Okay, so here’s the problem. These days you’re as likely to read a gamebook – sorry, a work of interactive literature – on a liquid-crystal display as a printed page. And something happens to the way we read these things in the new medium. There’s a tendency to skim the text and just look for the next set of options. The author puts: “Something whistles out of the darkness of the roof opposite. You twist aside, feeling it graze your scalp. An arrow! The figure is outlined for a second against the moon. Another arrow is already in his hand. What will you do?” And what the reader sees is: “Guy on the roof shot at you and missed. What now?”
How come that doesn’t happen with a novel? I can happily read War and Peace on an e-reader with no impulse to skip ahead. Why, reading a gamebook on-screen, do we suddenly acquire the attention span of a toddler on a sugar rush? As Ashton Saylor pointed out in the comments on a recent post, it doesn't help that gamebooks have an obvious marker (the options) to skip ahead to if the text is boring. So it's even more important than in a regular novel that the text is not boring.
If people aren’t going to read all the text, maybe we could just put in less of it. Jamie and I admired the cut-to-the-chase brevity of Eric Goldberg’s Tales of the Arabian Nights, a big influence on Fabled Lands, but that’s not really a solution to the interactive literature problem. If you write a gamebook that way, it’s tantamount to saying, “Okay, we all know text is boring, but at least there’s not too much of it.” And on-screen the reader will still skim. Even if the text comprises the most elegant little couplets since Will Shakespeare needed a chat-up line you’d skim it, because all you’re looking for is the information content:
There is a gate in the wall. The guard is here.How about writing gamebooks with better prose? Let's get some of today's top-flight writers on the job. Would that encourage readers not to skim? Not on its own. If a beautiful turn of phrase was all it took to get us reading, narrative poetry would still be on the bestseller lists. It's not less text or better text we need, but a whole different kind of writing.
There’s a big difference between interactive literature and the traditional kind. The fact is, gamebooks have generally omitted most of the elements that make the reader want to take in every line of a good novel. Those elements are:
- Exposition (past action)
- Interior monologue
In a novel, those various elements don’t exist in isolation. Descriptive passages aren’t only for scene-setting. Take the opening of Bleak House. “London… Implacable November weather. As much mud on the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth…" Dickens isn’t just telling us where we are. He’s introducing the perspective (one of several) that we’re going to have on the story, he’s expressing its themes, and he’s giving some clues to what has gone before.
As Hilary Mantel says: "Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action."
I used the same principle for the descriptive passages in my Virtual Reality books, especially Heart of Ice, but that alone doesn’t make a compelling novel. What about those other elements? What’s the magic ingredient that compels us to read without skimming? Well, here’s an important pointer: readers prefer talk scenes...
“Put that away.”– is way better than the narrator telling the reader that Joe draws a gun.
“Don’t try anything. At this range, a 357 Mag will turn your face to hamburger.”
It’s not easy to write a novel using only dialogue. Ivy Compton-Burnett used to come close, and it’s a little too much of a good thing. That’s why authors make such a big deal about the narrative voice: it allows all of the descriptive stuff to share the urgency and characterful appeal of dialogue. It’s also why you get so many books written in first person. That way, the narrator is directly addressing the reader. First person is sufficiently compelling that authors choose it even though it denies them the most interesting tools of storytelling: dramatic irony, simultaneous action, multiple character viewpoints, and so on.
Very often the old-time gamebooks featured an anonymous, blank-slate character, which made dialogue tricky as it would mean putting words into the character’s mouth. That's going to lead to a disconnect if the reader has been picturing their alter ego as a sneak-thief type and suddenly finds they're bellowing angry challenges at an ogre. You could try using conversation trees, allowing the reader to select every response, but that makes for a long, slow read and hardly results in a smooth flow of dialogue. Some adventure games get around it by having the player set the conversational attitude (aggressive, friendly, guarded, etc) and that determines what the character says. But now you’re outside the character looking in – which is okay for a videogame where the connection with the character is empathic, as in cinema, but not in second-person interactive literature, where the goal goes beyond empathy to full identification.
With a predefined character, it’s less of a problem. As gamebooks started to include character classes or skills, it was possible for the author to build in some assumptions about the character. In Necklace of Skulls, selecting the Etiquette skill means you are of noble birth, and that has a bearing on your conversations with other characters. In Blood Sword, I knew that the Trickster would countenance a whole bunch of dastardly options that the Warrior would dismiss as dishonourable.
Taking a step back, what’s so special about that second-person viewpoint anyway? It’s only there because the early gamebooks were dungeon bashes: “After a few yards you arrive at a junction. Will you turn west or east?” In Frankenstein I used a first-person narrator and to-the-moment writing, both techniques so new that they have only been in use in fiction for about three hundred years.
I’m back at the house. I don’t remember whether I walked or took a carriage after the boat docked. They are bringing Elizabeth’s body here, I know that. The lawn is still strewn with the debris of the wedding breakfast. A string of coloured paper flags, hanging lank in the dew. An ashtray with the squashed stubs of cigars nestled in damp ash. A champagne coupe lies trodden into the flower bed. Amazingly, it seems unbroken, a perfect crystal of aqueous brilliance in the blue shadows under the bushes.The theory here is that the whole book is a dialogue between you and Victor Frankenstein. So unless you’re the type who uses the time the other person talking to think about what you're going to say next, you are going to read it without skimming. (I said it’s a theory.)
* Pick it up.
* You have to talk to your father.
Another option, which I discussed in a post a while back, is to go with a third-person viewpoint. The trouble is, this tends to jerk the reader out of the story every few paragraphs in order to force them to take an authorial role. I was interested in it as an experiment but, as Paul Mason rightly pointed out, it breaks the experience. In order to get the reader to read all the text, we need the interactivity to mesh seamlessly with the prose. One minute I’m curious to see what Cugel does, the next I’m being asked to decide what he does. In Frankenstein there’s a justification for making choices in that you are Victor’s confidant. Confidants exist within a story; authors (though not narrators) exist outside them.
The only early-80s gamebooks written with a real narrative voice were Herbie Brennan’s Grailquest series, probably because Mr Brennan already had a dozen years’ writing experience when he started them. I have a feeling that when those books appear in digital form, readers won’t be nearly so likely to skim the text. And, happily, we should find out for certain very soon.
Possibly the best advice, then, is to write interactive literature with the same depth you would give to any mainstream novel. The final word goes to Michael Moorcock, whose tip on how to write original fantasy/SF could apply equally to writing interactive literature:
"[This advice] was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies [...] Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt."