x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Technology for new adventurers

The Chose Your Own Adventure books are revamped digitally for the 21st century.

The book Return to the Cave of Time by Edward Packard is the first of the Choose Your Own Adventure series to be revamped for the digital age.
The book Return to the Cave of Time by Edward Packard is the first of the Choose Your Own Adventure series to be revamped for the digital age.

It's 1981. At amusement arcades, kids queue up to play Donkey Kong. But in terms of home entertainment, it's a different story. Gamers, who in years to come will be seduced by Sega and Nintendo, have their noses buried in books that not only transport them to exotic worlds, but put them at the centre of the action. The promise of adventure, of journeys under the sea, in space and through deserts is just a page turn away. But which page to turn to? That was the real joy of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which gave the reader either/or choices at the bottom of each mini-chapter. For the first time, you were the star of your own story.

And the Choose Your Own Adventure series would become indelibly etched in the memories of anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, as Edward Packard and Richard Montgomery's books spiralled into an incredibly successful franchise. The first titles were the fantasy-lite brainchild of Packard, but eventually there were Walt Disney, Indiana Jones and Star Wars branded spin-offs. It's estimated that between 1979 and 1998, a staggering 250 million Choose Your Own Adventure books were sold. So perhaps it's no surprise that they're back, revived for the 21st century as apps, with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad compatibility.

The first in the revamped series, Return To The Cave Of Time, is now available to download in the US. One of the most popular books, the cave in the title acts rather like a portal: the starting-off point for escapades across time. But even if original readers are somehow able to cast their minds back to 1985, when the original story was published, it's doubtful they'll recognise the 2010 version. The first change is obvious - every move is made by tapping the screen rather than turning to the appropriate page. But Packard has also promised sound and music, alien voices and, when he presented the app to the world's media in New York last week, "a lot more variations, endings, and special situations. Our goal is not to merely port over the text to a mobile reading device, but to focus on creating new, immersive experiences for readers."

Read between the lines, and Packard was having a sly dig at the multitude of unofficial Choose Your Own Adventure apps already available. Most are dull, lifeless experiences, but the publishers Simon & Schuster are undeniably late to the party. There are, for example, already apps for the books that first imitated Packard's original vision decades ago. The Fighting Fantasy series, which added dice to proceedings and kicked off in the early 1980s with the evocative titles The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel Of Chaos and Deathtrap Dungeon, was, the first time around, a huge success. So the arrival of those adventures on iPhone in January this year seemed to be a cause for celebration. But they were was full of bugs and disappointments. It didn't take long to realise more is expected from games these days.

Which is a bit of a shame. In digitising these gamebooks - whether rudimentarily in the case of Fighting Fantasy or expansively in the case of Choose Your Own Adventure - the quirks that made the books so magical in the first place are sadly wiped away. As an eight-year-old, I was scared stiff by what one bad choice could mean in these quests, even further frightened when turning to the wrong page in error and alighting upon unspeakable, horrific punishments dealt to the unsuspecting adventurer. Of course, it's not possible to do that in a digital version - a tap on the screen removes all room for error. The Citadel Of Chaos, with its evil Sorcerer Balthus Dire (and isn't that a great name?), worked precisely because the nightmarish Black Tower terrorised the imagination. To have the sounds of a chaotic citadel tinnily emanating from an iPhone just isn't the same.

All of which begs the question: who are these next generation of gamebooks actually for? Read the comments on the Fighting Fantasy app and it's very much thirtysomethings on a nostalgia trip. The Choose Your Own Adventure app - unsnazzily renamed U-Ventures - is published by Simon & Schuster's Children's division, so their focus is clear. But in today's ultra-crowded marketplace, if either of them are anywhere near as popular as the original adventure books... well, it'll be the most unbelievable story of all.