The Luminaries: choose your social media adventure

by Jane Clewett (2,012 words)

The Luminaries: choose your social media adventure
March 18, 2020 Jane Clewett

Late at night on June 2, 2019, author Susan Dennard posted a rather unusual tweet:

This was the beginning of The Luminaries; a six month-long adventure played by readers around the world. Its protagonist was Wednesday ‘Winnie’ Wednesday, trainee member of a secret monster-hunting society known as the Luminaries, and she was about to have the longest and most eventful birthday of her life. Every day, Dennard wrote two or three tweets leading up to a single choice, conducted by Twitter poll. These 500-odd words a day proved to be one of the most entertaining, and the most gripping, reading experiences of this writer’s year.

Like many people who grew up in the UK during the 80s and 90s, gamebooks were a much-loved staple of my childhood. Often called ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ (CYOA) books, after one of the most successful and long-running series which was published by Vermont Crossroads Press, gamebooks set out to tell an interactive story, giving the reader a feeling of control over the narrative. Told in second person and in the present tense, the books allowed their readers to take on the persona of the lead character (often an action hero type, but sometimes an average person caught up in unusual circumstances) and choose what they would do, guiding them through the book’s story. Each choice would involve turning to a different page number and reading a marked section. Although most gamebooks had only one ‘true’ ending — the other endings often involving the player character’s unfortunate demise — there were generally multiple paths to this eventual success.

Some series, such as Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy, or Mark Smith and Jamie Thompson’s The Way of the Tiger, also included a combat mechanic, requiring players to keep track of their own and their enemies’ health and roll dice to attack. The use of a Dungeons & Dragons-like mechanic was hardly surprising; UK gamebooks deliberately intended to reproduce the experience of a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) for a single player, and the aforementioned series had their roots in their authors’ Dungeons & Dragons gameworlds.

As video games became more sophisticated and easily accessible, they provided a new format for solo roleplaying. Gamebooks gradually declined in popularity, with the original publication runs of the Choose Your Own Adventure and Lone Wolf series both coming to an end in 1998. However, they were not simply replaced by dungeon-crawling PC RPGs such as Diablo. Interactive fiction (IF) games such as the Zork series had developed alongside gamebooks, and while their published cousins floundered these ‘text adventures’ continued to flourish.

CYOA has seen a resurgence of interest in the last decade, with a number of different attempts made to adapt the format for a modern audience. Ebooks have been the most obvious and successful choice, with both repackaged gamebook classics and new companies such as Choice of Games doing well on the mobile market.

Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf was reimagined as a video game, combining choice mechanics and classic RPG turn-based combat. Released first in chapters on mobile platforms and then ported as a complete game to consoles, it was a modest success, although the ‘mostly positive’ rating on Steam sums up the critical response. The planned follow up, a Pokémon Go-style augmented reality game, is still in limbo after an attempted Kickstarter raised only half its desired funding.

In 2015, Ian Pears’ Arcadia, a sprawling interactive story available on a bespoke app for the iPad, also experimented with the medium. Pears made use of some of the established design elements of gamebooks, but his work was more of an exploration of intertwining stories. Arcadia was shortlisted for the Clarke Award that year.

In 2016, Tin Man Games released the Fighting Fantasy classic The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. This had been funded by a Kickstarter in 2015. The gamebook had been first released in 1982, adapted into a video game in 1984, turned into a board game in 1986, made into a roleplaying adventure module in 2003, and then turned into another computer game, this time for the Nintendo DS, in 2009. The 2003 module is currently being adapted again for the Fighting Fantasy roleplaying game system and FoxYason Music Production announced in 2017 they had acquired a licence to make an audio version, also released that year.

In 2018 Z-Man Games brought out Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger, a cooperative board game. It included much of the original book’s text on ‘narrative cards’ while adding a couple of new mechanics, such as dice rolling and item collection. It’s unclear how far the experience of playing the game differs from simply reading the book — the number one complaint in reviews is that the consequences of choices are too large and too arbitrary, and other aspects seem tacked on — but the game seems to have performed well enough and may be the start of a series, as Choose Your Own Adventure: War With The Evil Power Master was released the following year.

Other franchises have experimented with the medium. Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse TV series launched ‘Save Hazel’ in 2009 and Campfire NYC have delivered a variety of interactive transmedia stories as part of their marketing campaigns for HBO, but all of these were as subsidiary works to generate audiences for the main production.

Probably the most high-profile IF venture of the last few years was Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive movie which detailed the struggles of a young programmer as he attempted to adapt a classic fantasy novel into a video game. Typically for the series, the film is both a solid horror offering and a dry metatextual commentary on the nature of interactive storytelling. In the ‘best’ ending (which can only be arrived at by making him do some truly despicable things), the protagonist explains that the secret to IF is not to give the player too much choice. They feel like they’re shaping the story, but the writer is always the one who’s really in control.

All of which is to say that when I started reading (or playing) Susan Dennard’s The Luminaries, I thought I was in very familiar territory. Its second person, present tense narration, simple choices, and immediate leap into the action felt almost quaint — a throwback to the gamebooks I’d loved as a child. But the longer I played, the more I began to feel that The Luminaries‘ social media setting was actually doing something more innovative with the CYOA format than many of the other attempts of recent years.

For a start, the fact that the story was delivered in tiny installments and the knowledge that this was a one-off experience lent an unusual weight to the individual decisions. Pick poorly, or just in a way that contradicted the protagonist’s previous strategy, and the consequences might take days of real time to play out and end with the plot barely having been advanced. This tension was heightened after Winnie died twice during an attempt to cross a vampire-infested gym that took a full month in the real world; Dennard warned her readers that if she died a third time, that would be the end of the story. I am by nature the kind of person who saves video games compulsively every few minutes, and reads gamebooks with my fingers crammed between the pages to mark every significant choice. The knowledge that this was not an option here – that choosing wrongly meant not simply that I would see more possible outcomes of the story but that it might be over – meant that I paid much more attention and thought a lot more carefully about the possible consequences.

The communal nature of the decision making also felt new and interesting. The Luminaries had somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 players, meaning that any individual vote was unlikely to sway the decision. Instead, readers replied to the tweets, making arguments for their preferred strategies and pointing out the possible downsides of others. They scrutinised previous installments for evidence and constructed elaborate theories about the universe’s lore. A late-game poll that looked likely to kill a popular character had many readers recruiting all their friends to participate in order to change the result; it eventually garnered around 500 additional votes and the desired course correction was made. A mechanic Dennard introduced whereby a 50/50 split vote caused Winnie to attempt to take both actions at once also saw several key polls being carefully gamed by invested players to try to produce a perfectly balanced result.

The Luminaries was not a story in which the author was dead. Dennard did not simply write the tweets but remained active in the subsequent threads, giving hints as to possible outcomes, filling in details about the world’s background, and drawing attention to fans she thought made strong arguments for a particular course of action. At the very end of the story she admitted to gaming the system a little, removing one negative consequence of an earlier decision in order to reward her faithful players with the happy ending she felt they deserved. Perhaps this undermined the dramatic tension; but it also added to the sense that The Luminaries was essentially a collaborative venture between writer and readers, in some ways closer to improvised theatre than to either a game or a book.

The brevity of the Twitter format was a mixed blessing for the story. On the one hand, it threw the readers immediately into the action, and helped keep up a sense of pace in the narrative despite the fact that relatively little happened on any given day. On the other, some key aspects of the text couldn’t help but feel underdeveloped. The Luminaries takes place in a complex fantasy setting, but the majority of that setting didn’t make it as far as the ‘page’; interested readers needed to rely on the ‘#TheLuminariesFAQ’ hashtag for background information. It would probably be possible to read all of the story tweets and come away without knowing who exactly the Luminaries are or what they do. Perhaps more importantly, major relationships — such as that between Winnie and her mother — are only briefly sketched out, and consequently some of the drama could feel lightweight. At times, these sketched relationships skirted the edge of cliché. When a character was introduced as “(ugh) Jay”, readers immediately envisioned him as a love interest who had a ‘slap slap kiss’ dynamic with the protagonist — and they were absolutely right.

The Luminaries was never intended to be a CYOA story. It started life in 2013, as a pitch for a duology of young adult books that was ultimately rejected. Although the storyline for the Luminaries Twitter thread was new, its characters and setting originate with that pitch. After the thread garnered so much engagement, Susan Dennard — who has become a New York Times bestselling author in the years since that first rejection — now plans to write and publish the novels she originally envisioned.

It’s hard to tell how far The Luminaries in book form will replicate the success of its social media counterpart. The thread had a ‘lightning in a bottle’ feeling to it. This was a unique experience unfolding in real time and being shared with a dedicated community. As interested as I am to see some aspects of its universe better fleshed out, I don’t expect the books to have that same sense of magic about them. Still, no matter what the future holds for Winnie and her friends, for six months they brought something genuinely fresh and exciting to a formula I love. For that, they will always have a special place in my heart.