CYOA structure: Revenge of the Return to the Island of the Son of the Cave of Time

The Cave of Time was among the most beloved of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, but it wasn’t enormously typical of the series. R.A. Montgomery (who I should look at separately at some point) in particular seems to have preferred more linear, constrained plots with lots of no-choice jumps. Part of this might have been the natural shape of divergence: Sugarcane Island and The Cave of Time are such strong examples of their type of CYOA that there wasn’t much room for variation in that direction. Still, the company seems to have developed and abided by a structural house style, as it did with tone, content and motifs like the Cave.

returncavecoverReturn to the Cave of Time, Choose Your Own Adventure #50, Edward Packard, 1985

A book aimed at a slightly older audience than the original Cave of Time: the prose is rather more verbose, and the illustrations depict the protagonist as a gangly early-teen. Although you’d be hard-pressed to call it educational, the historical content has a bit more actual research behind it — at least, enough that it doesn’t feel totally ad-libbed.

This last makes things feel a bit more constrained: when you’re on a Triangle Trade slave ship or getting caught up in the Mutiny on the Bounty, it’s fairly clear (at least, from an adult’s perspective) that you won’t be able to appreciably change history and that therefore your story is rather tightly determined. The moral content is more prominent, more punishing and makes more decisions on your behalf; the protagonist’s feelings about things are often articulated, often without much player input.

returntocaveoftimeWell, there’s certainly a lot of no-choice jumps here.

Of the two main branches, the right-hand one (travel to the past) is much bushier and contains considerably more winning endings. The left-hand, future branch is trimmed by a lot more losing endings, has only one (rather mixed) non-losing ending, but does allow you to jump back into the Cave of Time and go to the past. This matches up rather neatly with the content: the future is dominated by a dystopian, The Machine Stops hedonic paradise, Suprema 87, full of compulsion and disappointment. The trunk of the Past branch, in which you tag along with a Neanderthal tribe, feels all Land of Opportunity (and, indeed, presents the most meaningful choices). Looking at the diagram, it’s not hard to see which one Packard’s having more fun with.

The simplistic thing to say about this is that CYOA is a natural fit for the American ideal of self-determination and independence: better a free Neanderthal than a brain in a vat. Even the artificial-paradise mouthpiece, the gracile Celeste 433, admires your courage if you reject her society. But the ethics of the book are in no way individualistic: rather, it’s centrally concerned with choosing one’s society — its way of life, the personal opportunities it offers, how much you can change it, the terms of membership, the sort of people it contains. All the good or ambiguous endings involve joining a strange society. (In one ending, you reach the planet Sintra, an attractive world full of friendly, welcoming people; the catch is that the people are all giant cockroaches. The question of whether this is acceptable is left open.) In most losing endings, you die in isolation — eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger after a survivalist sequence, crushed by a survey robot that can’t distinguish between people and rocks.

All the choices are binary except for one, and there are substantial stretches of no-choice jumps — often three or four between choices. Not too much should be read into this, since this seems to have been standard practice for the mature series: but the effect is one of learning to live with constraints. This is not a headlong flight of fancy, but a world where you’re often stuck with the choices you’ve made.

dinosaurscoverA Day with the Dinosaurs, Choose Your Own Adventure (Bantam-Skylark) #46, Edward Packard, 1988

The cave was sometimes used as a frame for single-setting history stories like The First Olympics and A Day with the DinosaursDinosaurs is a short and simple piece for younger readers, and doesn’t contain much in the way of temporal trickery or philosophical aphorism; the Cave of Time is just a way to move the player from a familiar contemporary America to a prehistoric setting.

Here, the story definitely feels fragmentary and brief, boiled down to the Cool Bits: most of the narrative runs at a breakneck pace, with dinosaur rides and dinosaur attacks and your very own baby dinosaur, etc. There’s not a great deal of agency in any of this, and the endings are often sharply abrupt.

There is a little bit of gentle but obvious moralising: after discovering some small dinosaur bones, you get a choice about whether to show them to the paleontologist or to keep them for yourself. In the former case, you get credit for discovering a new species; in the latter, the bones go unidentified and you’re laughed at for collecting chicken bones, the only ending in the book strong enough to count as losing.

daywithdinosaursIn some ways the story doesn’t challenge the reader much: scary dinosaurs are presented, but there’s no death and only one mildly bad ending. In one important way, however, it does present a difficult issue: in some versions the entire adventure turns out to be a dream, while in others it’s quite real. This is quite a big jump in narrative technique, one that a lot of adult readers are decidedly uncomfortable with. Reconciling yourself with it requires a fairly high level of sophistication, an ability to think about stories as artifice rather than as straightforward representations of consistent fictional worlds. Of course, the pill is sugar-coated: it wouldn’t be obvious from a single playthrough.

This kind of narrative-driven, inconsistent-world basis isn’t essential to CYOA: it’s not difficult to produce CYOA that suggests an immutable world model, and indeed some of the books we’ve already dealt with vigorously reinforce the sense of a consistent truth-functional world:The Secret of the Knights‘ structure declares that history is immutable, despite time-travel. But it’s also obvious that interactive forms are a lot more limited by world-consistency demands than static fiction, so it makes sense that Choose Your Own Adventure would try to introduce children to it, softly but as early as possible.

Again, there are a substantial number of no-choice jumps, an odd choice in a flight-of-fancy narrative. Here’s what I think is going on: Choose Your Own Adventure was sold, in large part, as a way of engaging the attention of children who otherwise didn’t like to read. Making a choice requires more attention than just reading text in order. But no-choice jumps have many of the same qualities: though not formally choices, they still require you to notice a break in the text, hold a page number in short-term memory, turn to that page and stitch the narratives together, probably doing a fiddly thing with your fingers to keep your place in case you get it wrong. This weak, lift-the-lid interactivity is a lot less costly in design terms. (The distinction would be lost in electronic media, where there’s no difference between a no-choice jump and clicking through to the next page.)

islandtimecoverThe Island of Time, Choose Your Own Adventure #115, R.A. Montgomery, 1991

R.A. Montgomery’s output is a bit different from Packard’s; less comfortable with outright fantasy, he tended towards SF and boys-adventure material, more heavy grounding in contemporary realistic settings, and longer sequences of no-choice jumps. As a blanket generalisation, he seems more comfortable when writing to an audience at the upper end of the books’ age range, though this could be the result of sampling error. Where Packard tended to err on the side of terseness (sometimes clumsy, but developing into a deft ability to know which details were really important), Montgomery never saw a text limit he didn’t fill.

The Island of Time is firmly situated in Montgomery’s native New England, on the real-life Providence Island of Lake Champlain. As an irresponsible tween, you take advantage of a parental absence to borrow the family Zodiac and take a trip to your holiday home on the island; a storm kicks up that you can’t handle and adventures ensue. The boating stuff is described with a level of detail that makes you wonder whether Montgomery isn’t talking about his own boat, while stringing the early game out to yawn-inducing lengths.

The plot doesn’t deal all that much with time travel; the Cave of Time features, but may never be encountered at all. Sometimes you merely encounter a resident of the Cave, and if you do end up time-travelling, it will only be to one destination. And you can end up travelling in time without ever entering the Cave; in one branch you slip through time while out on the water. Several plots involve no time-travel at all. You encounter a version of the Philosopher of the Cave, but here he’s an alien scientist who came to Earth to study the Cave’s mysteries. The phrase “the Cave of Time” never actually appears.

Insofar as it deals with time travel, The Island of Time is a very different beast from The Cave of Time’s random walk to the memorable bits of world history; instead, its few time-travel elements deal exclusively with (distinctly American) local history. In one, you observe a pre-contact Native American group perform a religious ceremony (from a very outsider-ish perspective); in another you’re drawn into the 1890s. Only one jaunt through time is possible per session, and your involvement with history is generally quite light.

It’s a book laden with… ambivalence, I think would be the word. It very rarely commits to a tone. Almost none of the endings are outright good or bad; in the following diagram I’ve somewhat exaggerated the effect, so don’t take that single green node to indicate an Optimal Ending or anything. The solitary red node looks very much as if it was intended to be a death ending, but was rewritten to soften the work. Parental anger at your irresponsible behaviour, which is foreshadowed from very early on, never actually arrives.

In the most striking scene of the game, you follow a strange voice into the woods, where it manifests as a Being Outside Time and begins to spout woo-woo at you.

“You have joined your future time,” the figure says. “Humans are outside the true realm of time. Whether they know it or not, they spend their lives waiting to get back to the real time.”
The figure smiles once again, enveloping you in its light.
Something inside you begins to question the intentions of this figure. You grow sceptical. “Sounds like you know quite a lot about what we want and what we need. On whose authority do you speak, anyway?”
The figure is taken aback by your tone. “Do not question the experience,” it says, trying to recapture your devotion once again. “Remember, you made the decision to come. You stepped outside the circle of life, we didn’t take you. We merely guided you, helping you to make the right choice over the wrong one.”
Talk of right and wrong begins to worry you. Your parents taught you never to speak in absolutes. You are beginning to distrust the whole situation.

Here the new-agey hippy floatiness that characterised so much of Choose Your Own Adventure is confronted with the Gen-Xish protagonist and… doesn’t really know where to go. Obviously the protagonist is right, here; you don’t just take the word of miraculous appearings that they’re the Good Guys. But there’s a sense of loss: the protagonist’s scepticism may have saved him from something, but it hasn’t gained him anything, and in any case he’s never going to know. The whole story has this kind of air about it. It’s about an age where fantasy rings false, where adventure is just perverse self-endangerment, where you yearn for some kind of religious experience but are unable to drink the Kool-Aid.

islandoftimeNo merges; a very high proportion of no-choice jumps, deployed with some degree of regularity. There is only one point at which a choice node leads immediately to a second choice node; more usual is a gap of three no-choice nodes. There are only eleven choices in the whole book. Many of these nodes feel as if they’re treading water in terms of narrative development; others make a series of significant-feeling decisions on your behalf. It is not a format that seems eager to involve its audience.

Compared to the rather messy plot ofReturn to the Cave of Time, this looks regular and austere. It’s as if Montgomery has determined that the average number of no-choice jumps a player will tolerate is three, and he’s sticking to that.

It has a totally egregious opening: the first choice arbitrarily leads to a bad ending. After a no-choice jump. Worse, you lose for precisely the wrongreason: the choice is to answer the phone or not. Your parents have reminded you to take calls. But if youdo answer the phone then you get so irritated by the caller that, somehow, you never think to go to the lake, and then you involuntarily ignore the next phone call, which would have been a million-dollar radio show prize. That showed you, huh? This is, honestly, one of the more puzzling CYOA design decisions I’ve seen: you do something, then get punished for not doing that thing. Perhaps the aim is to emphasize, by perversely denying agency, that the irresponsible protagonist is distinctfrom the player: that would be an unusual approach for the series, but the protagonist here is given a little more detail, and a lot more specific a situation, then the average Choose Your Own Adventure.

This problem persists through the story: you’re frequently denied agency at what look like important points, and the protagonist’s reactions are often dictated for you in a way that looksdesigned to rub this in your face, particularly when it’s reinforced by the huge number of no-choice jumps, and the regularity of those jumps. The choices don’t come at arbitrary points, but the space between choices often feels redundant and padded. This is Choose Your Own Adventure #115, published fifteen years and twenty books after Montgomery started writing CYOA: if The Island of Time is badly-designed, it’s certainly not out of inexperience.

The obvious thing to say about the structure of these three books is how different they are from theCave of Time and how similar to each other. They have in common a lightly-forking plot with a lot of no-choice jumps, near-exclusively binary choices and little or no merging. The two books for older children have very few winning endings. This probably represents the formula that Choose Your Own Adventure developed and stuck to.

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