How the internet revived the world's first work of interactive fiction
May 21, 2024 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Life is not a continuous line from the cradle to the grave. Rather, it is many short lines, each ending in a choice, and branching right and left to other choices, like a bunch of seaweed or a genealogical table. No sooner is one problem solved than you face another growing out of the first. You are to decide the course of action of first Helen, then Jed, then Saunders, at each crisis in their lives. Give your first thought, without pausing to ponder.
Consider the Consequences!, a 1930 gamebook co-written by author Doris Webster and crusading journalist Mary Alden Hopkins, is the earliest known example of a choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) text, offering players a series of forking narratives for three interconnected characters with 43 distinct endings, fifty years before the format was popularized (and trademarked). Just a few years ago this pioneering work was at risk of falling into near-total obscurity. But thanks to the efforts of jjsonick on, you can now read the book on the Internet Archive (complete with nifty graphs of all possible storylines), or -- courtesy of developer geetheriot -- play the game online in an interactive fiction format powered by the Twine engine. More in the mood for radio drama? Listen to Audio Adventure Radio Hour's 2018 dramatic reading of the book (based on listener suggestions), and wrap it up with a delightful retro-review by librarian pals Peter and Abby on the Choose Your Own Book Club podcast.

Scans of the original book's dust jacket

Demian's Gamebook Web Page has a detailed breakdown of the book's structure, including a user review that explains why this 94-year-old narrative remains fresh and relevant:
Even though people may find the idea of reading a book from the thirties off-putting, I found this to be a fascinating read. This being a book for adults, the choices included have really serious consequences, and the ability to play as either a female or one of two male characters allows the reader to gain greater insights into certain aspects of the social life of the era (such as social class, marriage, divorce, single motherhood, and women's increasing emancipation and participation in the labor force). The thirties were a time of significant changes in social norms, which are highlighted in a manner that manages to be both entertaining and educational. The book makes great reading material for people interested in subjects such as sociology or gender studies, especially because it makes the reader face the consequences of his or her decisions without ever becoming censorious or preachy.

Contrary to what you might expect from a book from this era, the story deals with topics such as alcoholism, unmarried cohabitation, unusual family arrangements, political corruption, and even suicide without trying to obscure or sugarcoat their implications. It also details both player and nonplayer characters with a level of psychological depth I've very seldom seen in interactive fiction - the reader will find him or herself clashing with the social mores of the era, and how he or she responds to them will in turn shape his or her character's happiness in later life. Along some paths, the reader will find him or herself to be contributing to social change as his or her decisions successfully defy prevailing norms and taboos.

Notably for such an early work, the structure of the adventures is quite complex, with several story branches crossing with each other instead of all the paths remaining separate. Overall, I highly recommend this book for its entertainment value and developed gameplay, as well as for having demonstrated the capabilities of the interactive medium in a remarkably early era.
Authors Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins co-wrote a number of other innovative works, including algorithmic dating advice tome Help Yourself, personality assessment I've Got Your Number!, Self-Portraits ("A Novel Method of Taking Personality Photographs"), and Mrs. Grundy is Dead, a provocatively-titled etiquette book based on anonymous surveys from teens around the country on such questions as "What do you do when no one cuts in on your partner?", "How soon do you call a girl by her first name?", and "Do you take off your glove to shake hands?"

More on the early years of interactive fiction:

A Very Brief History of Gamebooks (up to 1979), by IF blogger Jason Dyer

The Memory Machine podcast interviews Dyer on the history of text adventures [audio link]
posted by Rhaomi (16 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting, thank you for posting this! As someone with an interest in gamebooks, gameful literature, interactive fiction and such, I always wanted to experience this work.
posted by bigendian at 11:34 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

Oh that’s really nice. Actually pretty sophisticated with the multiple narratives.
posted by Artw at 11:39 AM on May 21


I can’t remember if I posted about it here, but I just read this a month or so ago. Looking forward to digging into these links!
posted by cupcakeninja at 12:19 PM on May 21

Oh ha! That was me that did that TWINE port, lol. I'm super glad to see more information about this!
posted by gee_the_riot at 12:22 PM on May 21 [23 favorites]

The man himself! Had no idea you were on MeFi lol -- thanks so much for making this game so accessible!
posted by Rhaomi at 12:28 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

But I haven’t finished solving Cain’s Jawbone yet!
posted by bendy at 12:38 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

This was delightful to play through. Thanks for posting it!
posted by uncleozzy at 12:40 PM on May 21

I have to admit by the end of the second page (archived book version), I was so wrapped up in the story I completely forgot I had to make a choice!

Also by the end of the first page the book uses the phrases "cradle to the grave" and "coffee and cigarettes" and each of these are titles of movies from 2003. I don't know what to make of this except I think I've been spending too much time thinking about ultra-specific two-movie letterboxd lists.
posted by Flaffigan at 12:58 PM on May 21

Great post--thank you!

FWIW I strongly suspect Consider the Consequences drew inspiration from the classic parlor game "Consequences." Here are some versions of the game:
  • Anne Lister's diary entry for Oct. 10, 1824, gives the earliest version I know: "Played at Les Résultats, in England called Consequences — each one wrote the name of 2 ladies and 2 gents. then 2 papers of où ils sont [where they are], then 2 of ce qu’ils font [what they’re doing], then 2 of what was the result (les résultats) after which they were all read aloud in the order they happened to be taken up by Madame de Boyve, occasionally formed ridiculous combinations, and we all laughed exceedingly"
  • Dorothy Canfield's versions of the game from 1907 show a couple of ways it was gradually extended, but there are dozens upon dozens of sources for games in the same family, especially in French.
Here's why I think Consider the Consequences was probably related:
  • "Consequences" was enormously popular throughout the 19th C. and it was still being played ca. 1930 in contexts that were productive for literary experimentation: five years before the book was published, the Surrealists were playing "Consequences" under the name « petits papiers » traditionnels--giving rise to the more well-known game of "Exquisite Corpse"--and three years after the book was published, an international group of authors collaborated on the novel Consequences: A Complete Story in the Manner of the Old Parlour Game in Nine Chapters Each by a Different Author (available there at the Internet Archive)
  • The title, formal structure, themes, and scattered motifs in the novel Consider the Consequences all bear some resemblance to the game. The title part is obvious, but the game and the game book both play around with similar themes. Neither the game nor the stories in the gamebook are simple "boy meets girl" stories without implications: in 1899, Mrs. Frank Leslie (which she adopted as her name after her husband's death) wrote this amazing short essay about the themes of "Consequences" and their special connection to women's fates: "The Consequences"--the ways she reads the game apply very well to different plots in the gamebook too. And the gamebook's recombinant storytelling is conceptually distinct yet also conceptually similar to the story game's recombinant storytelling.
If that's right, then the literary / ludological genealogy of Consider the Consequences is very, very rich and connects directly with dozens of story games and nonsense-generating games played from the 15th Century through the 20th Century.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:12 PM on May 21 [12 favorites]

This is fantastic. Thank you so much for the Twine import, gee_the_riot! I wouldn't have read through some of it, if not for your effort.

Let this also be my regular reminder for interactive fiction lovers about the podcast, Finish It!, which has the (totally obtainable, no doubt about it) goal of going through every possible read of every possible piece of interactive fiction. It's goofy and fun.
posted by meese at 2:50 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

Jimmy Maher’s (sorry, I’m on mobile) is a deeply researched history of interactive fiction and computer games in general (probably there are previouslies), and he does cover choose your own adventure books. This one sounds fun.
posted by lhauser at 3:18 PM on May 21 [1 favorite] is The Digital Antiquarian which fantastic (he also has another site called The Analog Antiquarian where he talks about normal history).

Another interesting example of early interactive fiction is by, of all people, Ayn Rand.
posted by juv3nal at 4:06 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

The itchio game was SO much fun to play! I’m team Helen all the way and the idea to put them intertwined made it even more fun.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:57 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]

I believe the credit for the gruntwork on unearthing Consider the Consequences as a part of the history of gamebooks should go to James Ryan of Aleator Press, who posted a thread about CtC on Twitter back in 2017. I know he was able to track down a descendent of at least one of the creators, and was thinking of reissuing it as a print book.
posted by Hogshead at 3:38 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]

Amazing stuff, thanks for sharing!

If anybody else, like me, is in a country where iHeart is blocked, here's the original source of the Choose Your Own Book Club podcast about Consider the Consequences. Enjoy!
posted by avapoet at 1:07 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]

Mod note: [The reader wishes to inform you that after considering the consequences, we have chosen gee_the_riot and this post for the sidebar and Best Of blog.]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:44 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]

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