Any kid who grew up in the '80s probably played old text adventure games, read Choose Your Own Adventure novels, or both. You probably know the drill. "You are standing in a forest with a clearing to the north and an old abandoned house to the south? Which way do you want to go?" South. "You were eaten by a grue!"
The Choosatron is like someone captured the imagination of the world’s most prolific Choose Your Own Adventure novelist in a cheery palm-sized box. A DIY kit currently accepting funding on Kickstarter, the Choosatron lets you explore pieces of interactive fiction, which are printed out as you go on a long receipt that catalogs your adventures as you play.
The idea behind the Choosatron is pretty simple. The Choosatron is a DIY kit containing a circuit board, a small thermal printer, and a few buttons that can play and print out custom written works of interactive fiction when assembled. It looks a little like Berg’s Little Printer, a friend to the project, but the inspiration comes from a very different source. Designed by Minneapolis maker Jerry Belich, the inspiration behind the Choosatron isn’t just the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) novels he pored over as a kid but the entire '80s arcade experience entirely.
"I was always fascinated by the game design of arcades," Belich tells Co.Design. "They’d design these video games to be so difficult that you’d use up all your allowance trying to brute force your way through. I always thought that was both funny and nefarious, so one day, I thought it would be fun to do a CYOA arcade machine."
In its earliest incarnations, the Choosatron worked just like an arcade cabinet. You’d put 50 cents into the prototype, and it would let you play until you died; a quarter would buy you a continue, which would allow you to reverse as many of your previous choices that you wanted. "If you had enough money, you could just brute force your way through the story," Belich says. "It blended what I loved about interactive fiction with the funniest, cruelest elements of the arcade."
But pretty soon, the Choosatron started looking like more than a gag. When Belich showed it off at a fundraising event for a local literary magazine, a youth coordinator came to him after to ask if he could teach a class at a local literary center. "The kids there wanted to know how to write for games, but teachers didn’t have the background to help them," Belich remembers. "But the Choosatron could, and so I started getting more serious about it."
There are a number of games available for the Choosatron already, mostly written by Belich and his friends. In one, the player wakes up, Metamorphosis style, as John Stamos and must examine his life for creative meaning: Was the apex of being John Stamos his stint as a Beach Boy, or being Uncle Jesse on Full House? "We had this one girl play that game, and she got into a fight with Stamos’s ex-wife Rebecca Romijn halfway through, so her final score was only 25 out of 100 points," Belich laughs. "When she saw her score, she was livid. 'I don’t care what this says! I won!' She apparently really hated Rebecca Romijn."
Another Choosatron game is called The Spy Who Killed Me. Inspired by James Bond movies, the game casts the player as an up-and-coming flunky to a mad super villain. "It’s this really devious game, where at every single junction, there’s always at least one choice where a James Bond-type super spy will jump out and kill you." If you manage to get to the end and stop the spy, you’re made his number two.
All of this stuff could be done with a smartphone app, of course, but Belich thinks that it’s the physical nature of the Choosatron that is the important part.
"People are getting so overwhelmed by the digital. Their lives are filled with experiences they can’t touch anymore. It’s cool for them to just have something like the Choosatron, where they get an artifact of the experience they can keep forever," Belich says. "Two kids might play the exact same game, and the way they’ll decide who did better is by comparing their printouts. 'You must have had a really good game because your printout’s two feet long, and mine is only one foot long.' People love and crave real content."
As of writing, the Choosatron has made about $16,000 of its $22,000 goal on Kickstarter, with a month left to go. Those who choose to support it can click here to lend their support (a full kit runs $139). Those who don’t will be eaten by a grue.