Ideas often feel obvious once they are birthed, fully formed, into the world. The interactive gamebook, typified by the most popular series, Choose Your Own Adventure, is one of those ideas. Why wouldn’t you incorporate choices into your writing? It seems obvious to turn reading into a game full of grisly, bizarre deaths and clever victories. How could such a system fail to capture the attentions and moneys of a generation?
There were hints and false starts at interactive fiction before the popular series that defined a genre was unleashed on the shelves of young adult readers in nineteen seventy-nine. Jorge Luis Borges, he of the infinite library of hexagonal rooms, wrote a story with branching paths, and described an advanced concept for the genre. Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain, published in 1941, was a book about a fictional author. It was written in three parts, with two branch points, making nine possible endings. Though not exactly constructed as a game, the elements are there. Borges also described a fictional book of multiple paths in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan. The reader of the book would need to deduce the correct way to read the book in order to make it sensible, something like a gamebook with no instructions, and perhaps no obvious decision points.
Other flirtations with the form came from experimental literature groups like Oulipo in France. They more tinkered with the idea, rather than bringing it into full life. It was an interesting concept born out only in very short stories and one play, The Theater Tree: A Combinatory Play, which I find frustratingly difficult to find any details on. Discussion and essays were as important as creating literary works. Branching narratives were intellectually interesting to them more as exercises and experiments than forms of entertainment.
The idea was also used in the fifties as a teaching tool by the famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner. A subject would be presented with a question or problem and multiple possible answers. They would turn to the page that corresponded to their answer and either be congratulated for selecting the correct answer or met with an explanation of why the answer was incorrect and directed to try again. This method of learning was at least somewhat popular through the seventies, before falling off and being revisited for self-directed learning courses on the computer.
As with many things it’s difficult to pin down who wrote the first real gamebook in the form we recognize today. Science fiction author and satirist John Sladek is cited as having written two branching short stories towards the end of the sixties by Wikipedia. The eventual creators of Choose Your Own Adventure were being inspired both by Skinner’s books and by telling their children bedtime stories. The format was not restricted to English language authors, either. There were Swedish and Italian examples published in the early seventies. As gamebook series gained popularity through the eighties and nineties many books were created or translated for languages all over the world.
American authors Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery joined forces to publish the first series of branching path game books with Sugarcane Island and Journey Under the Sea in the Adventures of You series. By nineteen seventy-nine the two writers had sold Bantam books on the idea of a branching path series and the most popular and iconic series was launched. The Choose Your Own Adventure books, now owned by, I kid you not, Chooseco, launched a huge number of imitators and innovators in their wake.
The series began with The Cave of Time, and quickly expanded. The mechanics of decision making allow for fairly simple narratives to be extended to book length easily. Throughout the eighties and early nineties the Choose Your Own Adventure brand was expanded to include licensed series like Star Wars and a children’s line for younger readers. While most Choose Your Own Adventure books featured a protagonist with little backstory, personality or skills Bantam also published gamebook series where the reader could play a race car driver, a spy or other more defined characters. The main CYOA line roamed wildly through genres, and eventually began experimenting with mechanics, including infinite loops and secret endings not accessible by any choices within the story.
Other publishers, including TSR (Dungeons and Dragons) and Games Workshop (Warhammer), got in on the game, adding elements of RPG play and other refinements and complications. These books were more akin to solo tabletop adventures complete with combat mechanics, random events, maps and inventory systems. Some of them even required outside rulebooks. (For a truly massive list of classic and current series I highly recommend you check out gamebooks.org. They have the closest thing to a comprehensive list, in multiple languages, you’re likely to find.)
The popularity of the books declined as other interactive entertainments became more accessible. New books are still being published, of course, including one by the Overmental team, but choice driven narratives have largely been taken over by video games. Initially of course the stories told by videogames were extremely simple and linear, but their methods of engagement have always been more direct and less conceptual.
Fans maintain online communities like chooseyourstory.com where original stories are written and shared by enthusiastic writers of all skill levels. Many of them follow the logic and techniques of the original stories, but others embrace more advanced options in line with the more advanced stories of the past and simple video games of the present.
As videogame development tools become more accessible, simple systems like Twine reflect a logic born of old CYOA books with refinements born of the digital world. Twine is based around a similar set of branching decisions to the original batch of books. The experience can be enhanced with music and simple graphics, but the logic remains the same. Even large scale RPG games often resemble a number of nested or sequential branching path stories.
The concept continues outside of its original medium because of its power and variety. It turns a reader into a player and invites them into a world not as observers, but participants. Its fingerprints can be seen throughout all kinds of interactive fiction. Its history is deep and wide, and its future, in one form another, is bright.