Choose your own adventure

++to readers: this next bit is almost certainly going to be reworked in a major way - it doesn’t work as it is, but says useful things. Comments and edits are welcome++

##Why not Choose Your Own Adventure? Caveat - this short essay pertains to digital implementation of Choose Your Own Adventure. Paper is fine. Go for it.

(This essay originally came about because Duncan Speakman tweeted to suggest the Sherlock Holmes piece we were working on could offer more in the way of agency to the participant, proposing a caveat that he knows how much I hate CYOA)

I’ve managed to cultivate a reputation over the last few years for being the most anti-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure critic/creator in the world. People have come up to me at conferences and remonstrated about how I’ve made their careers more difficult, I’ve been tarred with a don’t-mention-the-war brush whenever CYOA is whispered by someone within my earshot.

Here’s the thing. I don’t hate CYOA. I think CYOA, done well, is a terrific tool for digital storytelling and immersion, I just think that I’ve only seen it digitally done well a precious few times in the last twenty years or so. I really don’t hate it. I do hate what it has become; a catch-all for interactive behaviour, for any sense of agency and immersion, for ‘that’s what digital does’.

I do think it’s the lowest common denominator, the lowest hanging fruit in the orchard, and so it’s the one that gets picked far too often. It’s a shortcut. It’s a default setting that won’t frighten the horses, the commissioners or the audience, and those are two sets of people who should be frightened all the time (if that’s your thing).

What it does, when it’s used as the shorthand for interactivity, is take away from any sense of agency available. CYOA is a mechanical hinge - a device to get from one piece of action (or story, or event, or decision) to another, to impart some ‘responsibility’ for that scene to scene transaction to the reader, rather than the author. By doing so, by taking away agency from the author, it usually reduces the story on offer.

For some context:

CYOA derives from a range of paper-based (game book, but stick with me, that they’re paper is important here) series of works popularised in the 1980s and 90s, which do their job really well. They (sorry if this is obvious, but I think it’s worth saying) break a larger narrative into small sections, the ‘decision point’ in each being offered to the reader as a conscious intervention into the delivery of the story. In doing so, and especially when they’re understood alongside paper and pencil and dice games of the same era, they provide a single-person equivalent of what is necessarily a group activity: roleplaying games. RPGs have a storyteller at their heart—the Dungeon Master (DM) or equivalent—who is guiding the action, introducing threats and generating story on the fly (if they’re doing their job well; in my experience, those who relied on ‘what TSR said here’ were pretty poor at their role, and soon fell by the wayside); RPGing is about emergent storytelling. Or, put more simply, about letting story emerge from player actions. What CYOA does/did is remove the DM from the equation and provide an imperfect, but adequate, substitute in the person of the author of the book. And that’s a hard sentence to write—with no disrespect intended to writers of paper-based CYOA, who have carved out a difficult niche. CYOA then, operate in relation to specific other media and, importantly, other shared experiences. It’s worth remembering that as we go forward.

Here’s another thing, another problem. Most new (or emerging) media remediate another media form. It’s an in-between state, a transition from being one thing (film as recorded theatre, for example) and becoming something that’s native to the new medium itself (film, with the conventions of editing, mise-en-scène, etc) as the new medium matures, and creators figure out what to do with it that’s genuinely new and exploits affordances of the new platform, new technology and its audience’s relationship with those things. Certainly, digital CYOA is remediating the analogue, paper-based form it apes, and that’s fine, insofar as it goes. But, given that CYOA—the text-based adventure format—was one of the first modes of literary play available on the computer, isn’t it time we saw something new? Something native to digital media that isn’t simply a computer-based copy of what came before? It’s been twenty years, after all.

CYOA exploits something particular to the form of the book—in its physical state—we read a book, conventionally speaking, from front to back. The form of the thing is shaped that way, to guide us through chapters, cliffhangers, changes in character and narrative perspective, driving us forward, through the text toward the last page and the eventual reveal; the conclusion. We have a tacit understanding of how that works because the book (the one in front of me now, for example) has a fixed number of pages (in this instance 91, it’s a short novel). As we work our way through the text, we are continually aware of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in a simultaneous, forward/backward state. I’m a short way through this book, and so there’s a lot of story to go, a lot of things still to happen, a lot to be told by the author. All of those things are tied up in the physical form of the book.

CYOA messes with our heads. It subverts those physical affordances of the book, or the page count and offers us something markedly different. The story does not go as far as the end of the book, in fact it’s very likely that it will end—through decisions we’ve taken, or by the random roll of a dice—a good way short of that final page. On the one hand, that signifies that the story is shorter, is contained in some way by our actions and by the mechanic at work. Conversely, it suggests that there are many stories contained within these pages—that just as our route is not a function of a linear page count—then the world we’re exploring through the pages (and paragraphs, and fractions of narrative) is much larger than one bound by a strict order. There are other routes through this, other paths to take, and each one is a different journey.

Those things are a function of CYOA’s relationship to the book, to the physical, bound object. They might be an accident, but they are there nonetheless. In a digital instance of CYOA, they don’t apply, and have no relevance. For a digital CYOA, I have no idea how long (in relation to a bound whole) the hypertext is, my understanding of that length has nothing to do with a physical object that contains it, and there are no analogue conventions with which to play. Digital is hypertextual, is functionally fragmented and broken into pieces; that’s its natural state, not a subversion of the usual rules of storytelling and form, and that’s principally why I’m still waiting to see a digital CYOA that finds something new to say about form, about expectation. To continue to ape an analogue antecedent as if it were still 1995 is a missed opportunity.

That’s not to say there have not been valuable steps in a natively digital direction. Geoff Ryman’s 253 is a hypertextual, CYOA-derived text that does something new with the form, and does so well aware that it is being read in a digital space, not as a book (the print remix of 253, published after the fact, falls far short of the smarts present in the digital first edition). Ryman’s work extends into digital non-space, it’s physical analogue the boundaries of a tube train, rendered through html tables and textual links, by the relationship of one passenger to another.

Robin Sloan’s Fish isn’t CYOA, but is hypertextual writing. Sloan is completely aware of the mechanic that hypertext offers, and Fish is designed to reflect that mechanic. It can’t be read any way other than forward, and the skim-reading we’re used to employing with digital work is used against us here. The essay is about attention, about what we value, and how we read, and Fish, while not being CYOA, is a direct addressing of how digital hypertext works, and should tell us something about the native mechanics available to writers.

CYOA, as a digital catch-all solution—if you want to see how far this perception permeates then try having a conversation with; a TV executive, a publisher, a director; in fact anyone who works with story and storytelling (Bring up digital storytelling and set a timer, you’ll have to deal with the CYOA question before the end of the first coffee)—is a vicious double-edged sword. It opens a conversation, and provides common ground, something that everyone present can understand, and curtails that conversation by its sheer ubiquity (BBC, I am looking at you here, you are guilty of this in spades). That it provides a common ground isn’t a bad thing, but it is all too frequent for the common ground to be the foundation, rather than a conversation starter. Projects are made that adopt CYOA as a default mode because no-one thought any harder about the subject after that initial conversation; money is poured into them, the project eventually sees the light of day; it generally falls far short of what everyone thought it was going to be; the digital-as-new discussion stops dead.

Then we wait for the cycle to begin again with a new set of characters in a year or so’s time.

(Faber, where exactly is Iain Pears’ Arcadia?)

Form is never more than an extension of content. The phrase I repeat most often in life, in art, in writing. The form of story, the mechanical tricks and formats you employ, should inform and be informed in turn by the content of the story you’re telling. CYOA isn’t a broken mechanic, far from it, but the way we’re using for digital storytelling is tragically broken. It explores something interesting about the shape and form of the printed book, provides a single-player substitute for a shared, social experience. The form (CYOA is a form) needs to find it’s native expression within digital space, it needs to find stories to tell that can only be told that way, stories that don’t remediate existing narratives, or are simply being shoehorned into a CYOA shape because it looks easy to do so.

There are two things you can guarantee as a result of that:

  1. It isn’t as easy as it looks. CYOA is a particular mechanic, and form is tied to content in ways we haven’t figured out yet.

  2. Shoehorning is painful and unnecessary. Your readers will be unsatisfied, no-one outside your production team will think it’s any good, and you won’t have told a good story. Not even close.

In conclusion: I really don’t hate CYOA. I hate the lack of ambition it represents. It forestalls development by hanging on the oldest thing, the first form. It has become the lowest hanging fruit, and each time it’s used as a default mode, a much more interesting project never exists. CYOA is a mechanism that deserves attention, and care. It is capable of imparting subtlety, being used with grace and with attention to the nature of the platform, of the technology, and of the story. When it isn’t, that’s when I hate it.

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