Garrett Credi


CW 463


CYOAB Review. 3/5 Stars.


“I’ve gone back more than a million times so far. I’ve lived a million different lives.

But in truth, I have only just begun.”


            Meanwhile, a Choose Your Own Adventure style novel by Jason Shiga, makes a very ambitious choice in how it guides the reader along choices. Opting to force the reader to follow thin, snaking, labyrinthian, and at times overlapping strands in order to move from one decision to the next, the novel places heavy emphasis on the graphic part of a graphic novel. However, it was nearly impossible to weave a satisfying story out of the 3,856 apparent story possibilities, and literally impossible to naturally arrive at the “good” ending. Unfortunately for Shiga, the novel method of reading the book heavily detracted from both the overall narrative and the “choose-your-own” part of a choose your own adventure novel.

            My story with Meanwhile started long before taking CW 463, all the way back when I would spend my days after school at my town’s library. The section of the library meant for teenagers had a substantial collection of comic books, and at one point I happened to pick up this weird book with tabs jutting out from the side and the glossiest pages I had even encountered. Back then, I was entranced with it – the idea of flipping through so many different possible iterations of the story, of science fiction elements wrapped together into a humorous little puzzle, drew me into the concept of the book for many days. However, once I left for high school and no longer came back to that library, the memory of my time with Meanwhile simply faded away.

            Meanwhile itself is a book that fashions itself as a game, differentiating itself immediately through the initial page that halts readers with a bolded “Stop!” warning. This page serves as an instruction manual with which to read the book, describing how panels of the story are connected via “thin tubes” which often travel from page to page via those tantalizing tabs. The tubes, however, often branch, allowing readers to choose which of these branches they wish to pursue on their iteration of reading. What truly makes the book “game”-like is its inclusion of a sort of puzzle – the inclusion of two combinations vital to interact with two out of three of the pieces of science fiction technology present in the story. Shiga is careful to tell readers that they could cheat and find the combinations by flipping through the book, but that “backtracking or starting a new adventure” is his intended way for readers to discover these combinations.

            Shiga himself noted that a large inspiration for his interactive comics was the Legend Of Zelda series, with one of his later comics, Leviathan, having multiple features that directly parallel core aspects of the game series. The influence can be clearly felt in Meanwhile as well, especially regarding the Lost Woods of Ocarina Of Time. The woods are, in that game, the first gate between the player, who is stuck in the Kokiri Forest, and the rest of Hyrule, the land in which the game is set. To escape, the player must learn (guess, or look up) the right sequence of cardinal directions in order to navigate correctly out. There are also other location accessible if the player chooses to input a different sequence of directions.

            The parallels in Meanwhile are the time travel machine and the SQUID (Superconducting QUantum Interference Device), which are initially stuck to only work in increments of ten minutes, but require the player to input either a sequence of three shapes or to choose the correct dial, respectively, to access greater intervals. As the reader processes more and more of the story, they will encounter the third device, the Killotron 2000, and will often accidentally trigger it and wipe out the entirety of humanity. The brunt of the book is, then, to use the aforementioned devices to avert the triggering of the Killotron and to save humanity.

            When I came back to this book as a part of this assignment, I had forgotten all of these facts and was able to engage with the book with an entirely fresh mindset. I started the journey, made my first choice to get some vanilla ice cream, and was immediately met with the “boring” ending – quite fitting for the vanilla choice. In what will become a theme, I then shuffled back a few pages, and made the more correct choice to get chocolate ice cream. This triggers the main flow of the story, as the chocolate ice cream somehow causes a stomachache in our playable character, Jimmy, causing him to seek out the porcelain throne by knocking on the laboratory doors of a Dr. K. After sufficiently evacuating, Dr. K introduces Jimmy to the aforementioned devices, of which I chose the Killotron to examine first. When Dr. K himself needed to use the bathroom, I chose to enter into the device, leading to a path where Jimmy dozes off and accidentally triggers the device – killing everyone. However, the device’s construction spares Jimmy, who I then directed to use the time machine to revert the decision. I was then directed to the menacing time travel machine code page:

Immediately this was overwhelming, but there was a decision tree meant for those who had no idea what the code i

s. I chose it, traveled back ten minutes in the past, and died again as I emerged right when my previous self activated the time machine.

            Thus began the main journey of my experience with the book: figuring out the code to the time machine. Most of the reading went off smoothly: choosing to examine the time machine initially allowed me to go back to the ice cream shop, revealing that the ice cream man had his own copy of a Killotron. Further investigations lead me to meeting myself, examining the professor’s memories, and a plethora of other tiny adventures. However, one thing that began to bother me was the repetitiveness of the story branches – they kept on delivering me to either catastrophic endings where I ended up killing myself, or just looping me back to the decision to choose a machine to examine. While this was a minor frustration, I just chose to ignore the branches that I thought wouldn’t matter – which ended up being a terrible decision. Instead of going back in time by ten minutes, and then asking the professor to use the SQUID on him, which would have revealed the correct code for the time machine, further allowing me to discover the code to the SQUID– I ended up getting very frustrated, and just started trying all of the possible paths that emerged from the time machine code page.

            This is when I really started to get annoyed with the book, as it seemed to contradict even itself with how it established the time machine. According to the professor, given an incorrect code the time machine will send whoever is inside to any possible point in space and time. Also in the story was the idea that the time machine truly just sends you to that time and place, it doesn’t send your consciousness into the body of yours at that time, leading to many paths in the story involving a duplicated version of Jimmy. However, using incorrect codes does not, in fact, lead to a body duplication, but rather just sort of injects you at a point in some other story path? Not only did this feel incredibly lazy from a storywriting perspective, but at one point it ended up injecting me in the middle of a looping path of events. So not only was I getting frustrated at how the story was recycling paths in an effort to cull down branching, but I literally ended up in the prototypical example of content recycling.

            I did end up guessing the correct code for the time machine, and discovered the correct SQUID code, which should have been something that made me feel a great sense of accomplishment. However, the path branched to two “final” endings, one being the annoying loop I found myself in prior, and one giving backstory about Dr. K and which lead to either Jimmy traveling back in time and ignoring the story or, more macabre-ly, killing himself. Neither of these options seemed like the “good” ending that the introductory notes promised me. So I did what Shiga told me to do in those notes, returned to the beginning and explored more paths. And more paths. And more endings. And the same endings. And the same paths. And nothing new. What was the point?

            So then I chose to commit the moral sin of CYOABs, I read the story in order – desperately searching for some glimmer of what paths or endings I had missed. It was in this combing that I discovered the proper path to discovering the code for the time machine, which was annoying, but I also stumbled on a two-page spread that looked nearly identical to the spread on which I learned what the SQUID code was – except one red dial was now green on this version. Did I just read the code wrong? I went back to the SQUID page

and chose the third option from the top in the left section. After following the jumbling, tumbling, overlapping lines to my destination, I was met with “Ultima: One of the many places in this world you cannot get to by choosing.” This branch is nothing more than an exposition dump by an (to my knowledge) unrelated character explaining that Ultima is, in essence, the place in the world where no bad decision I made had any effect. It was the “one path that [lead me to] happiness and success” except I was neither happy nor did I feel success, I only felt lied to. The core rules of the book were follow the tubes and make decisions, with Shiga explicitly saying don’t cheat. Yet here is the one good ending that you need to cheat to get to. Were my expectations subverted? Yes. Did I feel like it had a positive effect? Absolutely not.

            Most importantly, did this book manage to be emotionally or narratively compelling? Unfortunately, the only thing that this book compelled me to do was flip the pages, many, many times over in a desperate search to find what was always going to be unfindable. What should have been the emotional apex of the story, the backstory of Dr. K and his desperate drive to undo the initial mistake that he made, was undercut by my motivation for arriving at that point. In most fiction, we continue on to the emotional apexes due to a “parasocial” bond with the characters present within that narrative. When we read their losses, we feel a loss, and when they achieve victory we feel as if we ourselves won the big battle. Shiga, however, intentionally structured the book almost as a puzzle to be cracked, with multisequentiality as a way for the reader to have an active influence on how they chose to crack that puzzle. When I got to Dr. K’s emotional backstory, I didn’t see any clues to getting to the “good” ending, so I simply didn’t give a ----. I don’t think that the multisequentiality is what necessarily prevented myself from feeling the emotions I would with a standard book, rather it was how Shiga used multisequentiality that forged the block.

            I wonder how my younger self would react to this review. I remember so much joy stemming from reading this so long ago, especially how cool it felt to engage with a book in ways that weren’t just reading left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Where might these feelings have gone? I hope I can still find them within myself, and I won’t have to stumble upon some laboratory and use a time machine to go back and feel these things again. Meanwhile, however, I have assignments like these to finish, work like this to do, and an adult life to live – where I desperately try to find the same enjoyment I once had as a child.