I’ve been thinking a fair bit about CYOA structure and its effects, and I thought it’d be useful to plot out some structures of existing works. It was just going to be some diagrams and a few notes, but it quickly became apparent that I wanted to say a lot more than would fit into that format, so I’m splitting it up.
(This is not, sadly, going to be a piece of serious statistical analysis or thoroughly-researched history: I’m not going to pretend that I have the chops for either, so although I’m probably going to end up touching a little on both, I encourage and expect corrections and suggestions. What I’m really interested in here is the textual side and how the structure contributes to that.)
The Cave of Time, Choose Your Own Adventure 1, by Edward Packard, 1979
Let’s see. There are very few connections between branches — only two, both during wander-through-the-tunnels segues. Of the 40 endings, I’d say 18 are good, 16 bad and 6 ambiguous; this is out of only 114 pages. Notable are the two situations (56 and 39) where all the choices lead to bad endings, and one choice that leads to inevitable remerging. (22, where you decide whether to tell the truth to the King or make up a more plausible story). It is extremely rare to read for more than two pages without getting a choice (this happens only once), but fairly common to be asked to jump to a new page without making a choice (nine times, only two of which are to smooth the merging of branches). There are thirty-nine choices. The number of endings is trumpeted on the cover, presented as a central part of the form’s novelty.
This is what I think of as the classic CYOA structure: a choice almost every page, heavy branching, strong identification with a second-person AFGNCAAP, almost no merging of branches. The diagram resists being drawn as a vertical flowchart: it wants to be a radial sea-creature. The Cave of Timedoesn’t really have a unifying story: it’s a number of different stories that happen to share a general style and some early content. (The cover of Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 is a particularly nice example of this kind of branching.)
This captures some of the attraction of episodic narrative: every episode of Star Trek or Dr. Whostarts out more or less the same, and a lot of the interest lies in the wide scope of possibility for whatcould be happening this time. The high replayability of classic CYOA is part of this resemblance: this week, on the Cave of Time…
On the other hand, the heavy branching means that individual playthroughs are quite short. Small blocks of text, frequent choices and great leaps from situation to situation make for a fragmentary, Wonderland kind of experience. Play has an arbitrary, bean-machine kind of quality: many of the choices are of the ‘right or left?’ kind. The past quickly ceases to matter, and the future, though undetermined, is out of your (meaningful) control.
Sometimes this is overcompensated for by giving the player knowledge that’s so unaccountable as to make things seem even more unreal:
You are curious to try the next tunnel you come to, thinking that it may show the state of the world just before it began to burn up from the intensifying heat of the dying sun, or that it might show what happened afterward! But you suspect that a tunnel further on might be more likely to lead you back to your own time.
Much of the plot has an accelerated feel to it, as if it were a plot summary rather than a story proper; within a single paragraph, you can meet and make firm friends with somebody, then move on before you ever make a choice involving them.
All this adds up to a dreamlike feeling, well-suited to fantasy or horror stories with an edge of the surreal. The tripped-out covers of CYOA books were not coincidental. And The Cave of Time is very much a post-hippy work: it blends a sort of optimistic idealism — in one future, no new roads have been built in the USA since 1997, and transport is dominated by interstate bike trails — with a lot more ambiguous endings than you’d expect in a children’s book.
The general drift of the book is that you need to get back to your own time: failure to choose paths that seem more likely to do this often result in death. It’s possible to find good endings in other times, but the sense is that the Cave is threateningly indifferent. Like Dorothy, your main goal in the magical fantasyland is to leave it. Still, there are a few examples of the kind of choices that are no-brainers with a little moralist-metagaming:
If only you could find your way back to the Cave of Time! But chances seem slim, and the risks seem great.
If you try, turn to page 70.
If you do not try, turn to page 74.
There’s something appealing about the haphazard naivite of the design. The book’s organisation is not random — often nodes around the same twig will have adjacent or close numbers, so that it’s easy to sneak a peek at alternative options. It’s not obvious whether this is accidental (it’s the sort of thing that would happen if you were picking numbers in the order of writing) or a small kindness, giving the player room to pick a better path. But it captures — in a way that can’t really be done in static fiction — the exhilarating open structure of games of make-believe, one of the most powerful underliers of fiction and games.
Borges, in The Garden of Forking Paths (yeah, I know, I know), says that the central theme of Ts’ui Pen’s CYOA-like novel is structural: time as an infinite series of parallel universes. But Borges’ version is defined as much by recombination as bifurcation; its text takes on new contexts depending on where you’ve come from, and there’s a strong feeling of superposition. “Once again I felt the swarming sensation of which I have spoken. It seemed to me that the humid garden around the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons.” Possible worlds are not just real; they are close companions, always with you. The Cave of Time does almost the reverse: by never reconnecting in ways that really unify the disparate branches, and by making causality so random and arbitrary, it alienates individual points in time not just from other branches, but from other points along the same branch. To get extraordinarily wanky, its unity becomes apparent only when it’s considered from no particular position; in order to feel the swarming sensation you need to be on the outside.
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Great analysis! This is years later, but the Pod Your Own Adventure podcast played through this one in Episode 56; it’s interesting how the experience of these books change when it’s read orally.
I really enjoyed this analysis. Some of the references also worth following up.