CYOA structures: more Packard

Nothing quite so entertaining this time around, I’m afraid; just a couple more Edward Packard books, selected for their potentially-oddball status.

(As per request, I’m including clickthroughs to larger versions of the structure diagrams, and I’m phasing out the light-orange leadup pages.)

Sugarcane_islandSugarcane Island, Edward Packard, 1976 (originally published as The Adventures of You on Sugarcane Island)

Packard’s first CYOA, written in 1969, ten years before the Choose Your Own Adventure line was established. (I’m trying to use CYOA for the medium and Choose Your Own Adventure for the series. I may not always get this right.) You can see why it didn’t catch on instantly: Sugarcane Island is a conspicuously crude work, and the branching narrative seems like an excuse for authorial fecklessness. It has trouble sticking to a theme: you start out on a scientific expedition to the Galapagos, but it quickly becomes a South Sea Adventure, but then there are threads about Carribean-styled pirates, far-out mysticism and a totally random UFO. Sometimes the whole thing turns out to have been a dream, and sometimes it doesn’t.

It was based on stories Packard told to/with his children (one of whom, Andrea, would go on to contribute several books to Choose Your Own Adventure) and it has the quality of bedtime stories told off the cuff: lots of inconsistency, nothing much in the way of narrative arc, each episode emerging from the one before it in freeform association.

There’s a good deal of soft racism; the various Island Tribes you meet are variously portrayed as hopelessly backward or full of Savage Wisdom. (Go ahead, steal our gold and jewels! Our true jewels are the stars and the sea.)

The illustrations, by one Barbara Carter, are totally wrong for a children’s book; part Beardsley and part the cover of Revolver, with lots of hairy shirtless men, overrealistic at times and verging on grotesque at others.

Unlike Infocom, which spent considerable energies on venturing beyond its proven territory of mystery and light F/SF, Choose Your Own Adventure never really aspired to literary status; its best examples are solid and engagingly quirky, but unlikely to rank as great children’s lit. That said, the writing in Sugarcane Island is well below the standard that Packard would be working at later; composed mostly of very short sentences, it’s stiff and awkward. (Between the original Adventures of You version and the version published as Choose Your Own Adventure #62, Packard made a number of revisions that are painstakingly detailed here; the version I have was published in between, as a Which Way Book). He didn’t change the structure, though.

The arbitrary, accelerated feel that makes The Cave of Time so spaced-out is in very strong effect. It includes one of my favourite CYOA endings:

“You know, we’re only fifty miles from an island with lots of rum,” says the pirate. “Come on and lash yourself to the ship with this line or a wave will carry you off to the sharks.”
Soon the boat is riding up and down in the foamy mists of the sea. You wonder if you and the pirate will ever make it to friendly shores.
You make it.

The End

You can almost see Packard glancing at his watch, dropping that line and then turning out the bedroom light. The cheating bastard.

The structure is very much what we’ve seen before, but even more regular in some ways:


39 endings (6 bad, 27 good, 6 ambiguous) and 102 nodes in 115 pages. This is as close as makes no odds to The Cave of Time, except that Cave has considerably more bad endings. Almost all nodes are single-page — the exceptions all involve illustrations. The majority of playthroughs will be over in six or seven nodes — but there are a good number of major exceptions. The page numbers are almost exactly what you’d get if you started at the top of the pyramid and counted off the nodes by tier.

At first the structure looks like very simple binary branching; but there are tricks. A fairly large number of options take you back up the tree — nine, by my count, including three that enable you to loop indefinitely. One of these is explicitly acknowledged: it comes just after you’ve seen a fishing pirate and retreated into the woods to avoid him. There, you’re accosted by an old man who bears a definite resemblance to the philosopher in the Cave of Time.

“It depends,” says the man, “which circle your time runs in.”

“How do you know all this?” you say.

“My time has turned into a knot, and I do nothing but the same thing. I always have and always will, but you will circle back.”

You back away from the strange man and run into the woods, where you come upon a stream and once again find a pirate fishing. Is it the same pirate, or another? You cannot tell. You sit and watch him.

So right from the outset, Packard was thinking about this structure in terms of its odd effects on time: it’s evidently the sort of thing that’s immediately suggested by the structure of CYOA.

Interestingly, you can transfer quite often from the right-hand half of the diagram to the left, but never from the left to the right. This is a trick that Packard will use again in the next piece I’m looking at.

year3000smallJourney to the Year 3000, Choose Your Own Adventure Super Adventure #1, Edward Packard, 1987

An experimental, longer-form Choose Your Own Adventure, touted as bigger, harder and more thrilling. Super Adventures were not, I think, a successful experiment; only two were published, one by Packard and one by Montgomery. In this one you play a kid who jumps into a cryochamber for a thousand years. (The justification is that the hibernation chamber only works on children. This kind of excuse has been used in several CYOA books.) When awake, you discover that Earth (or possibly the whole solar system) is ruled by Styx Mori, the most evil despot in all of history, who is probably intended as a Vader stand-in but looks sort of like Picard as a gay elf. (Except on the cover, in which he looks as if Dr. Evil became the fourth member of Run-DMC.)

You must travel the solar system, connect with resistance groups and try to overthrow Mori. The resonance with Star Wars is plain but not overwhelming. There’s a fair amount of influence from the golden-age one-man, one-spaceship, vast-unforgiving-cosmos style, and the solar-system setting holds the subject matter well away from the zany science-fantasy that featured in so many Choose Your Own Adventures. There are aliens, but they seem to be mostly modified Earth life. There are lots of Science Facts.

The style of illustration is considerably more realist and less clean-and-cutesy than classic CYOA, with more cross-hatching and variable line width. The protagonist is, again, somewhat gender-ambiguous but tending towards male; at times it looks as if they might be trying to make his race ambiguous, in others he’s quite clearly white.

The world is pretty hostile. A lot of your energies are devoted to not getting frozen, starved, drowned or eaten by giant ants. There are laser guns, but no pitched battles with stormtroopers; when Styx Mori’s troops appear, there’s never any contest. Of course, Choose Your Own Adventure never had much compunction about killing you in inventive ways, and learn-by-dying is a standard of the form. But the introduction of Journey emphasizes its extreme difficulty: “If you trust to luck, your chances of overcoming Styx Mori and saving Earth are only one in two hundred fifty-six thousand.” This strongly recalls IF published around this time, aimed at puzzleheads, proclaiming its fierce difficulty as an asset, and doing its utmost to attach gigantic numbers to its room count or whatnot. CYOA as puzzlebox? I was sceptical, but assumed that Packard was unlikely to have flubbed a basic probability tree. What’s going on?


134 nodes and 27 endings (22 bad, 5 good) in 162 pages. Only 28 choices, plus one fork that’s reliant on state-tracking.

Holy blap that’s a lot of no-choice jumps. “It looks like a laburnum tree,” sayeth Jacq. Note that while there are a lot of formally-unnecessary jumps, often in long sequences, there are basically no text blocks of more than 2 pages (and many of the 2-page blocks will be 1 page + illustration.) Clearly, there was some perceived value in splitting up the big blocks of text, and no-choice jumps were the lesser evil.

The surprising thing is that there are relatively few choices; very few choices, if you ignore the ones that are just Continue On The Path, or Die. Whatever Packard’s hoping to get out of the extra space, it isn’t diversity. This actually kind of makes sense: the bigger a game with a pyramid-type structure gets, the more work you have to put in to expand it, so if you get an extra fifty pages you might be better off doing something else with them.

The key to the structure of Journey is the sequence of nodes 23 (coloured cyan) and 46. These options happen when you’re captured by Styx Mori, and (unusually for Choose Your Own Adventure) involve state-tracking. The first, node 23, asks you whether you’ve been imprisoned here before; if you have you go direct to 46, if you haven’t you go through a series of no-choice jumps in which you meet Mori for the first time. At 46, you are strapped to a lie-detector and interrogated by evil henchman Colonel Gortal. If you say you’ve been to Mars, you’re sent to the right-hand branch (Venus). If you say you’ve been to Venus or nowhere yet, you get sent to Mars. Both the Mars and Venus tracks loop back to node 23; if say you’ve been through both, you have the opportunity to get close enough to Styx Mori to overpower him. Both Mars and Venus have only a single entry point, and endings — two apiece — that don’t involve victory over Mori but do allow you to find a pleasant, secure life in polder societies. (I could equally have counted these as ambiguous, since it’s made clear that defeating Mori is the optimal ending.)

At node 46 the game never explicitly tells you that you must tell the truth — but it does do so at the node-23 choice, it’s strongly implied by the text, your final victory involves an item you acquired on the Venus track (there’s no inventory; you’re just assumed to have it), and it fits with the tiny probability mentioned by Packard. So it’s pretty clear that the intention was that you would go through both the Mars and Venus branches. It’s also possible to get to Venus from the Mars branch, but not vice versa: this means that it’s possible to go through the Venus track twice, repeating the same rather specific events, which has to be a bug.

So the structure is, if not precisely linear, then made up of modular chunks that are mostly-linear internally. Both the Mars and Venus tracks have spurs that lead to death or sub-optimal victories, and both have forks that rejoin the main track after a short interval; but most of the variation in a winning playthrough comes from the ordering of the groups, which can be played in five different orders (six if you count the repeated-Venus path.) Of course, in practical terms this variation doesn’t really matter: the story on one planet isn’t changed much by what’s happened on another. Both return-to-Earth forks involve teaming up with resistance groups, so a little context might be added; but it’s a very slight effect. In spite of its long-form style, there isn’t much by of a coherent narrative arc to the resistance plot: basically you stagger from pillar to post, trying to survive, until you defeat Mori with a slightly-foreshadowed Hail Mary pass. (In fact, the reason that you get the chance at Mori is because he’s super impressed that you’ve stayed alive this long.)

In order to make the modular system work well enough for it to be worth it — to make an EMEVE path feel like a different story from an MVE one, rather than the same story shuffled around — you’d need to do a great deal more state-tracking, which isn’t really possible in a paper-CYOA format (at least, not without adding a character sheet.)

The bigger a CYOA, the more of it is unseen if there are no merges; merges become more important. Merging is hard to do: you need to plan your structure around it, particularly if you don’t want arbitrary ‘you walk down a tunnel’ connections. And merging makes the past irrelevant unless you include state-tracking: larger games have more motivation to track states and more opportunities to use them.

Again, I’m not convinced that this was a successful experiment; long sequences of no-choice jumps are pretty annoying, the playthroughs are so long that getting killed is pretty discouraging, and if you go down a sub-optimal fork, you’re likely to have made so many jumps before you realise that you won’t be able to thumb your way back. A major virtue of CYOA is that it’s very easy to play, and messing with this is rarely a good idea.

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4 Responses to CYOA structures: more Packard

  1. Pingback: Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games | These Heterogenous Tasks

  2. Pingback: Non-Linear Fiction | Design To Game

  3. Nathanael says:

    The two most interesting Choose Your Own Adventures in terms of format, IMHO, are:
    (1) Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey. The intresting point of this is that the murder is the same, the question is whether you will figure it out. It’s got an unusual structure with high looping. Only reading through all the different endings gives you a full understanding of what was really going on. Several of the endings, you only nail *one* of the two killers and never find out the other one. One of the endings, you get them both but don’t really know why. Etc.

    (2) Inside UFO 54-40. On the warning page it mentions the ideal planet Ultima. “No one can get there by making choices or following instructions!” On my first read-through I got to Ultima… by misreading directions.
    It turns out there are actually no pages which tell you to go there.

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