When choices go from turning pages to triggering logic gates

I couldn’t help but smile when MP presented a choose your own adventure (CYOA) novel to read as part of the introduction to the vgboundaries course. Is there anything more fitting? I hadn’t even thought about them since I read them as a kid, at least not until this January when a Twitter CYOA game was making the rounds. These cute little books provide a novel experience with books: the illusion of control, of choice.

I say the illusion of such because, as a number of students have pointed out in class and on this blog, each path is already predetermined, and the only choices a reader can make are the ones laid out by the author. It’s even possible to map out all of the possible outcomes and reveal just how likely favorable and unfavorable endings are. Almost all popular videogames actually allow for much less choice in terms of how the narrative plays out, as totally linear gameplay is the norm, there may be movement and player action to move forward in a videogame, but the narrative stays the same. The player carries themself through the ‘story’—for lack of a better term—that was written. In this sense, linear-style videogames might have more in common with film than with gamebooks. There are certainly games that don’t conform to this, but mainstream gaming still has trouble replicating what CYOA novels did for books. As an aside, the question of how that impacts the canon of a given story’s canon is really interesting, as it must include possibilities, not absolutes.

Considering form, function, and feeling (affect) in these relics from the end of the last century is a perfect way to begin to think about videogames and breaking down false dichotomies between analog and digital media. The tendency to make comparisons in terms of better & worse—adding value judgments—rather than how they are actually different is something that I think the experience of flipping through the pages of one of these gamebooks helps alleviate. Pretty much everything, after all, is technology, not just the realm of the digital and virtual as it’s often confined to.

In case anyone missed the obvious parallel, any videogame narrative may be expressed as a (uncountably complex) CYOA novel, and any CYOA novel can be expressed as a (very simple) video game. The interesting questions that are raised then become about the narrative, and the impact of the form and the medium upon that. These are the questions that are deeply meaningful and materially consequential, as they are growing site for the fictions which mold our consciousnesses. Cracked even has a cute little writeup about how films affect us in an easy-to-digest format. Given the similarities between the narrative structure of films and many games, the gamebooks had me thinking a lot about the impact of their form on their content, if the arbitrary distinction can be made. Perhaps if a CYOA could be played in book form, ereader form, Twine, Twitter, and others, an interesting comparison could be made.

Responses welcome in a new post.