Shannon Gilligan’s “Cup of Death” is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style novel where the reader makes decisions about which path to take every time the storyline comes to a crossroads. The core of the story revolves around finding who took a valuable tea bowl from a Japanese tea ceremony. What is peculiar about the story is that it has multiple outcomes that exist in the same universe, yet are stout contradictions with the other branches of the timeline. For instance, if the reader chooses to investigate Hiro Narita, a Japanese congressman and guest at the tea ceremony, the resolution of the story is that a maid by the name of Akiko Tanaka took the bowl and has multiple motivations for the act based on your actions, the most innocent being she wanted her ill grandfather to have a nice bowl for likely his last New Years’ tea ceremony. However, if the reader chooses to investigate Shoji Hata, an official from the ministry of the arts, or Noriko Oda, a gem dealer, you learn that they are in cahoots to steal the valuable bowl to sell on the black market. With this line of reality, many more nefarious outcomes become available, such as the reader being drowned in the trunk of a car or being shot while hiding in a closet.
Since the different outcomes cannot even agree on the basic principles of the story, such as having the same criminal, it’s tempting to dismiss the book as nonsensical. However, our perceptions are skewed by the omnipotence that we as readers are granted by rereading the story multiple times to discover the contradictory outcomes. If one were to just read one outcome and only that outcome, the reader would leave satisfied as the story provided, while short, is logical based on the information given. It’s only by viewing the timeline of the book as a tree of decisions instead of linearly, as we would experience it in real life, that the book starts to lose its cohesiveness.
But is it the same as real life? Our lives are filled with what-ifs and hypothetical scenarios that we can only play out in our minds. This book could be interpreted as a representation of a “butterfly effect” type of thinking in reference to time and that the effects are extreme. For instance, perhaps Akiko borrowing the bowl drives something in the reader to choose to investigate Hiro Narita rather than Hata or Oda. Our actions have not caused Akita to take the bowl, but instead her actions have affected our choice. Instead of only seeing the viewpoint that our decisions create the outcomes, maybe the other characters decisions have affected our timeline so that we choose to investigate different suspects accordingly.
While some readers might interpret this as a suggestion that something more divine is guiding our lives, or that fate is real and dictates our next immediate choice, the reality is that the linear paths through the decision tree reveal the main flaw that no “Choose Your Own Adventure” style work can overcome: we are not truly choosing anything. All possible causes and effects are laid out into tidy storylines. We cannot deviate from the author’s vision; we cannot make our own original ideas. Unlike real life where we have unbridled free will, the interactivity and creativity is heavily limited. If the adventure was truly mine to choose, why must I either “choose to leave by rowboat” or “use the motorboat to escape” when my own free-thinking choice would be to swim? While the possible outcome tree that is given is definitely possible and logical, it is not in depth enough to cover an individual’s true decision-making and thought process. I am not using my own intuition to perform a creative solution to the given problem. It’s strikingly ironic that a book that touts “CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE” in bold red type above the title actually allows for absolutely no creativity or critical decision-making.
But does this matter? “Choose Your Own Adventure” is only a shallow genre of poorly written children’s literature, why should it be held to such high literary and scientific standards? The true argument to be made has actually little to do with a book, but with modern forms of entertainment. Role playing games, in both real world and digital forms, are an immensely popular, multimillion-dollar business. They are enticing because of the interactivity and depth that is seemingly offered to the player. However, much like the book, the interactivity and your footprint in the storyline are completely fictitious and you cannot deviate from the track set by those who have created the fantasy.
A beautiful example of a role playing game limiting decisions (with the bonus of a futuristic dystopian theme that this course often takes) is the game series Fallout. The game is played from the viewpoint of “the Chosen One,” the person who will come from a vault to restore humanity to a nuclear wasteland across America. The game is very in depth with the factions of people with which one can interact and the outcomes are heavily affected by the missions completed and the “karma” of the character based on their crimes against humanity, such as theft, murder or cannibalism. The combination of your actions and the actions of the factions can change your outcome from purifying a water source in Washington D.C. to save the city to becoming a ruthless wanderer who enslaves innocent people for profit.
While the series prides itself on providing the player a seemingly infinite sandbox world where their every decision affects the outcome, the reality is that it’s just a port for a very large Choose Your Own Adventure book. All of the missions are scripted with a limited number of possible outcomes. The people that you can interact with will never have something new or original to say to you. Saving the town of Megaton from a nuclear bomb does not improve humanity or put you closer to your goals, but only sends you down a linear path in the tree different than the scripted path that involves you setting up the bomb.
The format of a video game allows for slightly more human involvement and decision-making than a book simply due to the medium. While a book only has so many pages and can force the reader into a “this-or-that” type of choice, the game must account for my own desires outside of the scripted storyline. For instance, one faction that exists in Fallout calls themselves the “Brotherhood of Steel.” They hold technology in high regard and see pre-war science as the key to re-establishing civilization. They are frequently harsh and controlling of outsiders and violently oppose those with different ideas. Because I exist in real life, I made the independent decision to kill every member of the Brotherhood in the camp because I disagreed with their policies. Shockingly, the game did not care. Killing around twenty people unprovoked was deemed less of a major, game-changing decision than its boring, but scripted storylines, such as collecting 100 bottlecaps from a popular soda or helping a townsperson write a book. It was as if there was no cause and effect for my actions at all; I was neither punished nor exalted by the witnesses. To be clear, not only does the game not give you true interactivity, it actively rejects your attempts to freely interact with it!
Perhaps the most overlooked option in both Fallout and the Choose Your Own Adventure series is the option to do nothing. The choice to not make a choice is one I commonly make in my own life, and the result is decided by time. However, in both the medium of a book and a video game, time does not pass. No matter how long I stare at the page, I will only ever have the two to four decision prompts that the book provides me. I will never be able to explain to the book that I do not care about a tea bowl and that I choose my own adventure to be waterskiing with my Japanese friends instead. What if I don’t care about the rest of humanity and I just want to live a peaceful life in my safe, radiation free vault? My interest is forced as long as I push my real existence into the book or game. But without anyone else to drive the story, every movement of time is dependent on my decision-making and nothing can happen until I have chosen a given option. Time refuses to pass without me.
When all of the limitations are considered, my relationship and interactivity with a book or a game is nearly zero, and I am closer to having a scenario dictated to me than choosing my own adventure.