The Choose Your Own Adventure series of novels advertised the power of “YOU”, promising freedom and agency for their readers. Despite this veneer of freedom, the choices found within gamebooks were little more than a newer version of the didactic catechism.
The catechism is an old form of question-and-answer rote-learning used by religious authorities to mould the beliefs of their students. Each answer had a pre-determined ‘right’ answer, and failure to answer the teacher’s questions correctly was met with punishment, while getting the answer correctly led to progression towards the next question. This catechistic structure can be seen in many religious parables and teachings such as Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the implied correct answer is to aid, rather than ignore, the stranger in peril. The Samaritan who aids the stranger is awarded with narrative progression by Jesus, while the non-aiders are ignored.
Long before the Choose Your Own Adventure novels arose, the first ‘pick-and-choose’ books were created by the Radical Behaviourist B.F Skinner in the form of the Tutortext series. They used a catechistic structure, with readers being presented lessons by a teacher-narrator. Each choice in Tutortext has only one correct answer, with false answers causing the teacher-narrator to admonish the reader, encouraging them to return to their last page and to “pick another answer”. Correct answers granted progression onto the next lesson, a reward for obedience.
Gamebooks and Choose Your Own Adventure novels largely retain this structure, instead hiding it in a myriad of ways. Gamebooks are dominated with bad endings, many abrupt, which act as a punishment for failing to notice an implied danger in the text, or for selecting the wrong sequence of choices. “Good” endings, in contrast, lie at the end of long choice-consequence chains, a reward after a process of trial-and-error. Most, like Fighting Fantasy: City of Thieves, possess only ‘one true way’, an echo of the catechism’s spectre. Although the explicitly pedagogical voice of the catechism has been removed, the same structure of punishment and reward remains.