Monday, January 31, 2011

Choose-your-own-adventure: an essay for writers and readers alike

Recently I’ve really been itching to do some writing, and have done “some.” My 7yr old little brother just started reading in the last year or so, and while I was the biggest proponent for comics as a tool for children’s literacy it just didn’t stick as I had planned it would – like me, he was just “reading the pictures,” I’ve even read various places that for those who do read the words many completely skip the captions all together – so there was a stigma against using them or relying on them in comics. But what did grab his attention, and held on tight, were the choose-our-own-adventure (CYOA) or pick-a-path books. I soon became vicariously obsessed with them for about a week straight, even venturing to create my own, and learned a lot in the process.

I got him Disney’s recent Prince of Persia and he loved it. So I immediately went to the used book store and started getting all the ones I could, never spending more than a dollar or two per book. And eventually becoming so intrigued I drew out a “plot chart” for my own story, which I found incredibly fun and exciting - while the few people I tested it on/read it to found it cliché and predictable at best.

Basically the whole hook of the different books are the concept – “space vampires,” “playoff champion” etc. Because that sets up all your possible variables, and defines everything about your reader’s predictions about the story while the individual decisions usually rely on the same tropes as all the others creating “once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all” and causing a kind of “genre buffet” when choosing one, which may be worth it for library checkouts but makes it difficult to spend money on.

After researching more I found most of them are written by an author named R.A. Montgomery, and that they were all the rage before computers were able to randomize simple events and introduce variables the reader didn’t have to pick (such as in the original Carmen San Diego, to change where Carmen was hiding) and this improved the experience of returned playing/reading, which I must say in CYOA books is difficult at best because the only way you care about the story is if you have some investment in the decisions you make, the second time around you’re doing just the opposite. The books are written in second-person “you go to the lake and find a dead body” which is great because it puts you in the shoes of the main character.

Some of the better illustrators for the books even take this a step further by either not showing or only showing from the back, the main character – but it’s rather difficult since he/she is the only one the book can talk about and any images immediately identify a gender, which alienates half of the potential readers’ identification with the main character – assuming that the books are written equally for boys and girls, which they are usually not. My wife mentioned that she thought doing a petty-romance version would interest girls, like the romance comics of the 70’s found an audience with them. But how far can you go with romance for the age group they’re aimed at - or any genre for the matter? You basically have to skirt around any real dangers and situations because of very type of book you’re writing.

One of the major limitations, which I found researching and reading them is that for any given path there is not usually a fulfilling narrative arc – as far as the “three act structure:” Beginning, middle and end. It usually ends up feeling like one-thing-after-another until it’s over – which usually results in your death. And plot devices like foreshadowing of events, or even repercussions for your decisions are either: 1) virtually non-existent or may become non-existent depending on the choices you made or 2) occur directly after your decision, since most of the storylines usually end up crossing back towards the end – if you live to see it – such as: the story where maybe you “didn’t take the blue pill” must now conclude on the same page as if you had, so the mention or consequence of must be left out entirely to generalized enough to share page space between stories.

The last disadvantage I found was that everything mentioned must be through one character’s eyes – the book cannot cut to a scene taking place on the other side of the world that the character doesn’t know about, so subplots and characters really serve no purpose or get any screen time unless they directly affect the main character, as opposed to just running parallel to the main story.

I think they are funner to write then read which seems to bee the conceit of the format. If not only a headache to keep track of, they take the pressure off the writer of trying to choose between where he wants the story to go and puts the pressure into making as many of those situations as possible and usually writing both. Each plot point is usually a page or less in length and has a decision or ending at the bottom, unless it is a linking page by which the author lays out basically the extent of whatever differences may be in your story before you link back up with a main one – basically one extended page split between two for economy of space. As I mentioned they usually include illustrations and run about 150 dime-novel or smaller pages long.

I have seen they now have the Dungeons and Dragon’s interactive DVD “Scourge of Worlds,” and some websites even offer organizational tools and web space for user-written adventures that you can simply click your way through. Furthermore there’s even a microcosm-of-a-microcosm of people who play “mud connector” a text-based command-line-driven internet game, which makes even the most hardcore D&D fans look incredibly sociable. There are also, more currently, some “Anything can happen… Whatever you want” or similar books, for older readers and usually run about 4-5 times longer in page length. I suppose Dungeons and Dragons, and similar games, are a version of this medium for a somewhat older audience, but the books themselves fall victim to the strengths of other genres – in games: having more choices and randomization, and in books: having the ability to be an “omniscient viewer” and learn more than your character, a key to suspense versus surprise.

So they end up being a sort of novelty niche-genre/medium, a guilty pleasure for most (if at all), and for those excited about books that read like video games, and don’t mind the thin plots they may offer a bridge for children away from video games/tv/computer and into the world of reading and literacy – even if they aren’t the destination.

Check out this link for a cool roll over version of a cyoa story map.

No comments: