1979: The Cave of Time
Update: Find out more about the 50 Years of Text Games book and the revised final version of this article!
The Cave of Time
a.k.a. Choose Your Own Adventure #1
by Edward Packard
First Published: July 1979
Platform: Paperback book
Do not read this book straight through from beginning to end! These pages contain many different adventures you can go on in the Cave of Time. From time to time as you read along, you will be asked to make a choice. Your choice may lead to success or disaster!
The adventures you take are a result of your choice. You are responsible because you choose! After you make your choice, follow the instructions to see what happens to you next.
Remember—you cannot go back! Think carefully before you make a move! One mistake can be your last... or it may lead you to fame and fortune!
In the early hours of a morning in 1969, in the middle of a long commuter rail trip from Connecticut to Manhattan, a lawyer edging up on 40 is scribbling a complex diagram in a worn spiral notebook. The diagram looks “like a tree lying on its side with many branches and limbs.” He ignores the view out the window and his fellow passengers on the train, other men in business suits like him, on their way to work. He is busy. He’s designing a book you can play like a game.
A few nights earlier, Edward Packard had been spinning a bedtime story for his two daughters. With three hours of daily commuting, about the only chance he had to see the girls during the week was those bedtime stories, and rather than reading them out of a book, he liked to make up his own:
I had a character named Pete and I usually had him encountering all these different adventures on an isolated island. But that night I was running out of things for Pete to do, so I just asked [the girls] what they would do.
His daughters each gave a different answer, so Packard obligingly gave each of them their own ending. “What really struck me was the natural enthusiasm they had for the idea,” he later recalled. “And I thought: ‘Could I write this down?’”
Packard had always wanted to be a writer, and had tried his hand at a couple of children’s books he’d never managed to sell. Practicing law had seemed a steadier way to support a family. But now the idea of a book for kids that gave them multiple pathways through a story wouldn’t leave his head. He started sketching out flowcharts on the train to and from the office, working out from first principles the structural and organizational problems with branching narratives and limited page counts. Eventually he had an outline for a book he called The Adventures of You on Sugarcane Island. In the book, a rogue wave sweeps “you” off a ship, to wake up later on a deserted island:
...lying high on a huge sand dune. Behind you is a broad, sloping beach. You watch the foaming waves thrashing upon it. Ahead of you is a meadow of tall reeds bounded by high rocky hills. You are hungry and thirsty. You look out at the ocean and see nothing but endless blue water. Except for a few sea gulls hovering over the waves, you are all alone.
If you decide to walk along the beach, turn to page 5.
If you decide to climb the rocky hill, turn to page 6.
Packard hadn’t been the first to imagine such a book, or even to write one. Biblionauts of various eras had toyed with the notion of a book that contained its own strange rules for navigation. The 1930 novel Consider the Consequences! by Doris Webster and Mary Alden promised “a brand new idea in fiction—a story which ends in any one of a dozen or more different ways, depending entirely on the taste of the individual reader,” and included choice points like this one:
The reader who thinks she will be wise to avoid argument and trouble by eloping turns to paragraphs H-3. The one who thinks she would better decide to return home, determined to face the music and go through with her marriage in spite of opposition, turns to paragraphs H-4.
Other books, stage shows, or radio programs had tried one-off experiments with audience participation, letting the reader decide (or audience vote) on which direction the story should go. The 1935 play The Night of January 16th (by Ayn Rand, of all people) asked twelve random audience members to serve as jurors for a courtroom drama, and render a verdict before the final curtain: two different endings could unfold depending on their decision. In the 1950s and ’60s, experiments in “programmed learning” led to textbooks called Tutor Texts, with multiple-choice questions where each answer instructed the student to turn to a different page: incorrect responses would have detailed explanations to give students immediate feedback about where they’d gone wrong. But few of these efforts gained much traction, each created largely in ignorance of the others, and as experiments they were rarely repeated.
It seemed at first the same would prove true for Packard’s book. He didn’t know of any earlier attempts to create interactive novels, nor was he familiar with the still-nascent experiments with computer games happening at distant universities. But he thought his idea had potential. A friend in New York worked for the William Morris Agency, and helped Packard find a literary agent who dutifully shopped Sugarcane Island around to publishers. But there were no takers. After six months, the project was abandoned, the manuscript left to languish in a desk drawer. Packard kept practicing law, and might have done so until retirement except for a happenstantial fluke, years later.
In 1975 Packard was in Vermont and happened to be browsing through the spring issue of Vermont Life, one of those colorful grandparent magazines filled with recipes, photos of barn raisings, and feature stories on interesting fences. One article in that particular issue profiled a local company publishing children’s books and games, run by a couple named Connie and Ray Montgomery. With what the magazine assured the reader was typical Vermonter verve, the Montgomerys felt their books were doing something a little different: they were “specifically and exclusively for children”:
Most children’s books are significantly designed with the buyer in mind—the parent or grandparent... the distribution and displays are geared to the purchaser not the child. ...We want the child reader to get involved in what he is reading and experiencing. He should identify with the subject. ...He is learning to read, but in the process he is also learning about himself.
Something in the article sparked Packard’s imagination: maybe the photos of children clustered around one of the Montgomerys’ prototype books, which they’d take to local schools to try out on the kids rather than relying on adult opinions. Packard’s own children had appreciated the value of a story where you got to make decisions, when the New York publishing suits hadn’t given it a chance. Maybe Vermont Crossroads Press might be interested in his abandoned experiment.
Ray Montgomery had been involved with so-called “active learning” for years. After working as both a high school and college instructor, he’d developed roleplaying scenarios for Peace Corps volunteers, giving them practice negotiating tense scenarios they might encounter abroad. He had also helped run a summer school for remedial learners with a focus on “experiential learning”: “the most powerful way for kids, or for anyone, to learn something.” So he was primed to be receptive when Packard looked him up with a book that invited the reader to play along with the story. Before long they’d struck a deal for the Montgomerys’ company to publish Sugarcane. Released in 1976 as an oversized hardcover with a red and green dust jacket, it had a hopeful banner on the cover: “The Adventures of You Series.”
Montgomery knew he had something good on his hands even before the book’s release. “I Xeroxed 50 copies of Ed’s manuscript and took it to a reading teacher in Stowe. His kids—third grade through junior high—couldn’t get enough of it.” Everywhere he took the book the reaction was the same. But Vermont Crossroads was too small an operation to make much impact. Montgomery quickly wrote a second “Adventures of You” book, but it also languished in obscurity. Packard, growing frustrated, had started shopping the concept around to other publishers, and in 1977 struck a deal with Lippincott to release two new choice-based books, Deadwood City (1978) and The Third Planet From Altair (1979). Each used the phrase “Choose your own adventures” on the cover as part of its banner text, but not yet framed as the name of a series.
Montgomery was also looking for a bigger fish, and found one in Bantam Books. A young acquisitions editor there, Joëlle Delbourgo, immediately saw the idea’s potential: “My first reaction was that it was a brilliant concept and, to make an impact, you had to publish it as a series with a unifying cover concept.” When it came out that neither Lippincott nor Packard had registered a trademark on the “choose your own adventure” phrase, Bantam snatched it up, offering a regular writing contract to both Packard and Montgomery as a consolation prize. In July 1979 Packard’s The Cave of Time hit bookshops, branded on the cover as “Choose Your Own Adventure #1.” The dedication noted that “the concept, title, and editorial assistance” for the book had been provided by Packard’s daughter, Andrea.
In The Cave of Time, you’re visiting your uncle at Red Creek Ranch when you discover a curious cave entrance in a nearby canyon, uncovered by a rockslide. Stepping inside, you begin to feel unaccountably nervous. Hurrying back out reveals the world has changed, and you soon realize you’ve been transported to the midst of an Ice Age thousands of years earlier. You can choose to stay and explore this prehistoric world, or go back into the cave and try to find a way back to your own time. But each tunnel leads to a different place and epoch of history. Across the book’s branches you can find yourself in colonial America, medieval Europe, the time of the dinosaurs or an era beyond the death of the sun; you can witness such “best of” moments as Lincoln’s writing of the Gettysburg Address, the sinking of the Titanic, or the building of the Great Wall of China.
A recurring theme is the choice to stay and build a new life in a time and place that seems hospitable, or risk danger returning the cave to try to find a way home:
Soon you are sitting in front of a huge beach fire, cooking crabs and eating buana cake. Having never had a visitor before, your hosts are happy to see you. They welcome you into their society. Gradually you learn their language. They boys tell you they are your brothers; the girls that they are your sisters.
You enjoy life in this new paradise, but you still wonder whether there might be a way to get back to the Cave of Time. Your new friends are unable to help. Perhaps if you journeyed inland you could find some who could. Your friends warn you against trying, however. They tell you that you will find only terrible jungles and rivers filled with crocodiles.
If you remain with your new friends, turn to page 62.
If you journey inland, turn to page 63.
The branches in the book come often, with rarely more than two pages passing without a choice, and a structure that “resists being drawn as a vertical flowchart: it wants to be a radial sea-creature.” This means each pathway is quite short, taking a reader only ten to fifteen minutes to complete: a chunk of time nicely aligned with the length of a bus ride or a recess. While later books would slow down the pace of choices to enable longer pathways with more plot and character development, and would merge branches more aggressively to increase the length of any given read-through, Cave of Time treats each choice as a true divergence, leading to forty different endings: eaten by the Loch Ness Monster, becoming a ship captain, or riding a mammoth off the edge of a cliff.
Thousands of years later when Dr. Carleton Frisbee, the famous paleontologist, finds your bones next to those of a wooly mammoth in the Red Creek excavation, he is amazed at how closely you resemble a twentieth-century human being.
Bantam’s marketing director Barbara Marcus took on the challenge of selling the unusual book. “A children’s paperback series [didn’t] have dollars, display space, or reviews” in those days, Marcus later recalled. Standard practice was to basically use kid titles as filler, dumping them on bookshops along with more profitable adult books and letting the stores figure out what to do with them. When asked how she promoted the new series, Marcus remembered: “We did absolutely nothing except give the books away. We gave thousands of the books to our salesmen and told them to give five to each bookseller and tell him to give them to the first five kids into his shop.” The decision to print the books in standard paperback size rather than an oversized children’s format was also a shrewd one: younger readers felt like they were reading a real, grown-up book, and early teens didn’t have to feel self-conscious about being seen with one. The numbering, too, was a clever idea, suggesting there were other titles you were missing out on and encouraging kids to trade books or fill in the gaps in their collections. The series soon became a massive success.
While the format would seem to offer little room for experimentation, some books pushed tentatively against its boundaries. In Inside UFO 54-40 (CYOA #12), the winning ending—finding a legendary anti-authoritarian utopia—exists only on a page you were never instructed to turn to. Trouble on Planet Earth (CYOA #29), unlike most books in the series, changes the reality of the fiction with each choice you make: it’s less a book about exploring alternate choices than entire alternate universes. Hyperspace (CYOA #21) featured all manner of time-and-space-bending threads, including a CYOA book-within-a-book and the author, Ed Packard, showing up within his own story. A key to the books’ popularity was that, unlike with the parser-driven computer games of the time, it wasn’t possible to input a failed command. To navigate the story, all you needed to know how to do was read. Computer games would eventually make a similar turn, sacrificing simulationism for more fool-proof methods of input, but not until the Windows model had supplanted the command-line interfaces of earlier machines.
As CYOA’s popularity surged, dozens and soon hundreds of competitor series arrived, creating a genre that would become known as gamebooks. Some series like Fighting Fantasy targeted older teens and experimented with more game-like systems, asking players to track items discovered or hit points remaining and letting that data impact what choices were available. Others with an educational bent required math or programming challenges to unlock the correct next page to turn to. 1985’s MAZE by Christopher Manson let you explore a puzzle-filled mansion rendered in enigmatic drawings, with a real-world prize of $10,000 to the first person to find the optimal pathway through its labyrinth of numbered doors.
But the original Choose Your Own Adventures remained the most popular, and would become one of the most extraordinary successes in the history of publishing, eventually selling two hundred and fifty million copies: one of the bestselling children’s book series of all time. The New York Times in 1981 said the CYOA books were “as contagious as chicken pox.” “Kids can’t stop reading” them, some books’ opening pages confirmed, and in an era where concerns about screen time (in the form of television) were gaining traction, adults saw no reason to stop them. “In 20 years of teaching,” one educator wrote, “I have never seen 12-year olds so excited about anything as they are about Choose Your Own Adventure.” Bantam decided to accelerate the pace of releases to one new title a month, and in 1981 Packard gave up his law practice to write full time, and would go on to author more than sixty books in the series.
What made CYOA so popular, and why did that popularity come when it did? Cave of Time hit shelves almost precisely in sync with the first commercial adventure games, and it’s often been assumed that one event inspired the other. And yet this seems not to have been the case. “I remember first encountering [CYOA books] after PC-based adventure games came out,” recalled Infocom’s Dave Lebling, co-creator of Zork, assuming they were some kind of knock-off from a jealous traditional media. But neither Packard nor Montgomery were familiar with early computer games, either.
The real answer may lie far deeper in the cultural subconscious. Historian Eli Cook has suggested the series caught the headwinds of a massive cultural shift from the postwar, post-Depression era of “stability, solidarity, security, and safety” to a turn towards free agency and a multitude of choices as a desirable cultural value. The previous generation had “married young, many to their high-school sweethearts,” Cook writes: “most workers preferred career-long job security to flighty labor flexibility.” But those values were giving way to more flexible arrangements both at home and at work, as well as “the conservative turn of the early 1980s, in which it came to be broadly assumed that one’s success was not dependent on gender, race, class... but rather stemmed solely from the individual life decisions one made.” Cook draws parallels between the CYOA books’ claims that “You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story,” that “You are responsible because you choose,” and Reagan Republicans cutting welfare programs because people in poverty had only themselves to blame—that they’d simply made poor choices. But this wasn’t just a conservative turn: the language of abortion-rights advocates settled on “pro-choice” in the 1980s, Cook notes, while ad campaigns across the country were switching to second-person slogans like “Have It Your Way” or “This Bud’s For You.” Self-determination had become the watchword of the day, and individual agency the most potent application of American freedom.
Whether you buy this cultural psychoanalysis or not, it’s unarguable that the books struck a powerful generational chord with younger readers. Packard had a simpler explanation for their success: “Kids love to die,” he quipped, recalling with fondness the cowboy games he’d once played with his brother where “it was always more fun to go into death throes.” Sensitive to claims the books appealed more to boys than girls, Packard pointed to a fan letter from a young lady reviewer: “I got a spear in my back and went in quicksand,” she wrote, “but other than that the book was great.” In fact both Packard and Montgomery had taken pains to author their stories without any assumptions about the reader’s gender, and in Cave of Time neither the text nor artwork betrays this conceit: the illustrations usually draw the protagonist with their back to the viewer. Later books in the series, however, began to use artwork that showed a generic white boy as the story’s protagonist. “Bantam insisted it be a boy because they had market research that said girls would identify with boys but boys would never read a book where ‘you’ was a girl,” Packard later explained, musing “I think we lost a great number of girls” to copycat series less afraid to pursue a feminine demographic.
Choose Your Own Adventure books remained bestsellers well into the 1990s, though they slowly lost ground to other interactive entertainments like computer and video games as those became affordable for more and more families. The series ended its original run in 1998. Edward Packard co-wrote the final book, Mayday! (CYOA #184), with the same person who’d inspired him since the beginning, a successful adult now with her own career: his daughter Andrea Packard.
Even after its demise, the series would remain the most common cultural touchstone for interactive stories for the next twenty years. No one quite predicted the long-term impact the books would have, despite the runaway success of the books’ initial run. A 1981 profile of Packard entitled “He Chose His Own Adventure” paints a fond picture of an unlikely text games godfather at the beginning of his second career, one that seemed to suit him far better than his first:
These days, instead of drawing up legal briefs, Packard reclines on the couch in his Madison Avenue law office. Surrounded by the dark leather-bound statute books he has abandoned, he draws outlines that look like trees. Each branch carries an option, each option sprouts into more options and every leaf represents an ending.
Then he writes.
Next week: How dozens of British college students would stay up all night to adventure together, and find themselves stood on a narrow road between The Land and whence they came.
You can often find used copies of The Cave of Time online or at your local used bookstore, and as of early 2021 Edward Packard was still writing, blogging, and selling new children’s books (interactive and otherwise) at his official website. Sam Kabo Ashwell’s analysis of CYOA choice structures is also highly recommended.