Friday, 12 December 2014
An open world built of words
The Fabled Lands were created over whiskies, like a lot of the things Jamie and I worked on back in the mists of the late twentieth century. (Less whisky, maybe less misty – who knows.)
It wasn’t done with the books in mind, not to start with. Jamie had a fantasy radio serial that he needed to write for the BBC, and the first step was designing a world. Tolkien had years to noodle around with Middle-earth, of course, but the BBC operate on less leisurely principles. Hence the whisky bottle and the midnight oil.
‘What’s a good name for the unknown lands across the sea?’ said Jamie. ‘Inconnu,’ I said, and so we got the continent of Ankon-Konu. There might have even been a circumflex accent on it in those days. You know, the exotic touch. Akatsurai was named after a bottle of saki I had sitting on a shelf. And the Violet Ocean because they can’t all be “wine dark”, and honestly, would you drink that plonk anyway?
That was months before we went in to see Mary Tapissier at Pan Macmillan. We pitched the idea of a big, open-ended gamebook series, something that reflected our own role-playing tastes where the players’ goals drive the story. Mary ran the show at Macmillan Children’s and she loved it. Having the land of Harkuna (it was probably Hârku’una in the radio play) to pull off the shelf meant we could get cracking straight away.
Eric Goldberg’s boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights (reviewed here on Stargazer's World, whence comes the accompanying pic) was probably the biggest influence on the writing style. We couldn’t afford to be decompressed, wasting hundreds of words on long conversations or scene-setting. So our first pass on the books was to tear through the world giving just one or two sentences to each location. “The rolling fields of the west stretch off to the sun, and by night the only sound is of the crickets in the long grass.” That sort of thing.
And we’d lay out the random encounters without any thought yet as to what they’d be: “A cantankerous merchant. A trio of lost maidens. A piercing sound in the darkness.” I’d get Jamie’s and he’d get mine – challenges to each other to get creative. As I refereed a largely improvised role-playing game once or twice a week in those days, the Muse was always nearby ready to lend a hand.
They were a success, those six gamebooks, even though the craze was dying out. We caught the readers who had started out on the dungeon-bashing gamebooks of the 1980s and were now ready to move on. The trouble was the production costs. For not much more than the price of a regular paperback, we had these large-format books with fold-out map covers and lots of artwork. Strong sales didn’t save us. Halfway through, the series was cancelled.
It wasn’t a guillotine blow, more a wasting illness. Marion Lloyd, the editor at Macmillan, came up with a plan to repackage Fabled Lands in smaller format. Bigger margins, with those sales figures, would have let us continue. But publishing by then was all politics, and not enough support could be drummed up at the courts of Uttaku – in other words, the publisher’s Fulham offices. And I can’t blame them. Adventure games and CRPGs were stealing the gamebook thunder. After Lords of the Rising Sun, darkness fell.
Still, Fabled Lands is not unfinished in the way that a TV series like Cupid or Awake or Deadwood is unfinished, canned before its story could be told. In Fabled Lands there is no story – or rather, a hundred story threads from which the player gets to weave the narrative they choose. You bring the motivation, we’ll give you the plot seeds. If we had gone on to twelve books, readers would have got twice as many adventures. But as it is there are almost 4400 sections. That’s equivalent to eleven ordinary gamebooks. Plenty to get on with.
Videogames did sweep away the demand for gamebooks, but twenty years is long enough for an industry to turn right around. The resurgence of vinyl shows that music buyers value a physical artefact considerably more than they do the content itself. And gamebook collectors are rushing to invest in deluxe print editions offered on Kickstarter. So maybe, just maybe, crowdfunding of print books will be the key to resurrecting the Fabled Lands. However, as I've argued before, the only way to make that work is if it goes hand in hand with a digital version.
In the meantime, text-based open worlds are enjoying a resurgence - and why not? It's the only medium that at reasonable cost allows the polymorphously rich and diverse variety of storylines that interactive fiction needs. So if you've been hankering for more Fabled Lands all these years, why not dip into Meg Jayanath's marvellous Indian dream-tapestry Samsara, Gordon Levine's wild western Zero Summer, Yoon Ha Lee's icy apocalyptic SF saga Winterstrike, Alex Livingston's cyberfaerie science fantasy The Annwn Simulation 1985, or the source from which those all flow, Failbetter's massive and brilliant Fallen London? Or, if none of those tickle your fancy, how about Meg Jayanth's project with the fellows at Inkle: the steampunk reworking of Jules Verne's 80 Days. With over 4000 sections and nearly 500,000 words, 80 Days is as big as the existing Fabled Lands series with the evolutionary adventage that, being an app, it can adapt the pace and the quests to fit what you're doing. That's real interactivity, that is.