CYOA structure: Tween Romance

Choose Your Own Adventure books (the series, not the medium) typically had the same kind of hero: a white American pre-teen, somewhat gender-ambiguous but tending towards male-default, engaged upon some variant of a Boy’s Adventure. This wasn’t totally inflexible — the age range varied quite a lot, and there were girl leads both in traditional male roles (Deadwood City) and more female-oriented, female-authored books (The Magic of the Unicorn). They never really ventured into the more perilous territory of teen fiction or romance, though; often you’d find yourself with a girl sidekick who you could imagine as sort of being your girlfriend, but that was about it.

Other people have tried it, though. In this post I’m going to be looking at a couple of books by non-Choose Your Own Adventure writers, aimed at a somewhat older, female audience and published in the mid-2000s. (Wanders inevitably into gender discussion, including rape.)

crushcoverDate Him Or Dump Him? The Campfire Crush, a Choose Your Boyfriend Book by Cylin Busby, 2007

As The Campfire Crush‘s cover makes pretty clear, it’s intended for female tweens who aren’t really dating yet but are very interested in the idea. We’re in the territory where holding hands or sitting together is a really big deal. The art style is full of bright cheery colours and clean edges; the fonts are all friendly round curves, and nodes are identified by a little heart around the page number. The protagonist is nameless, American-default and weakly characterised; she’s painfully inexperienced around boys, and not very brave.

The theme of Choice = Responsibility = Empowerment is laid on rather thick, but this empowerment is totally dependent on being a Good Girl. Being too sexually forward, or putting boys before friends or responsibilities, is promptly punished by social humiliation. There are a number of choices that look as if they should be about discouraging you from being an ineffectual girly-girl and running to the menfolk for help — but in fact running to the menfolk for help is a totally fine option (and sometimes the only option) in this story. Much of the book seems intended to emphasise how frail and hopeless the protagonist is, and the unfamiliar outdoorsy environment is a catalyst for this: she’s terrified of snakes, revolted by horse dung, and there’s a strong sense of hopeless floundering.

Some of this seems to be about being smart enough to change your mind when you realise you’re heading towards a mistake; some of it seems to be saying that it’s okay to be shy; but it happens so often that you feel rather bullied by the end. A lot of the subtext seems to be ‘never try anything risky, because you’re not capable enough to handle it.’ If you try to play The Campfire Crush as a confident, assertive girl with a strong sense of good judgment, you’ll probably end up being humiliated.

The motivation is all about boys, all the time. It’s important to avoid hurting friends or shirking responsibilities, but these aren’t presented as ends in themselves; rather, failing at these will ruin your chances with boys.

And remember: with more than twenty possible endings, if he’s not the boy of your dreams, you can always go back and choose another one!

Let’s have a look at the plot structure.

campfirecrush79 nodes in 162 pages; 25 endings (18 bad, 7 good); 52 choices; four possible boyfriends.

This looks kind of a hopeless tangle, but it’s actually pretty structured. There’s the simple-forking early game, which is followed by a stage where you sit around the campfire; if you don’t find an ending there, you move on to a particular branch on the second day. The availability of second-day branches is largely dependent on which boys you’re pursuing: two of the options are very common, and another needs a bit more work to find, but your early choices really don’t influence where you end up in the late game all that much.

Interestingly, it’s possible to skip the first stage and go directly to the second — and the choices that accomplish this aren’t the ones that say ‘skip the campfire’, they just happen to mean that the campfire never comes up. Although there are good endings scattered up and down the diagram, the fastest routes to second-day endings are about the same length as the fastest ones to first-evening ones — nine or ten nodes. Considerably longer playthroughs — up to nineteen nodes, I think — are possible, if unlikely.

Every choice is a binary choice. (When we get to the next book we’ll see what happens when a structure somewhat like this one starts routinely adding a third option.) However, a lot of the time you get chances to modify or go back on choices you’ve just made; things that could have been rendered as a three-way choice get split out into binary. There’s a lot of rejoining, often to closely-related twigs. There are one or two no-choice jumps, both leading to a merge with a recently-forked twig.

Time is generally used as an organisational principle, which brings up a basic point: time exists in the structure of CYOA mostly as a function of how threads remerge. If you can only merge downwards, the plot has a linear chronology; if you can link back up the diagram and form loops, you have either time-travel, a time-stopped world, or a more generic story. The more interconnections, the stronger the game’s conception of time — which means that The Cave of Time is not so much about time-travel as about a world without coherent time. As a non-fantasy work, The Campfire Crush has a linear chronology that’s closely tied to fictional time: you always know what day it is.

This last isn’t strictly adhered to, though: one scene can happen either on the evening of the first day, or after activities on the second. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: it’s a safe-default scene, one which you get moved to when you turn a boy down and there’s no immediate alternative. (You return to your cabin and there is an Incident.) This is a kind of RPG-like approach: it’s a good idea to have things in your back pocket in case the PCs don’t bite on any of your plot threads. Conflict with established events is avoided because there’s no route out of this scene.

Interestingly, boys who seem attractive down certain paths turn out to be kind of crap down others: Seth features in the most winning endings, but it’s also quite likely that he’ll turn out to be kind of cruel, or to have a girlfriend. The Gus branch is failed not when you do something that makes you less attractive to Gus, but when you get into a situation that reveals him to be unreliable. It’s not very clear whether this varying information about boys is meant to represent different worlds — if you go down this path, you go into the world where Seth is single — or whether the idea is that you should carefully avoid finding out. The structure backs the different-worlds interpretation up, at least somewhat — in the left-hand cluster Seth is prominent and an asshole, and in the right-hand cluster he’s either absent or nice. But he can still act like kind of a dick in the early stages of the game that lead to the right-hand cluster, so it doesn’t seem as if the author has quite decided what she’s doing here.

whatifboysWhat if… All the Boys Wanted You, a choose your destiny novel by Liz Ruckdeschel and Sara James, 2006

This seems aimed at slightly more mature girls than the Choose Your Boyfriend series, with cover art, colour scheme and layout suggesting a more grown-up, glamorous flavour. There’s more pages per node, more text per page and about a hundred more pages per book; choose your destiny is more focused on girls who like to read. Its heroine is sixteen or thereabouts, so it’s a decent guess that its intended audience is a little younger.

The book’s trying to be your cool aunt or older cousin, who lives in New York and has a trendy job and a great apartment and a boyfriend and dresses really well, and who tells you to study hard even though she’s way more laid-back than your parents. It doesn’t entirely succeed, verging quite often into parental paranoia — drinking alcohol or making out with boys invariably results in disaster, for example. When Jacq and I played through a book from this series for the first time, we came upon a scene where a foreign exchange student has Haley and some friends over; he cooks a traditional Spanish meal, and table wine is served. “Cool,” we thought, “this is a totally appropriate drinking environment for an almost-sixteen-year-old.” The authors didn’t think so, apparently; it didn’t produce a losing ending, I think, but you’re left with zero doubt that this was a Terrible Mistake.

The story touches on shiny modern things — instant-messaging, podcasts — but a lot of its stylistic elements are stuck in the 80s (Haley’s soccer team is called the Lady Hawks; bad-boy Luke Lawson feels Haley up to the sounds of early U2). Within any given situation, there are usually quite few choices; that is, each scene is usually completed within one or two nodes, each with several pages of writing. At times, this can make the interactivity seem pretty weak; sometimes you can, say, choose which party to go to, but not how you behave at the party. Which is kind of a parent’s-eye view.

Where Choose Your Boyfriend encourages the player to identify strongly with a generic, unnamed protagonist from somewhere vaguely USA, choose your destiny is united by a single heroine, Haley Miller, firmly established in the quite real town of Hillsdale, New Jersey, and narrated in the third person. The themes are a bit more adult, too: there’s alcohol, Haley gets down to her underwear a couple of times (all this is Very Bad), one of her school friends has been abandoned by her father and is squatting. And the story flirts with and acknowledges female sexual fantasy a great deal more than The Campfire Crush ever allows, even if it always pulls its punches.

Spoiler alert: Haley Miller will soon have a boyfriend. But who will it be? Now that Haley has gotten to know most of the boys at Hillsdale, which one will she go after? And what if… they all come after her?

It’s very much within the familiar American high-school genre, with the obligatory bitchy-queen-bees headed by Coco De Clerq. (The naming is not exactly subtle, here.) A lot of the time serious issues are implied but turned into visual Hollywood euphemisms:

Unfortunately, all that time in juvie and shuffling around foster homes took its toll on Sasha. She came back to Hillsdale six months later with a dozen body piercings and her hair dyed jet black.

OH NOES SHE IS A GOTH NOW. HER LIFE IS RUINED. Let this be a lesson to you, kids: don’t get involved in oddly non-specific drugs, or your style options will become really limited.

Interestingly, the choice-based structure is presented not just in terms of agency and responsibility, but in terms of potential: having lots of options doesn’t just make Haley culpable, it gives her value as a person. The exquisite-corpse art style of the cover emphasizes that you can be different people in different contexts.

It all depends on how you work, love and play with the girl with the most potential at Hillsdale High.

Every chapter — the nodes are chapters, really — is concluded with several paragraphs in bold text, presenting the choices in a gossipy style, unpacking what’s at stake in a speculative style peppered with trendy-wisdom aphorisms. Sometimes these go far enough to add information to the body text — often quite a lot of it, when explaining the consequences of what happened.

Again, the choices are often straightforwardly moralistic and telegraphed as such, but there’s a bit more frission: the suggestion is that it’s really kind of cool that Haley’s old and sophisticated enough to be in situations where booze and strip poker might feature, even if she must scrupulously not partake. This tension is reflected in the relationship between the book’s title and the actual content: most playthroughs would pass the Bechdel, and many of the winning endings involve no boyfriend. Interestingly, female competition over boys is rarely an issue — in Campfire Crush it’s very common for an older or prettier or more assertive girl to get in your way, and if this conflict arises at all then you invariably lose the guy. In All the Boys the only real competition comes from Coco, and this is never treated as a very convincing threat. The rewards for good behaviour aren’t always causally logical — you avoid dissing a girlfriend in online chat, and spontaneously a boy you like asks you out.

alltheboysStructurally, it’s the complete opposite of The Cave of Time: the branches are so tightly interconnected as to be more of a thicket. (This is a world of realism rather than repeated fantastic escapes; you always have to deal with the same environment.) There are 50 nodes in 275 pages (Cave has 83 in 114); and 14 endings. There are no choiceless segues. The 37 choices are only slightly less than in The Cave of Time, although a normal playthrough is likely to pass through about nine nodes, rather than seven or so for Cave. This is because of the diagram’s most obvious feature: huge amounts of merging, driven by lots of 3- or 4-way choices. Merging is almost entirely downstream: it’s easy to divide the nodes into levels, such that the overwhelming majority of connections are from one level to the one beneath it, or horizontally within a level. In other words, the piece is governed as much by the passage of time as by your past choices; the further in the past a choice is, the less relevance it has to your present options. A lot of the justification for either-or choices is time conflicts: on night X you can either go to Party A or Dinner B. The chronology is a good deal firmer than in Campfire Crush: all the winning endings are at the lowest tier, and they all take place on the same night.
The cover art draws attention to another analogy: the game’s structure is designed as exquisite-corpse. This is not precisely true — your choices within a stage will always be limited — but it’s close, and the game does sort of encourage its readers to mix-and-match their lives as they would their wardrobes.

Once again, bad endings considerably outnumber good ones; there are nine bad endings and five good. Since basically all the bad endings are consequences of irresponsible or uncaring behaviour, the reason for this seems straightforward: these are much more overtly moralistic works than children’s CYOA, set in more grown-up, dangerous worlds. On the other hand, neither All the Boys nor Campfire Crush have any ambiguous endings, which is decidedly less mature. (One of the winning endings, in which Haley gets revenge on Coco by sabotaging her 16th birthday party, might seem a bit ambiguous because it’s so mean-spirited; but it’s pretty clear that you’re meant to gleefully share in her satisfaction.)

But the difficulty isn’t as high as it looks: most of the bad endings are reached through spur lines, and most of the good endings are the subjects of a great deal of convergence. In particular, there are three or four endings which are very heavily linked-to; if you get to the final stages you’ll almost certainly have a couple of them available. Similarly, some of the mid-game nodes are very heavily linked to, while others (the San Fransisco arc) can only be reached in one way.

At 73 there’s something I haven’t seen before: a choice in the middle of a text block. (“To leave Haley ALONE WITH LUKE, turn to page 99. If you think Haley should leave the Lewis condo immediately, keep reading.”) This is the game’s way of allowing an option while making it very, very clear that it’s a Terrible Idea.

Okay, let’s try this. We’ll make the assumption that there’s an equal chance of choosing any given path, unless there’s something that I judge to be a glaring moral pointer, in which case we’ll rebalance a bit.

alltheboysprobLooking at it this way, things seem a lot brighter — the total probability of good endings is 55%, and that’s probably a low estimate. (I gave even odds on the most likely losing ending, Coco’s Sweet Sixteen, against its competitors; but this means choosing to attend Evil Popular Girl’s birthday, usually rather than going out with a boy or supporting Real Friends.) In other words, if you are mildly attentive to moral-metagaming cues, you will probably get a winning ending; basically every bad ending is flagged up, assuming you’ve worked out the moral tone. (This is usually trivial.)

Interestingly, the most likely ending is the one where you ruin Coco’s birthday party — the one I said felt kind of ambiguous, even though the authors clearly don’t. While none of the individual endings are overwhelmingly likely, there are certain nodes that the authors seem to really want to appear, at least as an option: choosing clothes at the mall, the cafeteria-robbery scene, the chatroom-gossip scene. I was initially a bit confused by this, since none of them are really striking. (If you’re thinking like a GM, don’t you want to steer your players towards the big dramatic scenes?) Instead, they seem to function as good, solid, noncommittal options that can be safely reverted to; they’re acknowledgments that the player wants to get out of the present plot thread.

The book starts out all I have a crush on every boy, but only three of the good endings involve a boyfriend, and in one of them he’s a secondary element of a broader triumph: the two boy-centric endings both involve Reese Highland (a name solidly in the Faux-Celtic Charm category), and most of the cute boys who are interested in Haley turn out to be Trouble.

The Choose Your Boyfriend books live up to their title — even if some boys are no good, there are still plenty of fish in the sea. But they also strongly imply that singledom = failure: in fact, you’re a failure if you don’t have a boyfriend within a day and a half of showing up at camp. The stance of All the Boys is pretty much that it’s either The One or (positively presented) singledom. Neither of these are exactly the sort of message I’d want to convey to a young woman; I’m not entirely sure that their respective authors would have wanted to, either. To be fair, they’re not necessarily inaccurate depictions of certain mindsets and stages of life: The Campfire Crush does a good job of representing the stage of adolescence at which you are desperately awkward and insecure and have never had so much as a kiss and no amount of blethering about confident independence is going to sound very convincing. As for All the Boys, it’s not implausible that within a circle of high-school acquaintances there would only be one-and-a-half boys who wouldn’t suck as a particular girl’s boyfriend. But this doesn’t make for much of an excuse when there’s so much else in the way of Moral Instruction.

Both works suffer considerably from what I think of as the Raped Again problem. (I’m going to unpack this at a bit more length than it probably requires.) In the Infocom pirate romance Plundered Hearts, a lot of the bad endings involve the female protagonist getting raped. This isn’t described in any detail whatsoever — often it’s just:

*** You have suffered a fate worse than death ***

And then the game ends. There are a number of obvious reasons why this was done: for one, there’s no stronger way to declare that an outcome is really bad than to make it end the game. But this comes with a price: for one, you generally get raped numerous times before you reach the ending, which could either become pretty harrowing or inappropriately funny. And secondly, the rhetorical effect is that there’s no such thing as a rape survivor: rape victims don’t have stories, can’t accomplish anything more with their lives, may as well be dead.

…which, in a rather lower-stakes form, is the problem with the bad endings of these two books. Both of them tend to structurally support the idea that there’s no such thing as a minor indiscretion; kiss one inappropriate boy or wear one inappropriate outfit and you’re a slut forever, hurt one friend’s feelings and your life is ruined. Neither of the books really wants to be this unforgiving — Campfire Crush gives you second chances, several of the friend-oriented threads in All the Boys are about helping the ostracised or Bad Girls, both direct you to restart the game at an earlier page whenever you lose. All the Boys seems aware of the problem at times, such as in this losing ending:

After that night at Drew Napolitano’s, her life wasn’t exactly ruined, but she had major trust issues to work out.

Individually, this is a reasonable handling. But it’s hard to overcome the cumulative effect of all those bad endings. (This assumes that the book is played through quite heavily; since the average playthrough is reasonably likely to get to a winning ending, it’s likely that someone who only read through the book a couple of times wouldn’t feel this effect as strongly or at all.) Writing interactive media is fundamentally different from writing linear fiction; many bad endings says something different from a single one, or many bad outcomes that are implied but never manifested.

Obviously, both books are labouring somewhat under a new-media effect: new and unfamiliar media and genres are subject to more intense moral scrutiny, and more vulnerable to it, than established ones. On top of this, there’s often been a feeling — usually not very well articulated — that interactive works (computer games, RPGs) are more likely to set a bad example than static fiction, because the player is encouraged to be complicit in the narrative and because of the freedom from consequences offered by fictional choices. (You can get away with things in YA novels which would never pass muster in a game explicitly aimed at a similar age-range.) Of course, children have been playing make-believe games based on the content of their favourite static fiction for time immemorial, at a considerably stronger level of complicity than any bounded game has ever managed. Most children’s CYOA shows signs of this anxiety to some extent, even before the era of moral panic over gaming;  compared to static YA fiction of a comparable age range, its content tends to be lighter and its moral world more simplistic. And these two are right at the epicentre of anxiety: post-Reagan zero-tolerance America, teenagers. And, well, girls. I suspect you’d search in vain for any male-targeted CYOA with half as much shaming.

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3 Responses to CYOA structure: Tween Romance

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