Cinema of Forking Paths

Choosing your own adventure on the little screen

At the outset, says Packard (now 67), no publisher understood how the books would work: "It was like the cartoon of two Hollywood producers where one says, 'We can't do this, it hasn't been done before.' " One year after Cave of Time, the publishing industry had not only become convinced by CYOA's success but had started to copy it; in addition to the CYOA titles, a passel of knockoffs appeared on shelves: Pick a Path to Adventure, the Lone Wolf series, even a Dungeons and Dragons version. "They helped saturate things and blow out the market," says Packer. This June, Bantam released the final title, Mayday!

The reasons for the stratospheric rise of the CYOA--and the causes for its eventual petering out--are enormously relevant to the future of interactive filmmaking. CYOA's staying power had much to do with each book's number of denouements, says Packard. But after a few years of producing the titles, he began to reduce the number of endings in an effort to indulge his authorial control. "I wanted more story and greater complexity with the characters," he says. In the last several books the number of endings diminished to 14, and then "some kids started complaining," Packard says.

Reducing the number of endings effectively reduced the number of possible stories, diminishing the books' potency. "To be alive in the 20th century is to be aware of the alternative possible selves, of alternative possible worlds, and of the limitless intersecting stories of the actual world," writes MIT prof Janet Murray in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck. Multiple endings are the direct translation of what Murray terms "pullulation" (splitting of reality).

The loss of reader control may have only been a small factor in bringing the CYOA series to a close (video games also played a part). But it's the reason why I'm Your Man seems so lightweight: all paths lead to virtually the same exit. Fortunately, the upcoming Planet Theory/Zuma titles dramatically ramp up the number of endings to 32, even 64 for Bombmeister. It's a sign that better bards are acclimating to the medium's capacity for an exponential number of endings. Here, there can be only one.


Research assistance: Deirdre Hussey

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