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This Post Has 36 Possible Endings

The Cave of Time, the first Choose Your Own Ad...

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We are not talking about an epiphany on the level of Proust’s madeleine, but reading Grady Hendrix’s Slate history of the Choose Your Own Adventure books rocketed me back to my 1980s childhood. I was the target audience for these page-turners, mainly because I lacked the key ingredients that Hendrix notes were essential to enjoy the other primitive interactive entertainments of the era: rides to the arcade (video games), money (computer games), and friends (Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs). I was a lone wolf as a child. A broke, housebound lone wolf.

Choice in the CYOA books began with genre. They ran the gamut. My favorites matched the types of stories that I gravitate toward to this day, like mysteries (Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?) and westerns (Deadwood City). For years I believed that the one of the greatest books ever published was #6 in the series, Your Code Name Is Jonah, in which you’re a secret agent trying to outwit the Russians while deciphering a code concealed in a whale song. (Historical note: in the 1980s, whales were frequently used as plot points.)

The CYOA books are mentioned frequently around the Chromed office as touchstones; there are parallels between their storytelling and what we hope to achieve with our maiden launch March 32nd. Hendrix describes how the series had to deal with the same problem that is an issue in video games, namely the “tension between narrative and interactivity.” How many decisions can you give the reader (or player) and still tell a satisfying story? Detailed analysis of the books by Christian Swinehart shows that the earlier entries featured more endings, in some cases as many as 40. But to offer that in 118 pages meant that most of the stories were short, featuring scant character and plot development. As the series progressed, the titles became more linear. Readers received more detail, but at the expense of choice. And isn’t choice why they were reading these particular books in the first place?

Close study of these books mirrors the work that we’re doing. Consider this sketch of the branching in The Mystery of Chimney Rock. Similar drawings can be found all over this office. For that matter they could have turned up in that very book, a horror outing with a Blair Witch Project quality.

Video games and Choose Your Own Adventure books have one other quality in common: the obsession with finding the “good” ending. Not a happy one, necessarily, but a resolution that befits the decisions you’ve made. I’d tear through each book in an afternoon, reaching one outcome, saying “That sucks,” and immediately going back to the beginning, hitting reset before I understood what the concept meant. Take a look at the Chimney Rock sketch and note how every possible ending is graded, and how many steps it takes to land on the ones that satisfy.

I’m indebted to Hendrix for finally unraveling one mystery for me. For years I’d heard that one of the CYOA books featured a single genuinely good ending — and that no path through the story led to it. You could only stumble onto it by flipping randomly through the book. I’d dismissed this as an urban legend even though many people including Irfaan, our fearless leader here at Chromed, insisted it was true. Hendrix confirms that it is. I actually read the book in question, and never found that page. Clearly it’s a lesson to think outside the box, one it’s never too late to learn.

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