‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ is the name we use when referring to the style of performance whereby, as in the legendary book series of that title, the audience is able to navigate through a story by making a series of consecutive decisions that determine which of a pre-determined set of endings takes place. This works through a series of storyline nodes, operating like non-interactive cutscenes, with two or more options branching from each one – the graph below from FlowingData shows a typical structure.
CYOA techniques in theatre work much the same way – actors perform segments of non-interactive script, interspersed with opportunities for the audience to select one from a number of clearly delineated options.
The main benefit of this style of theatre is that the audience is hyper-empowered – what they say goes, they can identify which story elements interest them the most personally, they can explore the morality of their own decisions, and generally tailor their own unique experience. Stories can have huge variations in potential outcomes. Decisions can be made by individuals who are singled out, or (I think more commonly) some kind of voting mechanism can be employed, such as in the case of Emergence by Synarcade, or Trouble on Planet Earth, Escape from Peligro Island and Half-Real by The Border Project. Finding a decision mechanism which doesn’t unnecessarily hold up the flow of the show is obviously important – both of these companies have produced devices which generate colours and are distributed to audience members, which is a neat way of focusing the response through set channels while being nice and tech-y. This focus is crucial – options have to be clear and limited to the available choices since there may not be any room for improvisation.
A big plus with CYOA is that audience size can be very large and still have every viewer – this is limited only by the voting mechanism. On the other hand, after a certain point, the actual impact of each individual audience member is essentially zero, and I think this can become obvious and lead to alienation. That said, there’s also the fun for a viewer of seeing areas where their instincts conform or differ from those of everyone else.
Choice paths are generally unidirectional so where decisions change the story, this narrative path carries out throughout the remainder of the show. Potential paths for an audience increase exponentially as the show progresses, so even with recycling of sections (as shown in the loops and multiple paths to the same node in the diagram above), there’s a huge amount of scripting and rehearsal for sections that the audience will never see.
I must admit I often have issues with using this type of theatre from a scripting standpoint. For my money, an ending must be justified by the story, so a situation whereby the trajectory of a narrative lurches off track due to the intervention of an audience is likely to result in a story that would have been unsatisfying had it been a non-interactive work. It’s a challenge to ascribe a meaningful moral arc to a story whose ending isn’t inevitable. So it might be more rewarding to use CYOA techniques to allow an audience to change how they approach a story, rather than the content of the story itself. One of the things about Choose Your Own Adventure novels that I find satisfying is working backwards through the book and contrasting the various possible outcomes, so replicating this on stage presents opportunities.
We’ve also found that audiences can tend towards a median outcome – an extreme event that is caused by one vote will tend to be cancelled by a conservative or opposite one soon after – people want to see a bit of every possibility rather than commit to one course. And even if there’s a good deal of audience cooperation with one another, the fact is that if you write ten endings, odds are that on a given night, an audience is going to wind up seeing one of the middling ones, quality-wise.
It’s fun I think to have the option of failure for the audience involved in a CYOA, so that certain options are available only if they succeed in tasks, time-based games – we talk about failure and reward in a separate post.
If there are more than two options on a given choice, there’s a chance that more than half of your audience at each point will see a result they didn’t vote for – unless you get into some kind of preferential voting system, I guess. Another way to deal with that issue might be segregation of audience based on their decisions (somehow) so that each group has the experience they asked for – this subdivision could be interesting if the segments were then required to competitively or cooperatively complete a task at the conclusion of the performance.
Boho have used CYOA techniques a couple of times, particularly during Food For The Great Hungers, where it formed the show’s conclusion and detailed an alternate history of 20th Century Australia. We didn’t want to suggest that history was something where conscious choices were made in advance, so we extracted the ‘decisions’ from the behaviour of the audience during previous scenes, which were then mapped to social factors. A conscious vote on whether conscription could ever be morally acceptable became war willingness, an unconscious vote on tea preference became multiculturalism, a competition between unionists and factory owners became industrial relations, a cooperative challenge based on communication became media adoption, and a series of totally arbitrary moral choices based on emotional bias became political outcomes. These decisions having been made in advance, the ‘adventure’ through history was presented as a monologue (performed by two actors). A sample generated monologue can be found here. This was fun to do because the voting mechanisms weren’t announced in advance, so the generated story was a surprise. Still, there was still a bit of an ‘Okay, so that’s what happened’ feel, and once the history mapped on all factors to a middling path extremely close to what actually happened, which was confusing.
CYOA theatre is a fun format. The audience enjoy a lot of control and the link between their action and the outcome is strong, and it’s a good overarching structure which can accommodate a lot of additional styles or kinds of story. The audience have a chance to view a performance like they might a sculpture, coming at it from different angles and seeing it in different lights. The trick is making sure that the format doesn’t become the focus of the experience at the expense of the story.