In 2018, Netflix released an interactive streaming movie called “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” which allowed viewers to make choices. (One of the characters in the film explicitly refers to a Choose Your Own Adventure story.) Chooseco sued Netflix for twenty-five million dollars, claiming that its trademark had been infringed. It argued that its “marketing strategy includes appealing to adults now in their twenties, thirties, and forties who remember the brand with pleasant nostalgia from their youth,” and that the film’s “dark and sometimes disturbing content” dilutes the 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 more powerfully than “Sleep No More,” a wildly popular interactive theater production loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Arriving in New York in 2011, it allows audience members to wander through a haunted Scottish hotel that occupies five floors of a cavernous building in midtown Manhattan. You can follow the characters through dark hallways to watch their fights and seductions, discover live eels swimming in grimy tubs, eat penny candy from jars, and stumble upon coveted one-on-one interactions with cast members (like the legendary “wheelchair ride” on the hidden sixth floor). Envy of other people’s experiences is pretty much built into the show:You saw a bloody orgy? Wear full frontal nudity?—but after a few visits I came to feel that this feeling of regret, this awareness of all the uncharted paths, was not only a clever marketing tool (why not watch the show again?) but a powerful source of adrenaline during the experience. , and a bittersweet form of realism: much of life involves considering everything you’ve missed.
Montgomery wrote his last Choose Your Own Adventure book, “Gus vs. the Robot King,” in 2014 while he was dying. He kept his mind off his illness, Gilligan recalls. He couldn’t sit at a desk, so he wrote in bed, on his iPad. Gilligan eventually transferred the file to his laptop and read it aloud to him while he dictated the changes.
Each chosen author writes their books differently. Poets do particularly well with structure, says Gilligan. They are not afraid to write non-linearly, and are inspired by the demands of form like other generative constraints: rhyme or meter patterns, the structure of a sonnet or a ghazal. Gilligan was initially self-conscious about working on the Choose books; she felt punished by the disdain of a friend who was doing a Ph.D. in literature from Yale, and she clearly thought the books were garbage. But over the years, she’s been gratified by the challenge of writing options that really appeal to younger readers. The beginning of each Choose book has to work like an epic poem: every line, every word, doing the work necessary to connect the reader to the story. She feels that the books descend directly from oral storytelling, where the narrator receives information from her listeners. Packard’s bedtime stories were just one more installation in this long human history of oral narratives.
Anson has learned a lot about himself from the way he structures the Choose books. “You see your own values and baggage reflected in your choices and endings,” he says, citing his own lingering concerns with achievement. His methodical style, which precisely arranged his endings along a continuum from the ideal to the terrible, differed from his father’s more capricious approach. Anson always writes a “golden ticket” ending where you get exactly what you want, and some “golden ticket minus one” paths where you get almost everything, but not quite.
Gilligan, on the other hand, was disappointed in herself when a friend pointed out to her that she had written a Choice book that only featured an ideal ending; she was concerned that the book had inadvertently “reflected a monotheistic way of thinking.” Ella Gilligan didn’t want to write a book that suggested there was only one path to truth, only one right way to move through the world. The whole premise of these books, she felt what an opportunity to free herself from these limitations.
You’re swimming with Edward Packard in a bay as warm as bathwater, the underwater reeds like noodles against your thighs; the author, disappointed that you didn’t make it in time for high tide, is writing the scene out loud as if you were in one of his books. “It’s like we’re on page 83,” he says. “Do you swim to the left, with the current, and feel like an Olympian, or do you swim to the right, against the current, and feel like you’re getting nowhere? And eventually the bottom sinks 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, herself in her fifties, getting caught in a rip current. Just as you will always be a mother trying to anticipate what decisions your own daughter will make, whether she is four years old, listening to the Choose books you read aloud to her, or twenty-four, deciding whether to leave a terrible job. , or a stagnant relationship. Right now, her favorite Choose book is “Prisoner of the Ant People”. She loves being her prisoner as much as she loves saving the queen from her. Every time you read an ending where she dies, you feel the brutal integrity of these books: that her choices promise you absolutely nothing except the opportunity to choose again.
Andrea believes that these books illuminate the value of repentance. Regret does not have to contaminate the experience. It can inspire you to make different decisions than you have made before. When Andrea tells you this, you remember an ex-boyfriend who had a tattoo, well lots of tattoos, but this particular tattoo was on her wrist: KNOW REGRET. When Packard tells you about her first divorce and the ways she shaped his thinking about decisions, you think, of course, of her own divorce. In real life, most choices are impossible to undo. But you still have to make new ones. maybe that’s where KNOW REGRET comes into play. Regret cannot change the past, but it can change the future. Life is not Choose Your Own Adventure, but these books prepared you to be excited and terrified by all the choices you would one day make. They gave you a way of understanding that having no end is really an end. After each ending, you have to figure out what to do next. ♦