The Real ‘You’ Tube: Choose Your Own Adventure’s New Era

Is next week's 'Hawaii Five-O'—which will allow viewers to select the episode's ending from three possibilities—another sign that beloved children's book series 'Choose Your Own Adventure' is making a comeback?

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Norman Shapiro/CBS

Terrence Howard (center) guest stars as a dangerous criminal from Danny'™s (Scott Caan, left) past and threatens the life of his partner (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, right) on 'Hawaii Five-O,'on Nov. 12, 2012.

While catching up on news about your favorite television shows on the Internet, you come across a report that the Jan. 14 episode of CBS‘s popular tropical police procedural Hawaii Five-O will give viewers the chance to select one of three possible endings as the episode is airing, via social media. As you read the story, the idea of interactive narrative reminds you of the popular Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s and ’90s. Do you start wondering what became of the once-ubiquitous brand, or think about the origins of the kid-lit phenomenon that may be on the verge of a comeback?

  • To try and find what happened to the CYOA franchise, go to the sixth paragraph.
  • To find out more about the origins of Choose Your Own Adventure, go to the second paragraph.

Officially, Choose Your Own Adventure launched with Bantam’s 1979 release of The Cave of Time by Edward Packard, but the origins of the series actually began nine years earlier when Packard attempted another interactive book. That book, The Adventures of You on Sugar Cane Island, confused and confounded publishers for six years, failing to find a home until the manuscript fell into the hands of R.A. Montgomery, who ran a small press called Vermont Crossroads. Montgomery, a former Role Playing Game designer whose background made him more open to the idea of “playable books,” immediately recognized the book’s potential; instead of just publishing Packard’s book, he managed to convince Bantam of the value of the central format and — a quick name change from “The Adventures of You” to Choose Your Own Adventure later — the fourth most successful children’s book series of all time was born (The three more successful series, in case you were wondering, are Enid Blyton’s mystery novels, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps).

(One could argue that the origins of the series actually came decades earlier: Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is, in many ways, a proto-CYOA story that allows the reader’s choices to give the narrative. Educator B.F. Skinner released a series of “programmed learning” titles in the 1950s —essentially multiple choice quizzes that would send readers to different pages to explain whether or you were correct, and could keep answering questions, or incorrect, in which case you would have a learning opportunity, as well. It’s unclear whether or not Packard had actually seen either book before starting The Adventures of You, however; he claims that the idea came to him from telling bedtime stories to his daughters where their suggestions altered the shape of what was to come.)

From 1979 to 1998, when the final book in Bantam’s series was released, more than 250 million CYOA books were sold in 38 languages. The scale of the series was impressive; in addition to the 185 books in the “main” series, there were more than 100 spin-offs, including CYOA books for Mickey Mouse, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. (Apparently, the “adventures of you” still paled in comparison with “the adventures of that guy you see at the movies.”) In a recent article about the series, the Onion AV Club’s Jason Heller managed to summarize what made the books so appealing to their target audience: “I didn’t need any motivation to read when I was 8. But CYOA filled a void in my budding literary life that I didn’t know I had: agency. I never would have articulated it this way back then, but I’m sure I knew—at least unconsciously—that as I read all these books, I somehow imagined myself as Charlie Bucket or one of the Hardy Boys or the nerdy Bob Andrews from Robert Arthur’s The Three Investigators series. CYOA ramped things up a conceptual notch. Instead of merely identifying with a character, I was the character.”

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So why did the series end in 1998? It’s tempting to take a sociological stabs at the reason: the rise of video games, which allowed far more immediately exciting, yet passive “interactive” adventures is a potential culprit, as is a falling literacy level throughout the country translating into lower book sales overall. The truth may be somewhat more mundane; the series was 20 years old, sales were falling — in part, Montgomery recalled, because “a lot of the competing series were published by our own publisher, Bantam! They knew a good thing when they saw it, I guess. We were competing with ourselves at that point,” he told Slate’s Grady Hendrix last year — and Bantam may simply have thought it made more sense to retire the brand before it started losing money. As is often the case with these things, however, the end of the original Choose Your Own Adventure line was just the beginning.

CYOA rose from the flames of cancellation… twice. In 2000, the rights to the books reverted to the authors, and Montgomery — ever the shrewd businessman — took advantage of Bantam’s abandonment of the line to trademark the phrase “Choose Your Own Adventure” for himself, launching a new company, ChooseCo, dedicated to reprinting some of the original titles and releasing new installments in 2005. That venture lacked the input of Packard, however; the two had fallen out years earlier, and so the man behind CYOA found himself pushed out altogether, choosing instead to partner with Simon & Schuster to create a digital version of his titles under the new brand UVentures. (The switch to digital seemed to please Packard, who told NPR’s Neal Conan in 2010, “We wanted to add a lot of tricks and things and features that the app could perform that you would never have been able to have in the printed book… We could be absolutely use as many pages as we want because there was no printing cost. We could have color and have just fast-paced endings with only a couple of things happening on a page before you had to quickly make a choice. And so there was just a lot more flexibility [digitally].”)

And the spirit of the series has not only continued to be felt throughout pop culture, but in many ways, overtaken it. After all, as the New Yorker‘s Dirdre Fole-Mendelssohn wrote in 2010, the CYOA books allowed the reader to “role-play or game-play; you could hyperlink from one page to another, distant page in an instant, like a Star Trek character teleporting to another planet (one that, in many instances, held aliens of a dangerous nature). You could erase your tracks or track your history. As an amazingly exhaustive Web site on the books shows, they were, in fact, like early versions of the Internet.”

That site not only breaks down the branching systems of multiple books in the series, but points out the connection between CYOA‘s narrative branching and digital logic, drawing parallels between hypertext and hyperlinking: “Rather than being a definition retrieval system or associative datastore, their interactive function is to create a gameworld for the reader,” wrote the creator of the site, graphic designer Christian Swinehart. “This is part of the wonder of these books – they took a pre-existing set of interface conventions designed for utilitarian search tasks and mapped a new activity onto it. They were effectively a new kind of software application for the oldest information-display platform we have.”

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Heady stuff — more heady perhaps than CBS’s Hawaii Five-O gimmick, which may be slightly outside the Choose Your Own Adventure genre because the ultimate ending decision isn’t down to individual choice but majority rule, something that echoes the telephone poll used to decide the fate of Batman’s sidekick in a 1988 comic book or the multiple endings juggled by the 1985 movie Clue (Although, in the latter case, the choice of ending was random, depending on which final reel had been released to specific theaters). The idea of being able to watch a television show or movie with multiple variations in story or alternate endings is a familiar idea to most people these days, however; DVD and Blu-ray branching techniques — the ability to skip between scenes in whatever fashion the viewer wants, regardless of linear narrative — already allow viewers to reconstruct traditional movies, so how long before we get movies created entirely to have their stories made and remade? It has already been attempted at least twice (by a CYOA-branded animated DVD and a relatively unknown horror movie) to little fanfare and seemingly less success, but the idea strikes me as something poised to go mainstream — if, that is, IBM licenses out the patented technology required to make that happen.

Not that the future of CYOA has to mean a different medium, of course. The literary incarnation of Choose Your Own Adventure has significant juice left in it, as demonstrated by Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be, a CYOA-in-all-but-name book that brings the reader into the middle of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and obliterated the record for non-comic publishing projects on the crowd-funded website at the end of last year. Following Andrew Weiss’ spectacular You Chose Wrong — a Tumblr dedicated to, in his words, “showcase some of the more ignominious fates which awaited those lads and lassies who failed to navigate the not-so-hidden pitfalls of these flowcharts in YA fiction trade dress” — North’s project was the second of two Internet memes that demonstrated the rise of Choose Your Own Adventure nostalgia in 2012, and came from his desire to take the CYOA format into deeper waters. “I’d been interested in the format for along time,” he told TIME in an email. “I always felt frustrated by the CYOA books that I read, because my choices would have improbable effect: sit down in a chair and aliens attack, remain standing and there’s this crazy earthquake. I get why the authors wrote them that way (more excitement!  Nutty things are always happening!) but I wanted the choices in my book to have weight: sitting or standing wouldn’t prevent an earthquake, and if an earthquake is going to happen it’ll happen at the same point in the story — but what you’re doing at that point will very depending on the choices you made. And since you’re not playing as an elder God whose seat choices affect the very fate of the planet, your choices start to matter on a personal level.”

Perhaps Choose Your Own Adventure will go beyond the melodrama and kid-lit restrictions of the original books and offer something weightier and more meaningful for an older audience. We should investigate that possibility, especially if Swinehart’s earlier theory of branching narrative as new and alternate software for the hardware of the book is correct. How does that relate to the idea of CYOA moving in a more digital direction, either with DVD releases or Packard’s UVentures? It doesn’t, and that’s part of CYOA‘s beauty. Just as CYOA books allowed multiple paths forward, so now does CYOA as a format have more than one way to continue: Continuing the same children’s book path, becoming a series of apps, reviving classic literature or finding new weight to the decisions made or even giving Hawaii Five-O a new hook to lure in unsuspected viewers to its crime-ridden paradise… Someone could even look into CYOA‘s pre-history and revive the idea of the format as educational textbook. Outside of the confines of the brand, the Choose Your Own Adventure format allows for an almost infinite amount of possibilities for development, which seems particularly fitting. Which future do you want to see? All that you have to do… is choose.