The Surprisingly Long History of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Stories | Innovation

Always from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018).
Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s New Original Horror Movie choose or die activates an interactive computer game called “CURS>R”, which resembles a classic 80s adventure program in which a user inputs text to advance the story. Naturally, there’s a twist – the protagonist discovers that every choice in the game, no matter how small, will determine whether she and the people around her stay alive.

While the movie itself isn’t interactive (something that might have helped rehabilitate the plot), the release reflects Netflix’s growing interest in choose-your-own-adventure style programming. Since the beginnings of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch in 2018, the streaming service steadily invested in these titles. It’s easy to be a little cynical about this push for interactive programming, which feels like a ploy for Netflix to find new relevance as a mobile gaming platform, especially now that it’s reporting its first major losses. subscription in a decade. Still, I’m excited to see where it’s going, as this format is ripe with the potential to take us out of linear narratives and democratize storytelling, empowering each viewer to explore possible scenarios and decide what should happen next.

The Surprisingly Long History of Stories

A page from a Song dynasty (960-1279) printed book of the I Ching (Yi Jing, Classic of Changes or Book of Changes).

Public domain

The concept behind interactive storytelling is not new. We can say that it goes back to I Ching or book of mutations, the ancient Chinese manual of divination and prophecy that uses cleromancy (the casting of lots) to read its predictive text. Before the computer age, contemporary scholars Anthony J. Niesz and Norman N. Holland argue for expanding the definition of rudimentary interactive form to include “alternative endings to any narrative, either revising of the author (as in great expectations [1861]) or deliberately (as in The Threepenny Opera [1928])”.

But it was American authors Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins who get credit for pioneering the concept as we know it today with the 1930 publication of Consider the consequences! The romance novel, which included 43 alternate endings, lets the reader decide the fate of Helen Rogers and her suitors Jed Harringdale and Saunders Mead.

Scholar James Ryan, who shed light on this forgotten novel in 2017, pointed out that while the concept of the plot may seem obvious to us now, Webster and Hopkins’ interactive branching narrative was revolutionary at the time. . “It’s a radical idea,” Ryan said in an interview with KZSC Santa Cruz, “that you can bundle multiple plot paths into one book and let the reader decide which paths to take.”

Another founding text from this era is the 1941 short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (“The garden of the paths that fork”). Although the philosophical work is not interactive itself, the pathways and directions of alternate realities it suggests became an important early offering in the realm of interactive fiction – and is even considered the earliest precursor to the realm of interactive fiction. ‘hypertext, as defined by computer programmer Theodor Holm Nelson, who coined the term more than two decades later, in 1965, as a form of non-sequential writing – or “a series of pieces of text connected by links which offer the reader different paths”. (Interesting historical note, American scientist and policymaker contemporary to Borges, Vannevar Bush, also foreshadowed the concept of hypertext with his fictional “Memex” machine, which used “tracks” to link books, recordings, and other forms of communication in a non-linear storytelling manner.)

Advances in technology have continued to push interactive fiction out of the theoretical into the conceptual. Leaps in filmmaking, for example, led to the launch of the first interactive film, the Kinoautomatein 1967. Presented for the first time in the Czechoslovak pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Montreal, the film (which was originally titled Člověk a jeho dům: A man and his house) was shown in a custom-built theater with green and red buttons installed on each seat. During the screening, the action was interrupted from time to time, so that a moderator could appear on stage and ask the audience to vote on questions that propelled the plot, such as:

Should Mr. Novak let a woman dressed only in a towel into his apartment, just before his wife arrives home?

Should Mr. Novak rush into an apartment despite a tenant blocking his way?

Should Mr. Novak knock someone out to draw attention to a small fire?

No matter how they responded to the prompts, the movie always ended the same way: a burning building. Was the film a political statement against fixed elections? A satire of determinism? These questions swirled as the World’s Fair became a resounding success and awakened filmmakers to the possibilities of interactive cinema. According to Alena, the daughter of director Radúz Činčera, after his debut, “all major Hollywood studios” wanted to fire the Kinoautomatebut the Czech government, owner of the film, refused to sell.

Dust jacket of the 1930 first edition of Consider the Consequences!  by Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins.

Dust jacket of the 1930 first edition of Consider the Consequences! by Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins.

Fair Use

If things had gone otherwise, the Kinoautomate might have become a household name, pushing Americans’ idea of ​​what interactive technology was capable of. It joined the ranks of other experimental literature emerging at the time, such as Julio Cortázar’s 1963 book Rayuela (translated into English by Hopscotch in 1966), which allows the reader to “jump” through 155 chapters using an “instruction board”, and Robert Coover’s disturbing 1969 short story “The Babysitter”, where a night of babysitting could be as mundane as a quiet night watching TV or end in increasingly disturbing storylines, like the babysitter being hunted down, raped, and murdered.

Instead, most Americans’ first encounter with interactive fiction came through the mainstream success of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Lawyer Edward Packard came up with the concept in 1969, when he told his daughters a story about a man on a desert island. “I couldn’t think of what was to happen next,” Packard later recalled to Market, so he asked his children what they would do. The girls provided two different responses, and Packard saw a genre with potential. “They couldn’t just identify with the main character, but they could be the main character,” he said.

Packard struggled to sell the concept at first – “It was just too weird and too new”, he later said – but publisher and author RA Montgomery, having worked in the role-playing game design, finally recognized its potential. In 1979, the Choose Your Own Adventure series officially launched with The cave of timewhere you might encounter a T-Rex or a UFO, depending on the route you choose to travel.

The series attracted a wide readership; however, its stereotypical style gave the genre a bad name. As one English scholar put it bluntly, “in terms of literary quality, many of the multi-story books are real skunks.” But it’s important to remember that the series was aimed at children, who liked the straightforward simplicity of the questions, such as: “If you take the left branch, go to page 20. If you take the right branch, go on page 61. If you exit the cave, go to page 21.

Today, books, video and computer games, television, and movies continue to push the boundaries of what interactive fiction can do. The potential control readers can have over the story can sometimes seem downright radical (take author Stuart Moulthrop’s mind-bending hyperfiction text Victory Garden). But decisions don’t have to be extreme to have an impact; there’s something to be said for the more everyday of choose-your-own plotlines that keep popping up (for me, one of the most anticipated offerings on the horizon right now is the first interactive romantic comedy). After all, no matter how heavy the decisions are in these storylines, the act of choice remains central to each one and reminds us that not only is there a multiverse of possibilities, but that each of our decisions can create a ripple. . effect.

Like Consider the consequences! argued in 1930, “life is not a continuous line from cradle to grave.” On the contrary, explains the novel in its introductory text, our journeys consist of “many short lines, each ending in a choice, and a bifurcation to the right and to the left” which lead us to always more choices.

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