CYOA structure: Millennial Snark

It is a truth universally acknowledged that anything popular among children in the ’80s will have been reinvented in the 2000s with snarking and loving attention. There have been a good number of cynical, heavily referential CYOAs-for-adults made since the early aughts (I’m hardly innocent on this count.) I’m going to cover two female-targeted relationshippy books and one male-targeted apocalyptic action-comedy.

People who grow up with a genre or medium before taking it up themselves will, inevitably, have rather different ideas about the strengths and uses of the form than the first generation of creators. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, although all the books below adopt a catchy series title that identifies them as CYOA, none form part of an extensive series.

thousandboyfriendscoverNight of a Thousand Boyfriends, A Date With Destiny Adventure, Miranda Clarke, 2003

Night‘s intial joke is mostly about lampooning Choose Your Own Adventure: the cover, internal layout and introductory text is closely modeled on the classic series. The joke is that, instead of being a wholesome children’s adventure plot, it’s a self-indulgent not-quite-dirty story for adults. A lot of effort is spent on mimicking classic layout, from the front cover onwards. There are a lot of amusingly fake ‘future Date with Destiny Adventures’ inside the cover (Prom Night 2120Journey to the Bottom of Ben AffleckThe Martini Chronicles), only one of which (Escape from Fire Island) has seen the light of day. There are gushing reader recommendations (“At last! A chance to have cheap meaningless sex without suffering any real-life consequences!” —Julie, 32, architect). These bits are probably the best part of the book.

But really its aims are very similar: build a fantasy of open, adventurous, somewhat escapist possibility, using the language of a familiar genre. That the genre happens to be mildy-risqué dating comedy along the lines of Sex in the City or Ally McBeal is just a detail; the joke that CYOA is for kids! and mildly-cynical not-quite-sex-comedy is sort of naughty and for grown-ups! lasts about three seconds. Like most gently-cynical dating comedies, the jokes are all quite weak; their purpose isn’t to be funny, but to signal the protagonist’s vaguely-ironic attitude, to underline that the story is not being presented seriously, and thus that overt self-indulgence is permitted.

The heroine, as in Choose Your Own Adventure, is portrayed as being one and the same as the reader; as is standard for the genre, she’s an attractive, capable thirtysomething woman who (at the beginning) has a useless love life for reasons that have nothing to do with her (her jealous roommate Marcy cramps her style; the guys she meets are all flakes). She is given to making Comedy Terrible Decisions. She has a Lucky Black Dress. Otherwise she is kept carefully generic.

There’s one direct nod to classic Choose Your Own Adventure: one branch employs that very Packard/Montgomery device of having aliens randomly show up towards the end of the plot.

Choice no-choice jump bad ending good ending ambiguous ending

thousandboyfriendsNight’s intial joke is mostly about lampooning Choose Your Own Adventure; it seems likely that Clarke studied their structure as well as their surface. It’s vertical with a few major branches, has a lot of no-choice jumps and is well-trimmed by death endings. There are a few jumps between branches in the midgame. It’s a little more enthusiastically bushy than you’d expect of aChoose Your Own Adventureof a decade earlier, but that’s the only real difference.

After the early game, the plot divides into three mostly-distinct plot threads: one where you get injured and hook up with cute doctor Brian, one where you abandon your date and wander off into town (the bushiest thread), and one where you stick around for your date long enough to be ambushed by the Restaurant Bandits and have adventures with bartender Pete (much narrower). These can involve a lot of advance-or-die choices; to offset this, the book does some fairly heavy signalling about bad choices. In general, the right option is the one that’s adventurous but not foolhardy. Rom-com conventions are a big part of this signalling; there’s one rather cringeworthy sequence in which you ransack your date’s apartment to see if he’s married, turning up incriminating evidence that turns out to be perfectly innocent. In general, it’s very easy to distinguish the Wonderful Guys from the Bad News Guys.

Most of the merging and jumps are between neighbouring twigs, although there is a time-travel loop-back and a couple of switch-to-another-thread jumps. There’s also an odd little spur at the top, a species of the First Turn Do-You-Want-To-Play-This-Story Choice, in which the ‘not really’ option gives you a small variety of ways to mope at home with your annoying roommate, including an infinite loop of terrible poetry. There’s a small anti-cheating track that scolds you and sends you back to the beginning.

The book makes some effort to present a consistent world; characters that appear in one plot thread will often appear again in others, knowledge about stuff going on around you will become relevant in other branches. This doesn’t mean that its world is a particularly striking creation; the adventure elements it injects into mundane life are all a little flat and don’t unify into much of a coherent style. To be honest, the whole thing feels a little flatter than it needs to be; its fantasies are fine in themselves, but they’re delivered in too pedestrian a tone, they lack the zest that’s necessary for even bog-standard romance writing. Part of the problem is that it’s aiming to be both an outrageous adventure and a totally comfortable indulgence; despite the motorcycle chase scenes, Ecstasy and lesbian experiments, everything feels a bit packed in cotton-wool. The sex is always generic and elided; the sample on the back cover is as raunchy as it ever gets. The book’s illustrations tend to reinforce this: the Good Guys all look suspiciously alike, reminding you that none of them appear to have any interesting flaws or quirks.


zombocoverZombocalypse Now, Chooseomatic, Matt Youngmark, 2009

This is a story about a pink stuffed rabbit who kills zombies with a chainsaw. The rabbit has amusingly poor success at internet dating. So, a book born and raised in internet-hipster irony land. At the same time, it’s old-skoolin’ it up, prominently advertising the number of endings (112) and how most of them result in your death.

Predictably, it’s a world dominated by lameness and sarcastic lack of faith in humanity. Most of the secondary characters fall into easily-mocked subcultures — metalhead, hippy, activist, militia. A high proportion of the story elements are direct references to horror and action movies. The protagonist has deep reserves of self-contempt that manifest regularly in the narrative voice.

Despite being overtly cynical about human nature in general and people you meet in particular, Zombocalypse is unusually focused on secondary characters for a CYOA. You usually end up teaming up with someone; basically all of your sidekicks are badly flawed and have terrible ideas, larger groups are squabbling and clueless, but they’re still a better option than going it alone. There are, in fact, several points at which people are good or reliable or even heroic, but these generally occur at the edges of the story, often in the epilogues about what happens after you’re dead. The very few sequences in which you manage to pull off something heroic, then, tend to look like dumb luck.

To some extent the glut of deaths are a gag at the expense of people who think an apocalypse would be awesome, of the reassuring illusion that you would be one of the survivors. Much of the book is about macho competence fantasies that are appealing, but essentially bullshit that can’t be sustained: and as the title suggests, much of its material is lifted heavily from pop-culture and re-enacted as farce. Although the game opens as its male protagonist is awaiting a date, there’s nothing that really resembles a love interest anywhere in the story. (There’s a slight hint of it when you team up with ex-cop Mittens, who’s female and the game’s least conspicuously-incompetent character, but this never goes anywhere.)

Choice no-choice jump bad ending good ending ambiguous ending

zombopocalyse

Big old irregular time cave. This looks most like A dark and stormy entry, although it’s a little more regular than that; steadier branching, more evenly-weighted branches. Out at the edges there are a few longish advance-or-die sequences, but these don’t dominate the structure.

And yup, that’s a lot of deaths. There’s occasionally some signalling of the Right Choice, but in the great majority of cases there’s nothing of the kind. If you survive it will be almost entirely by luck. It’s quite happy to dump you into a branch containing nothing but death endings, even if they’re four or five choices away. You are frequently given options that are all plainly terrible.

Also prominent features: basically zero no-choice jumps. (The only one is one of those joke choices where all the options lead to the same page.) Strong predominance of binary options; there are a handful of threes and a four, but they’re pretty scarce.

Unusually for a time cave, the world remains pretty much consistent throughout the branches; characters, places, incidents recur. One ending looks as if it’s a winning one unless you’ve already found certain information from other plot-threads. You hear about other characters even if you don’t take their particular paths. You run into plot hooks that can’t actually be explored in your present session. At times the game can get a little bit cute about this, but the overall impression is of a surprisingly coherent world. Even the seemingly-random thing where you’re a stuffed rabbit gets bulked out a little.

On the other hand, the individual plots aren’t all that structured; you jump from one immediate crisis to another, without very much in the way of a long-term plan. This means that it’s pretty easy for the plot to jump tracks in the mid-game: there are a fairly high number of cross-linkages, mostly of the now-familiar “I don’t like where this story is going, give me another one” variety.

A lot of this is largely possible, I think, because it expects a lot of replay: it’s pitched at adults who are familiar with CYOA, take the deaths as a basic element of the form, and who’d be paying twice as much for the print edition as they would for a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The fact that it combines second-person narration with a strongly-defined protagonist suggests that its audience doesn’t need its hand held in interactive narrative; but that doesn’t mean that they’re being asked to take it seriously.

That said, there’s almost nothing in the content that really refers to classic CYOA — which is odd, given how hugely, explicitly reliant it is on referencing movie tropes.


prettymistakescoverPretty Little Mistakes, A Do-Over Novel, Heather McElhatton, 2007

Pretty Little Mistakes is a long-arc story. Most CYOA choices work at a granularity greater than the action-to-action scale of IF, and closer to the scale of (say) an action movie. Generally, player actions are scene-to-scene; a scene might be a few minutes or a few days. The Choose Your Own Adventure books are adventures, single journeys. Even though each is technically a standalone work, they have a great deal of the episodic about them: very often, the protagonist starts from a familiar place and returns to it at the story’s end. Your large-scale objectives will often be chosen for you and well-defined at the outset — find the ghost, excape the island, defeat the evil wizard — and the focus is on how you accomplish your goal.

Pretty Little Mistakes signals early on that it’s working at a larger, life-choices kind of scale, and that it has no obvious objectives. The first choice, taken immediately after high school, is between going to college or travelling; you will often get to old age and death in a handful of choices. A lot of major decisions are out of your hands, or happen as side-effects of other decisions. Often your life will be unexpectedly curtailed by a random shooting or a Hypothetical Bus. You can’t help feeling that the author’s feeling a certain amount of glee at denying you agency, or else curtailing a plot thread because she’s not particularly interested in it.

This kind of scale of decision is very common as a method of character- creation in the introductorychapter to more fine-grained games, particularly RPG-like ones: the canonical example in IF is the opening section of Blue Lacuna.

It’s worth mentioning that narratives with a granularity diverging significantly from the action-to-action or scene-to-scene scale tend to be the domain of more highbrow-styled works. Mistakes is more chick-lit than romance-pastiche: it has the most conspicuously Writerly Writing than any CYOA I’ve covered thus far. McElhatton’s background is in journalism and public radio, and certain aspects of the tone do have a sort of NPR tone about them (when they’re not feeling rather moreMarie Claire). The strange-gritty-little-worlds approach is very much what you’d expect from a magazine news show, so you’re not surprised when the protagonist becomes an ace investigative reporter.
pretty2This is, though lurid, a considerably more realistic tone than Nightor Zombocalypse, aiming for grit rather than camp. There are rapes, murders, domestic abuse, abortions. The protagonist is highly sexed, leans sub, is bisexual but not strongly identified as such, does a lot of drugs. She has a cynical mind, a strong preference for great big cocks, a nebulous sense of spirituality, a depressive streak, an eye for details; the story feels not entirely unlike I-0: The Life Story: initially it’s not clear how much this is due to the protagonist’s tastes and how much it’s that the author wants to tell a story with a lot of salacious material. Her politics are strong social-liberal, take-the-law-into-your-own-hands (both rapes in the book allow for, and condone, killing your rapist later on), and vary between self-reliant NGO bootstrap-communitarianism and self-reliant selfishness. Much of the time her life direction is defined by what her present partner is doing, but if she ends up with an awful partner she generally gets out of it within a node or two. Basically all of her career options, however bizarre, are female-coded; there is no way to play as butch or as a good girl. It pointedly avoids taking a simple position on a lot of things, however: motherhood can be wonderful, horribly bad, indifferent or all three.

Although the branches always extend until your death, which is often at a ripe old age, the overwhelming majority of your choices are made before middle age. (If you have kids, you probably have 1 or fewer choices remaining.) As the title suggests, there are really no straightforward good routes; into each life a great deal of rain must fall, and suffering is part of life’s rich tapestry. (A good number of the most successful endings state that you wouldn’t want to change any of it.)

In heaven you meet God. He thanks you for being a mother to the orchids, orchids in general being one of his favorite things. God isn’t like you thought he’d be. He seems like a nice old man who’s gotten behind on his paperwork. A man who is probably rethinking the whole “free will” thing. A man who has watched all the hallelujahs fade away and be replaced with city lights. A man with too many orchids and not enough mothers. A baffled king.

When you die, you sometimes get an afterlife: this is highly variable morally, theologically and metaphysically, and reflects on your life but not in any kind of consistent manner. (Apart from this, there are no fantastic elements, though the over-the-top exotic variety gives a feel of magical realism at times.) In some plotlines you dedicate yourself to good works; in others you are entirely selfish. The presentation of the good-works threads tend to feel kind of People-philanthropy, good works of the kind that make an inspiring made-for-TV movie; some of this is due to the very how-awesome-was-your-life framing and quincunx moral relativism. The most consistent ethical themes running through the book are feminist and Epicurean, and everything else is pretty much optional. One trick of the afterlife framing is that it enables the story to distinguish between The Morally Approved Choice and The Choice That’s Best For You, which is generally rather difficult in CYOA and in moral-choice games generally. (Though the afterlife isn’t always a reliable moral compass; God is sometimes morally suspect too.)

As with Night of a Thousand Boyfriends, a lot of its flights of fancy are very much stock fantasies: you open a boutique in Italy, you break into the movies and become a star, you become a marvelously successful artist, and these are usually accomplished with suspicious ease. Indeed, a lot of the branches rely on you knowing the general kind of story you’re in: we all know the story about the mother of the mentally-disabled child who turns out to be wonderfully special, so we can deal with that whole issue in a couple of pages. At least one episode (spousal murder with frozen meat that’s then cooked to destroy the evidence) is plainly ganked from a Roald Dahl short story. So, even though the prose does some fine work in quickly establishing the flavour of particular threads, I never found myself feeling that any of these stories were particularly distinctive; although the writing is more prominent and crafted than is usual in a CYOA, and the subject material is somewhat more serious, it’s still a thoroughly genre-reliant piece.

Because Mistakes‘ writing is trying to do considerably more than is usual in a CYOA, it wobbles in places; but it also hits some very pleasant grace notes, and is particularly good at delivering an elegant ending. Its more-realist, journalistic tone makes it grate more when it retreats into tired cliché or gets things flat-out wrong; Alaska is a magnet for volcanologists, and gorilla penises are tiny.

Choice no-choice jump bad ending good ending ambiguous ending

prettylittlemistakes

There are essentially two styles of CYOA: a single story that can have many of its details changed, and a thousand-and-one stories that diverge from the same origin point. With its exotic possibilities, high-stakes choices and lack of detailed control, Mistakes declares itself pretty clearly to be in the latter camp. So you’d expect it to be a cut-and-dried time cave. And so it is: naive page-numbering, a steady stream of binary choices. (Not a single three-option choice.) There are relatively few merges, and this allows nodes lower down the tree to reference events much further up the tree.

Of the major four branches, the lower-numbered ones have a lot more options: thus arts degree > science degree > travel to Europe > travel to California, in terms of possibilities. I’m not sure whether to count this as a Statement (college gives you more options) or a sign that the book was written in more or less that order, and the author got weary of steadily branching seven-choice threads. The proportion of good, bad and ambiguous endings has a slightly different story: California is still the worst option by a long shot, but now the ordering is science degree > travel to Europe > arts degree > California. There’s a skew towards happy endings, but it’s not a huge one. (California is the only major branch where bad endings are more likely than good.)

There’s a pretty strong thesis statement about what CYOA signifies, although it doesn’t quite cover everything; there is some pointering.

You never know what life has in store for you. Remember, good behavior is not necessarily rewarded, and sometimes bad decisions can lead to wonderful (and not so wonderful) results. When you’ve reached the end of your journey, go back to the beginning and start over again, because everybody deserves a second chance—and everybody could always be somebody else.

In spite of the hard-branching structure and rapid plot movement, second chances are not uncommon: often you’ll be given two chances to dump or marry a partner. Some nodes are very similar to each other, to the point of sharing some of their text. Certain parts of the world recur —Sicily, Alaska, Charleston. In fact, some nodes recycle large chunks of text from other nodes, often their close neighbours; sometimes a choice changes fewer things than you’d expect it to.


So, what attitudes about CYOA do these works share?

  • CYOA is genre-reliant. All the books take it as read that CYOA is obliged to draw heavily on genre shorthand and stock devices, and that CYOA is — even when written unambiguously for adults — an entertaining, fun form that should indulge its audience, mostly giving them things that they expect and want. There’s something to be said for this, since a given CYOA thread will have a lot less space to establish things, even at the relatively high verbosity of Mistakes or the choose your destiny series.
  • CYOA is about a rich and varied field of possibility. CYOA is about a hundred different stories, not one story that can have some of its episodes changed around. I’ve characterised this before as the ‘naive view’ of CYOA, the one you adopt if you’ve only just learned what CYOA is and have been contracted to write a dozen of them. Still, I think that the time-cave design is a much more appealing model for stateless CYOA than the tightly-pruned branches that commercial publishers drifted towards. (I also think that this is a good argument for considering stateless and state-tracking CYOA as separate forms.)
  • Failure is part of the fun. The two classic attitudes to losing endings in CYOA, particularly in publishing-machine works, are 1) it’s there to create challenge, or 2) it’s discouraging and distressing, so you should have as few as possible. All these books (perhaps Night a little less so) present failure as entertaining, interesting, something that enriches the piece. They have somewhat different attitudes about how failure should be used, how central a feature of CYOA it should be, and what it stands for; but they’re all agreed that it’s important.
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4 Responses to CYOA structure: Millennial Snark

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