CYOA structure: The Black Doll’s Imbroglio

Edward Gorey, the author and illustrator probably best-known for macabre alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, had a prodigious output and an immediately recognisable style, often imitated but almost never equaled. He published a number of books which are interactive in one way or another, usually in odd or incomplete-feeling ways; The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, for instance, starts out feeling like a murder-mystery story but steadily devolves into disassociated possibilities for weapons, locations, different versions of characters, dramatic twists and inexplicable clues, more like a set of prompts for a storygame or a Goreyish version of Clue than a particular narrative.

The Raging Tide: or, The Black Doll’s Imbroglio was published in 1987, and it bears the obvious mark of influence by Choose Your Own Adventure. It contains thirty nodes – small by any standard – each with a single page with one illustration. The accompanying text is always a single, one-clause sentence describing the action; this is always followed by two choices, except for in the two endings.

The story features four characters: Figbash, Hooglyboo, Naeelah and Skrump. All are faceless, and look like awkwardly-handmade children’s toys. (In fact, the collector’s edition of the original was accompanied by a stuffed Figbash doll, hand-sewn by the author.) They act against a changing and indefinite landscape, usually including sculptures of the final two joints of giant fingers; there is always the same patterned carpet in the foreground, and there’s a general feeling of a puppet-theatre stage. (Gorey was also a theatre set designer.) For most of the book, the four characters fight one another using mundane household items as weapons: these all have the kind of early-C20th, kinda-British flavour you’d expect of Gorey (suet, golden syrup, library paste, tintacks).


7. Figbash threw an antimacassar over Skrump.

The choices are not made from the point of view of any of the characters, but are questions asked of the reader, who is not a character in the story. They concern the player’s preferences, not any kind of story-influencing command, and are often reflective:

2. Figbash scattered cracker crumbs on Hooglyboo.

If this makes you uncomfortable, turn to 3.
If it doesn’t, turn to 8.

A number of options seem like complete non-sequiturs: “If you loathe prunes more than you do turnips, turn to 22.” Some are meta-choices: “If you want to keep on with the story, turn to 25. For a meaningful aside, turn to 15.” Most, though, are about the player expressing moral approval or disapproval of what’s happening, even though all the events are much alike. There’s a sense that your agency is being… not even denied, exactly; but the possibility of it mattering is made to seem ridiculous.

Gorey’s oeuvre is heavily concerned with lives and deaths that are pitifully pointless. He often constructs his stories to end on an anticlimax, or to rotate around a question that goes unanswered. Sometimes his narratives devolve into outright surrealism, characters uttering phrases with no relation to their inexplicable activities, evoking the feel of historical illustrations which you can’t interpret for lack of context. Many of his works take childish things and make them macabre, or at least infuse them with a very adult sense of anhedonia, disappointment, diminished lives. Gorey’s worlds are full of obsessions, lusts and opulence, but nobody ever seems to derive any fun from them.

In this context, it might feel as though Imbroglio’s attitude to CYOA is that it’s arbitrary, disassociated from intention or causality and therefore from meaning, until all that’s left is a world of pointless, inconclusive violence of all against all. CYOA is taken, like the animate dolls, as a childish thing. The action, too, reads most straightforwardly as the zany slapstick of children’s cartoons or a Punch and Judy show; but Gorey’s style is consistently wooden, heavy and weary-feeling, with none of the energy and emoting that makes slapstick what it is. (Figbash is the closest thing to an exception, and Gorey seems to have enjoyed his boneless motion enough to re-use the character in later works.) It is very consciously an out-of-place thing.


blackdollWhat appears to a casual glance to be a totally unstructured mess in fact has a fair amount of structure. The shortest possible playthrough is 4 nodes, but this is quite unusual; 7-9 is about the norm. The nodes can be filtered more or less into layers, with larger numbers generally lower down the diagram; although a number of choices backtrack or move laterally, and it’s possible to get stuck in a loop, the majority move the action forwards. There are a good number of large jumps, but most movement is pretty local; backtracking rarely jumps back very far. So, while it’s kind of a rat’s nest, it’s nowhere near the total arbitrariness that the text suggests.

The closest thing there is to a player choice meaningfully affecting the action comes towards the end, at 24 and 25. (There are a lot of parallel structures in the book.) These two nodes offer respite from the constant fighting: the characters forgive one another while eating either prunes or turnips. In the subsequent nodes they immediately start fighting again; shortly after, you reach one of two endings, either “And so they all lived miserably for ever after” or “And then everyone went joyously to an early grave.”

That loop also offers a fairly clear choice; you can choose to keep ignoring the plot and keep going around in irrelevance. (This section also has Goreyan tones of disappointment and making-do, and it still features the same characters, but at least they’re not locked in eternal battle.)

So there is a dramatic arc to Imbroglio: conflict, a brief truce which falls apart, and then an ending. But Gorey has no investment in this narrative and expects that you won’t either, offering ample opportunities to go off on a tangent or to end the story abruptly.

It’s possible that Gorey set out to make a more chaotic rat’s nest, but started writing with the low-numbered nodes, generally proceeding to higher ones, and thus ended up imposing structure despite himself. It’s fairly difficult to make a truly tangled choice structure off-hand; if you just draw one ‘randomly’ on paper, or write it as you go along, it’ll probably come out relatively orderly. But I’m not sure that interpretation bears out: if nothing else, the repeated pattern of paired nodes, each a version of the other, suggests that he was structuring it more in terms of reflection, of both sides of possibility being much the same.

This entry was posted in cyoa, interactive fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to CYOA structure: The Black Doll’s Imbroglio

  1. dfabulich says:

    Is there such a thing as a legitimately “tangled” CYOA structure with a small number of nodes? Are you aware of any paper gamebooks with structures that you’d describe as chaotic?

    • Well, it’s still fairly tangled compared to a lot of paper gamebooks – particularly compared to anything I’ve seen of this size, and if you take the very regular two-choice branching into account. I think that you’d have to work quite hard and systematically in order to get something extremely tangled – in much the same way that generating decent approximations of truly random numbers is quite difficult.

      And that’s without the tendency of narrative to impose its own order on things – especially strong since most paper gamebooks were written for children and adolescents. This was honestly my best guess, which was a big part of why I analysed it – in my memory it was just random jumps from one inconclusive act of violence to another, with no particular direction.

  2. Felicity Banks says:

    Of course it’s possible with ChoiceScript to randomise scene order, so that might make it easier for an author to be truly disordered. The thought makes me slightly ill, of course. (What about the name and scene setting and stuff?!? What about the satisfactory ending!?!) If I wanted randomness I’d…. live life. Even then we all make stories about our lives that link causal effects after the fact. “This is how your father and I met.” “I worked hard to get my job.” “You were always such a clever child, no wonder you’re doing well at school.”

    Which is of course why it’s worth writing about deliberate randomness. It goes against the grain.

  3. Pingback: IFComp 2016: The Queen’s Menagerie, Mirror and Queen | Renga in Blue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s