Some gamebook news today, and here's one that ought to be of interest to Fabled Lands readers. Apart from the Steam Highwayman series (excellent and highly recommended btw) there haven't been a lot of open world gamebooks, in the sense of giving complete freedom to travel where you want, go back and forth without limit, and pick up whichever quests appeal to your character. But here's a new one called Alba with a post-apocalyptic setting, and it must be doing something right because in fund-raising terms it has far surpassed other print gamebooks (open world or linear) of recent times.
I haven't seen the book myself, but from the Kickstarter page it looks like it has a lot of legacy game elements such as stickers that mark items or locations on the map. (And to think players used to grumble about having to tick boxes in Fabled Lands books back in the day.)
The writing style is of higher quality than the purple prose of yore, and it looks as if the blocks of prose between choices are longer, making this more of a weighty novelistic experience than a CRPG in book form. Think Telltale Games' The Walking Dead rather than The Witcher. Here's the author, Harley L Truslove, talking about the books.
One obvious difference from old-style gamebooks is that in Alba your character can't die. That's a gripe about FL that we still hear. Somebody on Facebook recently was disgruntled because the skeleton pirates in Over the Blood-Dark Sea had carted them off to a life of undeadtured (sic) servitude with no hope of resurrection:
It used to be that whatever happened to you was part of the story, even when that story ended in tragedy and/or horror. But those were times when PCs in roleplaying games might get killed at the drop of a bascinet, and when we could reasonably expect Bucky to stay dead. We're in different times now, and Jamie and I have taken that on board with our new Vulcanverse gamebooks, which should eventually consist of around a 4000-section adventure in which you cannot die permanently, not even if the Furies and Nemesis team up against you. The worst you'll suffer is being sent to the naughty corner (aka Tartarus) for a brief spell.
I'm being facetious, but the Don't Kill Me players are right. A single-story game (Heart of Ice, say) shouldn't require trying-&-dying till you find an optimum path through. Every time the PC snuffs it in a book like that it's a failure on the writer's part. And even in an open-world gamebook, where death might be the appropriate ending for a given character's story, it can't just be random and unavoidable. Good god, that would be too much like real life.
But it's not just the legacy features and the immunity from death that have propelled Alba to unprecedented success for a print gamebook. The main difference is that it's not the usual hokey old '80s-era D&D kind of fantasy, but instead a vivid, gritty and character-driven narrative in a setting that feels contemporary. (The excerpt is quite well-hidden on the Kickstarter page, but you can download it here.) If Alba was a TV show it'd be a talked-about cable drama, whereas most gamebooks would be a cheaply-animated Saturday morning cartoon that you dimly remembered from your childhood.
In the '80s heyday of CYOA and Fighting Fantasy, gamebooks were hugely successful. Pretty much every series was guaranteed to sell in the tens of thousands per territory. Gamebooks could still matter to a sizeable readership if they moved on from their origin as kids’ books. Interactive stories like The Walking Dead can deal with whether you’ll commit murder to save a friend. Firewatch can tackle loneliness and hope. In games from Assassin's Creed to Bioshock the player is confronted with real feelings and choices more intense than any movie.
And meanwhile gamebooks* are mostly still about which key opens which chest or which item will defeat the Big Bad. Who cares? Crosswords and sudoku already have the puzzle market covered**. It's time for gamebooks to grow up the way that computer games have. That's what makes Alba exceptional. It's about an emotional journey, as all the best stories are. Only connect, that's the way forward.