Freedom of Choice (Part 1 of 2)

April 15, 2011

"You die a few years before you are born."

Since my copy of "The Cave of Time" by Edward Packard is long gone I may not have the quote exactly right, but I still remember the chills I got when I read that line. I was the hero of the story, and it was a poignant end to that particular adventure. It was one of the books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series, so I was the hero. In spite of being transported to the past and having had some harrowing adventures there I managed to live into a quiet, happy old age. I don’t remember when exactly I started reading them, but you could almost say I grew up with the Choose Your Own Adventure books because they started in 1969 when a lawyer named Edward Packard told his daughters a bedtime stories and asked them to make choices about where the story would go. Okay, technically the idea started with Raymond Queneau who, in 1967, wrote “A Story As You Like It”, but with options like, “Do you wish to hear the story of the three alert peas? If yes, go to 4; if no, go to 2" it’s not surprising the idea didn’t catch on. It was Packard who got the bright idea to aim the idea at children. He published the first Choose Your Own Adventure book in 1976.

They were an amazingly simple but brilliant idea: written in the second-person, there’d be brief passages that would end with choices. Each choice had a corresponding page number. I started with "Journey Under The Sea", but quickly moved on to others in the series, including "Space And Beyond" and at least a dozen others, or maybe it just seems that way because, with dozens of possible endings, I’d read each book several times. The only one I didn’t read more than once was "Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey", but then somehow a murder mystery set entirely in an old mansion didn’t seem right for an adventure series. That one does stick out in my mind, though, because I wonder how many kids’ books published now would have characters who drink brandy or one possible ending in which the protagonist–who just happens to be you, the young reader–gets shot and dies. My friends would sometimes look a few pages ahead and possibly rethink whatever decision they’d made, but I preferred to plunge forward, consequences be damned. If the story didn’t go the way I wanted, well, life works that way sometimes–although with the books I could start over again from the beginning. Some might think I’m being ridiculous to say that these books taught me anything about life, but there was a subtle and profound message in them: the choices you make have consequences. Technically, since they were written by someone, all the available choices and outcomes had already been decided by someone else, but, reading them, it didn’t always seem that way, especially when you’re young and used to adults telling you what to do rather than asking. For kids at least part of the appeal had to be the power, the ability to control a destiny, albeit a fictional one, and to make decisions that would affect the outcome of major events. I don’t think they ever had a simplistic moral, though; these weren’t like those Victorian stories in which children skate on Farmer Giles’s pond on Sunday, fall through the ice, and drown. It would have spoiled the fun if there were always clear “good” and “bad” decisions that led to either happiness or death. The illustrations may have been black and white, but the decisions–and sometimes the consequences–weren’t. Death, as it is in life, was sometimes terrifying, sometimes the result of a bad decision, sometimes accidental, the result of a decision that didn’t seem clearly good or bad at the time, but sometimes part of the natural course of things. Even death, in those stories, could be part of a happy ending.

It’s a little sad to me that, instead of remaining just books the Choose Your Own Adventure books have been picked up by new technology. I think there have been roleplaying games–starting with text-based ones–as long as there were computers, but there’s at least one Choose Your Own Adventure story on an interactive DVD, with narration by William H. Macy. Yeah, I’m sure a lot of kids pick that up thinking, "Cool! It’s that dude from ‘Fargo’!" Since almost every new DVD that comes out has “alternate endings” deleted scenes, and a “director’s cut” a DVD that offers options doesn’t seem all that innovative. Neither does a computer program, since those are supposed to offer users options. I know the Choose Your Own Adventure books are also now published as e-books, but an e-book is nothing more than a computer program masquerading as a book. Maybe I’m old fashioned for thinking the natural format of the Choose Your Own Adventure series is paper and glue books, something you interact with using mostly your imagination. Besides, with a DVD or computer program you can’t skip ahead a few pages to see where your decision will lead you. You’re forced to start over each time you want to change course. One of the books, "Inside UFO 54-40", was so memorable precisely because the best outcome, a paradise called Ultima, couldn’t be found by making decisions. There were clues to this throughout, but I reread "Inside UFO 54-40" before I finally figured out that the only way to Ultima was to flip through the pages to the exact center of the book where my arrival and the peace that followed was described. Try that with an e-book.

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