Remember Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories? It was a gamebook by Paul Gresty, published a couple of years ago by by Megara Entertainment using funds raised on Kickstarter. Well, now it's returning as an app, which is currently in review at Apple and should be on sale within a week for iOS, with an Android version not far behind. I'll run a guest post by Paul Gresty when the app actually launches, but to warm things up here's my foreword from the 2013 print edition.
(Where I got it wrong: gamebooks on Kickstarter are mostly not innovating; they look more '80s than the '80s! But in the digital space there is real innovation in the form of projects like 80 Days from Inkle/Meg Jayanth and Frankenstein by - modest cough - me. So quality gamebooks like The Thief of Memories do have a future, only it'll be as apps rather than expensive KS hardbacks.)
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It's generally thought that the boom time for gamebooks was the 1980s. Back then, every publisher wanted at least one gamebook series and it was hard for the small pool of authors willing to wrangle with flowcharts and rules systems to keep up with demand. But who could have imagined that, thirty years on, a first-time gamebook writer would raise the staggering sum of $130,000 – and not as advance against royalties, as publishers pay for new work, but in the form of pure patronage? For that is Kickstarter, today’s answer to François I.
The genius of Mikael Louys, founder of Megara Entertainment, has been in seeing that crowdfunding could point the way to an entirely new funding paradigm for specialist interest publications. Role-playing games and gamebooks, which would have struggled to find a market on the shelves of a bookstore, at one stroke become a very viable proposition when backed by a devoted core of aficionados.
Of course, there is rarely a new thing even in the third millennium, and Kickstarter book ventures in fact represent a return to the 18th century model of publishing whereby a subscription would be raised to pay for the writing and printing of a new work. So gamebooks may have left their ‘80s heyday behind, but reports of their extinction have been wildly exaggerated. Instead they could, alongside other hobby and genre interests, spearhead a whole new evolution in publishing.
It’s not just the financial side of gamebook publishing that’s changing. We are starting to see innovations in content too. Back in the 1980s, it was hard to convince publishers to try anything new because the standard Dungeons-and-Dragons-influenced fantasy gamebooks were selling so well. Now, that whole genre of gaming has been claimed by videogames, which will win hands down when it comes to dungeon crawls and monster bashing. Gamebooks have to get smarter. They have to evolve into new genres and styles. They must thrive by identifying the things they can do better than videogames. More complex characterization. A greater variety of situations. Deeper exploration of themes. That level of moral and emotional richness that prose can do better than any other medium.
Arcana Agency is just one such work and it can only do so much. But I’m interested in the mold-breaking aspects that Paul Gresty is trying out here. The usual second-person, present tense that has been the standard register of gamebooks since Steve Jackson’s Death Test has gone, throwing us into a medium that feels grown-up, intriguing, and full of properly differentiated characters. I’m not even sure that I’d use the label ‘gamebook’ anymore. That seems to imply something to read on the bus home from school, something to fit in after homework. Mr Gresty is writing interactive literature here, making full use of the medium at his disposal to provoke, stimulate and challenge the reader in interesting ways, and I’m sure we’ll look back on Arcana Agency as a pioneer of a whole new phase in the ongoing evolution of the interactive novel.