The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: Playing the Choose Your Own Adventure and Frankenstein eBooks

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

A few new interactive stories have made their way onto the iPad recently, including one series that will be very familiar to fellow children of the 80s and 90s. The Choose Your Own Adventure series is now on the iBookstore, bringing back nostalgic memories of the hours I spent in my middle school library reading those and other pulp books rather than going outside for recess. Kids today have it easy–they can sit outside with the iPad fiddling with new and different ways to get the child adventurers they embody in the CYOA novels killed, and then immediately switch to Angry Birds or its many successors. Thus, the real appeal of these throwbacks is probably for the older crowd, as “interactive” entertainment has made leaps since these “gamebooks” were particularly popular. But it is perfectly fitting for these books to show up on the iPad, a device that’s making this type of playfulness go mainstream.

The Choose Your Own Adventure novels were practically “eBooks” when they were written in text, and converting them to digital isn’t exactly new. However, the inclusion of these books, with their built-in story map visualization and links between sections in books sold directly through the iBookstore is new. This is due in part to Apple’s new tools for building ebooks, which have extended the range of embedded content and supported a move away from plain text and scanned images. iBooks Author definitely pushes beyond the old PDF-like model of eBooks and gives authors a wider framework for building books–a clear legacy of the type of thinking that lead to the CYOA books in the first place, which started to break readers out of their linear expectations.

Some of the new elements of the CYOA eBooks are really cool, although it is easier than ever to “cheat” through. There is a problem with the story maps: they can reveal too much, showing which path leads straight to an ending and which still has branches left to explore. Of course, part of the fun of CYOA books is leafing through to read all the endings, most of which involved death or misery of some kind. In the original books, the endings would often come out of nowhere, as the choice to turn right or left in a cave could quickly lead to a violent death. In many of the books, there’s almost no sense of deliberate choice and consequence, as to keep the pace and unpredicatability of the story a seemingly “good” choice could be just as easily punished as rewarded. I can’t make too much fun of this though, as when I used to speedread through a book or two of the series on the recess break I would always hold the pages for decision after decision to make sure I could try every option out to see which worked best before commiting. (Sadly, this principle does not work for the rest of life.)

This type of book owes a lot to stand alone apps, which Apple is cleverly pulling more under their “books” wing by allowing this type of interactivity in the iBookstore. Yet it is still more common for innovative editions or interactive books to rely on the construction of stand-alone apps, such as the new Frankenstein application. We owe so much of science fiction, and particularly our love of cyborgs and cyberpunk, to Mary Shelley. It makes its appearance on school reading lists regularly and remains foundational to the canon as an early cornerstone of the horror genre, even if it doesn’t have much “action” by the standards of the modern heirs. Enter Frankenstein the app, complete with many of the same fundamental structures as the CYOA novels.

Whether the app edition of Frankenstein could be called an improvement is open to debate, but in many ways it doesn’t try to supersede the original text as much as it complements it, and encourages the reader to re-engage with the familiar story. (The same could perhaps be said of Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’s movie and Broadway musical, but this is definitely a more serious approach!) However, it is definitely gorgeous, and there’s much more under the surface.

The most powerful pieces of the Frankenstein app put the reader closer to the perspective of the “creature”, allowing for choice in interaction and knowledge as the reader decides what is of interest and how to deal with life in close proximity to humans. While the story’s progression is still faithful to much of the original narrative, there is enough room for choice to make the app an exploration of humanity. It is only appropriate for a text that considers the possibility of the “ghost in the machine” to explore the moral dimensions of knowledge through the creature’s eyes. 

Of course, the Frankenstein app is still primarily text derived from and built around the original story structure. It’s possible for an adaptation to go much further, as with the just-funded Henry David Thoreau video game

 These revamped books (and games, though the line is getting blurrier!) are at the start of a new wave for the iPad, as each generation of iOS and iBooks Author promises more possibilities for exploring story. The literalness of the old CYOA books, with their second person address (what do *you* do?) may be heavy-handed, but the same decision-making model in the Frankenstein app is striking and meaningful. It’s not just about “you” as character–it’s “you” as the reader, directing your attention to different elements within the story, the same way we do even with the most traditionally presented of books. Apps give us new means and interfaces for the type of self-directed exploration we already believe in, especially if we grew up on CYOA novels and video games.