The original Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) gamebooks were published between 1979 and 1998. The genre remains popular enough that variations are still being published, although many hardcore fans only recognize the first fifty or so books in the series as “true” CYOA.
Gamebooks are print precursors to branching paths narratives that we find in videogames, interactive fiction, and elsewhere. CYOA books have a reputation as lighthearted reads, maybe even gimmicky. But what happens when we take these books seriously? What can they tell us about interactivity? About storytelling? About narrative structure? And what do these books have to teach us about literature in the digital world?
There are several steps to the project.
(1) Read/play a CYOA book, several times, exploring the multiple paths.
(2) Map the book. This will take much longer than simply reading the book. To give you an idea of what I have in mind, here is a map I made of the first book in the series, The Cave of Time:
This map traces every single possible path through the book. And it turns out the book is more complicated that you might expect. The map reveals major and minor paths, the difference between significant choices and trivial choices, and a correlation between the length of the narrative and narrative satisfaction, in other words, the pleasure the reader gets from the narrative. We can see what counts as a “good ending” (in green) and a “bad ending” (in red)—which can lead us to some interesting questions about what we as readers—and a society—value and devalue. And most intriguingly, a map like this reveals a moral structure embedded in the book: selfish choices are frequently punished while altruistic choices are often rewarded—at least in this particular CYOA book.
Exactly how you map your book is up to you. I highly recommend using Graphviz (or browser-based versions like WebGraphviz or Graphviz Online). You can also try the free concept mapping tool CmapTools. Whatever method you choose, you must map the entire structure of the book in an intuitive way that makes the connections and paths in the book fully visible. Color coding, different shapes, and other iconography can help the legibility of your map. Provide a legend or a key that helps decipher your map.
(3) Next, analyze your book and its map. Consider what your map reveals about the CYOA book that a casual reading might overlook. Some questions you might want to address include, but are not limited to, the following: What surprised you about the map? Are some paths more significant than others? Are there major and minor paths, and if so, what’s the difference between them? Is there anything about the longest path on your map that distinguishes it from other paths, aside from its length? Is it “privileged” in any way, in the kinds of decisions the reader faces? Can the kind of decisions presented to the reader be categorized? Is there any correlation between the length of the path and the kinds of decisions the reader makes? Is there any logic to the narrative interruptions and when and where they occur? Think about the way you mapped your book; what deliberate mapping decisions did you have to make, and why did you choose to include certain information in your legend and exclude other information?
Be sure to explicitly build on Marie Laure-Ryan’s “The Many Forms of Interactivity” and Sam Kabo Ashwell’s “Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games” (which we’ll read for January 24). Does your map resemble any of the structures they propose? Does it challenge any of their ideas? What else can you say about the narrative structure of your book in relationship to their ideas?
Be sure to frame your analysis with an introduction and hook, and conclude with some generalizations about your particular book and branching path narratives more generally. Your analysis should be between 1000-1500 words. Include proper in-text citation of your sources and a properly formatted Works Cited.
Include your map, key, and analysis on a Google Doc. By end of the day, Tuesday, February 4, share that document with me. Also submit the Google Doc link to Moodle by that time.
Updates (Added 1/26/2020)
Here are other questions to consider as you analyze your CYOA book:
- Who is the presumed “you” of the story? How much does your similarity or distance to that presumed you influence your choices (on the micro level) and your overall engagement (on the macro level) with the story?
- What is the pace or rhythm of choices? Are there stretches with no decisions? What accounts for those?
- Aside from our interest in the narrative structure of CYOA books, we can also critique the narratives from an ideological perspective. What cultural values does the story promote? What people, places, objects, and beliefs does the story devalue? What issues does the story gloss over or ignore? And, how much does mapping the narrative contribute toward understanding the CYOA book from an ideological perspective?
If you need something to get you started mapping, take a look at the map I made of Curse of the Pirate Mist using Graphviz Online.
This assignment is modeled on a project designed by Professor Matthew Kirschenbaum at the University of Maryland-College Park.