m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

The State of the CYOA Art

I’ve been reading some modern hyperfiction intended for adults on Kindle Unlimited (free trial!), partly because it’s fun and full of apocalypses (and so unlike the Russian roulette of preachy, artsy, and sucky hyperfiction one gambles on when reading made-for-web stories), but mostly to see how the classic turn-to-page-n aesthetic mixes with the modern eBook art—that is, with the technology.

My favorite so far has been INFECTED: Will YOU Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? (Click Your Poison Book 1) by James Schannep, a brain-chewing romp through the zombie apocalypse, in which YOU are a nondescript, probably male, human navigating your way through a textbook zombie apocalypse. You mostly get eaten, but can also become a zombie for a few pages, or survive long enough to meet the scientists responsible for the epidemic and possibly even help them cure it. I enjoyed the snappy writing, the classic CYOA style, the subtle humor, and the second-person, not particularly gendered, approach to a looming zombie apocalypse.

Technology-wise, a bullet-list of linked choices appear at the end the eBook sections, while in the dead-tree version the bullets are more decorative and each choice followed by an underlined Go to page n. In paperback, this adds up to 350 pages of choices. One unexpected feature of the eBook was that every scene was linked by name at The End, a feature intended to make it easier to go back. The scene names were rather short, however, and the list rather long (about 260 scenes), making it rather difficult to go back. The Kindle’s back functionality isn’t much help, either, at least not in the Kindle for iPhone app; I’ve seen it work better in other books, maybe because I read them in the Kindle for Mac app instead.

I checked out the latest volume in the Schannep’s series, PATHOGENS: Who Will Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? (Click Your Poison Book 4), to see if the technology had changed any. The page-turning tech turned out to be indistinguishable from the original, but the author did make a significant change by splitting his fourth book up into six possible roles (chosen from the more interesting non-player characters of the first book). However, he kept the story in the second person, even though your person has a name and backstory this time. The paperback is 416 pages, and the scene count at The End is about 355 (not differentiated by role, so still not particularly useful).

My second favorite, Time Travel Dinosaur (Chooseomatic Books) by Matt Youngmark, takes the traditional second-person approach, but due to the vagaries of time travel your personal history, including your species, mutates wildly through the course of the story. There is at least one excessively random walk through time rifts, but there is also at least one coherent and more nearly linear path to victory. The overall effect is comic, and as such quite entertaining.

Tech-wise, it has actual page numbers, with choices at the end of a section that refer to the page numbers, even in ebook format. Forced choices just tell you to turn to the appropriate page number. Page numbers are even more strongly emphasized in the dead-tree version (304 pages).

In Rudolf Kerkhoven and Daniel Pitts' third-person Can Stuart Henry Zhang Save the World? (A Choose-Your-Path Novel), a zombocalypse, and its prequels, you direct the choices of a particular individual with even more life history and attitude than the roles in PATHOGENS. Choice links are listed at the end of a scene in the eBook and are full questions about what the hero should do. This book doesn’t have a print version, but in the previous volume in the series that did, choices were supplemented by a Turn to page n for the dead tree version.

This third-person hero, Stuart Henry Zhang, is a comic character who may bumble himself into a cure for zombies, have a final apocalyptic fling with a not previously attractive neighbor, become an alien’s pet, defeat the aliens, or, of course, be eaten alive by zombies. The plot is more random than that of INFECTED (which sticks to zombies), but does not compare in true chaos to the sheaf of time traveling dinosaurs. The story, or stories, are still fun, with some strong stylistic choices that add to the humor, and some failings that may be mere typos or may turn out to be an annoying pattern; I won’t be able to say until I read the other books in the three series I’ve sampled above.

The author(s) of the choose-your-path novels aren’t dead set on the third person POV; they also wrote a couple of second-person, extra “boring” CYOA parodies, the latter of which is “nearly choiceless” and about to come out on Kindle.

I read one children’s book in my tech investigation, Can You Survive a Global Blackout? (You Choose: You Choose: Doomsday) by Matt Doeden. You start the novel out camping, where the apocalyptic EM pulse has one good effect: you can suddenly see the Milky Way. The story has what appear to be inline links, but it’s not a real hypertext that way; the links only lead to a glossary at the end. The actual links at the end of a scene say press here after the link text—because the book is written for children who have never seen the internet, I guess. There’s also an actual, image-based back button at the top of each new scene—which implies something about the quality of eReader technology expected, but also about the lack of merging paths in the graph of the story.

The cover advertises 40 choices and 17 endings; the second one I reached was getting shot for “looting” an apparently abandoned bike store in order to reach my friend’s parents. It seemed a bit harsh to me, even after having my brains sucked out by countless zombies for minor slip-ups in the previous reviews. Next I accidentally joined a cult, then left them for a hobo’s life that would not have happened if the novel structure permitted merging back into, say, the first path I took. At some point I stumbled onto a guide for global blackout preppers at the back of the book. They recommend candles, avoiding strangers, and developing a taste for books.

Overall, it was a rather serious book for an apocalyptic CYOA for children. Although up to that point I’d been wishing for less snark and chaos, I ended up missing the humor of the adult apocalypses, never mind the chaos of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books.

One thing I noticed in all the full Kindle eBooks I read was that the Kindle apps liked to take me straight to page one of the actual story, where I’d often miss the humorous side of the author’s obligatory how-to-read-a-CYOA-book section unless I paged back to see it. I also checked out a few previews of CYOA books that aren’t available in Kindle Unlimited format, just to see how the choosing was set up.

The numbered scenes in To Be or Not To Be end with choices, merely linked in the eBook version but with a supplemental turn to n in the dead tree version. The story also forces you to pick one of three characters at the start, meaning (‘twould appear) that there are three shorter CYOA stories in there rather than one long Hamlet adventure.

Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny was set up the same way, with linked choices at the end of a section in the eBook version, and the same choices with Turn to page n instructions in the dead tree version, which also features particularly decorative bullets to bullet-point each list item. The pages are, apparently, actual pages, probably wasting a bit of the 230 page length of the paperback edition.