Choose Your Own Adventure: Digging into the Past for a Virtual Archeology Experience

Have you ever dreamed of adventure, of charting your own course, of unearthing artifacts?

If you grew up in the 80s, you might remember Choose Your Own Adventure books. The series was wildly successful: dozens of books were published from 1979 into the 90s, selling millions of copies and ultimately becoming a seminal relic for the Millennial Generation. Now, not quite gone and certainly not forgotten, the ideas behind Choose Your Own Adventure have played an important role in shaping an identity for this year’s major exhibition, Dig Deeper: Discovering an Ancient Glass Workshop.

Home screen from the Dig Deeper exhibit game.
Choose Your Own Adventure book circa 1979. Image by Kaeru is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
To view a copy of this license, visit

Published by Bantam Books and intended for kids, Choose Your Own Adventure was a “novel” idea (pun intended)—readers take on the role of a protagonist appropriate to the story and, every few pages, choose where the story goes next by turning to a specific page. In the first book in the series, you explore a cave with branching, time travel tunnels that can lead you back to the time of dinosaurs, far forward to a time of spaceships, and everywhere in between.

The series created a new genre of printed fiction, now typically called ‘gamebooks’, and helped usher in new forms of digital interactive fiction. ­­

Although most early video games were not story oriented—you’d need a lot of imagination to define a story for Pong or Space Invaders or Pac Man—one of the earliest and most influential video games was an educational work of digital interactive fiction called The Oregon Trail, released in 1974. In  recent years, video games have widely embraced rich interactive storytelling.

So, when the Digital Media team at the Museum began thinking about an engaging way to help kids (and perhaps even adults, too) understand the interrelated practices of archaeology, museum curation, and artifact conservation on display throughout Dig Deeper, interactive storytelling was a natural direction to go.

The cover of the exhibition’s accompanying comic book.

Fortunately, the team had a great source of material: the exhibition’s accompanying comic book by CMoG’s Curator of Ancient Glass Katherine Larson and archaeology illustrator John Swogger. This colorful, illustrated story of the discovery of an ancient glass workshop at Jalame provided a great foundation for ‘gamifying’ many aspects of the archeological process. 

Working with members of the Museum’s Curatorial and Education teams, the Digital Media team sketched out an interactive experience where visitors are issued a special access pass putting them in the role of a virtual archeologist. Using the pass, a visitor can access four dedicated interactive game screens throughout the exhibit: The Dig Site at Jalame, The Archaeology Lab, The Glass Workshop, and The Marketplace.

The game starts with the virtual archeologist visiting the dig site and selecting an area to dig. This will lead them to finding an artifact. The discovered artifact and any related discovery data travels with the visitor via their access pass to whichever station they visit next, providing a unique, personalized adventure. The game concludes by bringing the virtual archeologist back to the physical world by connecting the artifact they have discovered and researched to one of the pieces of ancient glass on view within the exhibition.

Above: Image from the exhibition comic book.
Above: Dig site screen from the Dig Deeper exhibit game.

The development of the Dig Deeper game was an adventure in itself—done entirely by the Digital Media team over the course of five months. Starting with a series of storyboard sketches and flowcharts, the team first built a paper-based prototype, including a cardboard kiosk to test the game concepts, interface, and flow. School educators and Museum visitors were asked to use the prototype as a member of the Digital Team simulated the interactivity and took notes on what was working and where improvements were needed. 

With this input, the digital design team then developed digital prototypes that more closely reflected the design and interactivity of the final product. These digital prototypes were used to internally test the design for further refinement and to inform the digital developers. Simultaneously the digital technician began working with the exhibit team and exhibit designer on the game screen installation and pass dispenser designs, building prototypes of both as 3D CAD drawings and cardboard prototypes. The cardboard prototypes allowed the team to test for both technical functionality as well as physical accessibility before committing to final fabrication.

From here the game production  was in the hands of the developers who used the 3D gaming engine Unreal to create the interactivity, motion graphics, and 3D dig site. NFC cards were selected to serve as the access passes to save and share user session data between the game screens to bring the personalized adventure to life in the gallery. As the program developed, the testing continued until everyone felt the game was working as designed.

The adventure game, which was designed with families and particularly kids in mind, was an immediate hit with the intended audiences. By the end of the summer the anonymous usage data showed that the program had cultivated thousands of game-loving virtual archeologists, both young and old.

Exhibit visitor exploring the virtual dig site.

Don’t worry, if you haven’t completed your virtual dig yet, you can still choose your adventure at CMoG— Dig Deeper: Discovering an Ancient Glass Workshop remains on view until January 7, 2024.

This blog post was authored collaboratively by Brian Hewitt, Manager of Digital Experience Design, and Scott Sayre, Chief Digital, Information, and Education Officer.

Leave a Reply