Gamebook store

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Frankenstein - bringing a classic out of the attic

I’ve just written my first gamebook in sixteen years, the interactive version of Frankenstein that will be published for iPad and iPhone by Profile Books in April. Maybe it would be more accurate to say it’s my first “gamebook-like” work for sixteen years. Why so coy? Because, if we use a word like game too freely, it becomes meaningless, and then what can we say about games? By one definition:
“A game is a problem to be solved.”
But not always the other way round, obviously, otherwise a sudoku or crossword puzzle is a game. Now, Raph Koster might be happy with that, as he says:
“Games are puzzles.”
But, you know, love is a puzzle. A story is a problem to be solved (if you listen to Hollywood screenwriting gurus, anyway). What use are those definitions? Sid Meier says:
“A game is a series of interesting choices.”
Which I like, but it essentially requires that you understand what gameplay is before you experience that smile of recognition at his definition. The barer truth, of course, is that a game is anything that’s marketed as a game. But then that raises problematic expectations. If I were to review Dear Esther and rate it as having little or no actual gameplay, wouldn’t I be missing the whole point?

And then there’s replayability. A true game is almost endlessly replayable, precisely because those choices are interesting – that is, there’s never one right decision. But, much as I enjoyed Dungeon Siege or Assassin’s Creed, I’m never going to replay them. On the other hand, I will happily re-read a great novel or watch again one of my favourite movies, and they’re not games at all.

You can probably see why I chose to be a creator, not a critic.

Getting back to the monster in this particular lab, Frankenstein is certainly structured like a gamebook. It’s 155,000 words long (by comparison, a typical Fighting Fantasy gamebook is 60,000 words; Choose Your Own Adventure rather shorter) and at a rough count it’s got about 1200 sections. A monster by anybody’s standards.

I have been asked if it has multiple endings. In fact there are several, as subtly different as the question of whether Clarence lives or dies at the end of True Romance, or whether Deckard gets to drive around in Shining woodland with Rachael, his replicant love. The ending question, though, to my mind misses the point just as much as do considerations of gameplay or replay(re-read?)ability. Every choice is an interaction with the main characters. It affects your relationship with them. Where a novel ends is a tiny part of the whole experience. People enjoyed the meaningful multiple endings of Heart of Ice, but those work because of the route you take to get there. It’s the same with Frankenstein.

Do you get to play the monster? Not really, but yes, is the best answer I can give to that. Do you get to play Victor Frankenstein? No, but you will get to know him. Imagine your best friend is going through a crisis. (Hopefully unrelated to having created a potentially homicidal new lifeform – but this blog has a lot of readers, so you never know.) Your friend asks you for advice. He may or may not trust you enough to confess certain things to you. Would you call that a puzzle, or problem-solving? Or even a game? Yet it is undeniably interaction.

That type of interaction, in the Frankenstein book, will engage you emotionally, intellectually, politically, aesthetically and maybe spiritually. When you have finished, everything you’ve read will be laid out there behind you – a complete novel, the precise text of which will be unique to each reader. I could say the experience will be unique to each reader too, but that is after all true of any novel. Yes, ebooks and book apps are a whole new era, a revolution, a tipping point, yada yada. But at the same time: plus ça change


  1. Is this going to available in other formats or just for the iPad and iPhone? In other words, will I be able to read it on my Kindle?

  2. A very good question, David. I know it's only coming out on iPad and iPhone to begin with, but lots of people (especially in the US) have been asking me about Android, Kindle and print versions. The ebook situation now is looking like the games industry of the mid-90s, when there were a dozen different consoles and companies sprang up whose sole job was to convert a game from its original platform so that it could reach as wide a market as possible.

    There's certainly nothing in theory to prevent Frankenstein coming out on multiple platforms, and if it were up to me I'd do it. But you're going to need to contact Profile Books and tell them what you want. If there's enough demand they'll make it so.

  3. This sounds very interesting. Luckily I have an iPad.
    Frankenstein is my favorite cautionary tale about bad parenting so I'm looking forward to seeing your take on it.

  4. Efrem Orizzonte4 March 2012 at 23:15

    Beautiful post. Very thought-provoking. I can't wait to read your Frankenstein! :)

  5. Glad you're looking forward to it - though hopefully it amounts to more than a cautionary tale about parenting!

  6. I'm really, really curious to read this. I knew there was a reason I bought an iPhone.

  7. That sounds terribly interesting and i will definitely read this.

    I was a bit shocked to learn that a regular gamebook has 60 000 words though. I never counted and I knew I was definitely going beyond the average length of a gamebook, but the gamebook I'm (still) writing (western themed, mentioned it once on this blog like 8 months ago or more but who cares) has something like nearly 159 000 words right now...and I'm still 120 paragraphs from finishing it (for a total of around 540). Definitely that's unpublishable on paper even self-published. Imagine the cost. Edit some stuff out? Why, yes yes. It's a good idea. Why don't I cut out my arm too?:p "Too many notes? I assure you there's as many notes as i required, no more no less" like Mozart says (I'm not paraphrasing, I'm sure it's not the actual precise quote) to the Emperor in Amadeus. Except he was a genius and I'm just a hack.

    Still though, it's nice to not have to consider mundane things like paper cost when publishing digitally. I think it's very hard to write something engaging, cohesive and well structured in a 60 000 words gamebook. Well, a talented writer could do it... Then again back when they still published them on paper they mainly had kids in mind. Now those kids have grown up and want more. It's a bit like the evolution of comics or video games which were originally very much targeted at kids (for the most part). Then the kids reading comics and the kids playing video games grew up and then wrote comics and made games for the adults they had become.

  8. Ah yes, you mean where the Emperor says, "Cut a few notes and it will be perfect" and Mozart replies, "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?" Which is wittier than what Mozart apparently said in real life ("There are just as many notes as there should be") but, of course, in Amadeus he had Peter Shaffer to write his lines.

    I don't think it would be impossible to self-publish a 200,000 word gamebook. Gollancz are publishing Destiny Quest as a 600-page hardback, presumably on the assumption that people who want gamebooks won't be put off by a high cover price as long as they get a nice edition for their money. So I guess they are not targeting kids - and Frankenstein is certainly not for kids; in fact it's x-rated!