, but they included a peanut butter sandwich (half-eaten), a nasty ceramic ashtray a friend had made me during an arts and crafts psychic-cleansing getaway, and a copy of Principia Mathematica, which dropped into a fish tank. No loss, as I only had it lying around in the hope that pretty ladies might one day mistakenly suspect that I had hidden depths. (Same for the fish tank, if I’m honest.)
The shelves came down because of all those Choose Your Own Adventure books. I’d lost my originals, of course, but to cut through the boredom, poverty and hovering dread of the university years, I’d taken to hunting through second hand stores for any I could locate, and buying them up in bulk. I’m a catch.
Some eluded me. I spent a lot of time looking for Beyond the Great Wall - which I still haven’t got, if anyone’s listening - but along the way I discovered plenty of other classics that I’d never originally been aware of. Classics like Inside UFO 54-40 with its weird structural experiment, or The Deadly Shadow in which Dimitrius, a man who looks suspiciously like Peter Molyneux, is turned into a human bomb with time travel capabilities, and, perhaps best of all, like The Horror of High Ridge.
If you want to read about THE HORROR OF HIGH RIDGE, go here.
If you want to hear about frightening STRUCTURAL EXPERIMENTS, go here.
THE HORROR OF HIGH RIDGE
“It looks as if your only choice is the way you will die.”
If you’re after atmosphere, ghoulish menace, and a freckled hero dressed in an unlikely turtleneck, you simply must read The Horror of High Ridge, by Julius Goodman. I get an enjoyable chill flipping through it even now, when I’m old enough to have things like mortgages, a driver’s license, and my own coffee machine lurking in my character inventory. I can only imagine the kind of psychological torment it would have inflicted on me as a kid.
The Horror of High Ridge is a classically claustrophobic ghost story. You and a couple of interestingly-trousered school friends have retreated to a cabin over summer – a wonderfully reliable Choose Your Own Adventure set-up, ripe with intrigue and a promise of slight autonomy – and you’re looking for treasure. Forget fortune and glory, though, because on the night the narrative(s) takes place, the nearby town of High Ridge becomes home to an ancient war between spectral cowboys and Indians that plays out the same way every single year.
It’s spine-itching stuff, and it unfolds at a delightful clip as you and your friends pick your way through an empty town that’s turned into a ghostly murder-fest, trying to escape in as few pieces as possible. What makes it all the more special, though, is that there are just so many ways you can take one for the team on this particular outing. Stabbed in the back. Shot up with bullets. Shot up with arrows. Shot up with ghost arrows. Cleaved with an axe. High Ridge has 27 endings: very few of them involve breezy picnics or ringing alarm clocks.
One of the goals of the book Inside UFO 54-40, was to reach an alien paradise known as Ultima. It was hard to get to. Very hard. In fact, if you played through the book in the traditional manner, you would never reach it.
Instead, you had to cheat: to flip through the book at random until you found an illustrated double-page spread that no other pages in the book would link to. Finally, Ultima!
“Some people complained this wasn’t fair, but I think it was, because the way to reach “Ultima” was strongly hinted at on the “Warning” page,” says Packard, when you ask him about this and any other structural flourishes. “I think my books had a lot of variety, but I can’t think of many that had experimental touches. Maybe a few. One other was Hyperspace, where I appeared as a character. Then there was Who Are You?, in which you’re hit on the head and have amnesia and the challenge is to find out who you are!”
Find out who you are. Video games may be no stranger to amnesia, but it will be a pleasure to finally play one that can do justice to that idea.
Violence and children: these days, we aren’t quite so keen about introducing the latter to the former. Choose Your Own Adventures flung grim death around as if it were magnolia paint, however. Was there any internal discussion back at HQ about all this murder?
“I don’t recall discussing it,” Packard tells you. “I largely avoided ghoulishness and gore, though I often used mock pathos and humor, such as in Sugarcane Island, where you may become submerged in quick sand. If you make the wrong choice, the last line is “Glug, glug, glug.””
“Glug, glug, glug,” isn’t the half of it, actually. Almost all the Choose Your Own Adventures offered a little amusement for the twisted. You could be chopped in half, crushed under rocks, or eaten by hungry aliens. You could fall to your death, fly to your death in a balloon, or even be fried to death by the weather. The Rock and Roll Mystery lets you expire in an road traffic accident – and that’s in a book about starting a band.
All that dying, but it doesn’t really matter. Why? Because maybe children’s fiction should have a little darkness in it, just as video games should make you earn experience points instead of just handing them over for watching a training video. Sure, you may have gone through your teens convinced that the world was a fiercely calibrated death trap after one too many nights reading Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?, but you also had an active, energised, well-fed imagination to power all of your new fears. That seems like a fair trade, Mr Thrombey.
Why else? Because you can turn back time. You can restart, or revert to your last save. You know, like a video game where death is not the end, but just one crucial part of that vast celestial tutorial. You die in order to live another day.
You have been gored by a swan. Go to THE PRESENT DAY.
THE PRESENT DAY
Interactive fiction has a rich history on both computers and the printed page. Nick Monfort’s Twisty Little Passages is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to read about the history of text adventures, while Leila Johnston made game books decidedly trendy again when she published Enemy of Chaos a year or two ago. It’s smart and/or funny, depending on the choices you make, and both volumes will suggest hidden depths to pretty ladies and gentlemen if you have them on your shelf. (If you don’t get this reference, you may want to play through this article again.)
But what about Edward Packard? What’s he been up to?
Glad you asked.
“After the original Choose Your Own Adventure books went out of print in the U.S. in the late 1990’s, the publisher let the trademark lapse,” he tells you. “Ray Montgomery, the fellow whose small press published my first book, took advantage of the opportunity and registered the trademark in the name of his company, so I was obliged to invent a new trademark. I thought that U-Ventures would be a good one. Return to the Cave of Time and Through the Black hole are available as U-Ventures apps at iTunes, and a third app, Forbidden Castle, should be ready this fall along with revised and expanded U-Ventures print versions of my original Choose Your Own Adventure books.
“Developing the apps is tremendous fun,” he continues, “because we can introduce features that would be impossible in a printed book. For instance, the computer can remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done, so two people reaching the same place in a story might have different experiences and choices depending on their past experience.”
Packard’s just turned 80, but has made some pretty smart choices of his own along the way – possibly by cheating and marking previous pages – and he’s not about to slow down just yet. “Some time ago I made a decision to eat right and stay in shape, and it paid off,” he tells you. “I feel totally healthy and energized. Of course I’ve been lucky too – so far I haven’t had any bad breaks. So I’m still writing and cooking up publishing projects. I just self-published a non-fiction book titled All It Takes – the Three Keys to Making Wise Decisions and not Making Stupid Ones, which originated when I looked back over my life and thought about why some of my decisions were great ones but others were really stupid. I’ll be producing an app for that in addition to the apps for my U-Ventures books. I’m having fun producing a stunningly illustrated picture book. Anyone who is interested can learn more at my website, edwardpackard.com.”
THE VIDEO GAME CONNECTION
“There is a trade-off there”
“Are you at all interested in video games?” you ask Packard, towards the end of your chat. “Do you see any connections between the books and the games?”
“I haven’t spent much time with video games,” he admits. “There are some that are educational; others are just fun. I think kids (and grownups) should be careful not to get addicted to them. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them as long as they’re not overly violent or sadistic. It’s just that we all have limited time and we should give a lot of thought to how we allocate it.”
“Video games sometimes really struggle with telling interesting, involving stories that still allow for choice,” you say. “Do you think there’s anything in your approach to interactive fiction that could be useful to game designers?”
“Maybe,” Packard replies. “My U-Ventures apps, which are interactive books with video game elements, have more text in them than in the original printed books. For decision-making to be meaningful, you have to have fairly rich contexts and complexities so that the reader or player has something to think about. I don’t know how many video games do that.”
You’ve got one last question, and you’ve been waiting to ask it for a while. Did Packard ever develop a perfect one-size-fits-all framework for the books? “I tended to have more narrative and fewer endings,” he says finally. “There is a trade-off there. It’s fun to have a great number of endings, but if you want to develop the narrative and the characters, you need to have more narrative before choices are given and this results in fewer endings. I wouldn’t say that there is an optimum framework.”
You’ve probably heard David Cage say something not entirely dissimilar. Or Ken Levine or the BioWare doctors, for that matter. Strong narratives and lots of choices seem to grind against each other a little. If you got into this, then – like I did - hoping Choose Your Own Adventure might have a magic recipe for interactive fiction that could spread to games, hoping it would end a discussion about games and narrative that you’ve maybe always found a little bit tedious, you’ll be disappointed. There is no magic recipe. There are interesting similarities, but there are also massive, gaping differences. The Choose Your Own Adventure series are still books at the end of it all, and video games often have more in common with science experiments than they do with books.
Part of it comes down to budget. Packard and Co. only had to spend words to build worlds, whereas games need artists, engineers, designers, tech, free soda, and an HR department. You can’t throw ideas around as cheaply when you’re set up like that, so you can’t be as loose, as wastefully inventive, with your stories.
And partly it’s down to player expectation, too. Choose Your Own Adventure books could give you a few choices every other page. We, meanwhile, often aren’t happy with just one choice or two whenever the designer sees fit to give them to us. Video games measure choice in degrees, and it’s a rare player who doesn’t want the full 360.
Some of the very best games give you 360 degrees of choice in most situations, but they aren’t – by and large – the kind of games that also want to tell you stories. Instead, they’re the kind of games that allow you to tell stories – and maybe that’s a crucial distinction.
Take Crackdown. I love it, but I’ll willingly admit that it’s not one of video games’ best stories. There’s little in the way of exposition, emotion, character, or any of that kind of resonance stuff, and I very much doubt little children will ever ask to hear about the war between the Volk and Shai Gen once more before they go to sleep.
As a vehicle for telling stories, though – as an engine for a certain kind of narrative – it’s an absolute masterpiece. You’re not necessarily creating stories tied into its fiction, however: you’re creating stories rooted in its mechanics and geography.
So a Crackdown story goes like this. Yesterday, I was hiding behind a truck, and I was down to my last few bullets. The mob was moving in on me, and my health bar was disappearing in big hungry gulps. A punk surprised me from the left and I kicked him into the sea. Miraculously, that one kick was all I needed to power up my strength to the next level, and I was suddenly able to lift the truck I was crouched behind and lob it down the street, taking out all my enemies at once. (Then I went up the Agency Tower again and jumped off, obv.)
That’s a videogame story: a story where the fun is in the writing of it. That surprise chain reaction in Drop7 - the one that saves you when you’re just about to go off the top of the screen - is another great videogame story. Tetris, Just Cause, Geometry Wars: unexpected triumph, hilarious failure, things getting spectacularly out of hand. These are the video game versions of Icarus, Cinderella, The Good Samaritan and all those other old chestnuts that crop up on cinema screens and bookstore shelves each year as Titanic, or as The Devil Wears Prada.
Perhaps the best video game narratives need you as the writer rather than the reader, in other words. It’s a topsy-turvy kind of idea, for certain, and one that may have many of us got that first, fleeting glimpse of in things like the Choose Your Own Adventure books. They’re the past and sand box games, for me, at least, are the present. The question then, is the same as it always was:
Where do you want to go next?