Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Existential Choose Your Own Adventure

This book is so good, it's not even a book.

As anyone who gave up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books at the age of twelve after developing a lifelong fear of paper cuts will be glad to hear, the genre has reemerged in none other than--yes--blog form (clicking on links is so much quicker and safer than turning to page 132, then back to 71, then to 12 for the third time [it's got to be the third time because you can see the dried blood on the page from the last two paper-wounded visits] because you're stuck in some loop and contemplating sending anthrax to the book's writer and/or publisher--which I never threatened to do as a child, unless, of course, the statute of limitations on such threats is up).

I don't know why I didn't think of using a blog to create a Choose Your Own Adventure myself--now that I've seen it done, the parallels seem so obvious. In each case, individual pieces are designed to be short and interactive. In each case, the writer frees the reader from the established hegemony of front-to-back reading by interconnecting the posts to allow readers to take their own trajectory through the work. The forms are so close, in fact, that you could improve the readability of any of the old Choose Your Own Adventure Books simply by plagiarizing it into a blog, wiki, or other digital form.

Oh, but that would be like the Gutenberg Bible, a vast technological leap ahead of preceding Bible manuscripts but virtually indistinguishable from them, not having yet embraced the possibilities (such as adding verse numbers and inserting commentary) that moveable type print would make possible in the later Geneva Bible and its descendants.

The author of www.existentialadventure.blogspot.com is no mere Gutenberg. He is already beginning to explore the unique potential of his form, and the results are delightful. A few examples:

1) The blog looks for the implications of non-linear reading.

Traditional Choose Your Own Adventure books are still based on the concept of striving for a specific desirable end, such as getting a treasure or not dying a horrible death. This definition-by-ending reflects readers' expectations of print media.

As the title implies, however, this Existential Adventure is based on creating meaning through the journey instead. This innovation has as much to do with technology, I think, as with philosophy: in the '80s and '90s, kids accused their nerdier classmates of having read the encyclopedia--a task so improbable and boring in a world ruled by the hegemony of front-to-back that no one in their right mind would undertake it. Digital technologies have changed all that. Kids read wikipedia today for fun, understanding that you can enter at any point and don't even have to finish a page before you click away to somewhere else in a great and satisfying web of uncharted knowledge. I've yet to hear of someone trying to skip to the end of a blog or wiki to see where it's going before they'll commit to read it, as people still do with print.

The thrill of Existential Adventure, in accordance with its digital medium and philosophical interests, has much more to do with what you think about as you move from decision to decision and how you learn to define success than with any ending you may arrive at. Even the loops are not traps, per se, but opportunities to find meaning as Camus did in the the myth of Sisyphus. Sometimes you even want to lose yourselves in links you're fairly certain will not drive the story forward, which bring me to my next point:

2) The blog embraces the proliferation of choices possible in digital media.

The types of choices offered by traditional Choose Your Own Adventures books were often binary: do you choose this or that?, invariably action-driven: what do you want to do?, and of course, came all at once at specific turning points in the script, rather than in a perpetual stream of agency.

While Existential Adventure doesn't offer the mind-boggling array of choice available in real life, it offers more kinds of choice than the traditional choose-your-own adventure. While a number of choices await you at the end of each post, smaller choices are scattered all through the prose in an unobtrusive way: objects often have their own hyperlinks, so that you can, for example, stop and look at (if not smell) the flowers. Sometimes such links only go to images or other simple detail; other times they reveal otherwise-hidden information and possibilities.

Some extreme choice come in a sidebar as well as constant alternatives to the more contextually-driven responses available at the end of each post. In keeping with Camus' maxim that the only serious philosophical question is suicide, for example, killing yourself is always a sidebar option.

The blog also invites you to make choices about attitude and even philosophical orientation in addition to choice about physical action (one caution: I wouldn't recommend choosing determinism. If you do so, all subsequent posts will include lots of underlined options, but only with that is actually hyperlinked, presumably to reinforce your idea that choice is actually an illusion.) The meaning, again, is more in the mode than in the arc: it's about the kind of perspectives and choices you get in each individual post more than about the "plot" you manage to build as you choose your own course through. Mode over arc, presentation over representation: the times have changed, and keep changing.

3) The blog is less predictable than a box of chocolates.

About a week after I first ran across the blog, I happened to show it to a friend who made the same choices I did--but with different results. Further examination has convinced me that the blog is constantly being edited as well as being constantly expanded, leading to a Harry-Potter-esque uncertainty about where each metaphorical or literal staircase will lead. Editability is, after all, one of the most exciting as well as terrifying realities of the whole digital age. The world of choice and information is constantly shifting under one's feet, raising all kinds of epistemological and ontological questions.

So what will you choose: to hide from the implications of this new digital world and age, or, like Alice of old, to go down the Rabbit Hole that is Existential Adventure.

1 comment:

  1. Now that I'm over my initial excitement with the piece I'm realizing that there are lots of things it doesn't do to embrace the medium. For example, you don't get to places where the story ends and you have to start writing it or anything like that--the role of the user in generating content is still limited. Maybe a switch to a wiki format could change that, but could it still keep any kind of core and uniformity?


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