Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure

When I was a kid - let's say the middle of elementary school, as I remember being enthralled by teenagers of the mighty and/or morphin' persuasion - weekend trips to the little branch library by my mom's apartment were the highlight of my week.

Contained in this library were shelves of what you'd call “books”, and I'd forgive you for that. To me, they were life lines. As a kid who liked Jeopardy and elves in roughly equivalent measure, school was Lord of the Flies with a dress code. I needed an escape.

These books did the job, serving as portals to worlds where furry little men and their gardeners carried magic rings into a land of doom; where dinosaurs still lived, and had built a civilization that made ours seem barbaric by comparison; where ancient evils awoke after millenia of imprisonment, and good men had to take up arms against them.
There was one group of books that managed to duplicate the feeling of being kicked around at school, though - the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Choose Your Own Ruination was already taken.

Most people my age remember them, even if they don't share my particular revulsion. For everybody else, the Choose Your Own Adventure books cast YOU and YOU ALONE as the protagonist. They did this by offering you a choice at the bottom of every page, a dilemma you'd resolve by turning to another.

For example, they'd lock you in a room with an angry pirate. If you tried to kick his feet out from under him and run out the door, you turned to page 92; if you tried to sneak out the window, you turned to page 17.

This is invariably when things went to hell, which contradicted my high expectations. Having been an avid reader since Mrs. Beulah Berry shamed me into learning my lphbet, I thought I had this pirate situation in the bag.

This also helped to raise my confidence.

"How many times have the heroes of the stories I've read dealt with angry pirates?" I asked myself.

"Like infinity!" I happily responded.

"And what did they do?" I quizzed myself.

"They didn't talk about their feelings," I said.

(Being able to carry on animated conversations with yourself is an essential for every lonely, picked upon child.)

Deciding to kick the pirate, I'd promptly end up eating cutlass on page 92. Turns out trying to act like a hero when the book casts you as the target demographic of "grade schooler" is ill advised. The problem was, this happened no matter what I did.

If I tried to act like a dashing hero, I bumbled like a kid; if I tried to sneak like the child I was, I got called a coward and punished anyway. The end result was that, like an underage Dr. Samuel Beckett, I quickly ran out of fingers trying to backtrack and put right what once went wrong. In book after book, the only adventure I reliably choose was my own messy death.

Sam, Ziggy says you shoulda turned to page 33 instead of 34! Oh boy.

Even when I grew frustrated, and tried reading the Choose Your Own Adventure book cover to cover - the Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me of the series - I still couldn't find an ending that didn't involve being eaten alive by moth people or teleported into deep space sans space suit.

Whatever the opposite of a messiah is, that's my function in Choose Your Own Adventure. From the moment my feet touch soil, my every action blights the world around me. If I bent over to pick up a penny, I turned to page 43 to find a woman giving birth to a baby with a dog's head that spoke only blasphemies.

It was my initial intention to write a parody Choose Your Own Adventure. The endings would be the worst things I could imagine, so over the top that they would make the originals seem polite in comparison.

This seems like a good start.

That's when I reread a few of the books, and realized that no matter what I did, there was no besting them.

The first book I read was Beyond Escape. It's the year 2051, and two future spies named Mimla and Matt have gone missing. That was common. You'd hang out with Steven and Anchagorax, or Tara and Sizlak, or Mimla and Matt. In the process of tracking down the future spies, I ended up in a helicopter that gets shot down by UFOs.

Beyond Escape notes that I died on page 108, and is careful to explain that I did so screaming for help, in pain and all alone:

This leads me to theory one: all the Choose Your Own Adventure authors were the pen names for inmates in federal prison for hurting children. For $1.13 a week, they contributed to the burgeoning field of YA literature.

When it came time for their hearing, they pointed to their history of trying to help children. The review board, probably thinking them changed men, ka-chunked a “reformed” on some paperwork and released them back into the wild.

The second book was Prisoner of the Ant People. I was a member of the Zondo Quest Group, fighting the Evil Power Master along with Flppto, a four eyed Martian. What pure whimsy! Surely nothing too awful could happen in such a book.

How about the destruction of the entire cosmos on page 56?

This is why I abandoned my satire. The Choose Your Own Adventure books defy parody, because they're quite comfortable taking things to the nth degree all on their own; it'd be like trying to write a darker version of The Road.

This also led me to theory two: Cormac McCarthy got his start as an author for the series, mentally preparing an audience that would later eat up his joyless, existential epics.

The third and final book was The Lost Jewels of Nafouti, originally titled The Lost Jewels of Nabooti. What was fine for children in 1982 would have caused a 2005 audience to choke to death on their giggles, which also might be what happens on page 123. Instead, I played it as safe as I could.

For this, I was rewarded with the most boring ending imaginable on page 40:

That's the happiest conclusion I've ever reached. I wasn't raped to death by a pterodactyl in a broom closet; my nervous system wasn't ripped still living from my body and forced to suffer the pain of death ten thousand times a second in the Agony Cradle; I simply had to do some paperwork and go home.

Theory three: At 15 – 40 endings per book, and over a hundred books published in a ten year span, they ran out of ideas. As a result, some adult nightmares – like dealing with bureaucracy – worked their way in. I wouldn't be surprised to find out one of the endings was your wife leaving you because you she doesn't think you have a grown up job.

Overall, I came away from the experience shocked that the old patterns hold, the ritual is the same - nearly twenty years of life experience on, I'm still eating cutlass.

Cutlass: It's not just for breakfast anymore!

If anything, I've gotten worse. I don't remember “universal extinction” being on the menu before. Regardless, Choose Your Own Adventure books were an indelible part of my childhood, like Lunchables, Batman, and my complete failure to learn how to swim. They're not a happy part, but they taught me about life.

Namely, that what's right in one circumstance might not be right in another; that sometimes life shits on you, and there's no reason why; and that though failure is always, always an option, there's nothing stopping you from throwing the stupid book across the room because you hate it forever.


  1. I remember enjoying choose your own adventure books...until...that time...I had this "adventure"...

    I was hiking on a mountain, somewhere in Asia. My parents were in the cabin and allowed me to go out alone, as the mountain was known to be completely safe. As I neared a fork in the path I decided to head to the left...only to die, not just die, but die in the stupidest way possible...a group of Yetis shot me with a cannon. Yes, a cannon. Yes, Yetis.

    It was at that point, looking back at the decisions I had made, namely, asking my parents if I could go for a walk and then turning left, that I decided the books were broken. I did not choose an adventure. I chose a hike. And then YETIS SHOT ME WITH A CANNON! I still have no idea why yeti's were on the mountain, why they defended its clearly marked paths so aggressively, or how they acquired a cannon.

    And that was the last time I read a choose your own adventure book. Because I like to think that cause and effect actually exists.

    1. You know what the best part is? You're not the only person who rages at the injustice of having been killed by yetis with a cannon:


    2. He makes a good point! Why would yetis need a cannon to kill a person? I can only imagine they didn't want to get blood under their claws. Damn dainty yetis.

  2. I remember fondly sitting down with my cousin to read together a CYOA based on Tolkien's "The Hobbit". It was a fascinating little book because it give you the chance, when confronted by combat, to roll a six-sided dice (in my world they have so very very many sides sometimes) to determine the outcome of a particular action (http://rpggeek.com/rpg/1570/tolkien-quest). We had a ball killing off our little hobbitty heroes left and right...

    ...until my aunt heard us and confiscated the book...who knew that reading fiction written by a catholic and rolling a dice could be devil-worship? Whoopsies!

    1. My least favorite part of The Hobbit was probably when Bilbo explained transubstantiation during a Black Mass. It didn't seem to fit the tone of the rest of the book.

  3. I remember One where I was at a circus, only to walk into a hall of mirrors and get lost in the room and trapped in a vampires coffin. Nothing ever made any sense in these books. And that was the alternative where I actually made it out of the house to make it to the circus. The first time I died after one choice. Went through a wrong door and electrocuted myself in the bathtub.

    1. It's that kind of low key, casual sadism that makes me think all the CYOA authors were locked in attics and basements as children; having learned at a young age that the universe is arbitrary and hostile, they set out to evangelize the masses.

  4. I'm extremely glad for this blog; for years I thought it was just me. And that was AFTER reading one of them straight through to try to find the way to the "right" ending.

    1. I imagine there's a horde of people like us who grew up with a firm belief that nothing ever works out thanks to these books.

      At least we can admit it, which is step one toward recovery.