I recently read two interactive books that, instead of recounting an adventure, explored a person’s life.
The first was Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography (2014), a fun, silly jaunt through the actor’s life and times.
The second was Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery (1999), an ambitious fusion of pop-culture and literary sensibility exploring the life of an ordinary man.
Both are variations on the Choose Your Own Adventure model, but they use the interactive format in different ways. NPH’s book uses choices to guide your browsing through the book, asking you what topic or event you’d like to read about next and then sending you to the right page to do so. Sometimes the book gives you choices about how Neil should act or what he should say, and invariably when you choose something different to what really happened the book pitches you into a dramatic, overwrought scene where some dismal fate befalls Neil, a parody of the CYOA books’ habitual infliction of sudden and unexpected death upon their protagonists.
Newman’s book has a more conventional use of the choice model, asking you to make choices as you grow up – the first choice, brilliantly, is a high-stakes playground confrontation where you have to choose which character on a popular TV show is your favourite. Across hundreds of pages Newman takes you through many different paths through life, and as you read over the book the echoes between the different histories acquire fascinating resonance. The book includes some paths that descend into the tone of horror novels, and others that develop into revenge thriller or action story mode. Overall I think Newman’s using the structure to explore how we relate to moral questions in fiction – certainly many of the paths you might take turn you into a monster of some description or other. (There’s also a fascinating series of interstitial pieces that don’t fit into any of the paths, which tell a separate story providing some kind of context for the whole.)
Two books using interactivity to reach for something beyond the conventional adventure mode, and both are successful on their own very different terms. They both, strangely, feel somewhat exhaustive of the interactive mode with regards to their topics – it’s hard to envisage how this kind of interactivity could be applied to a light biography or a literary exploration of the entirety of a man’s life without treading on the toes of these books. Does this point at an inherent limitation of interactive narrative? Is it really just a gimmick, however seriously it’s explored? Hardly, but it does demonstrate that a CYOA structure does impose a lot of weight on whatever story it tells – it deforms any narrative. It’d be interesting to compare these efforts to some of the work happening in the Twine space lately, or in the Interactive Fiction world for a long time – moving this structure to the screen, and outside conventional book publishing constraints, provides a lot more freedom to move.
For anyone looking at interactive storytelling, Choose Your Own Autobiography is worth a look, and Life’s Lottery is probably essential.