As part of the worldwide re-release of our old gamebooks starting next spring, Jamie and I have been busy piecing the manuscripts together. Computer memory was at such a premium in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when everyone wore top hats and smoking jackets, that we didn’t keep digital copies of most of the books. Worse than that, most of them never existed in digital form in the first place, having been hammered out on typewriters or, in the case of Coils of Hate, written in green felt-tip on scraps of paper. (Oh yeah, you think I’m joking…)
So, we’ve been busy with scanners and OCR software, a laborious enough process but almost fun compared to the ensuing stage, when we have to reconstruct the entire flowchart, check it for errors, and then add logic markup for creating ebook versions.
And that’s where the quandary arises. Because the first few books we’re releasing will be Virtual Reality titles, including the new one that Jamie is writing now set in a Wild West of tumbleweed-haunted ghost towns, hard-bitten outlaws, immortal Conquistadores and heart-stealing Mexican vampires. The Virtual Reality system, as gamebook aficionados will know, is based on the skills the player chooses. Dice don’t feature, which makes it perfect for e-gamebooks.
And then we come to Blood Sword.
No wait, first of all you’re going to say, “What about Way of the Tiger?” Well, the fly in the ointment there is that we have the app rights to WotT (iOS, Android, etc) but not the ebook or print rights. And we’d like to get hold of them so as to include Avenger! and the other books in our new venture, but that’s not up to us. We’re trying.
So, Blood Sword. I’m looking at the old copies of those books and I’m thinking who, in this day and age, is going to want to wade through twenty-eight pages of rules before the adventure actually starts? And then there are the tactical maps –
Yes. About those tactical maps. How that happened was that Oliver Johnson and I had been talking to Elizabeth Roy, the editor in charge of Knight Books. (Coincidentally, a decade or two later she became an agent and repped Fabled Lands LLP for a while, but let’s not get distracted.) Liz was looking around for a follow-up series to Way of the Tiger. “It’ll need a USP,” she told us. I thought I had a doozy (or a duesy, if you’re a pedant) in that up to four readers could play together in a team.
Then we got to the big meeting and suddenly it wasn’t that simple. This was the latter part of the 1980s, and the marketing people were starting to take over the asylum. “Where’s the USP?” they said.
“You can play solo or as a party of adventurers,” I said.
I thought that was the clincher, but they continued to stroke their chins and play with their designer glasses.
“Mmm. No, we need a USP. Other gamebooks already do that.”
“No they don’t. Name one gamebook that does that.”
“USP, USP. Not listening. USP.”
Desperation is the mother of invention, as Plato probably said, so I found my mouth opening and waited to hear the fateful words my muse had come up with: “We’ll have tactical maps, a bit like a boardgame.”
Well, there was a rod to beat my own back. I grew to hate writing fight scenes into Blood Sword books because it always meant stopping and drawing a stupid little tactical map. And then, when the books came out, it turned out the maps had been printed at the size of a postage stamp, so good luck actually making any counters to push around that. It frustrated me to think of the thousands of readers who would give up because of those fiddly maps and never get to see all the wonderful adventures I was dreaming up for them. In Book 3 I even resorted to telling them, as near as dammit, to ignore the tactical rules altogether:
Twenty-five years on, am I really going to bring the maps back? Today’s gamers prefer simpler rules, and it’s hard to imagine anyone having the patience to move their counters around and wade through all those rules figuring out combat options. Life’s too short. Also, the story ought to be so compelling that you don't want to waste time on dice-rolling.“If rules and numbers are not to your taste then you are at perfect liberty to ignore them.”
At least, that’s how I see it. But who am I to tell people how they should find their enjoyment? “Everybody makes their own fun,” as Rebecca Pidgeon’s character says in State and Main. “If you don't make it yourself, it ain't fun, it's entertainment.” Gamebooks are all about the empowerment of the reader, and if that includes the option to spend an evening geeking out with the dice and the pencils and the little tactical grids, well…
And then there’s the digital versions. I hate seeing dice roll around in a videogame or an app. That’s just the legacy of another medium creeping in. And the dice were only ever a way to represent statistical chances and skill-use anyway. Physically rolling them is one thing. Watching virtual dice clatter around puts me in mind of what Byron had to say about Keats’s poetry. (Best draw a veil over that; it’s not for repetition in polite company.)
So I’d rather convert all the Blood Sword books to something like the VR system. It’d be a lot of work, but they already have the character archetypes – trickster, sage, etc – so they’re halfway there. Well, a quarter of the way, at least. And then putting them into ebook format wouldn’t be nearly such a headache.
But hang on now. This is the twenty-first century. Publishing has evolved into something new and polymorphously liberating. I can release a new version of the Blood Sword books for the casual reader, and I can also put out a special “classic edition” with all the baroque rules for the hardcore gamers. And then everyone’s happy. We could even see about getting Russ’s permission to use his original illustrations in the classic edition – like the scary undead thing (above) that came from the meteor in Book 2.
Okay then. Sorted. Thanks for the chat, it really helped.