Gamebook store

Friday, 17 April 2015

Imaginary relationships

A while back I gave a talk at the Groucho Club in London's Soho about creating emotional bonds in games and interactive stories. If that rings a bell, it's because I've posted it on this blog before. And yet the generations stream away and still gamebooks struggle to haul themselves out of the '80s mire of orc-infested dungeons where treasure chests come with riddles on the lid.

"You come to three doors and -- " Who cares? Interacting with a story can deliver so much more than that. So here I am again talking about the relationships that you might forge with fictional characters. The slides are a little out of sync; you'll see I start talking about Walt but his image doesn't come up on screen for a few seconds.But if you can get past that and the patchy audio (try here for the full text) hopefully it'll spark off some interesting comments for us to debate below.

Some takeaway points to get started on:

"I don't care about crystal meth distribution in Albuquerque, or even that much about crime dramas. But I am fascinated by the problem of Walter White. Character - that's what is compelling about a great story. And when we put character and interactivity together we have the ingredients of relationship."

"What kind of relationships can we put in these stories? All kinds. One example: you're not James Bond, you're his controller at MI6. You're in touch with Bond all the time, giving him orders, but a man who's licensed to kill doesn't play well with others. So you have an adversarial relationship. And conflict, of course, is the motor of drama."

"Those two land masses [stories and games] are connected now. There's going to be some evolving together, some exchange of creative DNA, some blurring of boundaries."

What do you think? What makes you connect with a story and want to come back for more? Don't say doors with riddles on them.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

How to park a jumbo

We've talked about it before, the elephant in the room of gamebooks. Text is what I mean. Prose. Words words words. The "book part" of this strange hybrid medium that squeezed its way into existence at a time when people had got a thirst for interactivity but games still took twenty minutes to load up off a cassette tape.

Earlier posts have thrown the elephant a bun or two. We considered the problem that text gets in the way of interaction. In which case, do gamebooks even need text at all? And if we have to have text, how do we make people want to read it?

Jon Ingold of Inkle was discussing these points at GDC. You can see the talk here. It turns out he never liked what I did with Inkle's engine, namely my interactive reimagining of Frankenstein. Ouch. Turns out he also doesn't care for Crime and Punishment, though, which takes the edge off.

I got the same vibe from the editors at Profile Books (the actual publishers of Frankenstein, though you would hardly guess it). They loved Telltale's Walking Dead - and quite right too. Why couldn't I have given them that instead of 150,000 words of text? But, publishers, here's a tip: if you want videogame production values, you can't pay the typical minimum-wage advances to authors and expect them to return a few months later with a nifty 3D interactive movie.

All right, I'm being disingenuous there. These days you don't have to spend north of five million dollars to make a decent-looking game. Indie development has brought the focus off Uncanny Valley emulation of blockbuster movies and back onto gameplay, panache and style. Apotheon, say, or This War of Mine. This might be your Golden Age, gamers; make the most of it.

People think a writer's job is moving words about, but that's the first fix. In the very beginning, as you're laying the foundations and erecting the scaffolding of the story, what's churning around inside your skull is a flood of images, character traits, emotions. The shape starts to reveal itself in snatches of dialogue, mood, key events. When you're ready, when it's fully marinated, that's when you put it down in words. If your medium is the novel, it will all be rendered into words eventually - but even that is only a program, a code that will run in the reader's brain so that they can construct their own experience of your story. It's those cassette tapes all over again.

For writers working on a movie, or designers on a game, that process of communicating the final experience is far clearer. You know right from the get-go that all that documentation you're writing is not the thing itself, it's the blueprint that will be used to make the thing. It differs from a novel only in that the reader of a novel has to do for themselves, and in their imagination, all the work of the development team.

If gamebooks have a future, we can surely agree it will be in digital form. No one disputes that the medium is evolving and that its boundary with videogames is getting so blurred as to be meaningless. Is Sorcery a gamebook? With each instalment the prose fades further into the background. In a game like This War of Mine we don't even talk about a "text component"; the text is just one more way of presenting the game world to the player. So it must become with gamebooks. The writer must think in terms of all the media (text, audio, images) and mix them as the story and the budget allow.

I've recently been discussing a new interactive story app called The Frankenstein Wars with Jaume Carballo, content director of Cubus Games, and Paul Gresty, who will be writing it. Referring to how an all-new interactive story needs to be conceived right from the outset so as to make full use of all component media, Jaume said:
"Keep in mind that we have to write the text over a structure comprising interactive maps, plans, images and so on. We're not doing an adaptation of a '90s gamebook, we're creating an interactive story app, so the team must work together. We don't want to end up with tons of text written thinking just in the story and not in the mechanics."
With that, I'd say he bagged the elephant. And just before it could go into musth. Phew.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Caught red-handed!

There was panic at Fabled Towers this week when reader Gabriel Chase pointed out that the new edition of The Court of Hidden Faces (Fabled Lands book 5) was missing section 614. Cue some hasty reformatting, so the book you order now is complete. To those who bought the flawed edition, I can only apologize and offer the consolation that maybe scarcity will make your copy worth more in years to come.

The missing section (complete with overlooked lexical repetition - oops) reads:
You are caught red-handed with the jewellery box in your hand. The masked lord calls for his retainers, and you are seized by many armed men.
     Make a CHARISMA roll at Difficulty 15. If you succeed, you end up thrown into the dungeons of Aku – turn to 350. If you fail, you are sold into slavery in Aku – turn to 321.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Memories stolen by a dragon's breath

"Enter a world of magic, folklore and danger. Here, superstition covers people’s lives like autumn mists cover the moors, and terrifying monsters with bizarre powers lurk in the shadows. The king is a weakling, barons scheme against each other, and lordless knights, back from the Crusades without the honour or riches they were promised, roam the countryside in search of adventure, or prey. Ruined castles and burial mounds are the lairs of the supernatural, or newer, more sinister masters. Labyrinthine underworlds lie forgotten below ancient temples and city cellars. The dark places of the world hold riches for those who would search for them, and the keys to great power - or death"
My world, but not my words. That's James Wallis's evocative description of Legend, the setting for the Dragon Warriors RPG.Through his Magnum Opus imprint, James reintroduced the dank, gnarled, cobwebby, and generally eldritch landscapes of Legend to tabletops across the world.

Those Magnum Opus books were beautiful volumes and they have pride of place on the shelf beside my desk. Nowadays you can only get the game in PDF form, sadly - but hie yourself over to Lulu and you can print up a hard copy at a very reasonable price.

But I digress. Legend is characterized by its dark and downbeat tone. Adventurers here are more Gangs of New York than The Iliad. There is magic, but it's rare and capricious and nobody quite trusts it - not even the sorcerers. If you've ever seen Robin of Sherwood, you'll know what I'm talking about. So now try this:
"Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby... might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist."
Legend? No, this is the undefined but vaguely Dark Ages environment created by Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel The Buried Giant. I bruised and battered it somewhat in my review on the Mirabilis blog, though no worse a drubbing than it got from Tim Martin in The Telegraph. Nonetheless, if you like your fantasy with a tang of melancholy then you should take a look. And the encounter with the pixies who seem like skinned rabbits and sound "like children playing in the distance" as they attack - now that's as sinister a scene as any I've encountered while role-playing in Legend.

Friday, 27 March 2015

A matter of millimetres

I don’t like the term game designer, and I’ll tell you why. But first some definitions.

Here’s one from a book on game theory: “A game is a system governed by rules, in which two or more players are able to adjust a limited set of interacting variables so as to reach an end state in which they can be ranked against a pre-established set of victory conditions.”

What can we say, apart from yikes? Well, driving through London in rush hour qualifies as a game. Solitaire doesn’t – it’s just a problem to be solved. Pinball too. Golf is a competition, but barely counts as a game unless you play it the way Goldfinger did. And the National Lottery isn’t a game unless you believe in God, in which case it is a game but it’s not a fair one.

Gameplay follows from that definition as “the set of strategies that players use to optimize their route through the game system.” Whole books have been written defining gameplay. My shelves are groaning under quite a few of them. (They’re rarely under 500 pages.) Still, I haven’t heard better than Sid Meier’s description of gameplay being “a series of interesting decisions.”

Anyway, what I said before was the theorist’s definition. Here’s mine: “A game is anything that is marketed as ‘a game’.” Game theory is a precisely defined area of analysis in mathematics and economics, but it’s not even close to being the whole thing. Just as plot is only part (and an optional one at that) of what makes a work of fiction, gameplay is just one of the elements that can be used to make a game enjoyable.

And that’s why I don’t like the term game designer. Game designer sounds like some kind of technician. And I have nothing against technicians, let me rush to tell you, but it is not an adequate way to describe something that fundamentally is an art, not a science.

It would be fatuous after all to describe a screenwriter as a “plot designer”. Technical skills are needed in the development of a game concept, and of course many more technical skills are then involved in turning the concept into a product. But the concept itself comes out of artistic inspiration and vision, not design.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Just let go

My father used to tell me how, as a youngster at the cinema, it was obvious to him that they were getting it all wrong. (A genetic trait, then.) “They should film it all from the hero’s point of view,” he used to say to his friends. “That’s when movies will really come alive.”

Then in 1947, a couple of movies came along that made almost exclusive use of the first-person view: The Lady in the Lake and Dark Passage. After my father saw them, he realized he’d been wrong. They didn’t work. Seeing everything through the hero’s eyes actually reduces your empathy for the character.

Movies aren’t games, so I’m not going to turn this into a discussion of camera techniques. First-person and third-person views both work in games, because they serve different purposes. The way you feel about the characters is different. Crucially, first person can work in games where it doesn't in movies because you aren’t just staring out helplessly through someone else’s eyes. You are the guy with the BFG. You’re in control.

But do you always need to be in control? Consider a game that calls for you to empathize with the character, but not to have hands-on direct control. You would be advising the hero and having a dialogue with him. You wouldn’t be the hero.

There’s nothing new about that. It’s an idea that runs through a lot of games that let you experience the story alongside the character rather than watching him or her from on high. In my gamebook app Frankenstein, you don't have any control of Victor at all. You can give him advice when he asks for it. Whether he takes your advice depends on how much he trusts you. And yet some people are unhappy with the idea. They get concerned that the player will feel detached from the hero if they don’t have complete control of him/her all the time

In fact, it’s the opposite. Direct control is an artificial and alienating experience. It will always distance you from the character. Granted, as a designer that might not be your main priority. Maybe you want to give the player an adrenaline thrill first, and an emotional bond with the hero second. But if you’re trying to create something that people will keep coming back to, you need to put emotion at the core of it. The best way to do that is to make the experience a bit less controlling.

Because when people aren’t in complete control, they can stop thinking and start feeling.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

That old serpent

We were just talking last month about how the fantasy adventure gamebook has evolved into (among other things) CRPGs, so no need to go into all that again. This is Inkle's latest gamebook app in the Sorcery series, and it's interesting that 80 Days seems to have steered them more towards the go-anywhere open world gameplay of Fabled Lands.

Good thing too, though I'll admit to a heartsink when I saw a piece of simulated text-on-paper flip up onto the screen - only because the rest of it looks so good, particularly Mike Schley's maps, that those old connections to gamebooks' past seem as out of place as wisdom teeth or a burst appendix. (I know, I know - text is inexpensive; I'm not faulting Inkle for using it, just saying that the rest of their banquet looks so appetizing that the paper napkins are bound to come as a slight disappointment.)

What particularly impresses me is that all this is built on the foundations of Inklewriter, a markup language, rather than the object-oriented database structure you'd use in a CRPG. But that's the bit of the iceberg you don't see. The important thing is that Sorcery 3 is here, it looks great, and if Games Workshop style goblin-bashing is what floats your boat, you're going to be spending the next few months in Analand. (Don't look at me; it's what Steve Jackson called it.)