“Bandersnatch,” Black Mirror‘s interactive Netflix narrative experience, grabbed a lot of attention over the holidays, but innovative as it is, interactive fiction of this sort isn’t anything new. From the classic, page-flipping kids’ books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series, to text adventures like Zork, to full-motion video games that made the most of CD-ROMs and Laserdiscs, it’s a well-explored concept—though writer Charlie Brooker has, as usual, found a fresh and deeply meta way of looking at it, using the show’s grim speculative worldview to explore issues of mental health, free will, and the nature of storytelling itself.
If you got lost in a “Bandersnatch” labyrinth and now you’re jonesing to replicate the experience, here are ten more examples of interactive narratives for adults.
MAZE, by Christopher Manson
When MAZE was published in 1985, Manson offered a prize for the first reader who came up with the correct solution to the puzzle it creates; no one ever officially won, though it has since been solved, at least. It’s essentially an interactive fiction book; each spread features a lavish woodcut illustration depicting one room in the titular maze alongside the text. The story is simple: a group of people enter the maze, and a mysterious guide describes their efforts to figure out what’s going on in acerbic and often hilarious ways. The puzzle: find the shortest path from Room 1 to Room 45 and back, use the clues along that route to formulate a riddle, then answer the riddle. The sheer amount of detail and lack of guidance provided combine to create an eerie sense of immersion—every room is bursting with mystery, inviting you to spend days and days studying and researching every object, seeking clues. As in “Bandersnatch,” there’s a lot of fun to be had finding different routes and ensuring you see everything, because even the non-essential rooms are packed with interesting details.
Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?, by Max Brallier
Published at the height of the zombie fiction craze, Brallier modeled his book on the classic CYOA books by Edward Packard, and nails the tone pretty well—save for the inclusion of profanity and ultraviolence. It’s actually kind of a genius idea, if you think about it, as zombie narratives tend to be very interactive in execution, with various choices leading directly to various, usually horrifying consequences. Brallier even offers different approaches: you can choose to do all the “wrong” things and see where that takes you, or try to be the smartest person in the zombie-stuffed room, and see how that works out. It’s frequently hilarious, the tone not unlike that bonkers “Bandersnatch” scene when Stefan freaks out and has an action-movie fight with his therapist .
What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower, by Margaret Killjoy
Killjoy’s book exists in a steampunk universe; you, as protagonist Gregory (a sordid intellectual of sorts, familiar with the taste of absinthe) find yourself embroiled in the political winds of the underground society of gnomes. There are flying machines and mysterious caverns and more than a few ways to die horribly—in fact, this is a notoriously bloody-minded interactive narrative that sees you coming to a bad end more often than not. That’s half the fun, of course. It’s also a pretty political story, making no bones about its Marxist leanings as you delve into the gnomish society and all the horrors it offers—but that doesn’t take away from the fun in the least.
Inside UFO 54-40, by Edward Packard
Packard basically invented what we think of as interactive fiction, and wrote not just the first examples of it, but also the original, official Choose Your Own Adventure-branded books everyone of a certain age remembers. He crossed all genres and somehow maintained a very high level of quality over the course of a lot of books, and sometimes wandered into some pretty strange and bleak territory. Inside UFO 54-40 isn’t easy to find these days, and much of it is played straight as you battle aliens who have kidnapped you for inclusion in their very, very unethical zoo—but Packard sends you packing with some pretty surprising deaths, and even cheats, including an ending you can only find either by randomly flipping through the pages or outright rule-breaking. That’s a very Black Mirror detail, no?
Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar
Cortázar’s novel is strikingly similar in tone to “Bandersnatch,” even if it doesn’t have any truly speculative bits—thought it does have a similarly unreal, fantastical tone. The book is divided into 155 chapters, and Cortázar includes in the beginning a complex set of instructions detailing two approaches to reading the novel. The first is to read chapters 1–56 straight through, and then ignore the final 99 chapters as “expendable.” The second is to “hopscotch” through the book by jumping from chapter to chapter in what might seem random ways. Even more confusingly, the 99 “expendable” chapters are not expendable at all, but fill in crucial gaps in the timeline and details.
Trial of the Clone, by Zach Weinersmith
Weinersmith, author of the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, somehow ingeniously combines elements of role-playing games and interactive fiction9 in this dense book, bringing to mind both “Bandersnatch” and some of Black Mirror’s other episodes about the gamification of life. You’re a clone who was created in a lab in a dystopian society, and your character gains stats and abilities as you make choices. This is therefore a bit more of a game than a book, but it’s a fast-paced, often hilarious story. App versions have recently been released as well.
Life’s Lottery, by Kim Newman
Newman’s approach to interactive fiction is epic—spanning an entire life. Early on, you are given the choice of how Keith Marion reacts to a situation in his childhood, and your choice determines the story you’ll read from that point forward, with further choices to come—unless you opt to forego the interactive aspect altogether, in which case you can read the book as a more traditional novel that somehow weaves both basic timelines into one. It’s a pretty staggering achievement, actually, and the issues of free will and predestination will definitely remind you of the Netflix experiment, played out on a slightly bigger canvas.
Ocean of Lard, by Carlton Mellick III and Kevin Donihe
If you’ve never heard of Carlton Mellick III and Kevin Donihe (or the genre known as Bizarro fiction, for that matter), you might want to do a bit of research before diving into this one. To say it’s strange or deliberately disturbing is an understatement—we’re talking about a book predicated on there being a literal ocean of lard in the middle of Wyoming. Donihe and Mellick seem less interested in crafting a complex and durable interactive structure than with shocking and surprising you with some (often disgusting) imagery and twisting plots; the whole thing is more of a loving mockery of the form than anything else. And yet, because this is Bizarro, it rises above and becomes something unique. And horrifying.
The Most Boring Book Ever Written, by Daniel Pitts
This book might out-Black Mirror the show itself when it comes to existential dread, seeing as it takes the interactive fiction template of making choices and imprints it on a pretty empty suburban life. There’s no story. No stakes. No adventure. You wake up, you do things. You spend an inordinate amount of time buying a sandwich. You will read ingredients lists on labels far, far too much. Nothing you do will make any difference whatsoever … and yet there are clues in here hinting at something bigger, darker, and more terrifying. Or is that just the void staring back at you as you realize just how close this book hues to your life?
Heart of Ice, by Dave Morris
Like Trial of the Clone, Morris’ interactive narrative includes building a character and tracking their abilities and skills with RPG-style stats. That means you can actually ‛”play” the book in a wide variety of characters, and your attributes have an impact on the outcome of your decisions. Set in the 23rd century during a new ice age, the story centers on a quest for the Heart of Volent, which can alter reality itself—so it’s kind of important to ensure it winds up in hands that can reasonably be called “right.” It’s a dazzlingly complex story, and because you can roll up new a new protagonist any time you want, it can be re-experienced in a totally new way every time you read it.
Who’s controlling your choices?