Home About EIS →

Non-Linear Stories v1.0: Choose Your Own Adventure

Choose Your Own Adventure: The Real Story (thanks to Something Awful)While every boy knows that Fighting Fantasy was like, you know, 900 times better, than Choose Your Own Adventure, the level to which Christian Swinheart goes to dissect the CYOA series is nothing short of phenomenal. His visualizations of the story paths, in particular, are beautiful depictions of a system in operation.

While I won’t bother trying to add anything to Christian’s epic foresight into the series, I have to say I was fascinated by Inside UFO 54-40:

The branch diagram for UFO 54-40 is unique in that it has one ending – the Ultima ending – which is completely disconnected from the rest of the story. It exists as an island, unreachable through choices but discoverable thanks to the random access nature of the book.

This ending was not just an easter egg for the obsessive reader who didn’t mind skimming every page looking for telltale words. Instead it’s hard to miss in even a casual riffling. A two-page illustration showing what could only be paradise (or perhaps a theme park) leaps out as the only spread in the book without any text. Flipping to the page before brings you to 101, where you discover that your curiosity has been rewarded. You have found the planet, not by following the constraints of the system, but by going outside of them – a fitting moral to the story and an encouraging reminder that any game should be a starting point for the imagination, not the end.

Or, in other words, was this a tacit acceptance of players making their own rules by exploring a system? Could this have been emergence in a primordial form?

About the author:  Chris Lewis is a British PhD student researching the intersection of software engineering and video game development. Read more from this author

This entry was posted in Deconstructions, Gaming Culture. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted November 15, 2009 at 5:38 AM | Permalink

    I don’t think “On Board UFO 54-40” displayed emergent properties that other gamebooks didn’t display. Rather, the winning ending was structured in the way it was in order to make a philosophical point.

    Now, on the one hand, the readership was far too young to understand the philosophical point being made. But, on the other hand, it therefore stuck in one’s head — in mine, and I expect in others’. And when I hit college, although I no longer had access to the book — I’d gotten it out of the library — I was mulling over it one day and suddenly understood it.

    Quite a good book.


  2. Posted November 15, 2009 at 9:07 AM | Permalink

    Hey Conrad,
    It seems your experience with CYOA far outweighs my own (perhaps not amazingly, my child self found the Fighting Fantasy books somewhat boring when I happened to always win dice rolls, without even rolling the dice! Funny, that…), so I’d be really interested to hear what emergent properties you felt the gamebooks had.

    I think I agree with you that this is more a philosophical point than emergence, and a point well-made, no?

  3. Posted November 15, 2009 at 8:42 PM | Permalink

    Frankly, I’m not sure what an emergent property would be in a CYOA. I suppose you could consider meaning an emergent property of letters that are strung together in a certain way. But whatever you consider an emergent property, UFO 54-40 was probably CYOA-standard in this regard.


  4. Posted November 16, 2009 at 2:43 PM | Permalink

    What a fantastic and glorious detailed work we have here. Great thanks to Christian and thanks Chris for bringing us this gem.

  5. kidzero
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 2:52 AM | Permalink

    Nicely done. The site design and animations are clearly top notch. Two thoughts on the analysis though…

    First the author seems to be of a mind that the progression from many paths without a clear best ending in the early books toward linearity and clearly defined best endings in the later books reflects a maturation of the form. I find this claim dubious. I’ve always found the earlier more dynamic books to be far more pleasurable and immersive. The early bokos feel more like one can have an impact on the narrative as opposed to needing to discover the correct narrative as in the later books. More likely this move towards linearity reflects the fact that writing non-linear narrative is hard. The movement towards linearity is likely the result of seasoned writers more comfortable with the leaner form getting involved in the series as well as preasures to churn out books to keep up with the popularity of the series.

    Second, the animations are neat and all, but what are they really showing us about the structure of the narratives? The author himself points out in the body of his analysis that slightly different page orders lead to radically different particle animations. So the animations reflect page order which is interesting to a certain extent, but page order is hardly a defining aspect of the form. I have trouble believing that changing the page order of any given CYOA would radically alter the reading experience. The author’s own online example of the Zork book is driven by hyperlinks and completely bypasses the notion of page order. This doesn’t substantially change the experience of the narrative, but does render the particle animations for the novel relatively meaningless. It seems that a tree structure is a far more informative visualization, but admittedly less pretty.

    But to be clear I am a fan of anyone will to spend time analyzing CYOAs or other non-linear narratives. This is clearly a nicely put together site and I quite enjoyed exploring it.

  6. Posted November 17, 2009 at 2:37 PM | Permalink

    I used to love the CYOA series when I was a kid. It was just something about the idea that I could choose the ending I wanted. However, I rarely followed the system either. I always caught myself shuffling through the pages trying to ket a peek at the alternate endings without actually following all the way through to them.

  7. Posted November 19, 2009 at 10:54 AM | Permalink

    I was never really a reader as a kid. Until I was about 15, the CYOA books were the only books I ever tried to read on my own. The thing I never liked about them, was the fact that they were just guessing games as opposed to choosing an outcome based on presented facts or moral values. I guess I never really understood the point behind them.

  8. Posted November 19, 2009 at 11:43 AM | Permalink

    There is a strong argument that CYOA was, from the reader’s POV, randomized, thus removing the sense of choice and more of a sense of unfairness (hence the picture I chose 😉 ) I like the idea of using CYOA to shape and frame a story rather than guide it, which I suppose has parallels with how video games are now written.

  9. Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:53 AM | Permalink

    To be honest I’ve never read a choose your own path style book… in fact up until now I literally forgot the existence of the genre all together. However I am a big RPG video game player (stick with me here), and one of the main attractions for me in these games is the ability to chose your own path. Being able to replay something a number of times and have a unique experience each time is just amazing to me. I think I may have to pick up one of these as after reading this a new interest in the whole concept has been sparked! Thanks for the post mate!



  10. Johnn
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 10:46 AM | Permalink

    I always felt Fighting Fantasy books were more linear, not sure why. I stopped reading CYOA around #22, but now I want to go back and read them all again. :)

    I’m not overly familiar with emergent gameplay theory, but would not randomness actually reduce emergent gameplay possibilities?

2 Trackbacks