Classic interactive fiction gets a modern makeover

While digital interactive fiction is on the rise nowadays, sometimes we forget that it all started with the printed word.  The Choose Your Own Adventure series kicked off back in 1979, introducing millions of children to the fun and excitement of controlling the stories they read.  And when that series kicked off, it kicked off with a book by series creator Edward Packard.

It’s this same Edward Packard who, four years and a dozen or so books later, wrote the 18th book in the Choose Your Own Adventure series: Underground Kingdom.  And now, in 2013, Packard has teamed up with digital developer Visual Baker to bring that book to a whole new generation of children (though notably without the Choose Your Own Adventure brand attached).

Underground Kingdom tells the tale of an intrepid explorer who has gone to investigate a bottomless hole in Greenland.  It leads to the inside of the Earth, which scientists have now discovered is hollow rather than solid.  This occurred because of some cosmic mishmash involving a black hole that now occupies the center of the Earth, and acts something like a reverse sun.

In only a matter of pages, your explorer tumbles into the hole to discover a whole new world – one might even say an “Underground Kingdom” – populated by strange creatures, warring factions, and the mystery of an explorer who fell through a year prior.

If you’ve read the original story anytime in the last 30 years, this is all going to sound strikingly familiar to you.  What won’t be familiar, however, is the way it’s presented.  Rather than using static drawings as a physical book would, Visual Baker has created a variety of interactive illustrations for readers to be wowed by.  It’s worth noting that even if these were static and in a book, you’d be plenty wowed.  Underground Kingdom has had new life breathed into it with tremendous illustrations that showcase vibrant colors and plenty of personality – animated or not.

But animations are there, and while pretty basic, they add a nice element of interactivity where none could have existed in print.  Touching different parts of each picture can result in different responses, both in terms of animation and audio.  You might hear the words of a strange underground language spoken out loud, or see the predator that’s about to consume you reveal themselves from the bush.  These might be simple touches when you step back and think about it, but they do a great job of immersing you even deeper in the story.

Underground Kingdom

Ignoring all of the praise I’ve heaped on Underground Kingdom for a moment, there’s still some room for improvement in Visual Baker’s first release.  Pages require a big swipe to turn, when it would have been much more intuitive to mimic the iBooks page-turning mechanics with a small swipe or a quick tap.  Some interactive visual elements float on the screen and move based on tilt, occasionally resulting in blocked text with even the slightest movements. And the background has a slight cross-hatching to it that is meant to simulate a high-quality paper, but instead makes the text a little tiring on the eyes.

And, of course, there’s the unavoidable fact that this isn’t really a book that’s meant for adults.

Still, the Choose Your Own Adventure books have always skewed towards a younger audience, and for kids, Underground Kingdom is definitely a winner.  My 8 year-old daughter loved the story and the animations, and as a parent, I loved that undoing a bad decision was as simple as swiping back a page.

I find that technophiles such as myself are always talking about the potential of books in the digital age, but we rarely see projects that live up to it.  With that in mind, it’s terrific to see the kid-friendly Choose Your Own Adventure format boldly step into the 21st century.  Visual Baker may not have the rights to the Choose Your Own Adventure name, but with quality like this, I think they’d be a top choice if the brand ever comes to the App Store.  And since Underground Kingdom combines a classic COYA story with a technologically saavy flair, I can’t imagine a better fit.