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Friday, 1 July 2011

The quietest beat of an enormous drum

It's kind of an open secret - as secret as anything can be in a world that contains Twitter - that Jamie, Oliver, Mark and I have been looking at doing something app-related with our various gamebook series. Can I use the word classic there? I'm sure you're all eager for ninja action in the inimitable Way of the Tiger style, but another series we hope to convert into digital form at some point is Blood Sword. (Hopefully with a better title, though; I would have preferred The Sword of Life & the Sword of Death if only it fitted on a book cover.)

In this excerpt from the third book in the series, The Demon's Claw, you have finally tracked down the man who may be able to help you in your quest. I'm sure I don't need to add that the illustration is by the peerless Russ Nicholson, undisputed master of fantasy gamebook art, and you can see a lot more of his work over on his blog.
You have been told that Susurrien lives in a room above a butcher's shop. You enter and look towards a stone slab where a bearded giant of a man is dismembering a carcass. His cleaver strikes the raw flesh with remorseless thwacks. As he sees you, his eyes betray no emotion - but the cleaver slips, striking the stone of the slab and giving a metallic shriek.

The bearded man glowers at his chipped cleaver, then nods towards the stairs.

Still no word has been spoken. You pass him and begin to ascend. After a few moments you hear him start to hack at the meat on the slab once more.

The room you enter is plain. A man sits in a wooden chair by the window, drawing occasionally at a tall hooka that stands beside him. The odour of incense masks the charnel stench from the butcher's shop below.

Prince Susurrien turns. His robes rustle - a crisp, silken sound. His chair creaks as he shifts his body to half face you. A limpid red gem glowers like a third eye from the centre of his gold turban. His jewellery and gilt-decorated tunic glitter as they
catch a shaft of morning sunlight.

His stare is intense and unnerving. With his swarthily handsome face he looks like a man capable of great passion and cruelty. Then he gestures to the cushions piled against the wall and bids you sit. Sharp white teeth flash as he smiles. You crouch down on the cushions but your muscles remain tense. The sunlight, passing through the wooden lattice across one window and through the dusty air, casts a host of narrow bright beams across your face. They all appear to radiate from the exiled prince. The spider's web? You hide a wry smile.

'I knew you would come.' His voice is soft and deep, suggesting the quietest beat of an enormous drum. 'You seek the Sword of Life; I, the Sword of Death. By uniting we shall achieve what we desire.'

You don't pretend to like the idea, but there is no alternative. You nod.

'I have here the Hatuli - literally, the Bring-hither.' He holds up a mannikin that looks as if it has been carved from diseased wood. 'It was constructed by the great wizard Sa'aknathur, and my agents found it for me in the ruins of his fortress. If it were operative, it could find the magical swords for us. But it is not.' He sets the mannikin on the floor by his chair, where it waits, lifeless.

'Its eyes are missing,' continues Susurrien. 'They were two tiny emeralds of flawless beauty, and I believe they were prised from the Hatuli's head by Hunguk the Pirate-King when he sacked the fortress. So, your quest will involve stealing them back from Hunguk.'

You can see a difficulty here. Hunguk the Pirate-King, if he ever lived, must have been dead for more than five hundred years.

26 comments:

  1. A masterpiece of gamebook literature ! This excerpt is so well written that I still remembered it (even if English is not my native language)

    Olivier

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  2. One of the things about your writing that helped DW really sink its teeth into my flesh (so to speak) was the way it draws you into the scene, describing not just sights but smells and sounds, making you feel as though you are there. Something I try to emulate when describing scenes to my players.

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  3. Kind words, Mike - I'm glad to have been an influence.

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  4. If I may ask, where does the name "Sussurien" come from, or what was your influence for it ?
    I read BS4 before BS3 (when gamebooks began to disappear in France...) and I imagined Sussurien was a kind of serpent-like human, because of the alliteration in "ss". The most famous alliterated verse in French literature is indeed about snakes : "Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos têtes"
    (in "Andromaque", by Racine; http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allit%C3%A9ration#Exemples ).
    Likewise, the French critic of your book writes ironically about this name : "un nom qui inspire une confiance profonde" ( http://www.bibliotheque-des-aventuriers.com/serie/epee_legende/03_port_assassins.htm )

    Olivier

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  5. Yes, as an ally to avoid he must be second only to Sinestro of the Green Lantern squad :-) I imagine I may have been thinking of susurration, though why that would relate to Sussurien (and why the double s) is another question, one lost to the mists of time.

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  6. How about "The Swords of Life and Death"?

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  7. That would have done, Hamza - anything to avoid the dripping gouts of gore they gave us!

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  8. Hi David - any thoughts on a new paper version of the blood sword books? I expect as usual it depends on the digital sales?

    Also any chance of adding further stuff into the electronic books (as was done in the fabled lands apps). SOmething like new quests, an archer class etc?

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  9. Well, first we've got to get the digital versions out. I won't totally rule out a print edition, but we'd need to find a cost-effective way of doing the typesetting. As for new content... Maybe not for Blood Swird, but there has been talk of (this is just a rumor, mind) Way of the Tiger book 7.

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  10. Way of the Tiger 7 needs to be done! Bring back Avenger from the depths of the Rift (and that World Snake's guts)!

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  11. A republication of Blood Sword and Way of the Tiger - in digital or hard-copy is mouth-watering news. Fingers crossed for WotT Book 7!

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  12. To think that Avenger has been stuck in that snake's maw for 25 years and now he might finally break free...

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  13. No promises, guys. I'm just saying it's been talked about. The final decision will rest with Jamie and Mark.

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  14. I haven't commented on this blog in probably nearly a year though I occasionally make sure to keep up with it. I am right now in the process of trying to write my very own gamebook (obviously for my own enjoyment more than anything else since even supposing its quality ended up being decent enough, I wouldn't presume to even attempt to have a gamebook published in this day and age unless I was especially looking forward to abject failure and rejection) and I've been as such "studying" the gamebooks I have enjoyed the most. Naturally, I am not a reader of this blog for nothing, I DO enjoy your gamebooks more than probably any other I've read (those other two whats-their-names hmm...oh yeah, Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson ones are pretty good too ;) as are of course the ones you wrote WITH them ) and so I've been going through your "body of work" to try and figure out why is it that they work, and what do I like in them and why (I already have a pretty good idea but it's good to freshen things up in my mind if i'm gonna have a crack at writing such a thing myself). I am also, wether I want to admit it or not, trying to gauge wether the quality of my writing measures up (it happens when you're insecure...or not very good...or both). The above passage you posted is a classic example of what I enjoy in your gamebooks (aside from the general non-linearity, good rules system and all the rest). It's long enough, but not overly so. It's detailed and evocative and well written, it allows immersion but doesn't bore you with unecessary details either. It's long for an average gamebook paragraph, but concise really. It has a perfect structure for the genre. It's something I particularly struggle with as I am one of those writers that can be guilty of word diarrhea (as Uncle Stevie calls his tendency to do the same...Stephen King by any other name..not really my uncle...I wish) and I find it hard to be detailed and evocative without being dreadfully long-winded (as this comment is painfully starting to prove...). In a gamebook you have to keep the player involved, and constantly having to read through 3 pages of text in wich the player does not get to make one decision kinda defeats the whole purpose of a gamebook (except for those times when you need to have some exposition, which is generally mainly handled in the intro but can be, and usually is, necessary at other crucial points). Since my gamebook will differ greatly from most of yours in one important respect (well two really if you count the fact that it will never be printed and sold and three if you count the fact its likely not gonna be as good), it being that it is set entirely in the "real world" (1881, Arizona Territory. Needless to say, it is a western) and features not even the remotest of fantastic element, I am then not per se seeking inspiration (not in terms of plot ideas anyway) from your books which are by and large in this genre (in fact probably the only fantastic thing about my book will be the quality of my writing.....hmm, right) but I am definitely seeking as much as possible to attain the same quality in every other aspect.

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  15. Hmm, just an aside to say please forgive the liberal and excessive use i've made of brackets in the above post (note to self: must reread posts before sending)

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  16. Thanks for the kind words, Milk. It is a tricky balance to get right - you need sections long enough to set the scene, but as you say there's no point getting the reader to wait through a long passage of text just to be told "turn to X" with no choices.

    That's why we accelerated the timescale in the FL books - something you'll also see in Choice of the Dragon, etc - so as to reach the next set of meaningful choices. I don't count "Do you pick the left, right or middle door" as a meaningful choice btw :-) Actually I prefer working to the very tight constraints of FL; it's hard but rewarding to write a good section in 100 words or less.

    I like the concept for your book. It'll be difficult (fantasy makes it easy to throw in choices from left field) but all the more worthwhile for that reason.

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  17. Duh - I just noticed that Susurrien does not have a double s in the original. It must only be the French edition that spells his name "Sussurien". In which case, susurration was surely the main inspiration for the name.

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  18. @Dave : (I read the English version); after checking on la Bibliothèque des Aventuriers, even the French version has only one "s"; it was an unconscious mistake from me... sorry !

    @Milk : If I am not mistaken, are you from Quebec ? If yes, will you write in French ?

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  19. Blood Sword - even though a 'mere' gamebook - was one of the most exciting and satisfying fantasy series I've ever read.
    I particularly enjoyed the characterisations of the Warrior and the Trickster - as well as the wonderful ending. Thank you for writing and it and please, please republish it in some way.
    I liked 'Way of the Tiger' too, but what happened with Book 6? The ending and the book itself seemed quite abrupt after the earlier entries.

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  20. Adam, the full story is known only to Jamie and Mark. Originally I thought they'd been hoping to do a book 7, and so built a cliffhanger into book 6, only to land a contract for another series that meant they didn't have the time to do more WotT. However, the Wiki entry for WotT suggests that they intentionally wrote a downbeat ending for both this and the Falcon series. When Jamie gets back from his holidays, maybe I can coax him into writing a post about that.

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  21. Blood Sword iPad app, please.

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  22. We'll try, Rudd - iPad certainly works out best for me personally.

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  23. I feel the same way about choices. I think making the player choose between right, left middle, east, west, north, etc is a really cheap way to give the player a "choice". I have around 80 paragraphs written so far (out of 430...yes i've set a number but it keeps growing so who knows how many this thing will have by the end) and I have yet to end any with a choice of directions. I mean it's one thing to ask if they want to take the east trail that leads to the mountain or the northeast trail that leads through some fields, because this way you're telling the player they can choose between a mountain setting or a farmland setting for at least the next few paragraphs. That's an actual choice, it might not seem that "meaningful" but it will influence the rest of the adventure in ways they can actually see and understand. You HAVE to tell the player what they're choosing. The worst is dungeon crawlers in which you have four or five choices per paragraph but they're all cardinal points without any helpful description. "there's a tunnel leading east, another leading west, and yet another one leading south". TELL ME about the tunnels at least. Do i hear running water coming from one? Maybe footsteps or the growl of some creature? Maybe i'm feeling a slight breeze coming from another? That at least resembles a choice. Else you might as well just give the player numbers to choose "do you prefer the number 54, 365 or 77? pick one and go to the corresponding paragraph." Or better yet have them roll a dice and associate the results with a paragraph number.

    As for my setting, yeah I do suppose a "realistic" (and historical) setting is a bit of a challenge (it can constrain you more creatively i suppose and it also demands research, whereas in fantays you can just make it all up as you go) but while I do love fantasy, I couldn't see myself writing yet another fantasy gamebook. I didn't feel like the world of gamebooks needed my particular contribution to the genre (well it doesn't need it at ALL nevermind the genre, but that's another story...). It wasn't much of a premeditated decision either though. It was in fact completely sudden. One morning I woke up not in any way predisposed to writing a gamebook, not having even entertained the notion (not recently anyway) and by the time I'd went to bed that night I had most of the rules and a finished intro. It was actually putting the word western and gamebook together in my mind that immediately set me off writing (not that a western gamebook doesn't exist already, I can think of at least one though I've never read it) I realised that while I don't necessarily identify myself as a huge western fan, I DO love the genre and I am very familiar with it. I'm aiming for quasi-realism. Or should i say, realism with a certain cinematic flair. No scenes of a lone gunman shooting down 5 others single-handedly in my book...but it HAS to be fun for the player still (if you die after one bullet wound...) Certainly I'm aiming for historical accuracy (been doing a lot of research on and off, you think you know things but then you realise you mainly know it through the eyes of filmmakers and scriptwriters both which certainly have poor track records when it comes to depicting history accurately) Oh i'm rambling on again...

    @ Cafifesteir: I am in fact from quebec and french is indeed my native language but I am writing it in english (if you go on Le Forum des Aventuriers, actually now known as La Taverne des Aventuriers, I posted the intro to it there) as it is at this point in my life a language more natural for me to write in. Without entering into boring personal details, I've mainly conducted most of my personal, social and professional life in english in the past 12 years and even before that I was already writing in english since around my teen years I started to feel, and rightly so in my opinion, that it is a more efficient language than french.

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  24. Milk, I wish my French was a hundredth as good as your English! So what are your plans for the book when it's finished? Strikes me that a Kindle edition with hyperlinks wouldn't be too much extra work.

    I'd like to read it, anyway - as you say, the world probably doesn't need any more fantasy gamebooks (well, not "dungeon-style" anyway) and it sounds like this project has come to you straight from the Muse. You've been picked, you're just the channel now ;-)

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  25. Great, I'd totally missed that you had ever left a comment beyond my last one until just now....

    I'd actually be (and I don't care how this sounds) completely honored to have you read it...as well as terribly anxious. :-p Yes well... it's all well and good to have a friend read it, it's yet another thing to have a published gamebook author (and I would say even a specialist in the genre) read it. The experienced will notice all the little flaws or things that could have been done (nevermind written) better. Of course that also makes their opinion all the more worthwhile, at least for anyone who hopes to improve.

    But I'm sure that once I'm done writing and after many many weeks/months, of perfecting, playtesting and perhaps most importantly editing (the latter actually will mainly be the work of my gf as she is native english speaker, british too in fact) I can end up with a good enough version to dare share it with the world. As for how I will go about sharing it, I've not yet really thought about it much. I'll start with making sure it's worth reading first.

    And I didn't mean to make it sound like I've had enough of fantasy gamebooks, I like them but I don't think i'd be any good at writing them. At least not at coming up with anything that hasn't been done a lot better already.

    P.S: I want to mention that because of the non-linearity of my book and the fact that many things the reader has or hasn't done will affect the way events unfold later, I have lifted a little idea from Fabled Lands....codewords! (I tried to avoid it for a long time but eventually it seemed to be the only logical option unless I wanted to spoil things to the player)

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