Out on twitter — right now! — a beautiful thing is happening. It’s a twitter-based simulation of being Beyoncé’s assistant, dealing with problems like the singer’s dress getting crinkled and events like Beyoncé showing up festooned with bangs.
For those not in the know, this is what’s known as a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA). The novel form of this was popular back in the 80s and early video games followed this pattern as well. In the current example, by picking a choice (the choices are presented as response tweets) you try to navigate the perilous terrain of being Beyoncé’s assistant. At each step you’re posed with choices to offer her different kinds of food or different lighting or facetiming with different children.
Like the fantasy adventures that dominated CYOA literature in the past, it’s a dangerous, arbitrary adventure with numerous dead ends. You can find that out by diving in and playing it. Or you could rely on someone like me pulling the choices out and visualizing them using a form of network layout optimized for this kind of data. It lets you look at the whole thing all at once.
That’s a map of this particular choose your own adventure, with dozens of decision points along with chains of events that naturally arise from your foolish decisions to paint Beyoncé’s hotel room or tempt her with booze or food. Each green circle is a tweet, connected to other tweets offered up as choices and oftentimes just leading to the next tweet because you have no choice, only the consequences of your last choice.
Choose Your Own Adventure stories have long enthralled me. Not so much as literature or entertainment per se, since they’re not always great — the form is hard to manage and it’s dominated by cheesy humor rather than serious multilayered plots or character development. But as systems, CYOAs give you a view into what we think of as narrative structure explicitly designed by an author.
I think CYOAs have had a popular resurgence lately as a way to bridge the gap between linear and interactive content without going fully into traditional video games. Christian Swinehart long ago explored representing CYOAs with network visualization, so I’m not doing anything fundamentally new here (though this takes advantage of newer optimized layouts, in this case a layout known as Dagre, because it’s optimized for Directed Acyclic Graphs like these). Trying to visualize these systems and structures in different ways allows you to better understand the stories, but also, when paired with actual numbers of people who’ve chosen a particular path, the way people experience them. When Netflix introduced its slate of CYOA content, mostly for kids but also with a notable CYOA version of Black Mirror, I had a chance to reason about and work on visualizing those structures. I used techniques like this, along with others, to get at story neighborhoods and how people move between them.
What I found in the case of the Beyonce’s Assistant CYOA, along with the explicit structure, was another chance to ask: What’s the point of this? Well, it depends on who you are. If you’re a fan of Beyoncé, then it’s pretty simple.
The questions and the traps are all about whether or not you know certain details about Beyoncé’s family, tastes and allergies.
But the tweet has received, as of writing this, a quarter million likes and nearly 100k responses. That indicates that it’s not just for Beyoncé fans. For someone like me, it’s more about playing the game and seeing the different ways you can die (in this case “dying” is being fired by Beyoncé). High mortality is a feature of traditional CYOA games, and like old Sierra games the ways you can fail are embraced as moments of great humor. Poor Beyoncé can get kidnapped or inebriated or lost in a plane crash (because you decided her flight crew should be left off the plane).
The above comes from a particularly fun CYOA storytelling technique, where a decision you made somewhere in the past comes back to bite you. In this case, it’s your choice of putting red toilet paper in the bathroom (why would anyone do this?) which doesn’t elicit any immediate effect. Let’s zoom in to that part of the network.
Putting red toilet paper in the bathroom (again, why would anyone do this?!?!) just leads to a simple response about how she hasn’t been in the bathroom, and instead you’re given a few choices on what kind of food to offer. You can get fired if you choose the dessert or deli tray (or escape back to happier paths if you choose fruit). If you choose chicken you move on to another seemingly innocuous choice between posting instagram pics or helping Beyoncé practice her speech. However, regardless of which one you choose it ends with you being fired because you picked red toilet paper a while back.
But you might not even get a chance to choose the wrong toilet paper, because you offered Beyoncé a 5-star breakfast on your first opportunity and she fired you immediately. The amount of content that may never be seen in a CYOA is part of its mystique. As is the amount of endings.
Visualizing the structure of these stories makes them seem more complicated than they really are.
The layout I’m using has a “longest path” option that organizes all the steps so that all the endings are on the right. What this highlights is where you can reach an “ending”. The bottom step is the 5-Star Breakfast ending (right off the bat) with other endings spread around the structure of the story. That pattern you see where there seems to be one step right before the end is based on the way this particular twitter-based CYOA is structured: the choice point is followed by the choice itself and then the consequence as separate tweets.
One problem visualizing the structure of these stories is that it makes them seem more complicated than they really are. Even though you have dozens of choices and responses, some are far more important than others. Along with the “take instagram pics or practice speech” choices leading to the same result, there are certain decisions that lead you into entire dark regions of the Beyoncé Assistant Saga.
These are what I mean by story neighborhoods. You might end up experiencing the Beverly Hills Wilshire (and Solange) slightly differently, but once you’re in the Never Facetime Jay neighborhood, you’re basically locked into a particular kind of surreal experience. This feels like real life, in a way even modern video games (which have moved away from the generation of content for “failure” storylines) don’t. We all know that once you make certain decisions it constrains future outcomes.
Choose Your Own Adventure stories evoke a completionist impulse among readers. People watching Bandersnatch on Netflix mapped it and shared tips for seeing every ending. I’m sure the same is happening with Beyoncé’s assistant. I think that’s an indication of the legitimacy of reading these stories as systems. In that case, the enjoyment and meaning isn’t only about prose, or plot, or character growth, but rather in understanding the theme and structure of the system. Having explored this so deeply, I don’t feel like I understand Beyoncé better, but I do feel like I understand how other people understand Beyoncé better.
These charts were made with Semiotic using its support for Dagre layouts. You can see an example of that functionality here.