Nonsequential Narratives: Hypertextual Books
What your weapon of choice has to do with the evolution of storytelling.
By Maria Popova
Remember Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, the interactive fiction hit of the 80’s? Designer Christian Swinehart is dissecting the genre in CYOA — an incredibly ambitious atomic-level structural analysis of a dataset of 12 such books, visualizing all the possible reader paths within the narrative.
The color-coded visualizations divide the plot of each book into different structural elements and groups based on the number of choices offered and how positive or negative the story ending is. The twelve books are then laid out chronologically, each arranged into rows of ten pages to better reveal their structural patterns. You can even explore each of the narratives as an animated visualization.
This visual dissection of literature reminds us of Stefanie Posavec’s Writing Without Words, though Swinehart’s approach is much less abstract and far more technically elaborate.
While CYOA books may seem like a fad of the past, they’re actually an early example of much of the non-linear storytelling and interactive narratives that take place on the web today — jumping around book pages, constructing your own story, is a lot like exploring a blog through its tag cloud rather than reading the entries sequentially, or skimming your RSS reader with articles from different publishers showing up in a shared timeline, or just hopping around your countless browser tabs.
What makes Swinehart’s CYOA visualizations noteworthy is that they offer insight not only into the structural patterns of the genre, but also into its evolution, revealing a gradual decline in possible endings — the earlier books show a colorful mix of reds and oranges, the middle of the story outcome polarity spectrum, while in the later ones a single favorable ending, in yellow or blue, tends to emerge.
And we hope this isn’t a prophetic metaphor for where the evolution of modern storytelling is headed — but we have to agree with artist and explorer Jonathan Harris, who has spoken up against the sad homogenization of the web. In an era where anyone can be the co-creator of our collective story, it’s all the more important to preserve the authenticity of voices and the diversity of proverbial “reader paths.”
Explore CYOA and think about the endings you’re choosing for your own stories through the kinds of content and narratives you engage with daily, both online and off.
Published November 19, 2009