Thoughts on Interactive Fiction and Fantasy Cartography on the Anniversary of the Publication of the First Gamebook

Edward Packard‘s Sugarcane Island, is largely credited with kicking off the 1980s gamebook craze, exemplified by the beloved Choose Your Own Adventure series. Gamebooks, along with other forms of interactive fiction (including text-based computer games, fantasy cartography, and fantasy role-playing games) all flourished during my formative years and had a profound influence on my choice as an adult to continue exploring, adventuring, and making maps.

Perhaps it’s because my birthday just passed but I’ve been thinking a bit more than normal about the book I’m supposed to be working on. I was discussing it with a book publisher and she asked me a question that, although fairly obvious, I hadn’t really thought about much myself — namely, why do I make maps? I think that I answered that making maps helps me to get to know a place better than just looking at one or blindingly following the navigation instructions of a GPS… sort of the way writing down notes in school is more effective than recording a professor and then listening back to the recording — or at least for many of us. Maps are useful… and sometimes beautiful… and certainly fun to make. Most people don’t make maps, though, even if they’re desperately trying to make sense of a place. But, then again, most people in Los Angeles seem understandably resigned not to know the vast Metropolis in which they live beyond their own comfortable shire. What does one need to know besides where one lives, where one works, where one gets gas, and where one picks up food on the way between these points?

Trying to make sense of Los Angeles is confounding and probably pointless. It’s vast, multi-layered, and constantly changing. One of the things that I like about Los Angeles is that there is room within it for people to live lives that never overlap in almost any meaningful way. When you try to make sense of Los Angeles, it’s easy to sound like someone recounting a dream. “I was in the Valley with my friend… well it wasn’t really the Valley, it was Glendale… but it was also where I grew up… but different… and my friend was my brother… and my grandparents were there and still alive and wondering why I hadn’t visited since their funerals… and my cat could talk but he was a boy, not a cat… well it all made sense at the time.”

Anyway, the more I think about my relationship to maps and exploration, the more I realize how important and transformative the 1982-1983 year was to nine-year-old me. Eight-year-old me, like many children my age, had been obsessed first with dinosaurs and then with Pleistocene megafauna. Eight-year-old me listened to whatever my mother wanted to listen to, which generally mean Aretha Franklin, Bedřich Smetana, Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, Ike & Tina Turner, and Otis Redding. I hadn’t, until then, ever really heard rock or modern pop music. In class, we were asked our favorite musicians, and everyone except one kid, Lincoln Dickison, replied Michael Jackson, whose then-new album, Thriller, just so happened to be the best-selling album of all time. You may’ve heard of it. Lincoln named The Beatles, which I wrongly thought he’d misspelled. They’re the best-selling musical act of all time. You’ve probably heard of them too. I, on the other hand, had not only not heard either of them, I’d not even heard of them. Once I did, not surprisingly, I liked them as much as if not more than most kids my age. From then until I was probably about twelve, I loved nearly every new song that I heard on the radio in a way that you do at that age… but I continued to spend much of my time reading — reading books and reading text games on our then-new Apple IIe, released in 1983.

After I’d read all of the books about extinct megafauna, I turned my attention to fantasy creatures. There was a bestiary in the library with linocut illustrations that had a surprisingly global scope, including not just European beasts but examples for Africa and Asia as well. I bought Nancy Garden‘s Vampires and Werewolves at the book fair, read them, and re-read them. I read old issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Spacemen. I got the second printing of Gary Gygax‘s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (1983) even though I had no friends with which to play Dungeons & Dragons — nor did I particularly mind, to be perfectly honest. I never even had an imaginary friend. I preferred to be alone, for the most part. If I was feeling sufficiently social, I might include a dog or sibling in my adventures.

Gamebooks became another key influence on me in 1982/1983. The first gamebook I read was Edward Packard’s Sunken Treasure (1982), introduced to our class by classmate Andy Novinger after he’d picked up a copy at the book fair. It was a part of Choose Your Own Adventure‘s series “for Younger Readers” series and was thus, a bit light for my tastes. Packard wrote many of my favorite Choose Your Own Adventure books, though, including Deadwood City, Inside UFO 54-40, and The Forbidden Castle. I did also like R. A Montgomery‘s Mystery of the Maya, The Abominable Snowman; Tony Koltz‘s Vampire Express; Julius Goodman‘s The Horror of High Ridge; and Louise Munro Foley‘s Forest of Fear. I also read entries in other gamebook series that followed Choose Your Own Adventures‘ lead, including Endless Quest, Find Your Fate, Fighting Fantasy, Pick-a-Path, Time Machine, Twistaplot, Which Way Books, and Zork.

The first modern gamebook, certainly the most influential, was Packard’s Sugarcane Island, written in 1969. Packard was born in Huntington, New York in 1931. He was a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School. He submitted his gamebook to several publishers in 1969 and ’70 but none showed sufficient interest. In 1972, however, a series of game books called Tracker Books was inaugurated with the publication of Mission to Planet L. It was followed by Dungeons & Dragons, first published in 1974, which popularized fantasy role-playing games. In 1976, Will Crowther programmed the first text-based computer game, Adventure (albeit originally titled ADVENT  because filenames were limited then to just six characters). Vermont Crossroads Press (co-owned by wife and husband team Constance Cappel and Raymond Almiran “R.A.” Montgomery, Jr) decided to publish Sugarcane Island, which they did on 23 June 1976. The first, hardcover printing was subtitled The Adventures of You Series. In 1977, they began subtitling Packard’s follow-ups “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

There were predecessors to the gamebooks of the ’70s that could be described, if not as gamebooks, at least as interactive fiction. In some ways, Georg Büchner‘s play, Woyzeck, was an early example. When Büchner died in 1837, he hadn’t specified the intended scene order of his play and no matter what order they’re performed in, the results are nightmarish and bizarre. The play inspired both Alban Berg‘s excellent 1925 opera, Wozzeck, and Werner Herzog‘s excellent 1979 film, Woyzeck. There’s a fictional gamebook in Jorge Luis BorgesExamen de la obra de Herbert Quain(1941). Another Argentine writer, Julio Cortázar, published Rayuela, in 1963, a stream-of-consciousness counter-novel that included expendable chapters and two possible endings. The French literary group Oulipo developed an interactive style of fiction and theater and member Raymond Queneau wrote the interactive Un conte à votre façon in 1967 (which you can now play online).

Pauline Baynes’s map of Narnia from 1972

All Choose Your Own Aventure books were illustrated and most could be classified as fantasy and yet none, to my knowledge, include examples of that staple of the genre, fantasy cartography. This fact was surely not lost on whoever came up with the name, Mapquest. Since J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Middle Earth saga, fantasy readers expect there to be a map included before the novel even begins. When one reads a work of fantasy without a map, I’d go so far as to say, it feels like something is missing. In those cases, oftentimes, readers supply their own. Some of my favorites are by Pauline Baynes. For many years, I was content just to admire Christopher Tolkien’s maps and to watch television broadcasts of Ralph Bakshi‘s Lord of the Rings, Rankin/Bass‘s The Hobbit, and Return of the King. I finally got around to actually reading the books in and after junior high.

Image Source: Natalie Chudnovsky

Although gamebooks rarely if ever included maps within them, they were themselves maps of a sort. For those unfamiliar, rather than reading front-to-back (or back-to-front if it’s Japanese), in a game book the reader is presented with choices. The page the reader turns to depends on their choice. The Thomas Guide works in much the same way. When I would read gamebooks, I’d mark off the choices so that I could eventually explore every outcome. Many readers made their own maps of the forking literary structures as they read them. I’m also reminded of a map I had in college of Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Tiffin, and University Heights. It was pulled from the phone book and I used to mark off the routes I’d walk and bike on it until, eventually, I’d been on every block of every street in all of those towns.

Sometimes the overlap between gamebooks, role-playing, and computer text-based adventures was even more obvious. With the Micro Adventure book series, readers were also required to do a bit of computer programming. MicroFun‘s Death in the Caribbean, a computer game released in 1983, came with a map of the fantasy island on which the game took place — but also required users to make their own to successfully navigate the island’s Voodoo Cave. Ian Livingstone‘s gamebook, Forest of Doom — illustrated by Malcolm Barter and published in 1983 — required a bit of dice-rolling and cartography in order to successfully navigate Darkwood Forest.

All were profoundly influential on my way of navigating the world around me. My sister and I collaborated on a game book. I don’t remember the title but it was centered on scuba diving. We played a sort of role-playing game in which, like the kids from Narnia, we found ourselves transported to an imagined world populated by fantasy creatures. I drew treasure maps that incorporated real places on the land around our home such as a marsh, a fallen oak, a towering sycamore, a rotting corncrib, a cave, and a creepy pioneer cemetery with fantastical aspects. And when my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. McKinney, assigned us to draw fantasy maps, I was ready.


Demian’s Gamebook Web Page — “An international reference guide to interactive books, solitaire role-playing, game-inspired fiction and more!”

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

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