Our media archaeological journey began with a set of converging interests, sparked through class discussion in Darren Wershler’s Media Archaeology class. Beginning with a tentative conversation about the riddle structures of computer games, new ideas quickly emerged to form an amorphous constellation of media: participatory radio, role-playing gamebooks, cassette tapes, telephone role-playing, theatre, and much more. Realizing the potential scope of a media archaeological project involving these objects, the three of us decided to collaborate to form the riddles_text_adventure research group. Over the course of the term we analyzed a diverse collection of media through a variety of lenses, the results of which are presented below as a series of three, long-form blog posts.
The first two sections of this analysis are heavily influenced by Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages, a seminal work on the history of interactive fiction and the riddles structured within them. Although beginning with Montfort, our approaches branch off in different directions, ranging from constellational to somewhat biographical. Olivier Pelletier takes the lead position in our analysis by contemplating the transition of the Zork computer game franchise into a series of gamebooks – Choose Your Own Adventure style titles that adapt elements of the original games into literary form – in his section Zork: “A What Do I Do Now” Interactive Fiction Investigation. This analysis of gamebooks carries forward through the second section, Michael Iantorno’s Risk, Danger, Adventure, and the Affordances of Role-playing Gamebooks, in which he discusses the Fighting Fantasy! role-playing gamebooks and scrutinizes how success, failure, and cheating take shape within the titles. Finally, Lyne Dwyer turns their attention to CYOA Peterborough, a community radio program that reads Choose Your Own Adventure titles over the air, touching upon themes of performance, temporality, and community engagement.
Unlike the media discussed in our analysis, the navigational options provided by this blog post are relatively straight-forward. Each our contributions are listed below, hidden behind collapsible subheadings, and accessible through simple mouse clicks. Although our research was conducted collaboratively, our writing is not consistently entwined: you’ll find both similarities and divergences in approach between each of our three pieces. Such a diverse collection requires a multi-faceted perspective, much like how the riddles presented in our media require different approaches to untangle.
Zork: “A What Do I Do Now” Interactive Fiction Investigation
Colossal Cave Adventure was the first Interactive Fiction adventure game and the inspiration for the hugely popular Zork Series that was first programmed in 1977, just two years after Colossal Cave Adventure first appeared. The serialized Zork began at MIT but in 1979, four of the original developers founded Infocom to make the games accessible on personal home computers. The Zork games were released in three very popular instalments made for a wide variety of platforms and many sequels were made up to 1997, with Zork Grand Inquisitor. The Zork franchise also led to many famous adaptations, such as the easter egg in the 2010 Call of Duty: Black Ops that includes a full version of Zork within the game, and the use of Zork as the jade key challenge in Ernest Cline’s 2011 book Ready Player One. The Zork series also produced four “A What Do I Do Now Book” that bridges the interactive elements of the Serial computer games and the narratological aspects of the fiction books that are understood to function as types of riddles. This connection between the literary riddles of the Exeter book, Interactive Fiction games, and the novels that are presented as interactive in their own way, presented themselves as an ideal opportunity for investigating how these cultural objects each dealt with the metaphorical conditions of the riddle mode while using elements that were unique to the specific object of study. In Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort writes about this point of contact:
By presenting a metaphorical system that the listener or reader must inhabit and figure out in order to fully experience and in order to answer correctly, the riddle offers its way of thinking and engages its audience as no other work of literature does (Montfort 4).
Montfort explains that it is by guiding a nameless character (or advising him or her as indicated by the OE root of the word riddle), that this metaphorical vision of the world is attained. The riddle in this sense is understood through this navigation and by finding the clues that lead to a final solution or by failing and abandoning as many have also done. In Finnish culture, to cite but on example, failure was punished by mockery or physical consequences. In Zork, however, failed attempts were punished by repeated attempts and time. This connection between the different types of consequences and successes naturally brings the question of the arbiter or riddles and how Zork games and books were designed with this question in mind. The questions that we attempted to answer based on a close analysis of both games and books were aimed at investigating who the arbiter of these riddles was and what connection these riddles had with the literary riddles of the Exeter Book, for example. Like the Exeter Riddles, the IF games and books should propose literary elements that can be analysed while proposing clever puzzles that require unique forms of mediation for which the role of an arbiter is required. A careful analysis of these elements also brought us closer to the cultural techniques that are required to engage with these games and consequently to a better understanding of the relationship between the Zork games and the Zork books, and how these differed from the other objects of our study like the “Choose your Own Adventure Series”. This attempt to investigate the cultural techniques that go into producing the early Interactive Fiction Games by Infocom focuses mostly on the texts that go into producing these games and the relationship between these texts and the games. As Montfort points out, “since these works were historically experienced as printed texts on rolls of paper rather than as characters on video screens, one does not always need to look at screens to study new media, or learn new things about the textual practices that accumulate in and around computation”.
The main focus of this investigation is on the translation of the Interactive computer game to the book format. Infocom’s Eric Meretzky produced four books in the Zork series that were branded as “A What Do I Do Now Books”. These books were published by Tor Books in America, and subsequent editions were made in Great Britain and Spain. By comparing the methods used to successfully complete the Zork video games to the methods used in the books, and by thinking about the ways in which the book accounts for the role of the arbiter to mediate the proposed challenge, we hoped to learn how these features modulated as they shifted forms. As demonstrated by Nick Montfort’s examples in Twisty Little Passages, the influence of the riddle on Interactive Fiction is present in more than the metaphorical interpretation of the world in which the story unfolds. The player’s decisions are based on cultural methods that may or may not be possible in a different cultural context but also require the creation of maps in order to successfully complete the quest.
The Zork books contrast most in relation to the highly difficult video game series by the simplicity of their completion. Although the games are difficult to solve without a walkthrough or the production of careful maps, the books can be read and solved by young children very simply and quickly. For this project, I produced a map of the first book based on the model used for Steven Jackson’s “Choose Your Own Adventure Books”, which turned out to be simple but unlike the serialized video games, also utterly unnecessary for completing the quest. In book one, the map that I produced resembles a map that was included in the book, which also proved quite unnecessary. The function of this map seems to be intended more for worldbuilding than practical solving. Fans also produced some maps of the books, but these were essentially produced to demonstrate the possible outcomes than for the practical reasons that led to the production of the early Zork video game maps.
From Zork book 1: The Forces of Krill.
The influence of the riddle form on Zork is not only in connection to the metaphorical function of interactive fiction. Indeed, as early as Zork II, a riddle is posed directly: “What is tall as a house, round as a cup, and all the king’s horses can’t draw it up?” (Montfort 130). There are numerous other examples of challenges that require cleverness, which makes the Zork games better suited for adults than children. Players could be stuck for a long time, unable to solve a single clue or puzzle and might have to resort to chat boards to eventually find the solution. In this sense, the inability to solve the riddles without the help of other players or information on a chatboard represented failure in the sense of the traditional riddle games. The best example of the kind of puzzle that stumped many players is the “oddly-angled room” in Zork II. To solve this puzzle, the player had to maneuver through the room by moving in a diamond shape pattern. Since the players needed to be familiar with the movement of the baseball player on the pitch, this puzzle was, “decried as involving a confusing intrusion of contemporary culture into a subterranean fantasy world” (Montfort 131). This made the Zork games quite inaccessible to children and arguably to many adults. Like the riddles of the Exeter Book, this type of puzzle speaks about the cultural context in which these games were produced as well as the daunting rules by which the Zork Games operate. Riddle 45, The Shepherd’s pipe, for example, is but one of the examples of the 95 Riddles that function as literary archeological objects that require a careful investigation into the world that produced these riddles to better understand them. Another example is Riddle 17 for which Franz Dietrich’s 1859 “ballista” solution stood uncontested for a long time since it met the required conditions of the riddle. In 2001, however, John Donald Hosler for example, proposes the Viking ship solution on account of the limited presence of Ballista in Anglo Saxon England in the early medieval period. In this same way, the baseball shape’s cultural embeddedness is significant for situating the Zork riddles in the place where these were produced.
Another detail of the technological temporality of the Zork books that firmly sets them in the early 1980s is a paragraph that appears in the books’ front matter. This text is almost the same in all four books except for two lines about the specific plot of the book in question. Otherwise, the text begins with the title, “Welcome to the land of Zork”, has an identical introductory paragraph, and ends with the choice to “buy the book” and turn to page 7 for three of the books, or page 5 for the other, or to go home and watch reruns. The introductory paragraph situates the reader in the position of having, “nothing to watch on TV”, and walking into a bookstore, thus setting up the final choice to “go home and watch reruns”. This detail, in 2020, thirty-seven years after the publication of the first Zork book, is no longer a choice that makes sense since the cultural meaning of watching reruns no longer has the same significance or association to “being bored”. The era of the on-demand has obliterated the cultural practice of viewing episodes that one has presumably already seen while waiting for the next segment of a series to play live at a specific time when all would group and watch together. Ironically, the choice to play the Zork video games is not provided as a third option. This option comes in at the end of the book in the form of an advertisement. This feature makes sense when we consider the difficulty of the video games. In fact, many of the features of the book seem to point to the fact that these short books were created precisely to entice younger audiences to purchase the Zork video games. In the advertisement featured below, the author wants to set Infocom’s games apart from arcade games in the same way that the books are an alternative to watching “boring reruns”. The literary components that unite these two forms are emphasized to set them apart from the repetitive games that were exceedingly popular in the early phases of electronic game production.
Although the difficulty level was greatly reduced to account for the target audience, which is also reflected in the linearity and simplicity of the maps, one discovery that arose from studying the books was that some features were developed in order to mediate success and add a degree of challenge. In the first installment of the Zork books, the reader is asked if he has, “picked up the Magic Sneakers”. If the reader answers “yes”, he or she is sent on an alternate path that ends with the text, “There are no Magic Sneakers and no Prince of Kaldorn in this book. You have been cheating” (Meretzky 124). However, this is the only time this feature is used in the four books. The Magic Sneakers do make a cameo appearance in book two where they are necessary for solving the puzzle. Otherwise, this is the only us of the cheater method in the series. The completion of the books is based on a point system that gives the option of stopping with a current score on ten with the option of returning to the previous part and trying the alternative option. With the exception of the first book, this method makes the story very easy to complete. The cheater feature is the only example of a score that is not based on the ten-point system but instead gives the score of “negative fifty million billion zillion points”, while also providing the following mention, “The score for the best ending probably isn’t important to a cheater like you who probably looks at the last page first”. The removal of this feature makes the subsequent editions easier and therefore more in line with the hypothesis that these served primarily as advertisement for the video game series that offered a form of literary play that also sought to distinguish itself from the popular arcade games of the period.
The Zork book series are cultural objects that arise out of the popularity of the Zork video games and although they present some of the same characters that are featured in the video games, the challenges they offer are so simple that it is difficult to assess their function as riddles. Montfort’s main observation about a player inhabiting a metaphorical world that he or she must interpret is also absent from the books since the reader is fact choosing the path of the two avatars, Bivotar and Juranda. This move to a third person narration takes the player out of the driver’s seat and drives the plot in a predictable linear fashion. Most of the decisions require the reader to turn to the next page and not a complex path that is hard to trace back. In fact, the wrong decision can always be backtracked by going to the previous page. This option is actually suggested and even favoured, which supports the theory that the challenge was intended to be very low and as such, these books are not proper riddles that feature mental challenges and validate intellectual merits. The fourth book does feature a few four-line texts that the author calls “riddles”, but these are just enigmatic lines. For example, “within these ruins lie, the object of your quest, but to cross the moat you must, pass one final spelling test” (Meretzky 85). The mocking tone of the “cheater” device might be the closest element to the original Zork series and the only innovation in terms of the “choose your own adventure” genre but apart from this device, the books serve as marketing objects that do not replicate the riddling techniques employed in the Zork video game series in any meaningful manner.
Risk, Danger, Adventure, and the Affordances of Role-playing Gamebooks – Michael Iantorno
In the opening pages of Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort defines adventure as “some out-of-the ordinary undertaking involving risk or danger” (6). Montfort uses this interpretation to draw a distinction between his field of study — which primarily focuses on high-fantasy, text adventure computer games — and other genres of interactive fiction. The terms “risk” and “danger” prove to be particularly pertinent when considering the research that the riddles_text_adventure research group has conducted over the past three months. Our research objects include books, cassette tapes, and radio programs; media that you would not normally associate with risk and danger, let alone the consequences that emerge from such hazards. Unlike computer games, which systematically determine win-loss conditions, the affordances of our media do not necessarily allow for such strict enforcement. This raises intriguing research questions, particularly in regard to the Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! role-playing game books that served as the jumping-off point for our studies: Can you truly fail at reading a book? What affordances can be leveraged to add risk and danger to a literary work? And, finally, how can an author conceal a riddle within a book when a reader/user/player can simply flip through pages on a whim?
Before delving deeper into such questions, some definitional work is required. First, whereas Montfort is primarily concerned with interactive fiction in his research, the Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! books are more akin to hypertext fiction — “a system of fictional interconnected texts traversed using links” (12). In order to be considered an interactive fiction, he argues, a work must maintain a “programmatic representation of the narrative world” (12). Despite the fact that our books invite the reader to interact with them in non-standard ways, I contend that they are still hypertexts and will occasionally refer to them as such throughout this paper. Second, the notion of a “riddle” can be a fraught one, especially when untangling one is presented as the ultimate goal within a medium. Although providing several reflections on the nature of the riddle in his book, Montfort’s invocation of Howard Nemerov’s three poetic principles proves to be exceedingly useful:
- A poem must seem very mysterious.
- It must have an answer which is precise, literal, and total; that is, which accounts for every item in the poem.
- It must remain very mysterious, or even become more so, when you know the answer.
(qtd. in Wilbur 1989, 350)
These poetic principles can be used as a lens to approach our research objects, such as the role-playing gamebooks that originally sparked our analysis. In order for a Fighting Fantasy or Sorcery! title to succeed, it must be capable of serving as an arbiter of a riddle — presenting readers with intrigue, a satisfying answer, and a system that maintains its mysteriousness, even when its success conditions have been met.
In this article, I discuss how role-playing gamebooks such as Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! foster danger, encourage failure, and dissuade cheating by leveraging and expanding the affordances of the literary form. This analysis begins by outlining one of the shared methodologies of the riddles_text_adventure research group, the mapping of the fictitious spaces, and how such practices recall cultural techniques rooted in fantasy role-playing games. Then, taking a constellational approach, I bring forth several other projects that use the literary form to foster varying outcomes. Finally, I turn my attention to ideas of risk and danger, focusing on The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as a case study, while also incorporating insights on cassette-based media and tabletop role-playing games.
Mapping and Play as a Method
While first flipping through entries in the Fighting Fantasy book series, one thing became immediately evident to us as researchers — although the content of each title was ostensibly at our fingertips, the authors had obfuscated both narrative and riddle through careful structuring. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the progenitor of the Fighting Fantasy series, divides its adventure into 400 numbered segments spread across 189 pages, with each segment ending in a navigational prompt. For example, the first prompt featured in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain situates the character at the entrance of the cave and asks if they would like to turn west or east, providing a specific segment number for each option.
Excerpt from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982)
Screenshot from Zork: The Great Underground Empire (DOS, 1982)
Although such prompts seemingly make navigating the title straight-forward — one picks which option they like best and turns the pages accordingly — they also subdivide the work and diffuse continuity. None of these segments are sequential, meaning that linear navigation of the book is more-or-less nonsensical, and a single page-turning error can completely derail progression. Additionally, unlike computer text adventures that leave traces of previous game segments on the screen, decisions made within the book are ephemeral — their points of origin disappear as soon as a page is turned. It is left up to the player memory and documentation to transform a scattered collection of segments into a cohesive adventure.
When seeking out a method for revealing the riddle structures of role-playing gamebooks, we turned toward the series’ paratexts for inspiration. Luckily, Fighting Fantasy co-creators Steven Jackson and Ian Livingstone anticipated potential struggles and introduced a detailed mapping guide in Warlock Magazine #1 (the official companion magazine for the series) as an aid for players. The authors emphasize that “it is important to keep a record of where you have explored and what is in each room” (10) and provide readers with a distinct set of symbols and map-making principles. Maps hold a special place in fantasy gaming — perhaps first popularized with the Gygaxian labyrinths of Greyhawk — so such a request would likely not have been outlandish to fans of the genre. Warlock’s “How to Map” guide is simply a crystallization of existing cultural techniques, rooted in Dungeons and Dragons and similar games, then adapted to the Fighting Fantasy series. One need not look further than the pale blue maps of TSR’s dungeon modules to confirm the similarities.
Map from The Lost City (1982)
“How to Map” from Warlock Magazine #1 (1984)
Our first exercise in mapping was a productive one, with each of us tackling a single entry in a particular franchise: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain from the Fighting Fantasy series, The Shamutanti Hills from the Sorcery! series, and The Forces of Krill from the Zork series. By comparing notes, we discerned two key similarities that emerged between the Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! books (The Forces of Krill, as my colleague Oliver has elaborated, took a slightly different approach). First, despite it not being a strict necessity, each book was committed to providing players with a concrete depiction of space. Across playthroughs, revealed rooms and hallways could be logically assembled on grid paper to create a more-or-less canonical depiction of an area. Second, without reverting to physically altering the book’s pages, the book holds no memory of rooms navigated or actions performed. Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! mitigate this issue in two ways: by enforcing forward progress and by shifting documentation responsibilities onto the player. In regard to the former point, players can rarely return to a room that they have already explored, as the book is incapable of remembering what actions they would have undertaken in the space. Each step forward through a book “locks out” earlier parts of the adventure. Considering the latter point, at the onset of an adventure players are provided an adventure sheet that tasks them with managing certain aspects of the game. Combat is facilitated through a simple dice-rolling system, character statistics are increased and diminished based on written instructions in the book, and inventory is tracked as a simple list. The affordances of the book have been augmented with resources that the authors presume readers will have on hand.
A Constellational Viewpoint
To take a constellation perspective for a moment — inspired by Siegfried Zielinski’s desire to find connections between technologies that have previously remained separate (10) — it is important to note that transforming a book into something capable of providing numerous, unpredictable outcomes did not originate with the 1982 release of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Perhaps the most cited example of such experimentation is Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems). Created in 1961, Queneau’s project took the form of “a book with ten sonnets (each of the usual fourteen lines) bound one in front of the other and with each line cut so that it could be ‘turned,’ like a page, separately” (Montfort 70). By flipping each section of the book, readers could generate somewhere in the range of 1014 unique poems, ostensibly creating unique outcomes for each person. Perhaps more relevant to our research with text adventures, however, is Queneau’s lesser-known Un conte à votre façon (A story as you like it). Written in 1967, Queneau’s work is arguably the first Choose Your Own Adventure style book (Montfort 71), predating the first CYOA paperback, The Cave of Time, by twelve years.
Cover page for Raymond Queneau’s Un conte a votre facon (1967)
Excerpt from Raymond Queneau’s Un conte à votre façon (1967)
Considerably shorter than modern iterations on the genre, Un conte à votre façon features twenty one narrative segments that eventually guide the reader to one of several endings. Unlike other literary experiments — such as the aforementioned Cent mille milliards de poèmes or Mark Saporta’s Composition no. 1, which presents its narrative as a box of 150 loose, unnumbered pages (Montfort 72) — Un conte à votre façon is notable for preserving the book form entirely. No pages have been sliced, removed from their binding, or altered in any other way. Like with role-playing gamebooks, the affordances of the book remain intact, while the text itself promotes alternative navigation. For Queneau, this commitment to form was likely experimental in nature, while popular titles must meet publisher mandates to create compact, easy-to-distribute paperbacks.
Of course, such experimentation was not limited to 1960s Europe. Perhaps one of the earliest attempts to provide a multitude of outcomes within the literary form is the I Ching. An ancient Chinese divination text, the I Ching is “a formal system for generating different literary texts” (Montfort 66) that, in popular applications, asks the readers to flip coins, tally the results, then consult the book to determine a fortune. A notable difference between the I Ching and Queneau’s compositions is the inclusion of randomized elements, using coins instead of the dice required for role-playing gamebooks. Instead of picking from a list of prompts, readers instead interpret the results of coin tosses with simple math and navigate the book accordingly. While not a hypertext in the traditional sense — Montfort seems inclined to define the I Ching as a literary machine — the randomization does bear similarities with text adventure computer games (where algorithms can dictate the position of important objectives and characters) and tabletop games (where dice rolls determine the actions of outcomes), which I will elaborate on later.
Rules and Cheating
Returning to Queneau, one thing that he was likely not worried about when writing Un conte à votre façon is cheating — that is, readers breaking the structure of the work by ignoring segment prompts. Containing only twenty one segments, and focusing on the dreams of three anthropomorphized peas in a pod, his work is presented as an exercise in form rather than a challenge for readers to overcome. Freely skipping between endings to evaluate possible outcomes was not expressly encouraged, but was also not dissuaded in any meaningful way. In contrast, the Warlock of Firetop Mountain imposes a comprehensive set of rules upon the reader, as well as some structural curiosities, in order to conceal the underlying riddle of the game and to ensure that completing the adventure was not a trivial task. As outlined earlier, the multitude of book segments makes skipping ahead in the adventure somewhat difficult, and a simple combat/challenge system provides risk and danger. A series of bad navigational decisions, or poor dice-rolling luck, may force a reader to return to begin the book anew. The book’s “Hints on Play” section is quick to point out that there is only one correct way through The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and that multiple attempts will be required for players to deduce the proper path through the adventure.
An excerpt from page 10 of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, explaining the three main ability scores.
Page 17 from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which provides tips for new players.
Of course, even with these structures in place, cheating is still possible — something that became evident when contrasting my own playstyle with that of my fellow group members. Finding myself somewhat strapped for time in my analysis of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, I found myself flubbing dice rolls to speed-up progression and documenting past segment numbers in order to create “save points” that I could return too if needed. In contrast, my colleague Lyne (who documented The Shamutanti Hills) was much more honest with their playthrough, recording multiple deaths throughout their adventure. In a sense, our methodology revealed both the structure of role-playing gamebooks (i.e. how they serve as the arbiter for a particular riddle) and how the imposed risks and dangers of the book could be completed or subverted (i.e. how to “beat” the book, both honestly and through cheating).
A completed adventure sheet for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
Earlier, I mentioned that computer games manage risk and danger through their systems and simulations, making cheating all but impossible for the average player. Reflecting on the broader work completed by the riddles_text_adventure research group, it is interesting to consider how other media (beyond role-playing gamebooks such as Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery!) have attempted to present riddles, foster risk and danger, and conceal their inner workings to users. In a previously written probe, I discussed how the 2-XL toy robot presents CYOA style adventures by leveraging the affordances of a cassette tape’s four audio tracks. Players are presented with an audio prompt, then must navigate between tracks to progress through a narrative. The mystery of the story’s riddle (which choices will lead to the “good” ending) are maintained through hardware affordances — the entire narrative is recorded linearly, with only one track listenable at a time, making it difficult for users to preview what the correct path is. Although there is a rewind function, the tape can only be listened to at normal speed, enforcing a specific temporal playback experience even if the tracks are not navigated as intended. Skipping from track-to-track in search of the most optimal outcome is possible, but it is not easy nor pleasurable.
Several excerpts from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982).
An excerpt from the Roll20 conversion The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (2003).
When considering tabletop role-playing games, such as the d20 System adaptation of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, human actors are recruited to serve as arbiters of the riddle — enforcing rule structures and dissuading cheating. Whereas Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are designed to conceal secrets from all participants, role-playing modules take a different approach: providing a single player (the dungeon master) with full documentation of the adventure and the other players (the PCs) with nothing. In the example above, which describes an encounter with a potentially dangerous ferryman, it is possible to view the differences in approach. Whereas the navigational structure of a hypertext obscures potential outcomes, a dungeon master must pick and choose what information is presented to the players in order to maintain the mystery of an encounter, and the entire riddle of the adventure.
A Closing, Capitalist Thought
As a final thought, I would like to acknowledge that — despite somewhat elevating these objects through our work in the riddles_text_adventure research group — they are still consumer goods that are the result of capitalist motivations. For example, although The Warlock of Firetop Mountain makes claims for replayability, the multitude of entries in the series, the single completable objective, and the compact form of the paperback all allude to quick consumption (with later editions directly advertising other available Fighting Fantasy titles). Thus, when considering how a role-playing gamebook, CYOA cassette tape, or tabletop role-playing game serves as an arbiter of a riddle, it is important to contemplate how this riddle must follow a franchise logic (matching the structure of other titles in the series and, perhaps, even a broader genre) and level of complexity (aimed a particular age group and designed to be solved just quickly enough for the next release to be available). In this small-scale study, we did not have the opportunity to think longitudinally to document what happens when the same riddle is iterated upon dozens of times, but such an approach could prove valuable for future research projects. Maintenance is just as importance to innovation to a media archaeologists, and riddle structures may require constant reinvention in order to present intrigue, risk, and mystery to their audience.
The End is Coming, so the Show Goes On: A Media Archaeological Inquiry
Since its inception in 2015, the radio programme Choose Your Own Adventure Peterborough (CYOA PTBO) has broadcast live readings of choose-your-own-adventure style gamebooks. From the facilities of Trent Radio, creators Chris Lawson and Emily Minthorn have moderated weekly Monday night sessions that bring choice-based fiction into a unique rearticulation of audio drama, games, and communications technology. Whether by tuning in to the city’s only independent community radio station or streaming the show online, listeners can use Twitter threads and tags to collectively vote on what choices to make and respond to the progression of the story using text, pictures, and memes.
In previous stages of the riddles_text_adventure research project, I have adopted Sigfried Zielinski’s concept of media as constellation to locate Steve Jackson’s F.I.S.T. (Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by telephone) within a cycle of erosion and reconstitution that have produced an array of articulations of interactive fiction, performance, and telecommunications technologies such as the radio and telephone. I closed this analysis with the observation that by distributing engagement across multiple platforms, CYOA PTBO re-fashions the solitary choose-your-own-adventure model as a live, multiplayer happening that is experienced through a highly dispersed network of actors. In doing so, CYOA PTBO circles back to F.I.S.T.’s play-by-phone model by taking up a model that accommodates modern cultural technique, retaining the real-time performative storytelling aspect of F.I.S.T. while also bridging a gap in current attitudes, sensibilities, and practices surrounding mobile gaming and phone use.
The riddles_text_adventure research team was originally scheduled to document a live CYOA PTBO session reading of Jackson’s Sorcery!: The Shamutanti Hills which would benefit my own research agenda by providing insight into the nature of a community’s activity in this social, technical, and political assemblage. However, the introduction of social distancing practices as a response to the onset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to any activity at either the Trent Radio or the university. As part of an effort to promote and protect the health and safety of ourselves and others, the team lost the opportunity to see this hybrid media artifact in process. While I had intended to examine questions of membership in a discursive community, my status as an insider in that community — I have hosted a show on Trent Radio and been playing CYOA PTBO since 2016 — cannot replace what would have been learned by playing the game together. Instead, and following our collective line of inquiry into who or what acts as the arbiter of rules in choice-based fiction, this analysis investigates how CYOA PTBO departs from the structuring of choose-your-own-adventure style printed books and videogames by facilitating a live, multiplayer happening. I will illustrate how the trajectory of the story is dependent not on the official rules of the books or a computer’s code, but on human moderation and community engagement. Finally, returning to my constellational approach, I discuss deep temporal connections between the peculiar assemblage that is CYOA PTBO and earlier forms of collective listening and performance such as radio drama.
Left: the Trent Radio Building in Peterborough, Ontario; Right: The CYOA PTBO Twitter page.
Over the course of our research process, I was able to identify two characteristics of CYOA PTBO that significantly differentiate it from the hypertext fiction that it takes up as source material. Though I recognize that it is not an extensive list, these characteristics are best discussed through what I have identified as a few of the game’s essential rules/conditions of play. The first is that the remediation of hypertext fiction into a radio broadcast shifts the arbitration of rules closer to a type of moderation. Unlike computer games[/bs_tooltip] which, as my colleague points out systematically determine rules including the win/loss conditions of the game, CYOA PTBO distributes the arbitration of rules across different sites and between different actors including (but not limited to):
- Subcultural convention (i.e. rules or customs established over the course of the host-community relationship);
- The radio station’s programming schedule and content restrictions;
- Twitter’s community guidelines;
- The hosts’ authority as moderators.
In effect, these are some of the forces that regulate interpretations of the gamebook and how those interpretations can be performed. The adventure gamebook is not being processed by a computer. Rather, it is being interpreted by a moderator. With that, I present the first rule of CYOA PTBO:
#1. The gamebook is not law. Rather, the performance is ‘canon.’
Screenshot of the Dungeon Master from the Dungeons & Dragons animated television series (1983).
Our team’s working definition of the arbiter of a riddle as that which succeeds in “presenting readers with intrigue, a satisfying answer, and a system that maintains its mysteriousness, even when its success conditions have been met” fits the description of our host/moderators. While Chris and Emily interpret the instructions laid out in the gamebook and perform its content, other social, technical, and political components of the larger assemblage listed above work in simultaneity to regulate the conditions of play. Importantly, the gamebook still functions as a piece of hypertext fiction, just one that operates in the ‘background,’ serving as a point of contact for the players only indirectly. As moderators, the hosts have more in common with a Dungeon Master than they do a computer because they have a degree of power over the experience of the participants and can interpret the text in much the same way that a DM consults Dungeon Master Guides and Monster Manuals. Arguably, the way that they can interface between the players and the game code makes them radio operators in more than one sense of the word.
This brings me to the second characteristic that differentiates CYOA PTBO from hypertext fiction: the time criticality of the medium. In their chapter “Archive Dynamics,” Parikka discusses time criticality as a defining element of Ernst’s media archaeological method, drawing attention to the way that modern media are defined by the way that they unfold in a process. He writes: “Time is then not only the external framework of history through which we can understand media development, but a technical characteristic governing the Machines”(132-33). This time criticality is connected to the second and third rules of CYOA PTBO:
#2. Always go left.
This rule was established through interactions between hosts and players in order to maximize the time spent playing the game and sustain a satisfactory level of engagement. Time, as a technical characteristic governing the machine, has necessitated an agreed-upon strategic shorthand for deciding whether to turn left or right on a forked path. This shorthand helps to quickly make a decision that is neither very interesting to vote on nor a good use of the show’s narrative economy. Unless some exceptional circumstance or story beat presents itself, the hosts always make a left turn on forked paths.(In an unexpected nod to our team’s mapping practices, exclusively making left turns is also a known method for finding one’s way out of another riddle: traditional corn mazes.) This brings us to the final rule:
#3. Run the game for one hour.
Since each session is a one time, live performance, CYOA PTBO is not just an activity, but an event. Trent Radio’s programming schedule structures this event by placing a hard limitation on the duration of the game. The one hour-long block during which the broadcast can take place (give or take the transition times of intros and outros) and so the host’s interpretation of the game book is largely informed by a need to keep the story moving, for example, by changing the gamebook’s rules about win/loss states. While hypertext fiction enforces forward progress by having each step forward “lock” the player out of earlier sections, CYOA PTBO necessitates movement whether it takes the form of progression (making the “correct” choices in the story) or regression (making the “wrong” choices and backtracking to take an alternative path). Technically, the “official” rules of the Sorcery! gamebooks are one must return to the beginning of the story in the event of a death, a severe consequence that encourages players to play to win. However, in CYOA PTBO, the risk and danger of the adventure are softened. The experience is not about progressing down a particular path (the one toward winning) rather, it is just about facilitating the players’ collective experience of the story. The end is coming, so the show goes on.
Radio, Telephone, Theatrophone
Parikka writes on Ernst’s brand of media archaeology, “The problem is that such a focus on machines, despite making a very refined point about the technical conditions of perception, does not effectively connect this to themes of political economy, or for instance subjectivity and subjectification” (Parikka, Archive Dynamics, 133). Since this analysis approaches CYOA PTBO as not just a machine, but as an assemblage that is very much grounded in the cultural technique of a community of fans, I turn to the introductory chapter to Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New wherein the author shifts our focus away from instruments (and, by extension, Ernst’s machine time) toward “the drama in which existing groups perpetually negotiate power, authority, representation, and knowledge with whatever sources are available” (5). According to Marvin, “new” media provide new platforms that can disturb these negotiations so that “old habits transacting between groups are projected onto new technologies that alter, or seem to alter, critical social distances” (5).
Put differently, new practices (or, in our case, new forms of play) are not directly derived from technologies that animate them. Rather, new practices are re-fashioned from already existing practices that are no longer viable in a new context. This emphasis on the importance of social practices complements Marvin’s definition of media as “constructed complexes of habits, beliefs, and procedures embedded in elaborated cultural codes of communication” (8). Though I had not yet encountered Marvin’s model at the time of my probe into F.I.S.T., it is evident that these ideas have informed my framing of CYOA PTBO as a rearticulation of an interactive telephone role-playing game that was no longer culturally or technically viable after a wider shift away from wired telecommunications. What remains of this analysis will continue to trace rearticulations of a particular cultural practice by briefly wading into the deep time of radio drama.
Much of what I’ve covered up to this point has gestured toward the commonalities between CYOA PTBO and radio plays. Connections between F.I.S.T. and radio plays, however, are not quite so straightforward. During the development of F.I.S.T, Jackson worked with the telecommunications company Computerdial set-up automated responses. These responses were scripted by Jackson and then recorded as live performances put on by professional actors, complete with stage directions and sound effects (“F.I.S.T. Wiki”). In an interview with The Guardian’s Stuart Dredge about his experience recording a battle scene with voice actors, Jackson said, “I’d heard that what you do is chop a cabbage, and that sounds like chopping somebody’s head off. So we had it all mic’d up in the studio, and I got a sword and then bought this cabbage from a greengrocer. And I got my sword and swung it and it went… pfft…” It is, perhaps, this flair for the dramatic that resulted in the Wikipedia page for F.I.S.T. describing the game as a radio play despite the game having been realized as one.
After identifying these two examples, I decided to juxtapose them with the earliest example of radio drama I could find. Behold: Théâtrophone!
Left: Poster for Théâtrophone by Jules Cheret; Center: Diagram of Ada’s apparatus at the Paris Opera; Right: sketch of a Victorian woman listening to Théâtrophone.
In 1881, the inventor Clement Ada was tasked with taking the Paris Opera out of the opera house. To accomplish this, he arranged dozens of microphones along the opera’s footlights and connected them to a collection of telephone cables that ran through the Paris sewers and into the exhibition hall of the International Exposition of Electricity. There, people took part in the spectacle by listening through a set of twenty telephone receivers. By 1890, the system was commercialized by Compagnie du Théâtrophone and remained operational until 1932. This was, according to New Scientist, the first ever stereo sound broadcast (Collins). Much like F.I.S.T., the Théâtrophone service was initially quite popular but participation dwindled over time. One reason for this was cost: “For a hefty annual fee of 180 francs — equivalent to about three months’ rent for a comfortable Paris apartment — plus 15 francs per performance, subscribers received a phone box with a headset and a transmitter so they could tell a Theatrophone operator which venue they wished to listen in to” (Collins n.p.). This pricing scheme made the service too expensive for home installation and the company could not be sustained solely through the revenue that was generated from coin-operated Théâtrophone setups in Parisian cafes and hotel lobbies. Another reason for Théâtrophone’s retirement was the fact that within the first few decades of the 20th century, radio had become a cheaper and more accessible entertainment medium (Collins; Basu).
Finally, I will end this section with a final note on the relationship between radio and theatre. In Radio as an Apparatus for Communication, the German playwright Bertholt Brecht made the case for what is essentially the democratization of radio:
[The] radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Any attempt by the radio to give a truly public character to public occasions is a step in the right direction.
Truly, much of Brecht’s reasoning for this proposal echoes the politics of his plays. Epic Theatre, a political theatrical movement that arose in the early 20th century aimed to educate the audience by encouraging them to see the injustices of the world clearly rather than suspend their disbelief.
Front cover of You Are a Downtown Ambassador, a home-brew choose-your-own-adventure book by Chris Lawson, Emily Minthorn, and David Fry.
Interestingly, CYOA PTBO shares some qualities with Epic Theatre. While CYOA PTBO does not put the power to broadcast into the hands of its participants, it does take Twitter, a platform designed for networked communication, and use it to facilitate a collaborative event through the radio station. One technique that was popularized by Brecht was Verfremdungseffekt, a term which loosely translates into English as the “distancing effect.” This involved alienating the audience from the drama unfolding before them by breaking through the fourth wall using interruptions, fragmentation, contrast, and contradiction. This technique was part of an effort to shift the focus of theatre from the aesthetic qualities of the performance to audiences’ reactions with the hopes that the show would bring about a change in perspective or new forms of engagement with the content. Of course, sharing these principles does not mean that CYOA PTBO is politically Brechtian. However, elements like a focus on education are evident. Like many community radio stations, Trent Radio is about sharing expertise by passing it on to members of the community for example by teaching them how to use the studios or just allowing people to send their own content out onto the airwaves. CYOA PTBO’s creators also staged a political intervention by creating a homebrew choose-your-own-adventure gamebook about the town that addresses the injustices of poverty, precarious state of the city’s downtown, and the decline of its small businesses. In this sense, the spirit of Brecht’s vision was not entirely lost in translation (and remediation).
In her reference to radio as “the great media survivor,” Brabazol writes, “It is the vampire of the media world. It changes and shifts, becoming secondary to television, but gaining new life through Internet streaming and podcasting. It fits into our lives, whispering its presence but never shouting its importance” (“Dead Media: Obsolescence and Redundancy in Media History”). Indeed, Trent Radio has survived since it began as a student club in 1968 and CYOA PTBO has thrived for half a decade through the hybridization of radio, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and home-brew fiction written in the name of social justice. Yet, there are many forces that continue to threaten the existence of community radio. Since the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) distributed their first broadcasting license, campus and community radio stations have fought to keep up with restrictions placed on what was allowed to be put on the air. Not only have music streaming services and online sharing capabilities provided stiff competition for stations’ enormous physical libraries of audio content, mandates to focus primarily on Canadian content and requirements to play less than 10% hits often puts these institutions at odds with students’ tastes (Gormely). In Peterborough specifically, another problem has arisen as a result of the Ontario provincial government’s move to allow students to opt out of contributing to the accounts of levy-funded student organizations. This change has made it difficult for these groups to work out an annual budget, organize an itinerary, hire and pay staff, or conduct any kind of community outreach.
Finally, CYOA PTBO was not impervious to the sweeping changes brought on by pandemic. Despite the audience being distributed across various dwellings and many players still retaining access to Twitter through smartphones and computers, the facilities of Trent Radio looks much the same as many of the cultural institutions and community spaces that we are missing right now: empty. Trent Radio is a community hub but, since it is a centralized node upon which other actors in a dispersed network depend on for shows like CYOA PTBO can happen, its’ shut down brings the rest of that assemblage to a standstill. Still, there is a silver lining to this cloud looming over us. So, I’ll conclude by calling attention to the title of this post. The name came to me long before we received instructions to shelter in place as a reference to the time criticality of the medium, but I feel it has taken on a sort of double meaning. It is sad to see that an event that brought me closer to my community is cancelled for the foreseeable future, but things get easier when I remind myself that Trent Radio is only silent because members of that community are taking care of one another in the best ways they can right now. The end is coming, but the show goes on.
Basu, Tanya. “The Theatrophone: The 19th-Century Version of Livestreaming.” Mental Floss, 30 December 2015, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/72920/theatrophone-19th-century-version-livestreaming. Accessed 23 March 2020.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat” (The Radio as an Apparatus of} Communication). Bjitter des Hessischen Landestheaters. Darmstatd, no. 16., 1932.
Collins, Paul. “Theatrophone: The 19th-Century IPod.” New Scientist, vol. 197, no. 2638, 2008, pp. 44–45. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(08)60113-X.
Dredge, Stuart. “Steve Jackson talks F.I.S.T. – the first interactive telephone role playing game.” The Guardian, 23 January 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jan/23/steve-jackson-fist-telephone-game. Accessed 22 January 2020.
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Images sourced from Racing Nellie Bly and Chris Lawsons’s Electric City Magazine article, “The House that John Built.”