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One Story, Many Paths

Photo by Flickr user WiggyToo

The first time I saw the movie Clue, I was ten years old. I remember flicking through the channels on the TV and catching the beginning credits of a movie with dark overtones and watching to see what it was all about. I thought it was going to be scary. But it was one of the funniest movies I’d ever seen. (Admittedly the bar was quite low when I was ten.)

Many years later, after the movie had gone from a box-office flop to a cult favourite, I sought it out to see if it was still as good as I remembered. (Spoiler: It was.) Not only is Clue still hilariously camp and funny, it’s also, without doubt, the best movie adaptation of a board game ever. (Again, admittedly a low bar.) Plus, it has another unique feature.

It has three endings.

When the movie was released in 1985, it was shipped off to theatres with each one getting only one of the endings. So a person going to Cinema A may find out that the culprit was one person, while somebody at Cinema B would emerge knowing that the murderer was somebody completely different.

This did not go down well with audiences. Or critics. The movie was criticized for relying on “gimmicks” that only served to distract people from the rest of the story.

When the movie was released on VHS and on TV, all three endings were included. This is the cut that I’d wager most of us have seen. It would have been quite a different experience, I imagine, watching only one of those iconic endings and then wondering whether you should pay to go to a different screening to possibly see another version.

As far as I’ve been able to work out, Clue is the only movie to have ever attempted multiple endings. I don’t mean post-credit scenes, or alternate endings created because the first one bombed with test audiences. I mean real, genuine, different-viewers-have-different-experiences multiple endings.

If things had been different and Clue had been a runaway success, I can only imagine that we would have had 3 versions of Avengers: Endgame released (can’t you just hear the dollar signs?) and at least five different winners of the Iron Throne.

But maybe that’s what the future holds…

Choose Your Own Survival?

Some weeks ago, my sons came home from their Dad’s place all excited about a new Netflix show they’d been watching. I was half-listening as I was cooking dinner while they reminded each other of their favourite parts.

“Remember when he buried his medicine and slept in a tree with monkeys, and then a cobra came in and went all around and broke all the medicine? So next time, we built a fire in the front of the cave to keep the jaguar out and slept in the cave instead?”

That got my attention. “I thought you said you were watching a show?”

“We were!”

“So… what are you talking about? He lost his stuff and then got more?”

My eight-year-old looked at me like I was an idiot (a look he perfected many years ago) and said, “No, we just played that part again.”

“Oh. It’s a game.”

“No!” My son was exasperated now. “It’s a show. It’s You vs Wild. It’s a choose you own adventure show.”

Bear Grylls’ You vs Wild is, indeed, a choose your own adventure show. An interactive story, if you’d prefer. It’s not the first of its kind…

In fact, it’s the second.

Last year, Black Mirror had an episode (movie?) called Bandersnatch on Netflix  which was interactive. And the word on the street is that there’s an interactive Kimmy Schmidt episode due to be released next year.

If these go well… It’s only a matter of time before we end up with screens full of interactive stories. A few YouTube commentators have heralded this as a brave new world of entertainment, where instead of clustering around the water cooler to talk about what happened on the latest episode of [insert latest pop culture phenomenon here], they’ll talk about what happened in their version of the story.

But is it, really?

I want to take you back in time again, this time to 1990. Every week, there was a thrill that went through the air as groups of people clustered around water coolers and school desks and jazzercise classes to theorise about Who killed Laura Palmer?

How different would those conversations have been if everyone had watched a different version of Twin Peaks?

Video games have been interactive, with decision trees and the ability to change the story depending on your choices for at least twenty years now. It seems that streaming services are following in that tradition. I can’t imagine how movies in cinemas could be made interactive. (Okay, I can actually… but it requires a bit more futuristic tech than we’ve currently got.)

And maybe, if this trend continues, we’ll see another movie with multiple endings show up. And maybe this time, with the internet to build the hype, it will turn out better. Or maybe not.  It still kinda feels like a gimmick to me.

But all of this begs the question: Why am I talked about this here and now?

Are You Choosing Your Own Adventure?

To make a long story short (too late), I’m not sure whether this is the right place to be talking about it. But what I’d like to do is start a conversation about interactive stories. We’ve all read the Choose Your Own Adventure books of our youth, but with the changes happening in the way people view media, and their expectations about engagement, are we going to see a rise in CYOA-style novels for adults? And, if so, how would this work?

Hypertext Fiction (it means exactly what it sounds like it means) has been talked about as a way to tell non-linear stories for at least 25 years or so. With the popularity of ebooks growing, and so many ways for people to access fiction, perhaps this is an area that we’re going to see grow over the next five or ten years.

Back in 2013, Wired published an article about why Hypertext Fiction hadn’t  taken off up to that point. The basic gist of it was that interactive fiction is too hard to write. Multiple storylines, choices that actually matter, different endings… Interactive fiction is even harder than regular fiction.

So maybe this is exactly the right place to be talking about it after all.

What are your thoughts on Interactive Media? Have you watched Bandersnatch or You vs Wild? Do you think there’s a future in interactive hypertext fiction? Or do you think this is a whole lot of hype over something that’s essentially a passing fad?

About Jo Eberhardt [2]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.