For decades upon centuries upon millennia, stories have been linear affairs. Our brains like them that way. Thing A happens, which causes thing B, which contributes to thing C, and before you know it you’re at thing Z wondering why the author made D through Y so damn boring.
Around 1980, Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books upended the whole shebang. Okay, so people had been tinkering with storytelling long before then, but interactive entertainment is a relatively new concept – at least as we use the term today. Readers of Choose Your Own Adventure books were given choices at the bottom of each page. Each option led to a different page and on that was the reader’s fate. Turn to page 56 and you’ve escaped! Turn to page 63 and oops, you fell in a pit!
Writing for Slate, Grady Hendrix explores the rise of interactive fiction, tracking it from its Borgesian origins to the stories Edward Packard started crafting with moment-to-moment input from his daughters in the 1970s. Packard eventually took his ideas to Bantam with Raymond Montgomery. There they established the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books.
Hendrix presents an explanation for the books’ early explosion in popularity:
“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.”
It’s hard not to see the influence of these stories in the sophisticated interactive entertainments of today. A player explores a world, selects choices from a handful of options, and plays through the consequences to their end. Role-playing games like Fallout or Mass Effect are a strict descendant and inevitable refinement of the formula. More experimental games like Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death go back to the roots of Choose Your Own Adventure, making a game out of the real-time exchange between storyteller and audience.
Go and give Hendrix’s piece a read. The genre’s history is fascinating, and its existence has had far-reaching consequences. And don’t worry, there’s no way to wind up in a pit reading this article.