Choose Your Own Alexa
The ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Books Come to the Little Black Disc
In early February, Audible sent me an email. In the spirit of full disclosure, I once had a podcast on Audible, back when Audible had podcasts. But they canceled the show because they were afraid of my ideas. Now, with this email, I could see the direction they’d decided to go instead.
“Are you ready?” the email asked.
Below that provocative phrase sat a picture of an Alexa disc, accompanied by the phrase, “Alexa, open Choose Your Own Adventure.”
Well, this was exciting! I’m a very old man, so I remember reading the Choose Your Own Adventure books when they first appeared in the late 1970s. My pre-pubescent imagination rambled through Mayan ruins, went on insane spy adventures, and explored haunted houses. The books left quite an impression. For our “Save The Date” announcement for our wedding, my wife and I created our own Choose Your Own Adventure booklet. If you chose right, you’d end up partying in Nashville. A bad choice could lead to a flat tire, or even death.
And now the books were back, on Alexa! It seemed like a perfect match. Flipping pages had been fun, back in the day, but technology has definitely caught up with interactive storytelling. An electronic Choose Your Own Adventure made perfect sense. It would be like Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, only without the massive drug use and arch irony.
This would have been a perfect experience to share with my son, but the technology came about about a decade too late. My son is 16 years old. So unless Alexa featured a Choose Your Own Adventure called “Becoming A Soundcloud Rapper” or “Hanging Out With Some Dudes From The Lacrosse Team,” he wouldn’t be interested. I’d have to take this voyage alone.
Because I’m very busy and important, it took me six weeks to say the magic words:
“Alexa, open Choose Your Own Adventure.”
“Choose Your Own Adventure requires parental permission to open. Please go to the Alexa app to enable this.”
Screw you, Alexa, I thought. My parents are dead.
I didn’t have the app on my phone, so I texted the person from whom I receive my parental permission these days: my wife, who was at work.
“Do you have the Alexa app?” I asked. “I am trying to activate something.”
“What r u doingbon Alexa?” she asked.
“Choose Your Own Adventure,” I said.
A few minutes later, I got an email. Permission had been granted. The wonderful world of interactive storytelling, enabled by the digital personal assistant who spies on you, had been opened. Do you want to see what happened next? Watch this exciting video!
Space and Beyond
Mercifully, Alexa didn’t actually narrate these stories. She occasionally appeared to ask “would you like me to continue?” but the majority of the narration belonged to actors, as in a normal audiobook. My choice of Space And Beyond, one of my half-remembered favorites from my youth, proved fortuitous.
After some opening blah-blah about how my character had been born on an interstellar starship, I got to choose between exploring two planets. One of them was called “Kroin” or something supremely stupid, so I audibly chose the other one. A few careful choices later, I found myself studying at a space academy under the tutelage of some sort of weird Zen Master. I learned how to transcend reality through my mind, which gave me the power to travel through time.
He then gave me a choice: did I want to travel back 275 million years to the time of the dinosaurs, or did I want to travel to some random, unknown point in time? I seemed to recall that the dinosaur choice would just lead to me getting eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, so I chose the random option.
In my mind, or in reality, or in both, I journeyed back to the beginning of the universe, to the Big Bang itself. I saw that time has no beginning and no end. The Choose Your Own Adventure book told me that there is no future, and no past. I’d already seen everything that was and everything that will be. I became part of the eternal soul of the universe.
Whoa! On my very first adventure, I’d landed on the best possible timeline, and not only in Space And Beyond, but in any book ever written. Often, Choose Your Own Adventure ends with the protagonist falling down an hole or getting shot with an arrow. Here, I transformed into the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey while sitting in my living room.
The Further Adventures of a Middle-Aged Man
I figured I’d pretty much hacked the secret of Choose Your Own Adventure. After all, the writers originally intended these books to be consumed by grade-school kids. Those dumb kids didn’t have decades of narrative consumption behind them like I did. I set a goal of steering the stories toward the trippiest possible timeline.
In Journey Under The Sea, I maneuvered myself in my amazing submersible into a deep-sea trench. There, I found a door, which I hit with some sonic blasts. It opened, and I beheld the lost city of Atlantis. Unlike in Aquaman, this city didn’t feature an octopus playing battle-drums, but it was still pretty amazing.
The Atlanteans gave me a choice. I could either get an operation that allowed me to breathe underwater, or I could choose to live in an air bubble as part of a surface-creature zoo. Wisely, I chose the operation. This gave me gills, and I spent the rest of my years exploring the ocean as a resident alien. It was a good life, Alexa told me, but I sometimes missed the surface world.
Just to make sure I’d chosen relatively correctly, I went back to see what would have happened if I hadn’t chosen the operation. Sure enough, as I sort-of remembered, nothing good. That story ended with “you are a prisoner in a zoo.”
Currently, Audible offers three Choose Your Own Adventure books through Alexa. I saved the dumbest one, The Abominable Snowman, for last. In this book, I played a dipshit mountain climber who goes to Nepal to solve the mystery of the yeti. I found myself getting bored very quickly, so I attempted to zap my way to the most mystical ending as quickly as possible.
After I turned down an offer from the Nepalese government to go on a jungle expedition to see some rare tigers, I quickly found myself reunited with my friend “Carlos,” entering a remote monastery in the Himalayas. There, I encountered a monk, who led me through some Orientalist meditation nonsense. An enormous statue of a Buddhist opened up to reveal a yeti named “Zorak.”
The drugs were good in the 70s.
I chose to go with Zorak, leaving behind my friend Carlos. Zorak taught me how to levitate above the Earth, and together we soared to the top of Mount Everest. He and I entered a secret portal, which led us deep into the center of the Earth, and the lost city of Shangri-La. I looked at Zorak, and he had become me, a mystical revelation which the book is too lazy to explain. Then, in a bitter irony, I discover that Shangri-La, while somewhat pleasant, is also kind of boring.
Alexa played a little “Wah-wah” music, as if to say, stop trying to transcend space and time, smartass.
“Alexa, stop,” I said.
She did as I said. This time.