The Oulipo of the 1980s? Why it’s time to reappraise the humble Choose Your Own Adventure book

Behind the recent wave of 80s revivals are real questions about the types of stories we enjoy—and how they teach us to approach the world

January 29, 2018
Culture in the 1980s was all about escapism. But Choose Your Own Adventure offered something more. Photo: Prospect composite
Culture in the 1980s was all about escapism. But Choose Your Own Adventure offered something more. Photo: Prospect composite

The allure of nostalgia is powerful, especially in an uncertain, unstable age. Nostalgia is a soothing form of selective amnesia of how things actually were. However forward-thinking and ostensibly unsentimental we might be, there are very few of us who are not moved in some way by these jolts of recognition and the comforting, if illusory, thought that a golden age existed in the past when life was more certain and more stable.

With Generation X beginning to reach middle age in slow horrified disbelief, it’s little surprise that 1980s revivalisms are big business, from Stranger Things and Ready Player One to the recent Star Wars resurrection. A joyless cynic might see this trend as an example of a culture paralysed by conservatism, cowardice and infantilism.

Yet it’s hard to deny the involuntary memories evoked upon seeing pixelated graphics or hearing the shriek of a TIE fighter. The best of these revivals (Twin Peaks: The Return, Blade Runner 2049) offer startling new directions amidst the familiar ones, which recontextualize that which came before. These stories are reimagined, rather than repeated to diminishing effect. Others are shallower.

In the actual Eighties, rather than the hypnotic vaporwave replica that has existed in corners of the internet for some time, the aim was continually to escape. Growing up in the grim netherworld of Thatcher’s Britain, you might, for moments of levity, disappear into the pages of 2000AD or mimic the fashions of Post-punk or New Romantic music videos on TV, engaged in their own rose-tinted nostalgias for Weimar Cabaret, Ancien Régime decadence and dandy highwaymen.

One activity which seemed enjoyably throw-away but became unexpectedly enlightening was Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery’s Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. Now largely-forgotten, the premise was simple but ingenious. The books centre around unusual settings—a Cave of Time, a Forbidden Castle, the Third Planet from Altair, the Underground Kingdom. The adventures would then unfold according to a series of decisions by the reader,

“If you decide to fight the squid with your spear gun, hoping to scare it off, turn to page 17,” one book says. “If you decide to signal Maray to pull you up at top speed, knowing you will get the bends, turn to page 19.”

The stories were pure sci-fi and fantasy-themed pulp but they were atmospheric, imaginative and encouraged both wise choices and the pursuit of delightfully-gory ends for the wrong choices.

You might have known nothing of free will and determinism back then, but you understood that claims that “You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story” were fanciful. Yet, at their best, the books encouraged a suspension of disbelief, whereby the multiple routes through the text seemed inexhaustible.

The otherworldly environments offered escape without the demands or the cultish commitment of other interactive pursuits like board games. All you had to do was pick up a book and it became a portal.

Eventually, RPGs would put paid to Choose Your Own Adventure books, making them seem quaint and archaic, as video games developed from minimalist text-based affairs (Zork, Planetfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging) to ornate point-and-click journeys (Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword) to the vast algorithm-powered universes of today (No Man's Sky—which echoes the early procedural generation of the 1984 classic, Elite). Along the way, the original books fell out of print. You grew out of them just as the technology did.

Yet you never quite escape completely. The lasting influence of Choose Your Own Adventure might be how it made us subtly reflect on traditional story-telling. It may be hyperbole to claim that books for kids planted a seed of doubt about our credulity in later life. And yet there is something of the alienation effect to a form of literature that continually suggested other paths, other possibilities. The senses of contingency and simultaneity that Choose Your Own Adventure suggested to attentive readers might have made three and five-act structures with their stock heroes and villains and tidy resolutions that much harder to fall for.

Choose Your Own Adventure books were silly throwaway books, true. But in some cases, they were also gateways to forms of literature that deviated from the norm: Oulipo, Calvino, Quin, Cortázar, B.S. Johnson, Carrington and so on (reading Choose Your Own Adventure chronologically was an unintended form of experimental literature in itself). When a technology is surpassed, and we can see the book as a form of technology, it is rarely rendered entirely obsolete. Often, it becomes a niche concern or finds that its very limitations are strengths. The simplicity, clarity and imaginative capacity of literature offers something that games, which immerse the player in immaculately-rendered environments, can lack.

Games like 80 Days, for instance, have revived the tradition while others like Firewatch have incorporated aspects of text-based adventures. And while games like Gone Home and Tacoma are spatial explorations, there are traces of literary mysteries within them, in the way clues emerge, stories unfold and the player becomes increasingly absorbed. The balance of storytelling and interactivity is key. We want to feel we discover things, even when they were placed there for us to find.

While the culture of ‘80s youth is superficially referenced ad nauseum, it is far less studied for what it might have done to how our generation perceives and approaches the world. Story-telling, especially at an impressionable age, is a way of understanding ourselves and our surroundings.

As adults, we prefer stories, like our lives, to be predictable, to be fixed, to have the comfort of formulas that every soap opera and most films conform with. Yet life is messy. It contains accidents, contradictions, loose ends. There is probably no plot and yet there are more possibilities than we dare imagine. Ultimately, none end very well. There’s a vertigo to contemplating such matters but it is more truthful and ironically less childish than the comforting fictions we adhere to.

If we must have nostalgia, let it be for those moments of exciting and perilous uncertainty. Not the tales we think we want, the remakes, re-treads and reassurances, but the tales we need; the stories where, like life with its unresolved future, we are genuinely not sure what lies with the turn of a page. Those are the times we remember and the essence of real nostalgia; the experiences that were exceptional and not prescribed.