Gamebook store

Friday, 28 May 2010

Gamebooks where you're NOT the hero

Recently I was looking at the manifesto of e-gamebook publisher Mifiction, who have an interesting new take on the whole idea of interactive stories. It’s similar to a direction Jamie and I were discussing a couple of years back, before we got distracted by videogames and comics respectively. Now we have some free time to return to that project, and I’d be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts.

First, a quick recap of where we used to be. Traditionally, as you know, gamebooks comprise interactive narratives built in sections that fit a branching structure. Each reader navigates his or her own preferred path through the narrative, typically by choosing from a list of options and turning to the corresponding number for that option:

Speak to the man - turn to 27
Call the militia to arrest him - turn to 120
Ignore him and continue on your way - turn to 206
Too wide a decision tree and you’ve got very short adventures. Too narrow a tree and the reader’s choices feel constrained. A good interactive novel should provide a different but still satisfying story if you go back and make significantly different choices. As a rule of thumb, Jamie and I always used to figure there should be a minimum of three distinct routes through the narrative, with multiple interweaving strands on each route.

Of course, I’m talking about the traditional “one story” kind of gamebook here. Lord Daark Muder has kidnapped your sister and you’re going to get her back, yada yada. What we were trying to do with Fabled Lands was a whole other thing – more like an open-structured role-playing campaign than a gamebook. In Fabled Lands, you really do get to “choose your own adventure”.

When we look at the future of prose fiction – a largely electronic future, perhaps – it seems that a lot of readers could potentially enjoy gamebooks. In fact let’s use the broader term interactive fiction here, not gamebooks, because it’s likely that what has stopped the medium from getting a wider readership has been those intricate game-based rules.

Most people are interested in characters and stories, and they are intrigued by the consequences of decisions. But most people have zero interest in rules, numbers, inventories, and other fiddly details. Personally as a writer, I’ve always been more interested in the “book” and less in the “game”. So I’m very keen to find ways to jettison dice altogether when adapting our material to e-readers. I’d certainly count it a failure if you are tapping on your iPhone screen to roll some virtual dice.

Okay, but that’s our old content. That was then. Now we’re starting to think about what we might work on next, an interactive novel that can and should be something completely new in the genre. To do that, we’d change the point of view and the narrative style and throw out the whole idea of game mechanics. Like so…

Point of View

As far as I’m aware, pretty much all interactive fiction has cast the reader as the protagonist:

Your suitors come to you with three caskets. By choosing a casket, you thereby designate the one you will marry. Will it be:

The lead casket? Turn to 77
The silver casket? Turn to 101
The gold casket? Turn to 290
So that specifically locates the reader in the narrative. A direct analogy is the first-person narrator in a conventional novel. Contrast with a narrative in which the reader has an authorial role:

Entering the village, Ketzel paused to consider two buildings dominating the main street. One was a squat low-roofed dwelling set on study black timbers. A man stood on the porch sweeping idly at the grey dust that had blown in off the plains. To the other side of the street: a tavern with three chimneys of extraordinary height. The glaring, red-whiskered man at the door was evidently the proprietor.

Before Ketzel could even begin to consider his next course, something happened that would force him to change all his plans.

A dust-storm? Turn to 82
A duel? Turn to 109
The reappearance of an old foe? Turn to 260
Narrative style

Interactive fiction has always been based around a single protagonist, for the simple reason that a second-person narrative leaves no alternative. The result is a pretty straitjacketed type of genre narrative. If the hero is Conan, a certain kind of adventure is likely. If Sam Spade, another. But it’s all genre; you’re never going to get Crime and Punishment, much less The Great Gatsby.

And, of course, the “you-are-the-hero” form requires the writer to abandon all his most powerful storytelling tricks. There’s no cross-cutting to increase tension, because you only have the one viewpoint. Likewise, no dramatic irony. You can surprise the reader, but it’s hard to use most of the tricks of suspense that rely on the reader knowing something the character doesn’t.

Look at a novel like War & Peace that interweaves the lives of many characters. There is a sense of a real living world inhabited by many different characters - all with their own histories, hopes, projects and fates. A bigger and more involving story is possible than you could ever get with: “…as you crest the hill you catch sight of the French army.”

Jettison the second-person view, and interactive fiction too can start to tell those kinds of stories.


Most interactive fiction in the past has been driven by dice-based game mechanics because the genre had its roots in fantasy role playing. However, the game aspect can be off-putting to many readers. As I said before, most people prefer their fiction without the accompaniment of dice, and prefer not to have to keep notes as they read.

The Virtual Reality series in the early 1990s showed that it is perfectly possible to construct an interactive novel without resorting to dice. In our next interactive novel, we’re going to dispense with rules-based gameplay altogether. The setting and story premise will be enthralling in its own right. The pleasure of exploring it via multiple narratives would only be lessened by intrusive game mechanics.

Durkesh pulls out the tube of blue concentrate. Does he have a +3 magic vial? If so, reduce its magic bonus by one on the adventure sheet and then turn to 44. If not, turn to 303.
But how about:

Andrew raises the pistol, which startles him with the noise of its bang. A cloud of pungent smoke fills the space between them. The troops fall back as their officer staggers, clutching at the blood welling from his white waistcoat. In the confusion, Andrew makes his escape into the woods, running until he hears no sound of pursuit. What does he encounter there: an angry hermit (turn to 175), a girl of some beauty (turn to 260), or an abandoned chapel (turn to 304)?

Summing up: we’re talking about an interactive novel in which the reader participates as author, not protagonist, to determine what befalls a cast of characters in a rich storyline. Would it work? Only one way to find out…


  1. This certainly sounds novel (excuse the pun), but I'm wondering what would drive the reader to select one option over another? In the traditional gamebook, often the choice would entail some sort of consequence, so making the 'right' choice is important. I'm assuming there is no such 'right' or 'wrong' choice in the interactive novels proposed. With that in mind, what would drive the decision of the reader? Simple speculation? A random thought? Genre preference?

    If the decisions were differentiated enough, it is possible to perhaps construct a story that spans a number of genres based on the reader's preferences at these points? Is this book a romance, thriller or comedy? All depends on the reader choice.

    Or would the true impact of the novel only be felt if read through at least twice, with different choices made each time?

  2. Reading this, I have the idea of "a book where you must eliminate the hero". The hero might be superpowerful (think of the monster of "la créature venue du Chaos" of the Fighting Fantasy series, or something like Predator, Godzilla, a vampire...)and we'd choose for him the options we'd assess the most dangerous.
    The final target of the monster would be to kill us, that's why we should do everything possible to prevent this...


  3. @Wayne - I had in mind you'd be making choices to express genre - or at least "plot-type" - preference. So some Wild West stories might take a turn into extreme violence, others are more of an adventure romp. Alternatively, within a whodunit you might steer things towards the person you think ought to be guilty. Years ago there was a Blade Runner game that chose the girl Deckard loved (and who was the Rachel-style replicant) according to which female character the player spent most time visiting and talking to.

    The original idea for this authorial style of gamebook was to do interactive stories for very young kids, where they might be expected just to try playing with options rather than identifying strategies to solve problems.

    @Olivier - I think you're not talking about a book where the player fights the bad guy, you're actually talking about one where you're playing a character who you're trying to commit suicide through bad choices? Kind of like "5 Minutes To Kill Yourself" on iPhone?

  4. I don't know "5 minutes to Kill Yourself". I was rather thinking at something like "creature of havoc" of the Fighting Fantasy series but in a reverse sense. As you said, the player would fight (mainly indirectly) the bad guy.

  5. Thanks Dave for a really interesting post! Certainly got me thinking about how I put my amateur solo gamebooks together. I guess the dice or diceless dichotomy you mention is part of the whole gamebook conundrum - do we (or our audience) want a game or a book? Story-telling or simulation?

    And if the majority want story-telling, is this somehow the "default" state of our audience, or is it because they haven't been exposed to enough good gamebooks with rules?

    Like I said, interesting post!

  6. There's a whole post to be written about what randomness brings to gameplay (if anything)... Certainly food for thought.

  7. I feel that both CYOA-styled and die-based gamebooks have their various usage. Fabled Lands wouldn't be nearly as complex without inventory management or random encounters. Its not THAT complex to manage a sheet of paper with weapons, armor, magical and non-magical artefacts and other bric-a-brac,as well as character status, although I do see a use for more in-depth plot-lines in a CYOA novel. Dave, you produce high quality work and are pristinely gifted at what you do. I hope that you'll succeed in your future endeavors and consider producing products in both print and electronic formats. I would enjoy a great print gamebook and it is something that can be passed along as an heirloom from generation to generation. I was wondering when you were going to post your "7URPS" materials and what your plans were (plot wise, encounter-wise, different "mini-games" such as the Gambling in The Temple of the Three Fortunes, etc) for the rest of the series. By the way, do they still have White Dwarf Magazine over in your neck of the woods and if so, how much does a subscription cost? It is a strenuous job to procure any manuscripts of the gamebook format here in the US.

  8. Thanks, Mike - you always say the most flattering things.

    There's not very much on 7URPS - just the bare notes for how to convert from basic GURPS. I should probably put it up as a Google doc with a link here.

    I haven't seen White Dwarf in many years. It may still be going but by the mid-90s it had pretty much become just a catalogue for Games Workshop's wargaming figurines. However, Magnum Opus Press are apparently planning to release a collection of my articles and scenarios from the heyday of WD. I assume that will be available on Amazon.

  9. The Doctor Who Decide Your Destiny gamebooks use an authorial point of view: "If the Ogrons capture Martha, turn to page 9. If Martha escapes, turn to page 13." I haven't read any (more's the pity), so I can't comment on the richness of the stories - but the proof of concept is there.

  10. Thanks for the tip-off, Ken, I wasn't aware of those books. It makes sense - you could hardly play the Doctor himself, in fact even the novelizations make a point of never taking the Doctor's point of view, or so I believe. Hmm, I'll have to see if I can find a copy on eBay.

  11. I've read some gamebooks that used this technique, because a local author was known for such choices.
    "What happens, does the sun shine, or a storm appears all of a sudden?"
    However, he followed the traditional approach of "what does the hero do" most of the time, with such choices only being presented once in a while. Maybe it would work better if all choices were like this, from the start, and the writer had some actual skills, but his books are considered a mess by every single gamebook fan I know, including because of this kind of the "meta-game" choices. I suspect it might have something to do with mixing the two approaches.

  12. Please do remove dice rolls. The thrill is no longer there after so many decades of reliance on random number generation. The thrills should be in the story and choices, not some old gimmick. I hate how the whole story revolves around a plathora of random numbers. It should be decision making skills that save the day or ruin it.

    Personally, I do not like the idea of playing a "god" who decides whether a beautiful lady shows up, or an old enemy, etc. I like to feel challenged and endangered. Then again, this idea sounds quite different than the traditional gamebook. As noted above, a character sheet is really not that much of a hassle if you keep it simple.

  13. The problem with a 3rd person view is surely that most people don't want to be the author, they want to be emotionally involved. So 1st or 2nd person perspectives are always going to work best with interactive stories.