Choose Your Own Adventure

by |
08/18/2010 5:00 AM |

As of this month, the new Choose Your Own Adventure app makes Edward Packard’s Return to the Cave of Time—in which “you,” the reader and your surrogate protagonist, hopscotch narrative possibilities by thumbing ahead to page 16, say, if you take your guide’s advice, or perhaps page 48 if you trust your instincts—available for download on iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, with some audiovisual enhancements. If you were a childhood fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, you’ll recognize the e-reader as a natural platform for interactive literature. So too was web browsing, though technology has perhaps advanced faster than proponents of hypertext literature have been able to figure out what to do with it. Moore’s Law being as it is, and different types of media converging as they are on our mobile devices, the “text” of a Choose Your Own Adventure book need no longer be a strictly verbal one, and in fact is not.

In the fall of 2008 the Oregon-based husband-and-wife team behind the SilkTricky web design firm launched The Outbreak, 17 minutes of digitally shot zombie-movie mayhem divided into snippets ending with two possible choices—that is, links to click and clips to play. This proof-of-concept (which you can watch? play? at has now been followed by Bank Run, in which you—financial analyst Evan Sharpe—navigate perilous white-collar intrigue until you’re prompted to buy Part 2 for download on your iPhone.

Bank Run features fight-or-flee clicks but also some in-game toggling—indeed, some would argue that the agency of a Choose Your Own Adventure has its logical successor in video games, especially contemporary ones, with their increasingly elaborate plotting, fleshed-out ‘verses, and high production values in the canned dramatic interludes. But the seamless formality of a closed text was always among the chief satisfaction of Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Parents may wish to order The Abominable Snowman, a licensed, apparently somewhat educational animated adventure featuring the voices of Frankie Muniz and William H. Macy, which rugrats can navigate by DVD remote. I did always wonder at the underutilized narrative potential of the chapter-selection function—although, looking at Bank Run‘s borrowed office space and generic characters (the gun-toting vixen, the verbose and heavily accented torture junkie), I see that the means required for shooting what amounts to several live-action films may prove something of a stretch. (This is less of a problem for the viral clipsters Chad, Matt and Rob, whose YouTube “Time Machine” series features two garbage cans as the eponymous device. Nor is it technically “your” adventure—there’s no surrogate, just an eager-to-please, manipulatable new-media comedy troupe—and, unlike in the books, there are right and wrong outcomes.)

What about assembling possible narratives from preexisting clips? Kiss the dame or slap her, be Marlow or Spade? (Steve Martin and Carl Reiner already did this, in a way, with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.) Or: in the early 90s, students in Robert Coover‘s Hypertext Fiction Workshop at Brown University would log onto/check into a Hypertext Hotel—not a second life, they’re just visiting—and update the goings-on with newly invented plotlines and hyperlinks. Perhaps storytelling-by-wiki, with some users generating new forks in the path, and others curating their own book or movie, is the future. As different types of media converge, so too does the relationship between author and reader.

Was it ever thus? At technologically triumphant moments such as this, one feels strangely quaint in suggesting that a text has always been delineated by the push-pull of intent and interpretation, “eternally written here and now,” forever an adventure of our choosing.