The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Choose Your Own Adventure, or a different adventure entirely

These visualizations of Choose Your Own Adventure books are the best kind of data viz. Oh man. Christian Swinehart goes beyond mere correlation, way beyond eye candy. His narrative-crunching reveals new patterns—patterns I wouldn’t even have thought to wonder about. For instance: in a CYOA book, the story can end on any page. How are endings distributed throughout a book? Now you know.

But, re: eye candy, it is of course all absolutely beautiful.

However… in a project full of beauty, it’s not even the beauty I liked best. It was this detail, noted near the end, about the Choose Your Own Adventure book called UFO 54-40:

The branch diagram for UFO 54-40 is unique in that it has one ending—the Ultima ending—which is completely disconnected from the rest of the story. It exists as an island, unreachable through choices but discoverable thanks to the random access nature of the book.

An unreachable ending. AN UNREACHABLE ENDING. And yet:

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.

It’s the Kobayashi Maru! I am stunned and charmed.

Via Waxy and Noah Brier.

Update: Some CYOA context! Mark Sample provides a history of Choose Your Own Adventure viz.


A whole meta-history could be written about the history of data visualizations of CYOA books. The subject seems to be a perennial favorite that surfaces on the web every 6-12 months.

As far as I can determine, one of the first attempts was by Matthew Kirschenbaum, at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities, who back in 2004 was asking students to “map” Choose Your Own Adventure books. With Matt’s permission, I borrowed, revised, and expanded upon the assignment for my “Textual Media” classes at George Mason University. Here’s the latest version of the assignment, complete with my own map of CYOA #1, The Cave of Time.

My own interest in the mapping of these ergodic texts lies in the moral structure embedded within the novels, in which certain choices are rewarded and others are not. I’m also fascinated by the assumptions the books make about what constitutes a “failed” or “satisfying” ending; these assumptions, as I try always try to convince my students, tell us a great deal about what we humans like and don’t like in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Bergamot says…

I read a ton of CYOA books, and have a couple of vague memories, but one that stands out in my head was the time I found a continuity loop (I’m pretty sure it was an oversight on the author’s part) and spent the next few hours reading in circles.

That’s awesome. In a search for more info on the Ultima ending I just ran across this Ask Metafilter thread on CYOA that’s worth a read as well:

Len says…

awesome. I can’t believe the work that went into that webpage. Very satisfying.

Len says…

Christian Swinehart has a PhD in Computational Neuroscience.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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