Interactive Narrative : CYOA

Like so many other kids growing up in the 1980’s I spent a heck of a lot of time playing Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books as well as playing/making text based adventure games for my Commodore and Sinclair home computers. I recall spending hours upon end staring at a tv screen with a flashing cursor, writing simple commands within a text game : go west, sit down, pull chord, enter hole. Often I’d be stuck in a seemingly neverending sequence of typing the same commands and just not being able to unblock new content. Even if I should finally unblock something new, it would only be a simple line of text. But, it was utterly thrilling when it did happen. Why? Jen Doll, explains in a 2012 Atlantic article, that back when when home computing was only just getting started, text based adventures, whether in book or screen form, were often our first dose of narrative type interactivity.

Edward Packard, a pioneer of the CYOA genre, says that what made this type of book so original was that:

  • written in second person, yet about you;
  • it’s you makes the decisions which lead to multiple plot lines;
  • and these lead to multiple endings.

Packard revisited some of his original books and released mobile app versions in the 2010’s when smartphones were becoming increasingly widespread. Of this format Packard said:

“Of course there’s a lot you can do in this format that you can’t do in a printed book,” he says. “There is no limit to the number of pages, so in a scene where you are swimming, trying to get to shore, you can keep swiping pages and you only encounter more scenes of the sea. Your frustration and uncertainty mimic what you’d feel in reality. In one scene you have to make a repair on our spaceship and the computer says there will be a catastrophic failure in 20 seconds. The reader has to solve the problem in real time: The countdown of time remaining is shown on the screen. We have light and sound effects. The computer remembers where you’ve been, which can affect what you know and what happens when you reach a certain locale and if and when you come back to it.”

Edward Packard

In my current project, an app with a CYOA branching narrative, I aim to take this format further by combining the player’s experience within the medium (smartphone/book) with the experience of the realworld, using geographical positioning, augmented reality and other mobile technologies to interconnect the narrative with real things, places and people.

In a more recent article from 2018, graphic designer and journalist Mitchel Crow asks Why ‘choose your own adventure’ games are so helpful for the human psyche. Crow explores the role of moral agency and how stepping into the shoes of a narrative’s protagonist means you get to choose what’s good or bad.

“The thing about choose your own adventure games is that even when they’re not so good, you feel a sense of ownership and therefore a connection to the decisions you made for your character. It’s a lot more compelling to be able to feel this ownership over a so-so game rather than not having any power to change the path of any other mediocre title.”

Mitchel Crow

Agency, is one of the three elements identified by Douglas Brown in his thesis, the Suspension of Disbelief in Video Games. A section of which, I reviewed last year as part of my ongoing study of creative app development. While a person can choose to watch a film or read a book, in order to engage meaningfuly with a game does require wilful and active participation i.e. interaction or as Brown states:

the gamer is something other than an audience

Douglas Brown

This is why I would argue that CYOA books are not books at all in the traditional sense; they belong more to the game genre.

A further element, identified by Brown, that differentiates video games from books, film and other media is [player-]authorship. Through interaction with media a game-player actively contributes to the authorship of the narrative. Whereas, traditionally, film, music and books merely allow the user to experience narrative play out the same sequence of events everytime.

Along with the notion of player skill, Brown successfuly demonstrates that video games are a distinct media from other narrative genres or entertainment.

But as I hinted at above, I believe there is a space somewhere between video games and traditional media where one genre bleeds over into the other. CYOA books are actually perhaps better described as book-game just as games which use the medium of video are described as video-games. Eitherway, this wilful participation required of games with the media ultimately enables player-authorship — the player is part-viewer/reader and part-author. The early smartphone versions of some of the CYOA books introduced an element of skill, too, using timed sequences and other software features. Might it be worth thinking about app-games as belonging to a further genre?

“Skill, and skilled readers suggest quite the opposite of any kind of ‘suspension’, agency is almost diametrically opposed to ‘disbelief’ and the ‘will’ to empower theatrical proceedings is challenged by the possibility of actual, meaningful audience authorship.” Douglas brown

An early version of the interactive narrative is Raymond Queneau’s Un Conte à Votre Façon, 1967 (A story of your making) partly inspired by an earlier work Morphology of the Tale by Vladimir Propp written in Leningrad in 1928. Propp write extensively about theories of narrative forms. Queneau, according to a french article by Carpentier, 2018 was highly influenced by the following simple structure:

  1. Opening of a possibility
  2. Taking of an action
  3. Outcome of the action: success or failure

References & Resources

Choosing Our Own Adventures, Then and Now, 2012, Jen Doll
https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2012/05/enduring-power-choosing-your-own-adventure/327973/ [accessed Oct 2020]

Choose Your Own Adventure — How The Cave of Time taught us to love interactive entertainment, Grady Hendrix, 2011
https://slate.com/culture/2011/02/choose-your-own-adventure-books-how-the-cave-of-time-taught-us-to-love-interactive-entertainment.html [accessed oct 2020]

Why ‘choose your own adventure’ games are so helpful for the human psyche, Mitchel Crow, 2019
https://www.hypable.com/choose-your-own-adventure-games/#article-content

Un Conte à votre façon, Raymond Queneau, Amandine Carpentier, 2016
https://acolitnum.hypotheses.org/238 [accessed oct 2020]

I’m a full-stack developer & designer based in France. I build apps for a variety of platforms; including web, mobile & XR

Originally published at http://journal.matwright.dev on October 22, 2020.

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Creative Technologist & Developer working with Augmented Reality | Flutter | Unity | Web — Twitter : @_MatWright_

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Mat Wright

Mat Wright

Creative Technologist & Developer working with Augmented Reality | Flutter | Unity | Web — Twitter : @_MatWright_

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