In 2018, Netflix released an interactive streaming film entitled Black Mirror: Bandersnatch that allowed viewers to make choices. (One of the characters in the film specifically references a story from Choose Your Own Adventure.) Chooseco sued Netflix for $25 million, alleging that its trademarks had been infringed. It argued that its “marketing strategy involves targeting adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s who remember the brand with pleasant nostalgia from their youth” and that the film’s “dark and at times disturbing content dilutes goodwill for and.” positive associations with the franchise. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
No contemporary creation evokes the magic of Choose Your Own Adventure quite like Sleep No More, a hugely popular interactive theater production loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When it arrived in New York in 2011, it allows viewers to wander through a haunted Scottish hotel that occupies five floors of a cavernous building in downtown Manhattan. You can follow characters through dark corridors to witness their bickering and seductions, discover live eels swimming in filthy bathtubs, eat penny candy out of jars, and stumble into coveted one-on-one interactions with cast members (like the legendary “Wheelchair Ride “ on the hidden sixth floor). Jealousy of other people’s experiences is practically burned into the show—You saw a fucking orgy? You’ve seen frontal nudity? – but after a few visits, I feel like that sense of regret, that awareness of all the uncharted paths, was not just a clever marketing tool (why not see the show again?), but a powerful source of adrenaline throughout the experience, and a bittersweet form of realism: so much life consists in reflecting on everything you’ve missed.
Montgomery wrote his last Choose Your Own Adventure book, Gus vs. the Robot King, in 2014 while he was dying. It kept him from his illness, Gilligan recalls. He couldn’t sit at a desk, so he wrote on his iPad in bed. Finally, Gilligan transferred the file to her laptop and read it aloud to him while he dictated changes.
Every Choose author writes their books differently. Poets do particularly well with the structure, Gilligan says. They are not afraid to write nonlinearly, and the demands of form inspire them like other generative constraints: patterns of rhyme or meter, the structure of a sonnet or a ghazal. Gilligan was initially insecure about working on Choose books; She felt chastised by the contempt of a friend who received a PhD. in Yale Literature and clearly thought the books were garbage. But over the years, she’s been content with the challenge of writing choices that really appeal to younger readers. The beginning of any Choose book must function like an epic poem—every line, every word must do the work necessary to anchor a reader in the story. She believes the books descended directly from oral storytelling, where the storyteller receives input from his or her audience. Packard’s bedtime stories were nothing but another part of this long human history of oral narration.
Anson has learned a lot about himself through the way he chooses books. “You see your own values and baggage reflected in your decisions and endings,” he says, citing his own continued pursuit of success. His methodical style – he ordered his endings precisely along a continuum from ideal to terrible – differed from his father’s more whimsical approach. Anson always writes a “golden ticket” ending where you get exactly what you want, and a few “golden ticket minus one” paths where you get almost anything, but not quite.
Gilligan, on the other hand, was disappointed in herself when a friend pointed out to her that she had written a Choose book that had only one ideal ending; She worried that the book unwittingly “reflected a monotheistic mindset.” Gilligan didn’t want to write a book that suggested there was only one way to the truth, only one right way to move through the world. She felt that the entire premise of these books was an opportunity to break free from those constraints.
You swim with Edward Packard in a bath-warm bay, the underwater reeds like noodles on your thighs; The author, disappointed that you didn’t get there in time for the tide, writes the scene out loud as if you were in one of his books. “It’s like we’re on page 83,” he says. “Are you swimming to the left with the current and feeling like an Olympic athlete, or are you swimming to the right, against the current, and feeling like you’re getting nowhere? And eventually the bottom erupts and you find yourself in deeper water, beyond the reach of rescue.”
Even at his age, Packard is still essentially a father worried about his daughter, who is herself in her fifties and could be caught in a flood. Just as you will always be a mother who will try to anticipate the decisions your own daughter will make – whether she is four years old and listening to the Choose books you read to her, or twenty-four years old and contemplating making one giving up a terrible job, or an outdated relationship. At the moment her favorite book from Choose is Prisoner of the Ant People. She loves being her prisoner as much as she loves rescuing her queen. Whenever you read her a dying ending, you feel the brutal integrity of these books – that their choices promise you absolutely nothing except the chance to choose again.
Andrea believes these books shed light on the value of regret. Regrets don’t have to taint the experience. It can inspire you to make choices that are different from those you’ve made before. When Andrea tells you this, you remember an ex-boyfriend who had a tattoo – well, a lot of tattoos – but this particular tattoo was on his wrist: KNOW REGRET. When Packard tells you about his first divorce and how it shaped his thinking about decisions, you naturally think about your own divorce. In real life, most decisions are impossible to undo. But you have to keep making new ones. Maybe that’s where KNOW REGRET enter the game. Regret can’t change the past, but it can change the future. Life isn’t a choose your own adventure, but these books prepared you to feel exhilarated and scared of all the choices you would someday make. They gave you a way to understand that no end is really an end. After each ending you have to figure out what to do next. ♦