March 24, 2012
Choose your own adventure books present themselves as a way for people who enjoy interactivity (mostly videogames) to start reading books and still fulfill their need to be in control in some way. Cup of Death is a really interesting prism through which to look because it is a more simple and boiled down version of more “risky” forms of interactivity. The way we perceive video games and choose your own adventure books is the real difference. With a video game we have to make decisions immediately and “live” with those decisions as we work our way through the game. In a book we can physically flip back to a page before, or even peek ahead. I think that they only reason many of us find Cup of Death less rewarding is because, first there is no graphics and second, because there is no technology (i.e. computers or game consoles) involved.
My favorite video game by far is Super Mario. I never gave the narrative much thought as I jumped from platform to platform and was sucked down pipe after pipe; Princess Peach was the least of my concern. I knew that ultimately that was the point of the game, and that I would rescue the Princess if I had to, but the number of lives I had left was far more present in my mind. While reading Cup of Death, the only thing I could think was “Where is the bowl!” Cup of Death and other similar books also have the disadvantage of being too easy to jump ahead in. When we are presented with a choice we “have to” make one but we can easily turn the page back or forward to understand more about the novel, or more about the appropriate choice. In Super Mario and the alike the choices you make, are for the immediate future, permanent. If I happened to miss a 1up mushroom more than a few spaces back I can’t return to it. There is also some real “risk” of your choices causing consequences. In a choose your own adventure when I made a choice and died, this didn’t mean anything, I could make a new choice and move on in the story, when I die in a video game I risk having to do most of the work all over again, unlike in a book where I can retain the information indefinitely and just go back as far as I want.
Along with these choices is a temptation factor. Of course in many video games cheat codes can move you through the game faster, and give you powers normally reserved for those who earned them, but for the most part you are pinned into doing some kind of “work” to achieve your goal. In Cup of Death all the cognitive work is done for me and reading it from cover to cover is easy and still gives you all the gratification of knowing what the various outcomes would be.
So what is the difference between the simple narrative in Super Mario and the simple choose your own adventure narrative Cup of Death? First there is the graphics.
Graphics are an all-consuming business in the video game world. Billions of dollars are spent to make the fictional worlds in which we play and interface with lifelike and convincing. Graphic designers for games can make anywhere from forty thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands just so that fake interactive lands are compelling. Today the graphics are not they only things that make the videogames interesting. “Many games are essentially small movies now. Some, like Metal Gear Solid 4 included enough cutscenes (non-played movie sequences) to fill multiple feature length films, and most story driven games have at least some cutscenes.” Write Lucas Siegel in his article “Why are Video Games So Expensive.” However, for the more nostalgic game player Mario Bros.’ platform style offers little in the way of real life action (you can’t even go backward) and even less narrative but many of us still find ourselves sucked into the plumber’s warped world as we strive to rescue Princess Peach. Cup of Death offers infinitely more narrative than just about any of Nintendo’s Mario games but has little to none of the same entertainment value. The graphics in Super Smash Bros. drive the narrative.
Obviously graphics are not they only difference between video games and choose your own adventure; there is also the technological difference. A book is always a book, it is something you control completely thorough your pace but are limited by the space and choices that you are given. Technology infringes on your control in all video games but can also give more control in other ways. In a normal printed book there is no way to alter what is going on around you or to add to it in any way. In Cup of Death you are offered choices that you must take to move forward in the book. In a game like Final Fantasy, you are certainly offered choices, but there is also a more freeing ability to explore the “world” around you and make choices that are not as obvious and can feel like they are uniquely yours. Adding other people into the mix is also something that Halo and similar games gives its players. You can interact in the fabricated world with people, on the internet, who are across the globe, and there is no way to know really what they are thinking and how they are going to react to the challenges of that particular scene. This is where a book like Cup of Death and all novels of this genre fall completely out of the running as interactive in the minds of a lot of people.
Despite its limits Cup of Death offers a helpful way too look at interactivity as a whole. First of all it can do this because it’s simple. Drawing a map of choices we can see how limited we are in its structure but it is also a reminder that the only risk of reading this book is wasting an hour or two of your time. Drawing a similar map for even a game like Super Mario or Mario Bros would mean assessing every point at which the game could be ended, and this kind of choice mapping would be extremely difficult. Although computer or television screens, and pages in a book are definitely two different ways to interact, they are both processed in our heads and only in our heads. When we open Cup of Death we are not transported onto the street or into the tea house, and when we turn on World of Warcraft we are not delivered into the fictional world programmers have created, we are sitting on the couch or in our computer chair only risking what we have built on the screen or in our minds.
Living solely in our minds limits the time and our ability to interact with real people and the real world. Dreyfus, in On the Internet, fears exactly this kind of disconnectedness. His vision of a dystopian world in which digital interaction is the only interaction is devastatingly horrifying if the kind of interaction is anything like Cup of Death.
We can only make choices from the options we are given. If we can assume, and I’m sure we can, that all interaction with digital media is limited in this way, than I think it is clear that interactivity simply in digital or print form is too limited to offer real risk, to offer the kind of risk it takes to make choices worth while. When we are supplied with the temptation to flip forward and find out the ending, or the answer to our problem, what is the point of searching for it? Graphics can offer us some of the reality, they can give us the sense of a real world, but they still limit us to the choices programmed and manipulated by someone else. Internet technology can also give us some of the human interaction which we require to function but if we can be a character in Cup of Death while simultaneously being a character in Second Life and all the while being on our couch, then what difference does it make who we are? Boiling down its level of interaction amplifies the problems with false interaction like we have on the Internet. Although it is a different primitive version of interaction it is still bound by the same rules as videogames and Second Life and a simple way illuminate the problems we face when we rely simply on digital mingling to fulfill our human need for company and contact.
Siegel, Lucas. "Why are Video Games So Expensive?" NewsaRama. November 6, 2008. http://www.newsarama.com/games/081106-GameCost.html (accessed March 21, 2012).
 Lucas Siegel, "Why are Video Games So Expensive?," NewsaRama, November 6, 2008, http://www.newsarama.com/games/081106-GameCost.html (accessed March 21, 2012).