Inside UFO 54-40…

Breaking the Rules to Reach Ultima… After the Break…

Inside UFO 54-40…

“Choose Your Own Adventure” books were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. The era of pen-and-paper role-playing games (RPGs) was beginning to gather momentum with the mainstream, as were microcomputers (yes, microcomputers). There were problems with each of these forms of entertainment, though: RPGs were difficult to learn and required groups of four or more before they became exciting. You also needed a “dungeon master” (the person who controlled the adventure) who was fairly adept at being creative and entertaining. And then, of course, you needed time… And a rather understanding family because role-playing games, naturally, were the path to Satanism, cannibalism, communism, atheism, crime, rape, drugs and everything else that the moral majority could imagine back then. Microcomputers (stop snickering, they were really called that back then) were notoriously expensive, rare and the price of computer games back then were a small fortune. The games were printed on floppy discs that were notorious for being fragile and were prone to being bent or magnetically erased.

So, what was the lone person to do when they wanted to play a game but had neither the social circle or the money to shell out for a computer that barely held the processing power to spit out a few beeps and bloops?

“Choose Your Own Adventure” books are just as the namesake describes: They were books in which you could choose the path that book’s story took. The book would give you a decision to make (“Do you enter the cave, turn to page 6. Do you stay outside of the cave, turn to page 9”) and then you would make that decision. The book would have multiple endings and part of the fun of the books would be to go back and make different decisions to see just how favorable an ending you had missed. I’ll make a confession right now: I wasn’t too “good” at these books. I certainly don’t remember a lot of times when I read one of these books and I was rewarded with a ‘good’ ending on the first read-through.

Perhaps the CYOA book that has stuck with me the most, though, was the one entitled “Inside UFO 54-40.” That CYOA book was different.

That CYOA had a gimmick and it has stuck with me decades since.

Elsewhere on the Internet, you can discover for yourself what the gimmick is. I won’t spoil it here.

CYOA books and their genre certainly didn’t catch on beyond the youth and young adult market. Even the simple, branching variety aren’t easy to make and the more complex ones that “loop” back onto themselves or even re-use multiple options are downright difficult to construct. By their very nature, these books also don’t offer a lot of reading value: A 200-page CYOA will yield multiple stories but the longest story might only be 50 pages of material and those multiple stories re-use a lot of pages that you, yourself, won’t re-read.

Ironically enough, a computer game called “The Stanley Parable” used the CYOA concept effectively with the use of humor and narrative but the more practical application of the branching storyline came about with the side-scrolling adventure computer game genre that emerged from companies such as Sierra and LucasArts (remember them?).

There were a lot of CYOA books that I read; “Inside UFO 54-40” was one of the few memorable ones because of what you had to do in order to reach the most desired ending. I have to be honest in that I probably haven’t taken the lesson to heart as often as I would like but, to be completely fair, I haven’t forgotten about it, either.

Reminding myself of the book makes me want to search around for my copy to see if I still have it somewhere. It’s been awhile since I’ve tried my hand at finding Ultima…

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