Luke Arnott is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, where he teaches courses on video games, live streaming, popular culture, and critical theory. His last article for First Person Scholar was “Blasto Sacer: Mass Effect as an Allegorithm of Sovereign Exception.”Follow the author on Twitter


In 2019, Chooseco, publisher of the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books, sued Netflix, claiming that Bandersnatch, a cutting-edge interactive episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror anthology series, had violated Chooseco’s CYOA trademarks. The suit, ultimately settled out of court (Robertson, 2020), highlights the curious longevity of the paperback gamebook. Chooseco’s lawyers argued that “choose your own adventure” has become the default term for that kind of story; indeed, the CYOA-style book has retained pop culture currency across many decades, long after the advent of far more complex narrative games. At the same time, however, Bandersnatch, about a British programmer hired to adapt a fantasy gamebook into a computer game in 1984, leans heavily into nostalgia for the gamebook’s unique historical context. This is no accident. Mid-1980s England was the wellspring of the most sophisticated print gamebooks, which (unlike the children’s CYOA books from America) used role-playing game mechanics and more salacious high-fantasy settings. How can we explain this ludo-narrative artefact, often overlooked or dismissed as an intermediate step between novels and video games? Why do gamebooks seem so dated and yet so timeless all at once?

     Media archaeology, a subfield of media studies that prioritizes material specificity and challenges technological determinism, offers a better approach to these questions than earlier one-way, evolutionary descriptions of media history. This theoretical lens explains the popularity of 1980s gamebooks – especially the kind featured in Bandersnatch – more fully than the usual histories that focus on CYOA, and it helps account for their complex relationship with other media experiments before and since. A media-archaeological framework also encourages a deeper understanding of the relationship between analogue and digital branching-path narratives, a relationship that is often glossed over even in game studies.

First, however, some definitions and background. A gamebook is a printed work of fiction that allows readers to select different narrative paths by jumping between pages or numbered sections. The first volume in Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series, which jump started the modern gamebook, appeared in 1979. Titled The Cave of Time, it was written by a Manhattan lawyer, Edward Packard, who came up with the concept to entertain his children and had been shopping it around to various publishers throughout the 1970s (Scaffetti, 1986).

Many competing series soon followed, such as Fighting Fantasy, beginning in 1982; Lone Wolf, in 1984; and Sherlock Holmes: Solo Mysteries, in 1987.

These latter series, targeted more toward older children and adults, outpaced CYOA in narrative sophistication, sometimes continuing stories across multiple books, while also adding RPG-style character sheets, inventories, and random number generation mechanics. So, while all CYOA books are gamebooks, not all gamebooks are CYOA. The genre faded by the late 1990s, but print gamebooks saw a revival in the 2010s. “Classic” books in many series have been reprinted, and CYOA and Fighting Fantasy have recently published new stories. It is difficult to say if this is a result of the hype and controversy surrounding Bandersnatch, or if it reflects an increasingly uncertain zeitgeist, marked as much by the churn of pop-culture reboots as by “post-truth” political turmoil (and even parodied in the gamebook Can You Brexit?).

Gamebooks are rarely the subject of games scholarship. Too bookish to be games, too game-like to be books, they never fit easily into a discrete analytical category. The computerized interactive fiction of the 1970s and 1980s gets more attention (Montfort, 2003), despite (or perhaps because of) presenting nearly the same narrative content, albeit through crude language-parsing programs. The hypertext novels of the 1990s were even closer in narrative structure to gamebooks; but unlike gamebooks, these were never popular beyond avant-garde practitioners and “new media” scholars (Mangen & van der Weel, 2017). Even analogue role-playing games, which took decades to reach mainstream respectability, have attracted more critical attention, coinciding with the renaissance in tabletop games starting in the late 1990s. When gamebooks are mentioned by sympathetic scholars, it is often in passing – a stepping-stone for moving on to other, newer developments in role-playing and interactive narrative (Salter, 2014; Zagal & Deterding, 2018); discussion of gamebooks themselves is limited to formal analyses conducted for educational or design purposes (Adams et al., 2019; Swinehart, n.d.; Wake, 2016; Zagal & Lewis, 2015). Meanwhile, the fact that gamebooks are, by design, solitary forms of play makes them of little interest to sociologists who might otherwise be interested in studying games.

The short heyday of print gamebooks also makes it easy to ignore or dismiss their significance. Part of this is due to the teleological bias of technological-determinist interpretations. The assumption goes something like this: branching-path narratives were developed in early gamebooks like CYOA, but then were improved upon by computer games and therefore superseded. However, this perspective falls apart under a more nuanced analysis, which takes into account, on the one hand, the history of non-linear writing and, on the other hand, the details of analogue-digital technological flux during the 1970s and 1980s.

To the first point, there is a long tradition of non-linear, generative writing going as far back as the Yijing (I Ching), compiled during China’s Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1045-771 BC). Much more recent precursors include the 1930 novel Consider the Consequences! by Doris Webster and Mary Alden,

and the efforts by members of the OULIPO group, such as Raymond Quesneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961). Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Garden of the Forking Paths” (1941) is also often mentioned as foreshadowing branching-path narrative, though the paths are described as part of the plot and are not a formal feature of the story. These predecessors make it hard to consider gamebooks of the 1970s and 1980s as truly innovative, since there is nothing about written text as a medium that prevents it from being organized as a gamebook. However, the fact that previous modern experiments never caught the popular imagination challenges the idea that the demand for branching-path narratives is a cultural constant, straining against the limits of analogue text until bursting forth at last with the advent of computers.

A linear, teleological approach also overlooks the second point, namely the analogue-–digital flux of the time: text-based branching path computer programs already existed and were flourishing before the first officially-branded CYOA book was published. Early precursors such as The Oregon Trail (Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger, 1971), Hunt the Wumpus (People’s Computer Company, 1973), and Adventure aka Colossal Cave Adventure (Crowther, 1976) were already spreading among early computer enthusiasts, and Zork (Infocom, 1977-1979) brought the genre to a broader public, and commercial profitability, in 1978.

Moreover, the sharp decline in text-based computer games preceded the decline of print gamebooks. In a particular historical irony, Zork publisher Infocom released gamebook adaptations of its earlier text-based games as the company’s fortunes fell in the late 1980s.

Media archaeology offers a more useful theoretical framework for understanding print gamebooks, not least because it grapples with exactly the kind of overlapping, non-linear history discussed so far. Associated with critics like Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (cf. Huhtamo & Parikka, 2011; Parikka, 2012; Huhtamo, 2013), among others, media archaeology exists, according to Parikka,

somewhere between materialist media theories and the insistence on the value of the obsolete and forgotten through new cultural histories that have emerged since the 1980s. I see media archaeology as a theoretically refined analysis of the historical layers of media in their singularity – a conceptual and practical exercise in carving out the aesthetic, cultural, and political singularities of media. (Parikka & Hertz, 2010, n.p.

Media archaeologists, like their ruin-excavating namesakes, metaphorically sift through the material strata of all manner of communications technologies, always with an eye to their “singularities” – the unique circumstances of their time and place. Less a fixed method than a set of research priorities, media archaeology, therefore, seeks to present counter-narratives to the sort of techno-determinism which falls short of understanding the significance of gamebooks. Media archaeology’s particular interest in obsolete or dead media, and their relation to newer technological forms, is especially useful here.

For instance, consider how printed text itself was mooted as an “obsolete” medium as early as the 1970s (The Office of the Future, 1975) that nevertheless continued to shape computing in the 1980s and beyond. Early popular computer programs and games still relied on printed instruction manuals to be understood and propagated, and game scholars have increasingly considered these and other paratexts (Švelch, 2020), such as arcade cabinets, important to study. Alison Gazzard (2019), to cite one example, uses a media archaeology lens to show the role that 1980s computing magazines had in Britain by publishing code as analogue text.

If remediation (Bolter & Grusin, 1999) is the recurrence of old media in new media, media archaeology can reveal this process operating in reverse, a kind of de-mediation, where new media are translated back into older forms: recall the aforementioned Infocom gamebooks whose pages returned to the world first seen in the Zork computer games. Another striking example is Double Trouble (Bosco, 1991), a print gamebook starring Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers published years after their video-game debut.

Media archaeology, by eschewing neat chronologies and unidirectional progress, highlights how alternate media histories overlap conventional accounts of media shifts.

Media archaeology’s focus on the distinct material attributes of older forms is also essential when examining gamebooks. The particular affordances of the print codex – a book whose paper pages are bound along a spine, in contrast to older “books” handwritten on papyrus scrolls, clay tablets, or bamboo sticks – are not fully replicated even in contemporary branching-path narrative games. Therefore, it follows that digital versions have not simply replaced the affective experience of print gamebooks. One example of this is what gamebook pioneer Ian Livingstone has called the “five-fingered bookmark” (Leith, 2017). This refers to when readers, unsure which path to take, skip ahead to skim multiple sections at once and use more and more fingers as temporary bookmarks in case they need to go back one or more steps. The ability to skip ahead and backtrack if things go wrong is not always allowed in digital programs where the game mechanics are hidden from the player. Nor are unique material practices limited to reader reception. The meta-narrative tricks employed by gamebook writers also depend on the material affordances of the codex form. For instance, the CYOA novel Inside UFO 54-40 (Packard, 1982) famously keeps its “best” ending, in which the reader finds the paradise planet of Ultima, inaccessible if one only follows the available paths. No other page leads to it, and only by turning there directly are readers rewarded for playing outside the supposed rules of the game.

The Ultima ending “exists as an island, unreachable through choices but discoverable thanks to the random access nature of the book” (Swinehart, n.d.).

A media-archaeological approach also gives us a new way to see what gamebooks and other related forms have in common, from the grammatical (second-person narration) to the representational (the tropes of high fantasy). Instead of being an evolutionary dead end, gamebooks tackled many competing and conflicting trends in interactive and branching path narrative in the 1970s and 1980s. The period saw the simultaneous explosion in the popularity of branching path narratives in both computer programs and in analogue tabletop role-playing games. By the early 1980s, companies like Infocom were booming, as was Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. Eli Cook (2021) ascribes the success of choice-based “you” narratives during this period to the rise of free-market ideology of the so-called “Me Decade” in America, but this only accounts for the relatively simplistic CYOA books, and leaves out the more sophisticated gamebooks that appeared later, in Europe and elsewhere. It also doesn’t account for the fact that CYOA books presented readers with fewer possible choices on average as the series went on (Swinehart, n.d.).

The gaps in this explanation are particularly clear in the British context, to which Bandersnatch looks back nostalgically. There, the CYOA fad inspired publishers to copy the general idea, but the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and its combat innovations –      character classes, dice rolls and point tracking, complex wayfinding – are arguably clearer. There are historical and economic reasons for this. Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, co-creators of the Fighting Fantasy series, had earlier founded The Games Workshop, which had, in the early days of UK tabletop gaming, risen to prominence by securing a three-year exclusive deal to distribute D&D in Europe (Leith, 2017). Livingstone and Jackson would both go on to have successful careers in video games – Livingstone as an executive for Eidos, helping oversee the Tomb Raider and Hitman franchises, and Jackson as co-founder of Lionhead Studios, the developer of Fable. Here, too, there is slippage and overlap that puts the lie to a rigid dichotomy separating books and games.

Other local economic and cultural factors are also important in understanding the churn of competing technologies and formats. During the boom in interactive text-based narratives in the early 1980s, market leader Infocom was selling mostly in the United States; the company’s titles, according to British interactive fiction programmer Graham Nelson, “were rarely-seen exotica: a luxury brand for those in the know” when he was growing up (Montfort, 2003, p. 115). This was due to the disparity in computer ownership during this same period, especially of the expensive floppy disk drives needed to load the games. Throughout the 1980s, per capita, PC ownership in America consistently outnumbered Britain by a factor of three or four (Personal Computers (per 100 People), n.d.). The relative dearth of video game consoles in Europe may also have been a factor, just as the opposite phenomenon, a burgeoning console market in Japan, spurred development of the JRPG outside a tabletop gaming or gamebook tradition comparable to that found in America or Britain. (For the computing context of 1970s and ‘80s Japan, see Picard, 2013.)

As with text-based computer games, the fact that gamebooks were written in English is also worth noting. The most popular series were translated from English into dozens of languages, but there did not appear to be internationally popular gamebooks that originated outside Anglophone markets. One exception is perhaps the Alea Jacta Est! series, which featured characters from the long-running Asterix comics.

Obviously, there is nothing inherent in English as a language that makes it better suited for gamebooks; rather, this highlights how the written word, as a technology, remains contingent on the inequities of cultural imperialism and other market biases.

Media archaeology helps properly situate gamebooks with their many descendants, in addition to their contemporaries. Here too, the importance of gamebooks has been elided by critics in favour of visual narrative in games. For example, Anastasia Salter (2014) notes how the creators of graphic adventure games (which had their own boom-and-bust cycle through the 1980s and 1990s) see their form living on in contemporary story-games. But arguably, the specific combination of literariness, random chance, and simplified RPG elements that distinguished gamebooks is even more prevalent in modern interactive fiction, such as the Verne-inspired steampunk-globetrotting adventure 80 Days (inkle Ltd, 2015),

or the meta-game puzzling of visual novels like the Zero Escape trilogy (Spike Chunsoft, 2009–2016). Gamebooks, far more than adventure games, laid bare the way they operated, and contemporary game engines and authoring tools that aim to replicate the gamebook experience, such as Ink, Choicescript, or Twine, simplify the coding experience for authors and readers alike. Gameplay mechanics have remained a literal open book.

In one last irony, the writers of Bandersnatch used Twine to plot out and keep track of the interactive movie’s complex script (Reynolds, 2018). The fact that digital technology for authoring hypertext novels was needed to recreate the structure of an analogue gamebook, all to present a nostalgic homage to that same “obsolete” form, only highlights the problems of reducing gamebooks to an intermediate step between novels and video games. The non-linear structure of gamebooks is a fitting metaphor not only for game history but also for the recursive process of game historiography and media archaeology – in which we travel back in time to see what might have happened had we taken a different path.



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