In 2018, Netflix released an interactive streaming movie titled “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” which allowed viewers to make choices. (One of the characters in the film explicitly references a story from Choose Your Own Adventure.) Chooseco sued Netflix for twenty-five million dollars, claiming its trademark had been infringed. He argued that its “marketing strategy includes appealing to adults now in their 20s, 30s and 40s who remember the brand with pleasant nostalgia from their youth”, and that the “dark and sometimes disturbing content of the film dilutes the goodwill for and positive associations with “the franchise. The lawsuit was settled out of court.”
No contemporary creation invokes the magic of Choose Your Own Adventure as strongly as “Sleep No More,” a hugely popular interactive theater production loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Arriving in New York in 2011, it allows viewers to stroll through a haunted Scottish hotel that takes up five floors of a cavernous building in midtown Manhattan. You can follow the characters through dark passages to watch their bickering and courtship, discover live eels swimming in grimy tubs, eat penny candies from jars, and stumble upon coveted one-on-one interactions with the actors (like the legendary “wheelchair ride” on the hidden sixth floor). The craving for other people’s experiences is practically built into the show –You watched a fucking orgy? You saw the nudity from the face?—but after a few visits I felt that this sense of regret, this awareness of all uncharted paths, was not just a clever marketing tool (why not re-watch the show?) but a powerful source of adrenaline during the experience, and a bittersweet form of realism: so much of life involves considering all that you have 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 thinking about his illness, Gilligan recalls. He couldn’t sit at a desk, so he wrote in bed on his iPad. Eventually, Gilligan transferred the file to his laptop and read it aloud to him as he dictated the changes.
Each Choose author writes their books differently. Poets do particularly well with structure, says Gilligan. They are not afraid to write in a non-linear way, and the demands of form inspire them like other generative constraints: the schemes of rhyme or meter, the structure of a sonnet or a ghazal. Gilligan was initially embarrassed to work on the Choose books; she felt chastened by the disdain of a friend who was getting a doctorate. in Yale Literature, and clearly thought the books were garbage. But over the years, she’s found herself content with the challenge of writing picks that genuinely appeal to young readers. The beginning of every Choose book should work like an epic poem – every line, every word, doing the work necessary to ground a reader in the story. She believes that books stem directly from oral storytelling, where the storyteller takes the advice of his listeners. Packard’s bedtime stories were nothing but another episode in this long human history of oral storytelling.
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 your ends,” he says, citing his own lingering concerns for success. His methodical style—precisely arranging his ends along a continuum from ideal to terrible—differed from his father’s more fanciful 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 everything, but not quite.
Gilligan, on the other hand, felt disappointed in herself when a friend pointed out that she had written a Choose book that had only one ideal ending; she feared that the book had unintentionally “reflected a monotheistic way of thinking”. Gilligan didn’t want to write a book suggesting there was only one way to truth, only one right way to move through the world. The whole premise of these books, she felt, was an opportunity to break free from these restraints.
You swim 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 arrive in time for high tide, writes the scene aloud 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 tide, and do you feel like an Olympic athlete, or do you swim to the right, against the current, and do you feel like you are getting nowhere? And eventually, the bottom drops and you find yourself in deeper water, beyond the reach of help.
Even at his age, Packard is still essentially a father who worries about his daughter, herself in her fifties, caught in a riptide. Just as you will always be a mother trying to anticipate the choices your own daughter will make – whether she’s four years old and listening to the Choose books you read aloud to her, or whether she’s twenty- four years old and wondering if she should quit a terrible job. , or an obsolete relationship. Right now, his favorite Choose book is “Prisoner of the Ant People.” She loves being their prisoner as much as she loves saving their queen. Every time you read her an ending in which she dies, you feel the brutal integrity of these books – that their choices promise you absolutely nothing except the ability to choose again.
Andrea thinks these books illuminate the value of regret. Regret should not contaminate the experience. It may inspire you to make different choices than you did 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 his wrist: KNOW THE REGRETS. As Packard tells you about his first divorce and how it shaped his thinking about decisions, you are, of course, thinking about your own divorce. In real life, most choices are impossible to undo. But you still have to create new ones. Maybe it’s there KNOW THE REGRETS comes in. Regret can’t change the past, but it can change the future. Life is no adventure to choose from, but these books have prepared you to feel elated and terrified by all the choices you will one day make. They gave you a way to understand that no end is really an end. After each ending, you must figure out what to do next. ♦