Apr 11, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure

A couple weeks back, the most ridiculous idea for the most ridiculous publishing concept came up in a half-joking conversation: a do-it-yourself choose your own adventure. Basically, all the page numbers were filled in, and every couple of pages or so would be capped off with “if you choose to do one thing, turn to page 37; if you do something else, turn to page 61, and if you choose to do nothing at all, turn to page 114.” And then, random pages would be covered in endings, such as “You have died” or “You won!” or whatever. Everything else would be blank. I don’t know why somebody hasn’t done that already.

I really loved the “choose your own adventure” books – they were, to my mind, the ancestors of the RPG (though I wonder if they didn’t actually come out later), in that you, the reader, had some say in how the book turned out. There’ve definitely been a lot of books and movies I would love to have had the opportunity to choose my own ending, that’s for sure. Is that arrogance on my part? I don’t know. It’s not so much that I think I can do it better, but I would love a chance to have done it differently. For example, I agree with Joss Whedon when he said that he’d have done Return of the Jedi where Luke and Leia were not actually siblings, but the “other Skywalker” would’ve been a female jedi who totally kicked ass. Tell me that wouldn’t have been awesome.

But those CYOA books just fell in line with my youthful ambitions to tell stories, create my own endings to whatever tale I was reading. Even when I get the occasional moment to play video games, the parts I enjoy most are the storyline elements. The gameplay, sure, it’s fun, it’s dynamic, totally. But give me a cool story that I get to help define as my characters level up, and you’ve got me in the palms of your hands. Most of all when you surprise me in a good way. Tell me a story I haven’t heard before; or tell it in a really interesting way. Don’t just tell me the story that tested well in development or that mirrors the narrative arc that did so well in the theaters last year. Don’t just find a new way to retell Titanic, don’t just reboot dwindling franchises, don’t just do cover songs that sound a lot like the original (though I admit, I kinda liked Pseudo Echo's version of that, much to my deep and abiding shame).

As I was watching a recent episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he had a guest on there – Elon Musk, entrepreneur made wealthy for his involvement in PayPal who is now developing a private company dedicated to developing space travel. One of the first statements the man said in response to the question “how do you go from PayPal to Space Travel?” was quite illuminating and inspiring. He said “when I was in college, I believed that there were three things which would revolutionize the whole world: the internet, sustainable energy and space travel.” I completely agree, and for the very same reasons that he stated. He explained that the whole problem with the world right now is that we’ve to a very large part abandoned the spirit of exploration. We’ve stopped boldly going; we’ve begun to shift in many ways into a process of just trying to monetize the things we do – rather than following JFK’s indication that "we choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win ...", we do things only if they are easy and we can get paid for them. Granted, sure, I understand the idea of wanting to have a comfortable lifestyle, but also… we need to keep an eye on the adventures we have not yet dreamed up. Life cannot just be about problem solving. It has to be about dreaming up a world we haven’t yet built and saying “why not?”

Jon’s parting words to Musk were ones I could feel echoed in my own mind: “Take me with you.”

Because come on, what’s happened to us? Last night, my 11 year old daughter was asking me about current technology – a conversation that came out of the innocent question “What’s a Walkman?” – and I pointed out that not 25 years ago in Star Trek, they had datapads, which, at the time, seemed to help place the show physically in the realm of Science Fiction. These conceptual future computers in turn inspired the iPads that now pretty much everyone either has, has seen, or desperately wants. I myself fall into the last two categories, but only for the short term. Sad Ren, huh? I’m still waiting for the flying cars that the movie industry has promised me – though I’d be happy with the maglev cars seen in Minority Report, just so we’re clear. But I’m concerned by the perception that we appear to be catching up with our imaginations a little bit. At least… at least it has SEEMED that way.

I personally do not believe this to be the case. I think it’s a matter of time, really, before things punch through to a new level of imagination and comprehension.

I see it like this: until the world’s explorers fir circumnavigated the globe, there was not yet definitive belief or understanding that the earth was truly round. But discovering that – proving that – forced us to universally update our perceptions. Currently, we have the perceptions of things we publicly indicate to be unchanging and unwavering principles – things like the theory of relativity, for example, which we’ve decided are going to be unshakeable truths.

Things can’t travel faster than the speed of light? Well, who knows? We used to think things couldn’t travel faster than the speed of sound, and we eventually learned that wasn’t the case, either. And if we proceed with the notion that perhaps things CAN exist in a structure of believe not aligned with what we have traditionally accepted, what will that do to the thousand other possibilities that exist?

In a series of observations woven into the classic postapocalyptic novel “Earth Abides”, one that always stuck with me was the notion that the past does not define the future. Just because you’ve never broken your arm does not mean it is unbreakable. Just as the fact that you have not yet died does not mean you are immortal. Things can happen – sometimes radically – to utterly devastate previous dogmas. Sometimes, the world does it to you. Sometimes you go looking for it.

But these new observations do not happen on the roads which lay so paved and neat, tramped down by generations of travelers. You have to take that path less travelled – or maybe take no path at all, forging ahead into the dark wilderness that yawns wide before us.

Our family tries to take an adventure every year. Sometimes it’s a simple journey, like to Disneyland or whatnot, but other times we have simply jumped into the car and headed out, following our noses. Those are the vacations I love the most – though they’re often quite complex and not always easy. They recharge me, showing me parts of the world I’ve never seen, feeding into the hungry Pit of Carkoon that exists at the center of my creative process. Feed the maw, I say.

Find your own maw, and see what it craves. Feed it. Explore. Experience. Choose your own adventure.

And then come back and share your stories.

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