Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

You find yourself in an underwater palace. You see the walls slowly moving inwards on you, and begin to panic. You have 12 minutes worth of oxygen remaining.

To continue exploring the underwater palace for treasure, turn to page 18.
To swim ashore to safety, turn to page 22.

What would you do? The options are endless! Well, actually, there are only two. But, hey, I get to choose! Let's swim to safety! The word "safety" is right there! A clue!

You are nearly to the shore. Dry land is a mere 100 yards away! You notice a shark encircling you, blocking your escape to safety.

The shark eats you and you proceed to die a tragic, gory, horrifyingly gruesome death.

Okay, so maybe Choose Your Own Adventure books weren't quite so graphic, but there was a lot of dying. The publishers easily could have released a subseries entitled "Choose Your Own Death" and no one would bat an eye.

The omnipresent themes of untimely death led to the inevitable appearance of spoof CYOA covers like this one

Fortunately for persistent and patient (read: cheating) readers, there was usually one measly way out. However, if you took a single misstep (or mispage-turn, as the case may have been) you would have to spend hours retracing your path and trying to save your doomed reader self from certain death in endless capacities. The more savvy and lazy of CYOA readers would flip ahead in search of the heroically safe solution, but the real devotees suffered endless deaths in their quest for ultimate salvation.

Choose Your Own Adventure books were not solely a 90s phenomenon, but certainly enjoyed a heyday during the decade. In step with parenting trends emphasizing the individuality and uniqueness of each child, parents sought out reading experiences that would draw out their child's exceptional qualities. Okay, so maybe that isn't exactly true, but I had you there for a second, didn't I?

Initially formulated in the 1970s as Adventures of You, CYOA pioneer Edward Packard quickly saw the error of his grammatical ways and changed the title to the now known-and-loved Choose Your Own Adventure. You would be hard-pressed to find a more straightforward and self-explanatory name for a book series, but their charm was implicit in their simplicity. Perhaps they weren't literary masterpieces, but their interactivity certainly got kids reading, if only to find out all of the spine-tinglingly grisly forms of death that awaited them at every wrong page turn.

A seriously clever (if somewhat blurry) map of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Book from www.seanmichaelragan.com

With hilariously tongue-in-cheek titles like You are Microscopic (1992) and Tattoo of Death (1995), it was clear the series' authors didn't take themselves too seriously. Certainly there was never another series whose titles so frequently made use of poorly-placed exclamation marks. In fact, it was as if all the authors had taken some sort of Into to Choose Your Own Adventure course with a heavy focus in exclamatory punctuation. Such ridiculous titles as Hijacked! (1990), Kidnapped! (1991), Earthquake! (1992), and Typhoon! (1995) made use of this absurd formatting. It seemed to become a successful CYOA author, you needed only to think of a single theme, italicize it, add an exclamation mark, and you would be immediately added to the publisher's catalog. Come book-order time, your long-awaited title Unneccessary! would shoot to the top of the RL-6 bestseller charts.

Also notable in CYOA stylings was its unique use of familiar pronouns to address the reader directly. Usually, we open a book expecting to be a third party to the story and would be a bit shaken if the author began making direct requests of us. However, Choose Your Own Adventure books were formatted to make the reader feel as if he or she was actually directing of the action, no matter to what extent the quality and grammar would suffer. It was all about you, and it was thus necessary to begin practically every sentence with that pronoun. It's as if the authors feared that if they briefly diverged from constantly referencing the second person singular, the reader would be completely lost. "Well, wait a minute," they'd say, scratching their heads. "I thought this was about me. Why, I'm not in here at all!"

The best part of these books was that plot was generally a secondary feature. The author had used most of his or her talent and energy to produce a fully-functional interactive book that brings a reader to an ending with each read. It was almost as if the plot was an afterthought. After all, who was the author to be writing anything of substance when it was you, the reader, who was to choose his or her own adventure? To illustrate this point, I give you the back-cover copy off classic CYOA #11, Mystery of the Maya. Granted, this particular book was published in 1981, but I assure you it only got worse rather than better:

Your best friend Tom has been in Mexico for a short trip, working on a TV report on the ancient Mayan civilization. Three days ago, he vanished without a trace. The only clues you have are terrible, haunting nightmares where Tom is killed in a Mayan sacrificial ceremony. You must find him before these nightmares become reality! Can you even trust your own dreams? Maybe someone is telepathically leading you off course so you'll never reach your friend in time! What should you do next?

Of course! A Mayan sacrificial ceremony! There is really no other remotely credible explanation for your friend's disappearance. Well, except for that someone may be using their powerful influential ESP to lead you astray. Back of the book, you ask such powerfully deep questions. What should I do next?

If you've yet to get your fix of these, fear not, they're still available at fine retailers everywhere. If you're not into the retro reading, in 1998 they began publishing new CYOA titles under the cleverly-named Chooseco label. Just think, if they can select a company name like that, imagine what sort of choices they have in store for you!

Check it out:
Official Chooseco CYOA site
Choose Your Own Adventure...DVDs?

Awesome CYOA T-Shirt


katieaddis said...

Haha! I was cleaning out some old books and found one of these that my mom made me read about teen sex. You're totally right...there aren't many possible endings that turn out well. Thanks for the post! Keep them coming!

pvt. awesome said...

I remember being traumatized by a Space Vampire CYOA book where I was either eaten or became a blood-sucking fiend no matter what a did! Still, as much as it horrified me, I couldn't stop reading it.

Great blog entry!

MissKarenAshley said...

Those were the best books ever! Do they still make them?

Miss K

SarahBeth said...

I LOVED these books growing up!

Melanie said...

I had a Mario Brothers themed one! It was awesome.

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