Does the beloved Choose Your Own Adventure series still thrill?

Does the beloved Choose Your Own Adventure series still thrill?

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and videogames whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

The year is 1980. You are 8 years old, a student at Meadow Park Elementary in Port Charlotte, Florida. One day your teacher leads you and your class to the school library. There, a wondrous site awaits you: tables and tables and tables of books. These aren’t dog-eared, old library books with grubby plastic jackets designed to repel fingerprints and puke. They’re new: clean covers, sharp corners, crisp pages. You’ve always loved books. They remind you of your grandmother. Of quiet times. Of summer afternoons spent indoors, lost in the worlds of Ray Bradbury or Piers Anthony, while your annoying little brother and all the other noisy, pushy kids in the neighborhood are outside trying to out-stupid each other.

In the school library, you approach the nearest table of books. The $10 bill your mom gave you that morning is clutched in your hand like a sacred offering. Gingerly, you begin leafing through the neat, bright stacks of Judy Blume and Roald Dahl. You like their books, but you’ve already read them all. Glancing around, you begin to lose hope.

Suddenly something catches your eye. A slim book, but one with a mesmerizing cover. On it, a helmeted knight with glowing red eyes and a wicked-looking beard holds a sword with a horned skull on its hilt. Behind him lurk a castle, a dinosaur, some ancient Asian warrior, and what appears to be a warty, fanged Loch Ness Monster. What enthralls you most, though, is the image of a boy—about your age—riding a horse through this fantastic landscape. The book’s title, The Cave Of Time, pulls at your imagination like gravity. Above that evocative title is a bold claim, one that seals the deal as far as you’re concerned: “YOU’RE THE STAR OF THE STORY! CHOOSE FROM 40 POSSIBLE ENDINGS!”

When you’re a kid, choice is a big deal. You don’t get much of it. When I was that bookish, 8-year-old boy in Port Charlotte, being able to pick a breakfast cereal at the grocery store or a TV show at night felt exhilarating. And that’s just Apple Jacks and The Dukes Of Hazzard. Imagine being able to choose something bigger. Like, say, your own adventure.

The Cave Of Time is the first volume of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, the line of interactive gamebooks created by author Edward Packard, who penned The Cave Of Time along with many other installments of CYOA’s original 185-book run. Yes, I typed that correctly: 185. In 1980, when I purchased that copy of The Cave Of Time at the Scholastic Book Fair at Meadow Park Elementary, only eight CYOA books had been published. Already, they were becoming a sensation. It was a stroke of genius to sell them through the Book Fair, one of the few kid-aimed marketing campaigns that’s hard to criticize, seeing as it helps raise funds for schools and gets children reading. 

I didn’t need any motivation to read when I was 8. But CYOA filled a void in my budding literary life that I didn’t know I had: agency. I never would have articulated it this way back then, but I’m sure I knew—at least unconsciously—that as I read all these books, I somehow imagined myself as Charlie Bucket or one of the Hardy Boys or the nerdy Bob Andrews from Robert Arthur’s The Three Investigators series. CYOA ramped things up a conceptual notch. Instead of merely identifying with a character, I was the character.

Or rather, you were the character. Packard’s use of “you”—of the second-person narrative mode—was a canny move. By referring to the reader directly, CYOA doesn’t just reach up from the pages; it pulls the reader in, fulfilling the promise of its “You’re the star!” tagline. As a kid, I loved that second-person perspective. As an adult, I can’t stand it. In a way, I’ve been scarred by CYOA. Whenever I try reading a work of grown-up fiction that’s written in second person—which, thankfully, is a rarity—all I can think is, “This reads like a goddamn Choose Your Own Adventure book.”

Which made it all the more difficult to get through The Cave Of Time when I recently re-read it. It’s been 30 years since I’ve read a CYOA book, but the basics came back to me quickly enough. Granted, there’s the caveat lector printed on the first page, one that I can almost recite entirely from memory:

WARNING!!!!

Do not read this book straight through from beginning to end! These pages contain many different adventures you can go on in The Cave Of Time. From time to time as you read along, you will be asked to make a choice. Your choice may lead to success or disaster!

The adventures you take are a result of your choice. You are responsible because you choose! After you make your choice, follow the instructions to see what happens to you next.

Remember—you cannot go back! Think carefully before you make a move! One mistake can be your last… or it may lead you to fame and fortune!

Of course, this warning is bullshit. You can go back. In fact, I didn’t know any kid, myself included, who followed the rules of CYOA. While re-reading The Cave Of Time, I came to the first junction, the first decision, and I was already bored: One afternoon, while hiking through a canyon during a visit to my Uncle Howard, I come across a cave. After leaving the cave, it’s suddenly nighttime. My first choice is whether to walk home or stay put until dawn. There’s already a strong hint of menace and supernatural happenings, but I seem curiously unperturbed about the whole thing. The choice I’m given is a strict binary: What if I choose to do something that isn’t covered in the two choices I’m given? And the inherent limitation of Packard’s second-person mode smacks me in the face: In spite of the fact that the author is trying to immerse me in his scenario, I do not have an Uncle Howard. In spite of its claim that I am the star of the story, it’s clear that Packard has a character in mind that has nothing to do with me. His conceit is as thin as the pulp it’s printed on.

Resolutely, though, I go on. I elect to “start back home” from the cave immediately, a decision that prompts me to turn to page 4. The trail that led me to the cave is now a dried-up riverbed. My watch stops working. At the bottom of the page I am once again given the choice of going back to the cave. Clearly, Packard wants me in that goddamn cave. Then again, why would I be reading a book called The Cave Of Time unless I was willing to enter its titular portal?

It was then that it all came back to me: Even at age 8, I was a contrarian, perversely minded little shit. I came to CYOA for freedom of choice; instead, I feel like a rat in a maze. Just as I did when I first read The Cave Of Time and the other dozen or so CYOA books I owned in the early ’80s, I grew impatient and started flipping through the pages at random. The Cave Of Time, naturally, is a cave that transports me through time. There’s a prehistoric setting, a medieval setting, the Civil War, the Titanic. Wait a second: Am I being secretly taught something here? Nothing pisses a kid off more than something educational smuggled into his cheap entertainment. 

In a sense, The Cave Of Time was the perfect way to launch CYOA. Most subsequent volumes focused on a single tableau: outer space, Greek mythology, the Old West. The Cave Of Time encompasses many of these, in effect serving as a teaser of what was to come. Reading the book now, it’s amazing how perfectly Packard nailed the format and parameters of the series—enough so that he was able to farm out most future installments to various writers-for-hire. Just as the seeds of possibility are planted in the first scene of every CYOA book, so was the series’ potential planted in the first book.

That didn’t help me get through The Cave Of Time this time around, though. Increasingly agitated by second-person voice—not to mention the fact that I’m being told not just what to do, but how I think and feel as I react to meeting Abraham Lincoln or being press-ganged into helping build The Great Wall Of China—I started looking for “The End” at the bottoms of pages. One thing struck me as I skimmed through the dozens of conclusions that Packard lays out: He’s a sadistic bastard. In one ending, I walk out of the cave, into a war zone, and get hit by a bomb. In another, I’m strangled to death by a boa constrictor (complete with a lurid illustration by artist Paul Granger, whose pen-and-ink depictions of certain scenes are still seared into the back of my brain pan all these decades later). With the benefit of hindsight, The Cave Of Time is like Slaughterhouse-Five lite—right down to appearance of some vaguely Tralfamadorian aliens who abduct humans and skip through time.

As hooked as I was when I was 8, I didn’t stick with CYOA for long. By the time I was 10, I was getting into videogames and Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe CYOA helped prepare me for those pastimes, in which the choices were usually far more subtle and complex, even in those early days of gaming. The funny thing is, the older I get, the less enamored I am of choice. It’s no longer a novelty or a rite of passage to pick what I want to eat or watch or read or buy or vote for. Often it’s a chore—or, at worst, a source of mild anxiety. What once seemed like agency is now just another thing to worry about. The thought of going on some daring escapade across the globe doesn’t make my pulse pound. It makes my head hurt.

I do have to give credit to The Cave Of Time for one thing: It may not have been a great read, either then or now, but revisiting the book has added a new meaning to its title. In 1980, Packard surely couldn’t have known how successful and enduring his series would become. It’s spawned a legion of spinoffs and imitators, and there have even been recent talks of a new film adaptation. (Although, as critic Jacob Hall points out in a great blog post about the prospect of a new CYOA movie, all such attempts are pretty much doomed to disappoint.) But The Cave Of Time has become a portal through the years in a very real way. By reading it again in the year 2013, I’ve been magically whisked back to the year 1980—when I was young, when choice felt like liberation, and when adventure was something other than a pain in the ass.

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