We've talked about it before, the elephant in the room of gamebooks. Text is what I mean. Prose. Words words words. The "book part" of this strange hybrid medium that squeezed its way into existence at a time when people had got a thirst for interactivity but games still took twenty minutes to load up off a cassette tape.
Earlier posts have thrown the elephant a bun or two. We considered the problem that text gets in the way of interaction. In which case, do gamebooks even need text at all? And if we have to have text, how do we make people want to read it?
Jon Ingold of Inkle was discussing these points at GDC. You can see the talk here. It turns out he never liked what I did with Inkle's engine, namely my interactive reimagining of Frankenstein. Ouch. Turns out he also doesn't care for Crime and Punishment, though, which takes the edge off.
I got the same vibe from the editors at Profile Books (the actual publishers of Frankenstein, though you would hardly guess it). They loved Telltale's Walking Dead - and quite right too. Why couldn't I have given them that instead of 150,000 words of text? But, publishers, here's a tip: if you want videogame production values, you can't pay the typical minimum-wage advances to authors and expect them to return a few months later with a nifty 3D interactive movie.
All right, I'm being disingenuous there. These days you don't have to spend north of five million dollars to make a decent-looking game. Indie development has brought the focus off Uncanny Valley emulation of blockbuster movies and back onto gameplay, panache and style. Apotheon, say, or This War of Mine. This might be your Golden Age, gamers; make the most of it.
People think a writer's job is moving words about, but that's the first fix. In the very beginning, as you're laying the foundations and erecting the scaffolding of the story, what's churning around inside your skull is a flood of images, character traits, emotions. The shape starts to reveal itself in snatches of dialogue, mood, key events. When you're ready, when it's fully marinated, that's when you put it down in words. If your medium is the novel, it will all be rendered into words eventually - but even that is only a program, a code that will run in the reader's brain so that they can construct their own experience of your story. It's those cassette tapes all over again.
For writers working on a movie, or designers on a game, that process of communicating the final experience is far clearer. You know right from the get-go that all that documentation you're writing is not the thing itself, it's the blueprint that will be used to make the thing. It differs from a novel only in that the reader of a novel has to do for themselves, and in their imagination, all the work of the development team.
If gamebooks have a future, we can surely agree it will be in digital form. No one disputes that the medium is evolving and that its boundary with videogames is getting so blurred as to be meaningless. Is Sorcery a gamebook? With each instalment the prose fades further into the background. In a game like This War of Mine we don't even talk about a "text component"; the text is just one more way of presenting the game world to the player. So it must become with gamebooks. The writer must think in terms of all the media (text, audio, images) and mix them as the story and the budget allow.
I've recently been discussing a new interactive story app called The Frankenstein Wars with Jaume Carballo, content director of Cubus Games, and Paul Gresty, who will be writing it. Referring to how an all-new interactive story needs to be conceived right from the outset so as to make full use of all component media, Jaume said:
"Keep in mind that we have to write the text over a structure comprising interactive maps, plans, images and so on. We're not doing an adaptation of a '90s gamebook, we're creating an interactive story app, so the team must work together. We don't want to end up with tons of text written thinking just in the story and not in the mechanics."With that, I'd say he bagged the elephant. And just before it could go into musth. Phew.