You love books. You love games. So why not combine the two? Gamebooks are a different way to tell a story, one in which the reader is part of the story, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. It’s a unique reading experience, though one that has been replaced by the visual novel. There are different ways to control the story but the formula is very simple. As you read the book the story stops and gives the player a set of choices to make. For example:
You come to a set of doors. One has a bright light coming from it. The other is dark.
If you choose the bright door, go to this page. If you choose the dark door, go to this page. If you turn around and make a sandwich, go to this page.
Your choice will affect the story. One path may end the story early, possibly with you falling into a pit of lava or just enjoying a sandwich. Another will send you down a long corridor to a magical science realm and start the adventure. It’s not always done with a direct choice by the reader, though this is the norm. I’ve read some that require a roll of the dice or a flip of a coin, and one even required you to keep stats and an inventory. I don’t have that one anymore. I don’t remember what happened to it but it was way too involved for me, like a one person tabletop RPG. I even saw it done in comic form once in a Free Comic Book Day Adventure Time comic. So how does one go about making such a story and why would I not even try?
Why are these also called “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? For the same reason many photocopiers were called Xerox machines or cotton swabs called Q-Tips; the brand name was so popular that it just became tied to those products. Created by Edward Packard, who wrote most of the stories in the series, the Choose Your Own Adventure® series was for most readers their introduction to gamebooks. It was years before I learned there were other publishers making similar books, including the CYOA creators themselves as they made specific spin-offs like the Time Machine series and even a series of horror and licensed titles. My first CYOA book was Packard’s Hyperspace, which I’ll be reviewing for The Clutter Reports this Sunday, but I did pick up a few others in the series. I also picked up a book based on the text RPG computer game series Zork, a Superman “Which Way” book I’ve already reviewed for The Clutter Reports, two “Find Your Fate Junior” books featuring the Transformers, and one based on the Super Mario Brothers that tells you to flip a coin to choose where to go next but I never do. I just choose the page like I do the others. Even TSR got into the game with their Endless Quest books. That’s just what I have. There were other licensed and original book series produced.
The narration format differs from series to series. For the usual Choose Your Own Adventure® book (I’m not just using the registered trademark symbol to tell them apart, Hyperspace actually uses it in the story…I’ll explain Sunday) it’s in the form in my sample, a “second person” narration where the narrator tells you what you’re doing, as you are the character in the story. In the licensed and some other series it’s a bit different as you’re making the decision for Superman, Bumblebee, or Luigi. Those stories are usually done in the third person. That means within the second person narration you have to keep the character as gender neutral as possible. Some illustrations will choose one, and in most of the ones I have you play a boy. Yes, the Choose Your Own Adventure® stories have you play as kids, as does some of the others. These are your adventures. You may be an ordinary kid thrust into a far-out adventure or someone living in a fantasy land on a great quest, but this is supposed to be you playing the hero…or the corpse if you make the wrong choice. The kid on the Hyperspace cover even looked like me, not as in my race like today but it looked like a slightly older actual me. (I had lighter brown hair as a kid and I still part my hair that way.) Even though this was formed by Packard telling stories to his daughters I think the books were actually geared towards boys, or at least the ones I own were.
I love the concept of them. It’s a story but it’s also a game and what you choose affects the outcome of the story. Of course those paths have to be set in stone but with enough choices each read-through can be a new experience even if you never hit the bad endings. On the other hand, creating one can’t be easy. Knowing where to break the story and make choices, following each of their paths as they branch off (in the Zork book I have, The Forces Of Krill, your choices can even affect the outcome of the story even if you live long enough to get there since a key item to victory has to be found along the way of the longest path), and making each of those paths either entertaining or not feel cheap when you fall into that lava or get lost in time and space for all eternity. It’s like writing numerous stories at once and making them flow together. As mentioned earlier, according to Wikipedia Packard was inspired to make his books based on how he told stories to his daughters, letting them choose what happens next. That reminds me of comic creator Kim Holm, who made the comic Diary Of A Space Monkey, in which the web comic readers would decide what should happen to Space Monkey next in his search for a space banana. I was one of the readers at the time and it was a fun experience to vote for an outcome and hoping it was both the one chosen and one that benefited our hero, but I remember Holm has sometimes regretted it since he has a path he wanted to do but wasn’t the one ultimately voted for. Still, it’s a good story so I think he’s satisfied with the final result. I know I’m too much of a control freak to do something like that.
I don’t know if they even make these books anymore, but I hope they do. It’s not just a fun experience that could get kids into reading but as an adult I still enjoy reading and playing these books. Nowadays the visual novel, popularized in Japan, seems to be its successor. It does lend itself well to ebooks and apps. Heck, my friends and I made a few in BASIC back in the day and when I had my defunct Transformers fansite I had an out of print Transformers Find Your Fate story adapted to html. Making my own however feels like far too much effort when I’m not sure I could produce a satisfying result. It might be fun to try someday, but I can still enjoy reading them.