CYOA structure: Educational

When something appeals to children, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to appropriate it for educational purposes. A great deal of childrens’ CYOA attempts, in a fairly haphazard way, to reinforce moral principles or deliver Educational Facts; much of it promotes curiosity and enthusiasm about its subject matter (almost always science or history). There’s a big gap between this kind of treatment and a truly educational work, though.

CYOA can be produced a great deal more easily than most narrative game systems, but it still gives the impression (if not always the reality) that closer reading and information-retention will lead to better outcomes; there are some straightforward reasons, then, why it would seem well-suited for educational fiction. The examples I’ve found suggest a fundamental mismatch, however.

knightsecretSecret of the Knights, Time Machine #1, Jim Gasperini, 1984

Time Machine proclaims, rather weakly, ‘From the publishers of Choose Your Own Adventure’, but the two series appear to have been separate for all intents and purposes. I rather suspect that the entire series was inspired by a history geek reading The Cave of Time and getting all irate. This is an understandable reaction; at times Cave deals with real history (Gettysburg, life in colonial America) but usually this is rendered at the 1066 And All That level, and more often it takes the Generic Medieval approach.

The rule with educational books is that they need to be better than the thing they’re imitating (they have an extra goal on top of the normal ones) but usually end up worse (they’re designed by a committee and then farmed out to the cheapest freelancer).

Jim Gasperini’s background was a good deal more appropriate than that; his jacket bio mentions a background as an interactive fiction reviewer, and he later worked on the seminal politics game Hidden Agenda. In other words, he had a working grasp of interactive narrative and some ideas about it.

“This book is a time machine,” declares the cover, “travel back 600 years and become a knight!” The conceit of the book is that it’s a literal time machine, with options presented as buttons to press and titles as messages on a screen, although the layout isn’t really involved enough to support the concept.

Setup is not quite character-sheet scale, but is considerably more involved than the single page of instructions that prefaced Choose Your Own Adventure. There’s one page of introduction; one page about the Rules of Time Travel (don’t change history), a page explaining your mission, a double-page spread of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey illustration declaring TIME TRAVEL ACTIVATED, a page of equipment, and four and a half pages of Data Bank. The Data Bank is a list of twenty History Facts which will help you complete your mission.

The plot of Secret of the Knights is that you need to discover the origin of the Order of the Garter and its motto; most of the game is spent in the C14th, though you can hop back as far as Roman Britain. It is, admittedly, kind of awesome that the appropriate response to the challenge is not to spend half an hour looking it up in the library, but rather to imperil life and limb by chasing after the answer in the frelling TARDIS.

The specific choice is kind of interesting, in that it’s an actual historical mystery: there are stories about the reason behind the symbolism, but none of them are particularly well-founded. The book ends up going with the most widely-told story, and provides a light gloss on the reasons for it, but you don’t quite draw the threads together enough that you feel you’ve understood what was going on.

This isn’t due to any reticence about explanation on the book’s part. Everyone in history, it turns out, is rather given to expostulation.

“The Order of the Garter? Whatever can you mean?” says Lady Joan. “I have given him an item of my clothing as a token of my affection. As you can see, all the knights are wearing favors of the ladies they love.”

The protagonist is clearly male, although this is never directly stated. However, a lot of the design choices seem to have been made to appeal to girls, bringing knightly romance somewhat into focus. Ass-kicking chatelaine Jeanne of Flanders shows up (as Countess Jannedik), defending Hennebont. Admittedly, the book gets the date wrong by two years, the illustrator shows her as a slender girl with long loose hair rather than a woman in her mid-forties, and the book implies by omission that she held the title in her own right. But hey, I learned something.

This is indicative of the problems the book has, though: it wants to avoid the more difficult aspects of medieval gender roles, in order that female readers don’t feel bullied. But it’s educational, so it can’t really fly off very far into idealised courtly romance, either. There’s a similar problem with the idea of you becoming a knight: it’s not much fun going back to the Hundred Years’ War unless you get to be one. But being a knight required membership in the noble class, which was not trivial to acquire. The book sort of acknowledges this, while giving you a little more wiggle-room than is strictly realistic. And the game does manage to do a pretty good job of balancing Actual History with letting the player see and do a lot of awesome stuff. You get knighted by the frickin’ Black Prince at Crecy, but you’re pretty squicked out by the horrors of warfare. Most of the story deals with the fun stuff of prancing around with the nobility; there’s at least some acknowledgment of the squalor and oppressed peasantry and so forth, but it does put you unambiguously on the English side while not really mentioning the chevauchees.

The general impression is of a headlong rush through a great deal of material, much like the feeling you’d get in a time cave. The story is anchored by recurring characters, which if nothing else gives a strong sense that acceptance in the nobility was largely a matter of who you knew.

knights42 nodes, 17 choices and 1 good ending in 124 pages.

Apart from the handwaved history, one obvious issue with The Cave of Time is that it is not, structurally, a time-travel game; rather, its structure makes time irrelevant. Secret of the Knights contains many backtracking loops, sometimes taking you back to an earlier point on the main track but just as often taking you to a side-branch. It’s possible to be within one choice of victory and then, through a series of jumps, work all the way back up to the very first choice in the book. Since none of the side-branches are very extensive, this looks like a structure designed to get the player to see as much of the book in a single playthrough as possible. This is consistent with an educational purpose — you want the kids to read the full text — but deeply annoying if you’re approaching the book as a casual CYOA.

Bear in mind that the replayed sections are not generic, empty rooms that can be walked through repeatedly or vaguely-described encounters that could be repeated with different principals; you meet named individuals, go through the same dialogue, have the same accidents.

One interesting design artefact is a couple of sent-to-prison loopback sequences at 42 and 30, apparently written to make sense whenever you were imprisoned; in fact, each can only be reached from one year, so the effort is unnecessary.

You can see a lot more Time Machine diagrams at at gamebooks.org; they all follow the same basic pattern of heavy bottlenecking and looping-back around a central thread. Secret of the Knights seems to be a somewhat extreme example in that its central thread is both necessary and sufficient: it’s possible for a play session to contain nothing but mandatory nodes. (To put it another way, if you branch off from the central trunk you will never rejoin it further along; you always have to backtrack and play the entire main thread.)

Many of the other books allow for alternate routes without looping back. Some (Last of the Dinosaurs) involve considerably less spur-branching, fewer and shorter loopbacks, and more downstream merges. But these are still all heavily bottlenecked diagrams.

The book’s solution to this kind of annoyance is to heavily rely on the player’s grasp of the information delivered in the Data Bank; fictionally, it makes the reasonable assumption that a time-traveller would have done their homework first. The frustration of repeatedly looping back was not lost on the designers: at the back of the book there are hints, leading questions intended to keep you on the main track, or get you back to it more quickly. Some but not all of these are reliant upon retained information.

This might suggest a motive for the looping-back; it’s possible that it’s intended as a tool to make children re-read the material in order to glean the information they need to progress. If so, it seems like a flawed plan: players will just skim to the end of the node. As a trick to get players to experience more of the book, it’s likely to be effective. It strongly deprioritises replay value, presumably on the assumption that any CYOA is only likely to be played through once.

I found myself liking Secret of the Knights in spite of myself; it does a lot of things wrong, but it’s trying to do a great many things at once. Its experiments are pretty obvious, but they’re the sort of thing that might seem as if it could potentially address a lot of problems with the form. It’s done enough research, and picked out enough of the cool stuff, to make the idea of researching history look inherently attractive. Its narrative delivery is so-so, and its prose tends towards the fake-childlike-enthusiasm tone that contaminates so many CYOAs. This is in no way a Great Story, and I think its central experiment is a dead end. But it’s by no means a shambles.

The game has an odd focus on the idea that direct lies or false promises are bad, but it’s acceptable to mislead or lie by omission. Partly this is played for (weak) jokes, but otherwise I’m a bit confused about the purpose.


explorersharkIn Search of a Shark, Explorer #3, Peter Lerangis, 1987

Explorer was a short-lived series derived from Time Machine, focusing on science rather than history (and therefore able to engage in wackier plots.) Like Time Machine, it’s prefaced with information dossiers and Helpful Facts, but the tone is a bit more James Bond. Some NPCs have silly pun names (Dr. Vivian Testoub, helicopter pilot “Rowe” Terblaide), while another is a renowned shark expert and ladies’ man, complete with cad moustache.

Some scientists have developed the world’s first effective shark repellent, but (just to confirm that we’re going to be in B-movie territory) the one copy of the secret formula has been stolen BY A SHARK. It’s not entirely clear what your role is in this. The Bermuda Triangle is treated as an acknowledged fact; the shark you’re chasing turns out to be a robot used for industrial espionage. There’s often some confusion as to whether you’re hunting for a particular shark or going on a more generalised scientific survey.

The story aims for similar kinds of Awesome as Secret of the Knights: its Atlantic seethes with sharks. When the first node is complete you’re climbing down a rope (not rappelling gear, just a big ol’ rope) from a helicopter, in rain and high winds, onto the deck of a ship, and a giant shark is trying to eat you. (It’s a worrying sign that my basic reaction to this is not ‘aie, giant shark’ but ‘that chopper pilot needs to have his certification revoked.’)

Note that the choice here is ‘continue hanging from the slippery rope above stormy, shark-infested seas to no very obvious end’ or ‘climb back up the rope like a big fraidy-cat’. Sticktoitiveness seems to be such an idée fixe of boy’s-adventure CYOA that it ceases to be a means to an end; toughing it out is valuable even if you risk much and accomplish nothing. This is a particularly jarring example, but milder versions abound. Of course, this is a much broader trope than CYOA, but I think there’s a special susceptibility here. Consider The Campfire Crush, where risky behaviour is always punished; with binary choices, predetermined outcomes and relatively short playthroughs, it’s difficult for paper CYOA to take a balanced position on persistence and risk.

The art is really quite bad, but an interesting feature is that it’s all very literally, conspicuously first-person. This approach is taken by quite a few CYOAs — Secret of the Knights uses it too, and it’s also true of most RPG gamebooks, but it’s usually not quite so in-your-face.

Again, the party format is made sort of weird because you’re both the unskilled junior member and the one giving the orders. The Parent Problem is partly dealt with by having the NPCs squabble interminably, but it’s still not very clear why you’re giving the orders.

shark38 nodes, 16 choices, 10 endings (9 bad, 1 good) in 109 pages.

This is very like Secret of the Knights without the looping-back, or The Forces of Krill minus the big fork-and-merge. There’s a highly linear route to a single ending; the main thread sometimes splits in two for a single node, but other than this any deviation from the central plot means death. Many of the deaths can be anticipated with a little metagaming, but a substantial number are more or less arbitrary. (In one, a shark springs out of the water and drags you off the boat.)

Nothing in Shark‘s plot makes this kind of structure necessary; it’s essentially a series of unrelated encounters, none of them crucially important, that continue until you find the right shark. A few nodes rely on earlier information, but this is a convenience made possible by linearity rather than a demand that requires it.

This fragmentary structure seems intended to deliver a series of Science Facts largely in isolation to one another; there’s not much attempt to unify or contextualise the information. Its general approach is to tell, then show, then tell again, which is reasonable.

But, well, its basic premise is not just nonsensical but misleading. Simply put, a story like this can’t deliver an action-packed plot unless it also supports the totally anti-science claim that shark attacks are common and usually fatal. This isn’t an external, obviously-fictional device like a time machine.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that this does almost everything wrong both as CYOA and didactic tool.


africansafariAfrican Safari, Choose Your Own Adventure, Young Indiana Jones Chronicles #5, Richard Brightfield, 1993

For all its clean-cut sticktoitive feel, Choose Your Own Adventure never really ventured into anything that might be called educational; they might sprinkle a few science facts or nuggets of history into an otherwise fantastical piece, but these generally served much the same purpose that they would in a Hollywood blockbuster, and were never allowed to get in the way of Atlantis or aliens. The most education-oriented thing they did was this short series, closely based on the famously-expensive TV show. Unlike the authors of the other two books, Brightfield had written CYOA before, notably of the Choose Your Own Adventure sequence starting with Master of Kung Fu; he authored over forty CYOAs, including all eight Young Indiana Jones books.

It’s 1909; you’re Indiana Jones, age ten; you and your father are visiting British East Africa (now Kenya). You have no particular motive beyond tourism, nor does one ever emerge. The game deals with basic geography of the region, introduces a little basic ecology (delivered in an ethnographic way), and talks about history while largely avoiding the colonial elephant in the room.

It looks a bit more polished than the average cheap spin-off: it’s laid out like a CYOA rather than a paperback novel, the art looks appropriate — well, there’s some pretty egregious false perspective resulting from over-literal use of fragmentary photo-reference, and a lot of the expressions are kind of gormless, but the general style feels like classic Choose Your Own Adventure with a bit more realism, at a full-page, frame-filling scale. The main difference is that nodes are very long — over ten pages is not unusual, though there are few choiceless jumps of a single page.

A central part of the series was to have Indy meet famous historical figures; here, the only important one is Teddy Roosevelt. I have to admit, this feels kind of right. Teddy Roosevelt was also given to roaring “That belongs in a museum!”, only instead of some random gilt knick-knack, he basically stuffed the entire Grand Canyon down his pants before socking a looter in the jaw and leaping overboard. On the other hand, we learn very little about Roosevelt other than that he liked to ride around and shoot things.

As is standard for Indiana Jones and for boys’ adventure, it treats colonialism as unproblematic.

“There’s no trouble with the natives, is there?” your mother asks.
“No, not at all,” Richard says. “The Kikuyu for the most part are peaceful and industrious. I must say that they take to civilization like ducks to water. The future of Africa is in the hands of people like them.”

I am going to delete a rant on the history and usage of the word ‘industrious’, assume that you can all see what the problems with this are, and reassert that the most pleasant, conflict-free, everybody-gets-a-cookie view of history should never be confused with a neutral position.

To be fair, most of the views expressed are the sort you’d expect of moderately enlightened whites in 1909 — but when it comes to animals, the book cheerfully ignores historicity in favour of more modern sentiments, putting Roosevelt in the role of the conservationist hunter (which is reasonable) and Indy in the role of the animal-rights activist (which makes zero sense for a Boy Scout type in 1909.) Conservationism is likely to be a more engaging subject for the target audience than colonialism, true, but these are not exactly unrelated topics, and in Africa least of all.

youngindyOnce again, this is only barely a CYOA: it’s a linear thread with a few spurs that all end the game immediately. I suspect that this has something to do with the difficulty of adapting a linear story. You don’t ever die or suffer badly, and you have no real objective other than “have adventures”, so there’s nothing that really counts as a losing ending; the distinction I’ve made between winning and ambiguous endings is very tenuous. Even when you end the game on the first choice, the nodes are long enough and deliver enough narrative that adventures are had; so there’s little built-in prodding to play again. But structurally they look exactly like losing endings.

110 pages, 18 nodes, 6 endings (mostly good), 5 choices. The nodes are mostly very long, often covering long periods of action in which many significant choices are made by the protagonist: although the book’s written in the second person, there’s a strong sense that Indy is separate from the player.

There are reasons why someone would want to write stateless CYOA, yet still want to avoid significant branching. (I think that some of these reasons are likely to hold true for state-tracking CYOA as well, but the differences between the two become a lot more important here.)

  • As a novelty gimmick.
  • To create a sense of danger, making the story more exciting.
  • To create a sense of difficulty, giving victory a greater feeling of accomplishment. (That this difficulty is more of an annoyance than a genuine challenge is beside the point; this is fiction we’re talking about, after all, so the feeling of challenge is more important than the reality.)
  • To create an engagement-fostering illusion of control over the plot, even though none really exists. This is something we should be familiar with from IF: most works of IF — indeed, most computer games with non-emergent narrative — have only one winning ending reached by a highly constrained path. Even games with multiple endings typically branch only towards the very end; time caves are highly unusual outside CYOA. It’s nonetheless important to foster and protect the illusion — frequently a consensual one — that the player’s agency matters.

Doing this in stateless CYOA is less easy, however, because the only interaction is at the significant-plot-choice level. Other games can provide you with genuine interaction at a smaller scale, which provides many of the immediate benefits of interaction in its own right and can contribute to the illusion of larger-scale control.

A crucial problem with educational CYOA is that children are, by and by large, pretty good intuitive metagamers, and probably more literate in the form than their teachers are likely to be. They’re good at spotting weak attempts at Making Education Fun, and are likely to expect educational games to be crap and scrutinise them for crapness more closely. The effective educational narrative games I’ve seen have all combined the easy-flowing play and inherent direction of CYOA with a genuinely open structure that allows for exploration and/or strategy. This sort of game is very ill-suited to checklist-curriculum teaching; it can deliver it, but will do so very inefficiently. To be worth the effort, gamified teaching has to accept a paradigm of broader, more discursive learning, and stop trying to cheat its audience.

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