Somewhere between the ages of five and ten, deep in the analog darkness of the 1980s, I fell under the spell of the Choose Your Own Adventure books.
This was a magical time for me. I knew that I had discovered the most divine form of storytelling ever conceived. The stories almost always dealt with fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, which was/is my thing. The authors wrote in a surprising (to a 9-year-old) second-person singular point of view—addressing the reader as “you.”
It was a revelation.
It also put pressure on me to take part in the storytelling. The fate of the protagonist (me) was in my hands, but with minimal anxiety about screwing up because you could easily start over. Oh, how fun it was to die again and again.
Do you remember these books? You must—down to a certain age. Gender may also be a factor. Although the books were written gender-neutral, it’s hard to find one with a girl protagonist on the cover, which is too bad.
Did you ever cheat while reading? Make a choice and peek at the instructed page to see if you were immediately eaten by an ogre? Yes? Then SHAME on you. That’s a sign of stunted emotional intelligence. You probably grew up to be a criminal.
This post is not about the Choose Your Own Adventure books (though once I started down memory lane, I was sorely tempted to make the whole thing only about them). It’s about the future of storytelling and my own curiosity about what will happen to novels going forward.
I’m entering the authoring game at a time of crazy transition. Having spent most of my life with only paper books, it’s scary to consider the future of “reading for pleasure” (but not because I’m old. I’m so insanely YOUNG I can’t even remember the Roosevelt administration).
I started to think about Choose Your Own Adventure again because the new storytelling technologies—digital print, instantaneous distribution, and VR—seem to be pushing us toward two shared characteristics: customizability and interactivity.
The most obvious inroad by VR is in gaming. Plenty of tech prognosticators predict that VR will expand the reach of games beyond the traditional video gaming community and into mass storytelling. The full immersion into fabricated worlds—without having to master a complex game controller—should bring in lots of people who never sat down to play video games.
But not everyone will want to shoot beasts or go on quests. They will still want stories told by storytellers, even if they become active participants. HBO’s Westworld played with this a bit (though it wasn’t VR). Stories designed by writers to play out as the writers intend but also changeable by the actions of the users/readers.
What about film and television? We’ve already reached a high level of customizability in pattern and method of consumption. VR movies are inevitable, but will they become interactive? One possibility is the multiple-story VR universe. You buy a ticket (or the universe itself) join a world of multiple complete stories in progress. You won’t be able to alter them, but you can choose which stories to follow—even choose which characters to accompany for unique perspectives on each story.
And you can come back again and again for repeat—and entirely unique—viewings.
What about books? They are the oldest physical medium for storytelling and perhaps the most difficult future to predict. Will there be any room for complete print stories told by an author to a passive reader? As both reader and writer, I hope so.
I hope paper books are around for a long time (and 2016 was a very good year for them). But it’s hard not to expect the distinct storytelling mediums—books, television, movies, and gaming—to increasingly bleed into each other, giving consumers more and more choice and options for interactivity. You may not buy just a book, but a multi-component story that includes both print, video, and interactive VR experiences.
At what point will it all cease to be storytelling and become storychoosing? Storyliving? (I’m trademarking all of these, btw. Dibs on every compound iteration of the word ‘story’ in the English language)
In many ways, I’m still like my nine-year-old self. I like bugs, reptiles, and donuts. But when it comes to fiction, I no longer want to choose my own adventure. I want a great artist to do it for me.
But maybe I’m just inflexible (but still so incredibly, unbelievably YOUNG. Remember the Treaty of Versailles? I don’t. I’ve only read about it in books).
I’d probably be pretty terrible at the whole “interactive story universe” thing anyway. I can imagine my indecision after putting on my VR helmet and plunging into the world with an AI Story Guide to get me started.
Story Guide: Welcome, traveler, to HyperSuperSpaceUniverse X!
Story Guide: You have a ship, supplies, weapons, and maps of the universe. Choose a planet, moon, nebula, space station or asteroid, and begin your adventure!
Walker: That sounds really complicated.
Story Guide: It’s not complicated, it’s liberating! Instead of one author controlling your experience, you have ultimate freedom! The possibilities are endless. Thousands of stories, cultures, and characters await your discovery.
Walker: Could you pick one for me?
Story Guide: Um… I’m not really supposed to do that.
Walker: But which one is best?
Story Guide: That’s for you to discover!
Walker: I really only have like an hour before dinner, so there is limited time for me to find a story in here I like. I need help.
Story Guide: Geez guy, just pick one. They’re all fun.
Walker: How about a nudge? Which one would you choose?
Story Guide: I’m just an AI here to help facilitate your entry into the universe. I don’t have a preference.
Walker: What about that planet over there?
Story Guide: Go for it.
Walker: Has anybody Yelped it yet?
Story Guide: It doesn’t really work like that.
Walker: Did just one artist serve as cinematographer for that planet, or was it multiple people?
Story Guide: Multiple.
Walker. Gosh, I just don’t know.
Story Guide: (sigh) Ok, go to Planet Allesio and land in the city of Druli. Go to the tavern closest to the spaceport and say you are looking for smuggling work.
Walker: People like that one?
Story Guide: Sure.
Walker: Does that story have a name?
Story Guide: It’s Plot 1.7.36a.
Walker: And was it written entirely by the original author of the universe, or subcontracted out?
Story Guide: Subcontracted.
Walker: Hmmm. What else you got?
Story Guide: I’m leaving now.
Walker: No you’re not. I paid $3,000 for this story universe, and that includes a dedicated AI facilitator at all times.
Story Guide: Damnit.
So what about you? Did you read the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Do you fall in love with characters from books enough to want them in other mediums? I’ve often wondered if age has a lot to do with this or nothing at all. Does younger mean more receptive to story customizability? Or do we divide among gamers and non-gamers?
Probably too big for a blog post. For now, I’m going to let my favorite authors tell me where to go, what to see, and how the story ends while I still can.