Gamebook store

Friday, 17 January 2014

The uncertainty principle

There’s a German film called The Way Things Go ("Der Lauf der Dinge"). If you haven’t seen it, you probably remember the Honda commercial that ripped it off. I mean, that was “creatively inspired” by it.

Objects have personality. A rolling disc moves with a cheeky wobble. A rod swings arrogantly. A ball bearing blithely ignores the chaos all around. Artists have know this since the first time a pebble was shaped to have sensuous curves. Thousands of years before the Virgin Mary, pareidolia detected other faces in a full moon, a cut pear, or a deer’s entrails. And Heider and Simmel showed that even triangles and circles can exhibit attachment, jealousy and unrequited love.

We all know that inanimate objects can be vindictive, especially when we’re hurrying to get ready and a chair or table decides to trip us up or inflict a treacherous blow to the shins. I encounter it every day on my computer. Firefox is often obstructive, especially when it gets together with McAfee. It drags its heels, refuses to shut down and restart. I’m accustomed to every hanging pause and greyed-out window as to the foibles of an obstreperous flatmate.

In an application with a practical function, the last thing we want is personality. Hands up who misses Clippy. Thought so. Just like reaching out a hand to pluck a grape, we desire thought and action to be as one. Good interactive design is all about immediate response and no surprises.

Except when it comes to stories. Because there, personality is exactly what we’re looking for. A choice in a gamebook should never play out entirely predictably. That’s what dice rolls used to clumsily try to provide. But a much better example comes from storytelling – the ordinary, non-interactive kind.

A story, if it’s well told, makes you wonder what’s going to happen next. (In fact, before that, it has to make you care what happens next, but what we’re talking about now assumes you’re already signed up for the ride.) Faced with a problem, the hero tries something – maybe it works a little, maybe it makes things worse, but it’s never exactly what he planned. Now he has to think on his feet. Reaching the satisfying conclusion is a process of continual tweaks of a complex system involving circumstances, unforeseen complications, the hero’s own shortcomings, and the emotions of others. “Stay in the house.” Of course she doesn’t. “Don’t forget your phone.” They always do. “Wait for back-up…” Oh, aren't we're just itching for the plans to gang agley?

In a gamebook, having to roll dice when you try to leap the chasm is one way to inject some unpredictability. Better is when you leap and fall onto another ledge. A new route – but is it more dangerous than the one before? Or you tell a character to do something and they argue. Maybe they do a little of what you asked, but don’t stick to the whole plan. How frustrating. And entertaining.

What would be terrible design in an interface is good policy if you’re writing interactive stories. Each time I curse Firefox, a part of me thinks of trying to persuade Victor Frankenstein to be more careful, or of arguing in the snow with Kyle Boche. Lack of complete control is what allows stories, improvisation and interactive fiction to exert such a hold over us. Where will it lead? We don’t know yet. The only certainty is that it’ll be fascinating.


  1. Some gamebooks I've played have predictable outcomes of the options I have to pick, and a gamebook can get boring if it has predictable outcomes, I play gamebooks because I really enjoy having the oppurtunity to actually go on a great adventure, make my own decisions unlike normal books, and I especially like the Fabled Lands books because they are free roam, which gives me a world I can explore in whichever way I would like to, it has totally unpredictable outcomes, very creative places, and I can can spend loads of time on just one of them, so thank you for such a great series.

  2. Someone just recently posted a review for the FL series here

    1. It's nice to see the series getting reviewed. My only quibble is that RPGGeek include "The Art of Fabled Lands" as one of the FL books, which it isn't, and its review score of 0 has dragged the series average rating down by a full point :-(

  3. I ordered 3 more Fabled Lands books a couple weeks ago and they weren't in stock so I paid for shipping. And now two weeks later two of the FL books I ordered are now In stock! I paid almost $12 in shipping!

    1. Sorry to hear that, Alex. As the books are set up for print on demand, they are never actually "in stock", as the copy is orinted when ordered. Amazon make a point of listing titles that are set up with rival POD company Lightning Source as out of stock. That applies to FL books 1-4. But books that are set up with Amazon's own POD company, Createspace, are listed as in stock - and that applies to books 5 and 6.

      In short, regardless of what it says on Amazon, you don't need to pay extra for any of the FL books. As soon as you order a copy, it will be printed and shipped to you.

  4. Efrem Orizzonte26 January 2014 13:10

    Fun fact: in this year's gamebook writing contest on Librogame's Land ( - Italian only, unfortunately), we judges decided to ban any form of randomly-generated events. No dice rolls, no random number tables, no coin flipping, or anything of the sort. Will be interesting to see what the authors will come up with to maintain uncertainty, while not being able to rely on lucky rolls to conveniently determine the outcome of events and player actions.

  5. What an interesting topic. I do wonder time to time why I'm so enthralled with the idea of game books. Allowing me to expand on my childhood born fascination for stories, no doubt is one reason. The creation of worlds, and stories, with all the emotions that may come with, through text, I find has a satisfying aspect about it that's not achieved with video. Then to combine choices, various paths and outcomes, the thrill of the dice, brings it all to another level of immersion. Now I don't know any other simple mechanism that can give you the same sort of adrenaline rush that dice produce in me, I think they must go back a long way in human history, but at any rate, I've found them a major contributor to my enjoyment. And yes, I agree so very much, you need a strong challenge, a feeling that you don't have complete control over your characters fate, to keep your adrenal glands firing, to keep the book alive.