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Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The first tree in the greenwood

Mark Smith and I co-created the Virtual Reality gamebook series, but we wrote our books separately and took a very different approach. The original pitch to publishers was that VR would be like interactive novels. What we meant by that was that if you took all the sections in a given read-through and pasted them together, you could give that to a friend and they could read it the same way they would a novel. (Not that you would, of course. It was a thought experiment kind of thing.)

In Green Blood, Mark frequently used a second-person variant of free indirect style: the text describes the world exactly as the character is intended to feel about it. At least one reviewer took Mark to task for use of "weasel words" because of this. In fiction there is no claim of objectivity, but gamebooks are an interesting grey area. The author, like the referee of a role-playing game, is the reader's only source of information. If that information becomes suspect, or seems to be chosen and slanted to nudge us into feeling a certain way, then we react much as we do if a politician or salesman starts trying to bamboozle us.

As I began to write my first VR book, Down Among the Dead Men, I saw that if I stuck to my role-playing principles of giving the player control of their own persona, the text resulting from stitching all your choices together as you went would be more like a great game write-up than a novel. I could describe events that happened to you, fine, but unlike a novel writer I couldn't prescribe all your moral, emotional and life choices or it wouldn't be a gamebook.

Mark went the other way. Whichever character you pick at the start of Green Blood, you soon learn that after a promising start at a good school for orphans you have been raised in the city slums and are disgusted with "the cesspools and plague pits" of your fellow man. The ways of city folk, you are told, revolt you. Throwing your bag over your shoulder, you set off for the Forest of Arden to seek out the elves. The story is extremely slanted against humans and in favour of self-righteous, tree-hugging elvenkind. This is the sort of thing that makes me prefer Tekumel and the Dying Earth to the heavily moralistic settings typical in high fantasy - but that's just personal taste. I do think that Green Blood has been unfairly maligned because of the lack of freedom of choice. As Dostoyevsky and others found, the theme of a young hero driven by poverty and squalour beyond bitterness into insanity is ripe for literary exploration. If Green Blood had been a novel, it would have worked just fine. It's just the game aspect that lets it down.

A big for instance: in the first draft, it was impossible to get through the adventure unless you picked both WILDERNESS LORE and SWORDPLAY among your four skills. Any other character was doomed from the start. With eleven skills (it should have been twelve, in three groups of four, but that's a detail) that leaves a less than twenty-five percent chance that a randomly selected character has any hope of surviving.

I didn't agree with Mark about that, but I had my own books to worry about, and it's not up to me to ride another man's horse or shoot his bow. There it would have remained, except series editor Ian Marsh found some crash-bug type errors that needed to be dealt with before the book could be sent for typesetting. Mark was by then deep into writing Coils of Hate, so it fell to me to fix the Green Blood flowchart.

While I was doing that, I noticed Mark had included a short sequence where you meet the elves on midsummer's eve and have to convince their king to help you in your quest. Without the Elf King's help, there is no chance of a successful conclusion. In the original, you had to have SWORDPLAY to do that, but I saw an opportunity to let other skills have a look-in. By adding a whole range of different challenges to the sequence, I made it possible for any character to get through to the end of the adventure. And, as the New Year's freebie has become a tradition on the FL blog, here is that sequence. Feel free to cheat.


  1. Thank you for the freebie, I'll have to check it out! Happy New Years!

  2. I think there's a place for defined player characters in gamebooks. I should say that I WANT there to be a place for them. By removing the central character of a narrative and replace him or her with cypher we lose all the tools that having a central viewpoint brings. I guess it goes back to that central question, are gamebooks primarily games or stories? Or to put it another way, how much storytelling techniques do we have to give up in order to create a compelling game?

    I feel like the defined character doesn't work specifically in Green Blood not because players don't like being dictated what character they are, but because the book sends mixed messages. It starts with the standard VR rules: "pick from these pre-sets or select your own skills. It's your story so go with it!" but then the narrative starts "you are THIS person who feels THIS way." As the player, we feel cheated. Why tell me that I can pick who I am if that choice is immediately invalidated. But if a gamebook opened with "You take the role of this character who feels this way" (more artfully done than that hopefully, but still clear) I think players would be more receptive.

    Thinking on it though, I'm having trouble coming up with any gamebooks that do take that approach. I guess it's a pretty alien concept when the whole genre is built on the premised that this is YOUR story and YOU are the hero. Maybe players would balk at it no matter how skillfully it was done.

    Anyway, thanks for the freebie! Think I'll dive into it right now.

    1. I had always seen gamebooks as solo role-playing scenarios, which in retrospect was probably an error. According to that view, strongly defined characters belong in fiction.

      When I came to writing Frankenstein, I treated it as a work of interactive literature rather than a game, and therefore was quite happy to prescribe the main characters. Some readers objected because that forced them into the role of murderer (the poor misunderstood monster, you see - they didn't realize that he kills children) but I suspect a lot of murderers in real life don't see the fateful act coming either.

      If I write more interactive fiction in future, I'm more interested in exploring the Frankenstein direction than the (say) Golden Dragon one. That seems like a way for gamebooks to distinguish themselves from the action-adventure mode that videogames can now do better.

  3. Philip, I feel the same with a bit of gamebooks, but with the Fabled Lands series, it seems that it doesn't explain how you feel very often, and now that I think of it when was the last time I read a description of my character's feelings? In the Fabled Lands series I find my character saying the exact things I would say, for example; In The War-Torn Kingdom, I was captured by this group of cannibals that sacrifice people to their god, and when one of them was talking about their god, my character asked who the god was, which was what I was wondering, and my character said it the exact way I was thinking in my mind. And I find that happening a lot in the Fabled Lands books. And if I lived in a fantasy world the same as Harkuna, then I'd be wanting to go on adventures like my character too. That is one of the many things I like about the Fabled Lands series.

    1. Well, Alex, our intention with the FL books was to get as close as possible to the experience of a true (if solo) role-playing campaign using gamebooks. So your character's motives, goals and morals are really up to you.

      Because of this, some reviewers have described the FL books as badly written, but the pared-down style was carefully chosen to leave the reader room to fill in the gaps.

      Nothing will ever match the fun of actually playing a role-playing game with friends, but if this were the '90s and I couldn't get a group together one evening then I can see how FL would be my next best choice. (Or the Sorcery books, seeing as how I already know all the tricks in FL!)

      The problem nowadays is that not so many gamers want to read even the succinct text of the Fabled Lands books. We've noticed how impressive and successful Inkle's Sorcery apps are - and the way they very sensibly use the map instead of text descriptions wherever appropriate. So, while we hope to produce more FL books in print form to please the diehard gamebook readers, we also hope to find a developer who can do a first-rate job of app versions.

  4. This is a very interesting entry to me as i have been, on and off, writing my own gamebook (for about two years because too many things keep interfering..good thing i dont make a living off writing)...and i have had to come to the realisation that I was telling the reader what they felt and what they were doing more than i was allowing them to make their own choices. I mean of course there is always choices but they weren't based so much on how they reacted to things but more if they want to go here or there, or talk to this person or this one or do something this way or that way. I also did something that some gamebook readers hate, i give the reader's character dialogue...and a lot of it (hard to resist in a western...).

    Still, eventually aware that i was leading the player too much, and unhappy with it, I did recently go back through the book and added a lot more paragraphs, more choices, moral ones when possible or at least related to the character's attitude towards whatever situation, but that still doesn't change that you're more guiding a character than truly being them...which i will admit is something i particularly hate in video games rpgs (it's called ROLE playing for a reason). I suppose i am being self-indulgent in that i am writing a character i would like to be in a gamebook...not necessarily a character the reader would want to be. But i'm too far in right now to change everything. There ARE myriad of paths and different possibilities in the book, honestly i believe more than any gamebook i've ever read, and there are not really (or barely) ways to instantly fail the book (which i think is just a cheap way to pad a gamebook personally...i pretty much always give the player a way out, it just might be more difficult), which i think are strengths, but unless the reader readily identifies with the character i have mainly written for them, i have a feeling they might just hate my book... oh well... you write, you learn....

    P.S: Congratulations on your win in the authors tourney on La taverne des aventuriers, of which i am a member. When the tournament started i did not suspect in any way that you would win because i felt there were too many people who hadn't read your gamebooks (most people get into gamebooks through either Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf and unfortunately some never really read much else). In my mind there was only one worthy winner and was glad when i realised not only were you in the final, but that after my vote, you were leading (it was a tie for a while at one point until i broke it, jackson never caught up after that so you can thank me :-p...even if technically you won by four votes my vote didnt REALLY change anything but i can only hope that my constant praising of your books throughout the years might have meant some of the voters had come through your books through fans like me....) I was actually kinda bummed to learn someone had already informed you of your win on La Taverne des Aventuriers. :-p I planned to do that myself but being on holiday it was only possible for me to do it today.

    1. How much you should impose characterization on the player of a gamebook is an interesting question. There isn't a right answer (everybody looks for something different) but, as you say, Milk, you learn the best options for your own style by writing.

      In Blood Sword, I could make reasonably fair assumptions about the personality of the Warrior and the Trickster, which meant I could describe them reacting with indignation or admiration to unscrupulous behaviour. But dialogue, that is yet another level of tricky. Even in a CRPG, where I get to pick from a range of options, I often feel there's no dialogue on offer to suit my character perfectly. (Of course, in a highly story-driven CRPG like The Witcher, we're not so much inhabiting the character as guiding him/her, so a dialogue tree works fine there.)

      A whole other layer of complexity comes in if you want the player's character to change through the course of the book. What if one route leads to him becoming embittered, another to redemption - and yet every section must be readable whichever arc they're on? We are struggling to do something in the medium of a flowchart that would be better handled by a procedural system, if not actual AI.

      I was delighted by the recognition of La Taverne's members. What can I say? The French are renowned in any case for impeccable taste. I like to think of myself as the Woody Allen of gamebooks, then - often ignored in Britain and the USA, but always sure of an enthusiastic reception in France. Now, if you could only convince your countrymen to read my comic Mirabilis...