Jorge Luis Borges: Creator of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’?

The Lizard King, complete with symbiotic crab-thingy crown and sabre-toothed puma.

The Lizard King, complete with symbiotic crab-thingy crown and sabre-toothed puma.

I used to like CYOA books when I was a kid, but they were nowhere near as good as Fighting Fantasy.

My dad used to get annoyed that all I ever read, when I was about ten, was FF, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston. He’d shove a copy of Treasure Island under my nose, bound in plain hardcover.  ”This is a real classic,” he’d say.  ”Not like that rubbish you read.”  I’d look from that dull hide to the cover of “Island of the Lizard King,” featuring a massive hominid lizard holding a scimitar.  No contest; the lizard beat the pirates.  ”I’ll read it one day,” I said.

That day hasn’t quite arrived yet.

Anyway, before I got onto the monster-shredding, maze-trawling, dice-roll-cheating gorefest that was FF, I cut my teeth on CYOA.  Light, quick to read, they were dang popular, and sold about a quarter of a billion copies.  You could chop through one in about fifteen minutes.  The trick was to not bother going back to the start when you died or failed. Just go back to where the story branches and try another one.

So who invented the hypertext, branching narrative format?  Edward Packard was the originator of the CYOA series, and according to my research he pinched the idea from French mathematician and surrealist Raymond Queneau, who wrote a book called A Story As You Like It. But was Queneau the first to come up with the hypertext novel?

Apparently not.  The Argentine writer Julio Cortazar wrote a book in 1963 called Hopscotch, in which the short chapters could be skipped or read out of order.  I haven’t read it, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t include any deathtraps or monsters, more’s the pity.  The last 99 chapters were called ‘expendable.’  Maybe by the time you got to the end of this stream-of-consciousness work you’d be relieved to skip bits.

But lets not forget that classic work by Cortazar’s compatriot, Jorges Louis Borges, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths,’ published in 1941.  I should mention that Borges is one of my favourite writers.  Every single story he wrote is mind-blowing.  In this particular yarn a character has created a book with a bifurcating narrative structure.

The book is a maze of infinite possibilities.  Whereas in a normal novel, the protagonist only ever makes one choice at any given moment, in this book every possible choice is played out, and every subsequent choice as well.

Thus the reader, following through a chain of possibilities, is choosing their own adventure.

Was Cortazar aware of this short story?  If he wasn’t, he should have been.  Not just to appreciate the idea that would later be used in 250,000,000 copies of CYOA, and in the blood-sprayingly awesome Fighting Fantasy series, but also to appreciate one of the coolest endings to a short story you’ll ever read.

With Borges, one ending is enough.