Spies: James Armistead Lafayette

Spies: James Armistead Lafayette, a Choose Your Own Adventure Book

A new book coming out on May 1, 2019

I was excited to get a chance to look at a preview of this book by Choose Your Own Adventures after I had written about the Black Mirror movie, Bandersnatch, a CYOA type of interactive movie, which was a bit meta because that movie was about a guy who was writing a CYOA-type of game based off of a book. And, well, it made him crazy.

SPIES: James Armistead Lafayette, written by Kyandreia Jones, is not nearly as maddening. It’s part of a series of books on spies, such as Mata Hari.

I was wondering what it was going to be like to read about an enslaved person (and then free Black person) in colonial America. But I had confidence that reading about Lafayette’s life through a Black woman’s eyes would be a great experience. And it was.

I grew up reading CYOA books and they were a bit somber, mainly because there were so many way you could die. And mind you — I didn’t mind the serious tone. It made me feel like I was a grown-up reading, making serious choices. It’s one of the things I love about this book series. So when I started reading this book, I was expecting that same sort of serious tone.

It was still serious, but Jones weaves some humor and lightness throughout the book. There’s a bit of speculative fiction elements in the book, which I didn’t expect but definitely appreciated. I think younger readers will also love all the squirrel references…which are a bit squirrely! 🐿

For example, there’s a moment that Lafayette meets General George Washington and he’s noticing his teeth. I thought, oh boy, here we go. You probably know by now that Washington’s teeth were not wooden but human. As a reader, you have a choice to ask Washington about them or to talk about something else. Jones handled this moment well, with a bit of dark humor, but also unflinchingly honest.

Jones doesn’t shy away from the realities of being an enslaved person, from the moment Lafayette is able to escape the plantation. But if you’re concerned if this book is violent, the violence comes from being in war. So yes, there are places where the endings involve death.

You’re able to witness Lafayette’s “double consciousness,” knowing that although he had been freed by his owner (in this story, but not in real life), he was still a Black man in 18th century America where freedom for his family and friends would come for another 80+ years. That tension is played out in the book, even though General Marquis de Lafayette was against slavery.

Lafayette’s spy work effectively ended the Revolutionary War, and in the book, you get plenty of chances to spy and get the intel needed for the American forces. There’s also a bio of Lafayette in the back of the book, along with a timeline of enslavement in America, from 1619-1865.

For readers young and old, if you want to learn about a key person in the Revolutionary War in a fun, engaging way, then SPIES: James Armistead Lafayette is a great book to pick up.


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Bandersnatch – The CYOA Way

The only spoiler in here is more of a big picture or process spoiler. But even still, it’s probably best that you mess with the film until you’re exhausted, and then read this afterward.

OK. This is one of these experiments where if I was on Twitter, I’d just write a whole thread about what I just did for the past three hours. But I’m not due back, by my own doing, for the next eight days. So let’s see if we can do that “don’t write a thread, write a blog post!” thing.

Choose Your Own Adventure

First of all, I love Choose Your Own Adventure book series (also the less popular version Which Way…and there was some YA romance version, too) and, most likely, I love it more than you do. I have many of these books in storage right now that I haven’t even read.

I wrote some sort of essay in grad school that could have been something similar a few years ago, but I can’t fully recall. I just remember my instructor asking me if she could use this method or was I going to? I said I was going to, but I don’t remember what I wrote. That was in 2012.

Before then, I grew up going to Walmart as often as I could, buying these books (for $1.95 to $2.95) with my allowance. I loved them into adolescence. My favorite title was You Are a Genius. I would read with fingers kept in key parts where there was a seemingly fateful decision where one could mercilessly die. If I died, then I could go back to the last choice and choose differently. Ah, if only life were so easy!

For a YA book, it was pretty macabre–but not in a completely gruesome way. It’s more of a very final, existential way. I would dread reading words like this:

You are never heard from again. 

🥺

I’m not really obsessed with much as a dilettante, but my passion for CYOA books is as obsessed as I could be. Although, I wasn’t obsessed enough to be interested in the authors. It’s just my version of Pokemon-gotta-catch-em-all. I’m a collector if you will. I probably have at least 40 of these books, and that seems like a low number.

It’s more than a book–it’s a philosophy

As a teenager, I adopted the CYOA mindset as a way to deal with the theological conundrum that my friends in my church’s youth group would love to debate on occasion: do we truly have free will or is everything predestined (by God or life or whatever)?

In my mind, CYOA meant that we did have the freedom to choose, but the choices had fixed fates, fates you couldn’t necessarily choose your way out of. Even the choices weren’t up to you. And the choices that you think matter–they really don’t. But then there are inconsequential choices that can completely change your fate.

Enter Bandersnatch, Netflix’s latest film from the Black Mirror series. It dropped today. I actually renewed Netflix for Black Mirror, as I usually do for this series. And being the CYOA freak that I am, I was especially excited to see this on…my own black mirror.

Sidenote:

This would be a great short tweet thread here, but ever since I was researching 2001: A Space Odyssey and thinking about the black monolith, I’ve been viewing my TV as one–which it literally is and also, in a sense, is the same as it was intended in the film–some tool that ended up accelerating human evolution (TV has been revolutionary indeed).

So lately, my TV has creeped me out. It just looms over me in my bedroom. Although I love the images that Chromecast displays–art, space, landscape–when I move, I don’t think I’ll keep a TV in my bedroom anymore–or at least one was big as mine. It’s just imposing and leering and a little too…dark and ominous.

I bring this up because 1) I’ve been dying to share that but 2) it coincides with what Black Mirror is, according to the TV series creator Charlie Brooker.

The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.

I cannot believe I just learned this today.

Anyway, cue “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai…

jamiroquai

It’s Black Mirror, or the “Coming Attractions” of our present dystopia!

Bandersnatch is a choose-your-own-adventure type film–interactive film as Netflix calls it. I had a Smart TV (a rather ancient one from 2012, but it still works…), but I had to watch it on my computer because it requires a mouse for you to choose.

Another technical note: On my Smart TV, I saw that the film was only two minutes long. I clicked to watch it, thinking that this is different from the trailer, or maybe I misunderstood the two minutes length, especially since this was an interactive film. So after clicking, I received a proper British apology about having the wrong technology to watch the movie. And by the way–you can’t cast from your Android phone either. 

Anyway…you have about 10 seconds to choose each choice. But if you’re really not into choices, then you’ll have choices made for you. I found that out while multitasking on my phone. So if you just want to watch it as a film, you could just let the time expire and let “fate” choose for you.

(I think I’m only going to watch this one more time, as a film, without choosing anything. It will be hard to be passive, but after spending so many hours going back and forth, between reality, dream, and delusion, it will probably feel like a deserved break.) 

If you do find a “you are never heard from again” ending (and believe me, it’s Black Mirror–so it’s no spoiler to say that there’s death in this film), interestingly the film does the bookmarking/finger held in place for you–to a certain extent. After a not-so-favorable ending, you’ll be brought back to key choices. “Try again” is a phrase you will hear often and, if you’re crazy or patient enough, you will do often.

I don’t want to give too much away. But, if you know Black Mirror, you know how everything is allegorical. Brooker does not shy from hammering home his points, almost in a hamfisted way. And, well–it’s a British show and I’m a stupid Yank who is a sucker for these limey accents. So the moral hamfisting–I guess I will just allow it.

But really, I allow it because the points being made are good ones and it’s part of the whole Black Mirror…schtick? Schtick may be the wrong word. Ethos is probably a better one.

The interactive quality involves more than the choices you’re making, but how the film is interacting with you. It’s not like going to see Captain EO at Epcot, or other films that bring in smells and sensations (think IMAX). It’s more psychological–and again, I don’t really want to spoil it much at all. Please watch it if you can.

I actually came to write about this tonight because there was one choice I made that I’m sure I made, and the movie chose the other choice. That only happened once. But I was pissed.

Maybe I didn’t click hard enough or correctly? It’s possible.

But even the questioning of myself falls into the realm of this movie. It really is a mindfuck, but not in the typical Black Mirror way. 

Is it art or is it a game? Can a game be art?

But unlike previous Black Mirror episodes, it is a game–and that’s what makes this a bit different. I’ll get into why in a little bit.

Lately, on mobile games (and I can only speak for those–I’m not a gamer with a gamer consoles), there are games that take on this fiction-as-gaming methodology.

There are a plethora of games in this genre, like Episodes (I personally find this platform to be trash because of poorly written stories, but it’s highly popular), Moments which, surprise–it has its moments, and my personal favorite, Choices.

In the past few years, these “interactive novels” have become increasingly popular. I’m pretty sure shoot-em-up games are more popular–but even those have become very entrenched in story. I was blown away when Halo first came out and how story-oriented Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was. I’m not a console gamer, so I can only imagine how story-oriented the shoot-em-up games have become.

So let me say in my most writerly voice: we live and thrive from our stories.

So these mobile games can be played for free, but it’s a freemium model. So, if you actually want to have fun or get a richer experience, it can all get a bit pricey because unlike Bandersnatch, if you want some more appealing or sexier choices, you’ll need to pay for them with diamonds.

You can earn a few gems by watching ads or logging in or reading a chapter…or, if you’re impatient and really dig the story, you can buy them. Dammit, it’s a good profitability model, but one that can easily bleed you dry. You’ll be stuck with a choice you know you want to make, but then it cost ten gazillion diamonds. Curses!

The quality of writing on some of these platforms leaves a lot to be desired–typos, plot holes, overused tropes, stupid characters, etc. These games are mostly aimed at a population which identifies as female (as far as I’ve seen) and most likely skews younger.

But after watching Bandersnatch, it makes me wonder if they will be more films made like this or if there will be even more games created as interactive novels for wider audiences–and hopefully of the same caliber of Brooker’s writing.

From my personal experience, when you’re involved in a story, it’s easier to become more emotionally involved and attached (thus the freemium model being so lucrative and effective). I believe it can make for a more deeply entertaining experience–hey, it’s why I’m talking about some book I bought over 20 years ago.

So why did I bring up gaming for Bandersnatch? Besides the fact that the genre of interactive novels has risen in popularity, it’s how I felt when I watch the film.

When you go through your first passes of Bandersnatch, you start to wonder if you can go back to a previous choice and get a similar result without some other unforeseen outcomes. Unlike a book, you can’t really go backwards at will, so I wrote down what I chose as a way to somewhat keep my finger on a page of the story. But you start to see if you can game the game, in essence.

But the game can’t be “played” like that.

What choices can we freely choose?

And that brings me back to this: the choices we “freely” make and having unavoidable fixed fates–that’s really enough of a spoiler, honestly. A CYOA-type book or game can bring a sense of madness. And it’s easily a metaphor for life.

Even if you could go back and change things–and you don’t have to talk about time-space continuums or changing other things in history or the butterfly effect. It’s not even that sensitive or precise.

Even if you could go back to change certain choices, it doesn’t matter. Some choices are made for you, whether you like it or not. That also means that some outcomes are unavoidable. It’s a bit of a wearying truth that comes from not only Bandersnatch, but from reading CYOA books and playing CYOA type games. We’re not as “free” as we think we are.

And it sounds like I’ve fallen on the side of predestination. But really, it’s a blend that has so many variables, including other people’s “free will” choices. But it’s not some big deity is the heavens making all the choices. That’s a type of dangerous fatalism and nihilism for people who think they have no agency or autonomy.

It’s all of us, together, making choices which affect all of us–including people we’ll never meet.

If you watch this film, I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below! What did you most like or hate about it? What left you with more questions? What ideas or lessons did you come away with after watching? How long did you watch it for? Did you go back to certain choices repeatedly? What was your favorite ending? Looking forward to reading your thoughts!


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