CYOA structure: Spin-offs

Stateless CYOA is a ready-to-hand kind of medium; playing it is self-explanatory and has a negligible learning curve, and the appeal of influencing the course of a story is instantly understandable to anybody who consumes fiction. Because it’s delivered in bite-sized chunks and because of the engagement fostered by even very weak interaction, it may be more easily absorbed than straight prose, particularly by children.

And authoring CYOA can seem not to require any special skills; any author can write it. (They may not write it well.) In fact, writing CYOA is easier in some respects than writing straight fiction: you don’t have to commit to a particular storyline, and the engagement benefits of interaction can be a crutch that allows you to get away with half-assed writing. As we’ve seen, many 1980s CYOA authors had never written a book before, and most had no experience in game design. Part of the reason I wanted to do these analyses was because CYOA seems to be one of those things that gets relearned from scratch a great deal; the techniques of CYOA layout are not immediately obvious from consuming them in the normal way, other than ‘lots of no-choice jumping is total bullshit’. And nobody should have to fumble around in the dark, blindly repeating the errors of Indiana Jones and the Eye of the Fates. The tingly feeling you’re currently experiencing is the glorious illumination of theory. Let it wash over you.

I had a point, I think. Right: the kinds of disposable-crap problems that CYOA has struggled with are also the sorts of issues you’d associate with spin-offs; and spinoffs have formed a major component of CYOA publishing.

krillforcesZork: The Forces of Krill, What-Do-I-Do-Now Book #1, an Infocom Book, Steve Meretzky, 1983

The primary intent of the Zork CYOAs seems to have been similar to the RPG-based books I discussed last time: to draw a younger audience in to a game that might otherwise have seemed too challenging. The final page of the story has a specially-made Infocom advertisement on the facing page: “If you’ve been brave and clever and lucky enough to get this far in the book, you may be ready for ZORK computer games from Infocom.” This was the first year that Meretzky worked at Infocom, so I’ve no idea whether this was an exciting new concept brought in by fresh blood, a tedious project dumped on the junior member, or something in between. (It looks as if it was published after Meretzky’s first game, Planetfall, which is among the games advertised at the back of the book.)

Layout, text-per-page, even fonts closely resemble the Choose Your Own Adventure pattern. The illustrations are a little darker than Choose Your Own Adventure’s, with big pools of black ink and stern expressions abounding; again, they mostly lack a fantasy feel. On the cover, the lizardmen are drawn pretty much like the D&D creature, as armoured humans with tails and lizardlike faces; the interior illustrations make them look like big skinks rearing up on tiny lizard legs. The series covers probably had too much of a genre-fantasy sensibility; in books 2 and 4 they depict Bivotar and Juranda as leggy young adults. (Compare the totally-wrong moustached hero on the original cover of Zork.)

There’s a little more emphasis on Zork’s Tolkien-derived elements, possibly as compensation for the impracticalty of putting intricate puzzles in a 120-page CYOA, or MIT hacker jokes in a children’s book; early Narnia might be a better comparison, though. The story’s general frame is the usual thing with an evil overlord, causing the thinning of the land, who can only be defeated with a magic artefact. This doesn’t feel hugely convincing, though; like much of the Zork series, there’s a token gesture at Tolkienian worldbuilding that quickly gets backgrounded in favour of set-pieces and jokes; while the essence of Zorkian fantasy is its willingness to play the magpie with every trope available, this doesn’t jive too well with evil overlords played straight.

The narration starts in third-person perfect, but switches on the first page to third-person present. This allows there to be two protagonists, Bill / Bivotar and June / Juranda, neatly dodging the androgyny issue.

The prose is really very good, particularly by CYOA standards; it’s disciplined and efficient, but has a genuine sense of fun. At one or two points the children’s dialogue feels a trifle forced, but in general it comes across as natural informal speech. I should stress how unusual this is: writing for children is really very hard, and CYOA is rife with lacklustre attempts. Meretzky’s even capable of writing strong prose for a pointless I Don’t Want To Do This Adventure Ending:

With a last, longing look back at the magical sword, Bill turns away from the hedge. He and June spend the rest of the day watching TV. Spring becomes summer, which passes by without excitement. Eventually, with the leaves beginning to show a hint of yellow, they return to school to begin another year.


Rejection of fantasy, growing up into a dull world — these aren’t startling themes, nor is the passing of the seasons a daringly original way to convey it, but these are solid devices evoked with confident economy.

The game relishes killing the players a great deal, snarkily euphemising rather than avoiding graphic violence; but it always follows this up with a good-natured “You probably deserve a second chance. Go back to (the previous node) and try again”, and you’re only rarely blamed for the heroes’ deaths. There’s a real understanding that children will be able to find the deaths funny.

Interestingly, the game requires state-tracking but includes no explicit mechanism to do this; you’re just asked whether you’ve done something. The game’s small enough for this to be sufficient, I think, and abuse of the honour system does lead to one of the better anti-cheating sequences:

There are no Magic Sneakers and no Prince of Kaldorn in this book. You have been cheating. Vindictus, the Patron of Decision Novels, appears. Reaching out of the book, he casts a spell on you, and you turn into an unbelievably ugly toad.

THE ENDYour score is negative fifty million billion zillion points. The score for the best ending probably isn’t important to a cheater like you who probably looks at the last page first.

krill119 pages, 43 nodes, 22 choices, 20 endings (18 bad, 1 good, 1 ambiguous. Only one choiceless jump.

Man, but this is brutal. Super-high proportion of endings, almost all of them deadly. It gets away with it because of its good-natured approach to murdering you and because of its helpful UNDO references, but still, ouch. Let’s be honest: if you had some idea about game design and you had to knock out a CYOA series as a promotional item, this is the sort of structure you’d be likely to go for. The replay value is very low, and there are only two valid branches, ruthlessly pruned. There are, to be fair, often pretty strong pointers.

“I say we should explore this dark passage,” says Bivotar.
“I think we should try to ford the river in that shallow area at the base of the dam,” says Juranda.
“I suggest the stairs to the top of the dam,” says an enchanted frog, sitting on a lily pad near the river’s edge. “You might just find the Three Palantirs of Zork that will help Syovar overcome the forces of Krill.” With a splash, the enchanted frog leaps from the lily pad and vanishes into the water.

Both non-frog-sanctioned actions kill you immediately. The high death rate is certainly informed by the difficulty standards of Infocom’s IF; after all, this was meant to be indoctrinating you into the IF world, and if you weren’t prepared to face repeated crushing failure then Infocom games probably weren’t for you. Imitating IF convention, each ending gives you a score out of ten, reflecting how far you got in the plot rather than how good the outcome was.

I’m coming to think of highly-linear structures with very few winning endings as quests: you have one final goal and progress steadily towards it, maybe taking some detours but never deviating too far from the path. (This is a very modern-fantasy sense of quests, no? Arthurian quests mostly involved wandering aimlessly in the woods having adventures, until one of those adventures happened to be relevant to your objective.)

Another typical feature of quest structures is the importance of information: things learned earlier in the story indicate the correct choices later on. Sometimes these are direct instructions, and the ones that aren’t are strongly flagged up.

Meretzky may have been writing a spin-off, but he had the advantage of being both a game designer and a game writer. This is not the usual state of affairs for spin-off CYOA authors. Let’s have a look at some more typical examples.

journey3dJourney to the Center of the Earth 3D: The Search for Earth’s Surface, Choose Your Own Journey, adapted by Justine and Ron Fontes, 2008

Plate tectonics professor Trevor (Harrison FordBrendan Fraser), nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) and Icelandic guide / mad scientist’s daughter / obligatory sceptic Hannah (Anita Briem) discover that SHOCK HORROR Jules Verne was really right. Having descended through the cone of Mt. Snaeffels they proceed to have PG adventures of the kind readily-adapted into videogames, theme park rides and migraine-o-vision. The wisdom of adapting a movie primarily designed to exploit 3D action sequences into an pure-text format was apparently considered irrelevant.

Text blocks are of variable length (but generally quite long), and the positioning of choices doesn’t always seem consistent. Often the story will just run off and do its thing for a while, then realise abruptly that it’s meant to be including you in the process. The granularity is generally pretty large — a lot larger than action-to-action, though sometimes it switches briefly to that level. This is particularly strong at the endings, which describe not just the group’s return to the surface, but lengthy epilogues about their lives and careers thereafter. These bear some relation to their experiences underground, but it’s generally a highly tangential one. “After being stuck in that cave so long, I never want to feel confined again! I shall become a nudistwilderness survival expert!” In most of them, Sean goes off to have some immensely rewarding career; often they’re in the sciences, but there’s considerable variety and the general tone is sort of like those programs in school that tested your aptitude for certain careers. “You are well-suited to be a LANDSCAPE GARDENER or ETHNOMYCOLOGIST! Also consider: POOR MAN’S HARRISON FORD.” Only with more Nobel Prizes.

It’s in the hilarious position of trying to reconcile Jules Verne with plate tectonics while also being a Science Facts for the Kids thing. It does this mostly by mentioning continental drift a lot while avoiding any discussion of how it works.

As you might expect of a CYOA novelisation, there’s some truly wretched writing.

For someone so pretty, Hannah looked quite tough as she added, “Good, because I do not suffer fools gladly.”

Hannah’s shockingly blue eyes and curtain of blonde hair are mentioned at every possible opportunity; the text is silent on the colouration of the male characters. Bad as this all is, it’s a standard style of churned-out writing familiar from airport paperbacks; the authors are veteran freelancers. Justine, sayeth Amazon, has over six hundred children’s books under her belt. The important information here, for our purposes, is that their background lies solidly in straight-prose writing.

journeycenter47 nodes, 22 choices, 25 endings (15 good, 9 mixed/ambiguous, 1 bad). No merges or no-choice jumps.

This is even more time-cavey than The Cave of Time: a great deal of branching and no merges whatsoever. The structure totally fails to correspond to geography — you can emerge from the ground in Alaska or Italy or Australia within a few nodes of each other — or with chronology.

For a story about a hazardous caving adventure, there aren’t many losing endings. In fact, there’s no death whatsoever (someone clearly thought that it would upset the children) and only one of the endings is unambiguously bad for all three characters.

The most interesting thing: since it’s third-person, it’s possible to split the party (the three-way fork at page 68) and choose whose story to follow. (Note the Goldilocks proportions of those forks: big daddy bear, medium mummy bear, little baby bear.) This is consistent with the book’s filmic approach, and the splits are sometimes significant, but mostly it doesn’t feel as if its possibilities are fully explored.

If I wanted to advocate a simplistic picture of how people approach CYOA structures, I’d hold up The Forces of Krill and The Search for Earth’s Surface and say something like: writers are new to choice-based narrative and see its essential strength as lying in its open possibility, so they tend to write heavily-branching plots with few merges. Game designers know and fear combinatorial explosion and the diminishing returns of sprawl; they tend to design conservatively, with lots of merges organised into bottlenecks.

eyefatescoverIndiana Jones and the Eye of the Fates, Find Your Fate Adventure #4, 1984

Find Your Fate was a Ballantine heading under which CYOAs based on licensed properties could be churned out. Choose Your Own Adventure itself seems to have taken on spin-off lines cautiously and with relatively high production values; Find Your Fate had no reputation to preserve. This, one of the books that launched the brand, was released to coincide with Temple of Doom and looks very much like a cheap Choose Your Own Adventure knockoff on the inside. Even by the feeble standards of CYOA spinoff, it’s pretty wretched.

1937. Diving in “a sunken wreck, over 5000 years old”, Indy discovers a gold shield inscribed by Perseus with a clue to the location of the legendary Eye of the Fates. You are a nameless (but unambiguously white male) kid who tags along with Indy for no apparent reason except that your dad ran the salvage boat. (You’re vaguely Short Round-ish, but Indy is described as “an expert pilot”, which means that Wenk either hadn’t seen Temple of Doom when he wrote this, or wasn’t paying attention; and Indy treats you with considerably more deference, patience and respect than is really in-character.)

The research seems to have amounted to a quick glance at an introduction to Greek mythology. There are, um, a few minor flaws.

Early the next morning you arrive at the foot of Mount Olympus.
“We can’t dig up the whole mountain,” says Indy.
Costas [a Greek archaeologist] says he thinks you should climb to the summit and dig there.

So, okay, apart from the whole defiling-a-national-treasure detail, the peak of Olympus? Pretty much rock. Rock that will have eroded rather significantly over the past 5000 years. This is the sort of detail you can’t ignore just because the quesht for the Grail ish not archaeology. Also, while we’re on the subject, the discovery of a 5000-year-old artefact “etched in Greek” would be the find of the century not because it gave a clue to some stupid eye thingy, but because it would make Greek the oldest written language in the goddamn world and also probably identical to Proto-Indo-European. I know Lucas didn’t exactly subscribe to the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, but Eye of the Fates makes the occasional half-hearted gesture at Science Facts. People: half-wrong attempts at being educational are worse than throwing all educational intent out of the window. I am aware that the way children’s works are distributed does not really acknowledge this basic fact, but that does not make it any better.

The writing is indifferent verging on awkward, with the staccato one-sentence-per-paragraph style I associate with tabloid journalism and the autobiographies of non-writers. It uses slightly too few contractions. Its attempts to render the wry, gruff Ford delivery mostly amount to having Indy call you ‘kid’ a lot.

The ancient-mystery retreats into a safe and boring version of Greek myth (though for extremely implausible reasons you can also go and look for the MacGuffin in Japan.) The usual Indiana Jones approach to plot is a series of action scenes linked together, but here there isn’t enough space to make the linkages work and so it just throws them all at you: you’re jumping out of a plane to escape the Japanese spy! Now you’ve parachuted onto Crete and the locals are trying to lynch you for no reason! Now you’ve jumped into the ocean but there’s an earthquake and you’re attacked by an octopus! Okay, while you were doing all that Indy’s friend found the rest of the ancient inscription and you don’t have to find the Eye of the Fates after all. The end!

Action just isn’t as compelling in text as it is on film; while you can do a great action scene in prose, more work is necessary to justify it. It’s still easier to handle action in CYOA than it is in IF, though.

eyeoffates102 nodes, 19 choices, 20 endings (8 good, 7 bad, 5 ambiguous) in 122 pages. No merges, but a great many no-choice jumps.

Okay, this is pretty wretched. If you want to fit this into the writer-vs.-designer theory, this is what you get when someone knows enough about CYOA to realise that constant forking gives poor returns, but is too hurried to waste time on the organisational complications involved in merging. The result has a huge number of no-choice jumps, often many in succession; offers very few choices; and still produces the wacky detachment from agency that typifies time caves.

Those long no-choice-jump sequences aren’t just exposition or other kinds of regrettably-necessary linkage: often they run through some fairly significant action, usually because Indy is driving the plot instead of you. Part of the reason for all the jumps is a preference to keep text blocks down to a single page as often as possible; there’s also the feeling that each node is working like a single panel of a storyboard, so the granularity of the pages, if not choices, feels consistent.

The forking takes you explicitly into different worlds: the Eye of the Fates almost always turns up in whichever place you happen to go to, and the nature of its powers is also highly variable. Sometimes you destroy it because Mankind Should Not Have Such Power, and sometimes you just grab the thing and scoot. Once again, this is the kind of story that a heavily-branching structure is suited for.

These are all pretty extreme examples of CYOA design; with a dataset this small it’s probably not safe to generalise too much, but they do all follow very easily-managed designs. It’s probably safe to say that this is because they’re promotional works rather than produced for their own sake.

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One Response to CYOA structure: Spin-offs

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

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