I had a bunch of Choose Your Own Adventure style books growing up. I still remember one called You Are Invisible by Susan Saunders, where you as the main character find a magic cloak in the attic. When you wear the cloak you become invisible! I don't remember too many of the specifics, but in one ending you take the hood off while out in public and people start running away screaming about a floating head.
A floating head? That's scary! So you start running too, which only incites further panic until you catch your reflection in a shop window. You were the floating head all along! Ha ha ha.
There was also another ending where you take the cloak off only to discover that you're still invisible. You'd been wearing the cloak so long you were now invisibe… forever. That ending totally messed me up and I never read that book again. It still kind of scares me.
Anyway, some of my favorite books in that style where the Nintendo Adventure Books. These books were more complicated than the Choose Your Own Adventure series, though not as complicated as something like Fighting Fantasy.
The second book in the series, Leapin Lizards! by Clyde Bosco, is the first CYOA book where I really started to notice its structure. You play as Luigi as he goes on a grand adventure to save the king of the Mushroom Kingdom. No matter what choices you make, you end up with the Ruby Wand halfway through the book. The last act, in particular, hits the same major plot and decision points every time.
After a while I could win the book without a problem, but I never was sure if I had found the absolute best route. Luigi collects coins and the player earns a rank based on how many coins they find. I never could figure out how to get the best rank, "Mushroom Games Champ and Master Plumber".
So I decided to map out the whole book. I built a small domain language to describe the book and a script to convert it into DOT. From there I untangled the graph in OmniGraffle and redrew the whole thing in Illustrator.
Let's take a look at how the book is structured just after the intro.
Many of the chapters include a puzzle or hint to guide the player in some way. In Chapter 29 (remember, the player doesn't visit chapters in order, so this is really the third chapter you'd read):
"Thanks for coming to warn us, Toad," says the princess. She addresses the plumbers in her best mushroom royalty voice. "Let's hurry back to the palace. The king needs our help."
"I'll run ahead," Mario offers. "The king will want my protection right away." […]
"No!" Luigi shouts. "I can get there faster."
"Let's all go together," Toad suggests.
"Hmm," says Princess Toadstool thoughtfully. "I just don't know what to do!"
Here's a clue to help you decide:
Shade in all the spaces with an odd number of sides, and a secret message will be revealed.
If you think the four heroes should head to the palace together, turn to [Chapter 20].
If you think Luigi should run ahead and get there first, turn to [Chapter 12].
The puzzle is pretty easy to solve and the advice is pretty clear, but is this really the right decision?
Here's the map of the next few chapters. It's read from top to bottom. In general the player can choose any branch unless there's a specific item requirement. Sometimes there's a puzzle hint like the one above, and sometimes there isn't much to go on at all.
Sending Luigi ahead like the puzzle suggests means the player has a chance to get the Ruby Wand earlier in Chapter 46. But due to the forced choice in Chapter 16 the player will have the Magic Ruby either way by Chapter 32.
In fact, if the player sends Luigi ahead they're not going to be able to get as many coins. So what's going on?
I think the book tries to steer the player down the safest route. Chapters 22 and 43 are both losing endings. If the player gets the wand in Chapter 46 they won't be in danger of losing the game.
Following the book's advice will get you a good ending, but not necessarily the best rank.
And here is where the terrible dark secret of Leapin Lizards! is revealed. With the full map of the book, we have everything we need to find the perfect route that gives us at least 80 coins in order to earn the best rank.
But this path doesn't exist.
It's impossible to collect 80 coins. The best the player can do is 78. You can't earn the best rank in the back of the book.
Maybe this is Clyde Bosco's ultimate lesson. Sometimes, you will never be the champion. It doesn't matter how much you want to win, how many times you pick yourself up when you fall, or how hard you try.
You just aren't good enough. You will never be good enough. And the sooner you learn that the better.
Or maybe it's a mistake. There's a potential to earn 81 coins throughout the entire book, but it's impossible to earn the coins in Chapters 42 and 46 in the same playthrough, as illustrated in the flowcharts above.
Here's the full Leapin' Lizards! annotated map and solution. I'm going to go ahead and award myself the best rank, and you should too, because in our hearts aren't we all Mushroom Games Champs and Master Plumbers?
Click the preview for the full version.