What 90's kid didn’t grow up loving Choose Your Own Adventure books? They were hot-ticket items at my elementary school library and whenever I got my hands on one, I remember doggedly reading until I’d traced every possible path of the story. Cave of Time was obviously a favorite, as well as one I can’t quite track down now, involving a cutely-illustrated protagonist who finds a sack full of money on a baseball field.
I carried a fond nostalgia for the series with me my entire life. Then I got to grad school and I started thinking a lot about fiction and form and I realized… Choose Your Own Adventure books are kind of genius. They totally challenge a reader’s sense of what a book can be, imposing a game-like structure onto narrative fiction.
Choose Your Own Adventure books aren’t the only books that use the form of a game to tell a story. There are a ton of titles out there to play with! I’ve listed a few of my favorites below.
In this interactive book, your name is Elizabeth Bennet and, as in any good Austen tale, you’re looking for a scandal-free, financially advantageous marriage. This book is interesting because, in addition to the classic choose-your-own-way structure, it also employs a scoring system. You begin with high Confidence and Intelligence (200 points each), but you are regrettably low on Fortune (only 50 points) and totally lacking in Accomplishments or Connections (0 points each). You rack up and/or lose points throughout the story depending on the choices you make, and the scores ultimately affect the conclusion of your adventure.
In this retelling of Hamlet, you get to choose which character to play - tragic Hamlet, spunky Ophelia, or (not a spoiler, really) quickly-dead Hamlet Sr. The book is illustrated throughout by some of my favorite web-comic illustrators, including Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant!), Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), Zach Weiner (Sunday Morning Breakfast Comic), and more. Another fun thing about this title is that it’s available as an app from Tin Man Games, compatible with PC, Linux, Apple, and Android. The app features bonus content, including icons throughout that indicate choices Shakespeare made for his characters in the original and a HAMLET-O-METER at the end of the game that shows how closely you stuck to the path of the play. I also love that the app uses dyslexic-friendly font and offers audio narration.
Are you a literary-minded reader who’s scoffed your way through this blog post? Literature is not a GAME, you may be thinking. Well, let me introduce you to Julio Cortazar and his brilliant book, Hopscotch. This book leans heavily on stream of consciousness, offering readers two possible paths through the narrative. The book has 155 chapters, with the last 99 designated as “expendable.” If you choose to read straight through, cover to cover, the first 56 chapters will tell a fairly conventional narrative and the last 99 will seem like almost total nonsequiturs. If, however, you choose to hopscotch from page to page, as indicated by the suggested-next-page numbers at the bottom of the page, you’ll find yourself venturing in and out of those final 99 chapters with added insight and intrigue.
I admit, I picked up this book from the shelf here at LPL because I thought the title was so sad/funny. I was also drawn in by the cover illustration that harkens back to those Choose Your Own Adventure classics. I was skeptical of this book and its premise, or, more accurately, skeptical of my ability to do what the book was asking of me. The book offers readers what are essentially guided day dreams, providing prompts, questions about character development and world building, and potential conflicts to develop a satisfying game in your head. How can I keep all this straight? I found myself wondering before I actually tried to play. Then I tried to play, and - wow. It was awesome! Without realizing it, I’d passed an hour playing a game in my head. The experience, I’d say, is a few meta-levels above a Choose Your Own Adventure book, encroaching on the realms of Dungeons and Dragons or other storytelling role-playing games, but it’s super satisfying and almost meditative.
These are just a few examples of the growing world of game books. (Quick personal plug - I wrote my own game-inspired piece, Major Diamonds Nights & Knives, that works like a deck of cards - each card has a piece of the story on it, and how the deck is dealt determines the way the story unfolds). I love them because they shake up what I think literature is, what a book can be, and how I can take a more active, imaginative role in my reading. If you're craving more, my coworker Ilka put together this handy dandy list of other Choose Your Own Adventure style books. Happy playing!
-Katie Foster is a Readers' Services Assistant and Lawrence Public Library.