Gen Con is best known as a gaming convention, but it has a strong publishing-and-writing component as well in the form of the Gen Con Writers Symposium. But there are other ways games and books intersect—most notably, the venerable “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and the branching-path narrative genres they spawned.
While not the first branching-path narratives, the CYOA books were the first ones to achieve any degree of wide popularity, and they were huge back in the 1980s when I was growing up. They immediately prompted a host of imitators: the Dungeons & Dragons-based “Endless Quest” novels, and various other similar lines. They were popular for a while, then faded away as the short juvenile attention span moved on to other things (though this did also result in the spin-off genre of “gamebooks,” which combined branching narrative with dice and other challenge mechanisms).
After their original publisher allowed the CYOA trademark to lapse, publisher Chooseco picked it up and relaunched the line in 2005. And I’ve seen a few indications this year that the idea is also making a return to gaming.
Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger
First of all, Z-Man Games has licensed the Choose Your Own Adventure trademark and content to produce a tabletop game, Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger. The game adapts the fifteenth original Choose Your Own Adventure novel House of Danger by R.A. Montgomery into a card and board game with some simple inventory and challenge resolution rules added. (This makes it much like many of the gamebooks that were spawned in imitation of the CYOA line, in fact.)
To play this game, players draw a story card and read from it, then they decide among themselves which branch of the narrative they want to follow. There are also challenges, in which players roll a die to try to beat a number (it starts out as 3 but rises as challenges are failed). Along the way, players can pick up various items for their inventory, which can add bonuses to challenges or might have other effects.
At Gen Con, Z-Man also had a “promo kit” that it gave out in return for sharing a selfie to social media. The kit included four amusingly self-referential cards that could be added to the game’s starting inventory for some minor in-game effects.
Z-Man has clearly put a lot of effort into this game, and the production values are remarkable. It uses the same Souvenir typeface and interior illustrations that gave CYOA books such a distinctive look and feel, and the cards are slightly yellowed to suggest you’re actually looking at the pages of a vintage 1980s paperback. And, of course, the text is pulled directly from that venerable book. It really feels a lot like you’re reading an actual Choose Your Own Adventure novel from back in the day.
While the game is a beautiful artifact, and works great as a direct adaptation of a book into an entirely new format, the adaptation may very well be too direct. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be an actual “multi-player” format with different things for each person to do. It simply works like an organized storytelling time; if there are multiple players, they can take turns reading the cards aloud, and vote as a group on which choices to take. The game could be played just as easily by a single person, just as if they were reading the book it was based on. And, like the CYOA books themselves, it has nearly no replay value. You’re going through the same story every time, and it only has a handful of succesful endings. Once you’ve read all those, you’re done.
The game might make an amusing night of nostalgia for people who fondly remember the CYOA books from their childhood, and could be something fun for them to play with their kids once or twice. But at root, it’s just another way of relating a slightly dressed-up version of the exact same story text as the novel. And people who just want to read that story would probably be better-served by ordering the $6.99 paperback rather than the $24.99 game. (The book isn’t available for Kindle.)
Call of Cthulhu RPG publisher Chaosium has teamed with game company MetaArcade to produce Cthulhu Chronicles, a series of Call of Cthulhu interactive fiction games for iOS (with an Android version planned after release). The adventures were released just last month; Chaosium had a demo available to play at Gen Con with a mouse and a portrait-mode monitor, so I played around with it briefly.
Cthulhu Chronicles is a branching-narrative text adventure game with challenges in the best gamebook tradition. Players choose from a number of starting characters, each with different statistics and weapons, and read through it, matching those statistics against challenges. As with any such game, the choices you make determine your fate. On my run-through, I ended up making the wrong choices and dying. Unlike in a CYOA book, there wasn’t any way to flip a few pages back and choose again, and I didn’t feel like going through the game again for several minutes to choose a different ending, so that was enough of it for me.
The app itself is free to download, and players get three free “trials” per day to play any adventure for free. If they want unlimited plays, they can buy the adventure via an in-app purchase. Adventure purchases cost 20 tickets each, and tickets can be had via the in-app store at a rate of 10 for 99 cents, 50 for $4.99, 110 for $9.99, or 250 for $19.99. There are nine adventures available thus far, and Chaosium promises that it will eventually be possible for players to create their own adventures using its proprietary Adventure Creator tool.
I’m not a huge Lovecraft fan, but the game seems quite well-made for a text adventure, with highly atmospheric illustrations and ambient music. The three free trials seems like an interesting compromise between a crippled preview and giving the store away, and the adventures seem reasonably priced. The “tickets” mechanism is a little annoying, but on the other hand it’s probably the easiest possible way they could build in a volume discount—especially with Apple demanding its 30% cut of the take. There’s certainly no harm in trying it out (though beware! As with any Call of Cthulhu adventure, you could lose sanity points).
Dungeons & Dragons: Endless Quest
Finally, as I was walking through the convention, someone handed me an unfolding pamphlet promoting the relaunch of another 1980s icon—the Dungeons & Dragons Endless Quest series. One of CYOA’s best-known imitators, this series applied a branching-path narrative to stories set in TSR’s D&D campaign settings. The original works were written by Rose Estes, a TSR employee who also wrote a number of regular tie-in novels in D&D settings.
The new Endless Quest books are by Matt Forbeck, a solid tie-in-properties author who’s written a number of original works as well (including a trilogy of murder mysteries set at Gen Con). There will be four books to start, each book focusing on one of the “basic four” D&D character classes: wizard, fighter, cleric, rogue. They are scheduled for release on September 4, 2018, and are listed at $8.99 for paperback and $16.99 for hardcover editions.
I find it a little surprising that these books are actually getting hardcover releases. The old Endless Quest series was strictly paperback. After all, once you counted all the space necessary for plot branches, the amount of content the books contained only amounted to a short story or two; who’d want to pay hardcover rate for that? But perhaps there’s a nostalgia market for such things, or maybe publisher Candlewick Entertainment is just testing the waters with these first few books.
One curious thing is that none of these books—Choose Your Own Adventure or Endless Quest—have Kindle versions available. When searching, I found that a few years ago Chooseco did have some CYOA books available via iBooks and the Kindle store (and I even covered an earlier Kindle release myself), but the iBooks link now leads nowhere, and the Amazon listing only shows Chooseco’s two non-branching urban fantasy novels (Weregirl and Chimera) and a bundle of four non-CYOA branching text stories. Perhaps there just wasn’t a market for branching text stories on the Kindle?
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