Choose Your Own Adventure: Greatest Achievement in the Genre

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike…

Remember these? Recently they have been reprinted. I saw a bunch in a bookstore two months ago.


I wrote this year’s annual Christmas letter in the format of a CYOA book (actually more like a printed copy of Colossal Cave). After reading it, my friend Doug (of the CPH Gaming Collective) pointed me towards a *great* article on the narrative structure of the CYOA books.

The conclusion of the article discusses one very interesting CYOA ending in a specific book – Inside UFO 54-40. The winning ending is unique in that it is disconnected from the narrative graph. There is no series of choices you can make to get to that ending. You can only “win” by “cheating”.

In the story, your concord flight is interrupted when you are beamed aboard a nearby spacecraft trolling the universe for intelligent life. Once aboard you discover your new captors, the U-TY, are interested in keeping you around only to the extent that you can help them find Ultima, the ‘planet of paradise’. The planet’s location is cloaked in mystery and you are only told that it’s a place that cannot be reached ‘by making a choice or following directions’. However this is all foreshadowing for when the reader finally becomes frustrated in the apparently impossible quest and begins flipping through the book hunting for that ending. In fact not choosing is the only way to reach Ultima.

This ending was not just an easter egg for the obsessive reader who didn’t mind skimming every page looking for telltale words. Instead it’s hard to miss in even a casual riffling. A two-page illustration showing what could only be paradise (or perhaps a theme park) leaps out as the only spread in the book without any text. Flipping to the page before brings you to 101, where you discover that your curiosity has been rewarded. You have found the planet, not by following the constraints of the system, but by going outside of them – a fitting moral to the story and an encouraging reminder that any game should be a starting point for the imagination, not the end.

This is a beautiful gem. By far the most interesting ending in any CYOA book, it is significant exactly because it recants the basis of the whole medium! Free will triumphs over destiny. And yet, at the same time, you are still choosing your own adventure. This is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement in the genre.

It’s unusual too – for one of the most fascinating example of an element of a medium to be so deliciously self-annihilating. I can’t really think of another case where it happens.

696 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Adventure: Greatest Achievement in the Genre”

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