Recently I was looking at the manifesto of e-gamebook publisher Mifiction, who have an interesting new take on the whole idea of interactive stories. It’s similar to a direction Jamie and I were discussing a couple of years back, before we got distracted by videogames and comics respectively. Now we have some free time to return to that project, and I’d be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts.
First, a quick recap of where we used to be. Traditionally, as you know, gamebooks comprise interactive narratives built in sections that fit a branching structure. Each reader navigates his or her own preferred path through the narrative, typically by choosing from a list of options and turning to the corresponding number for that option:
Speak to the man - turn to 27Too wide a decision tree and you’ve got very short adventures. Too narrow a tree and the reader’s choices feel constrained. A good interactive novel should provide a different but still satisfying story if you go back and make significantly different choices. As a rule of thumb, Jamie and I always used to figure there should be a minimum of three distinct routes through the narrative, with multiple interweaving strands on each route.
Call the militia to arrest him - turn to 120
Ignore him and continue on your way - turn to 206
Of course, I’m talking about the traditional “one story” kind of gamebook here. Lord Daark Muder has kidnapped your sister and you’re going to get her back, yada yada. What we were trying to do with Fabled Lands was a whole other thing – more like an open-structured role-playing campaign than a gamebook. In Fabled Lands, you really do get to “choose your own adventure”.
When we look at the future of prose fiction – a largely electronic future, perhaps – it seems that a lot of readers could potentially enjoy gamebooks. In fact let’s use the broader term interactive fiction here, not gamebooks, because it’s likely that what has stopped the medium from getting a wider readership has been those intricate game-based rules.
Most people are interested in characters and stories, and they are intrigued by the consequences of decisions. But most people have zero interest in rules, numbers, inventories, and other fiddly details. Personally as a writer, I’ve always been more interested in the “book” and less in the “game”. So I’m very keen to find ways to jettison dice altogether when adapting our material to e-readers. I’d certainly count it a failure if you are tapping on your iPhone screen to roll some virtual dice.
Okay, but that’s our old content. That was then. Now we’re starting to think about what we might work on next, an interactive novel that can and should be something completely new in the genre. To do that, we’d change the point of view and the narrative style and throw out the whole idea of game mechanics. Like so…
Point of View
As far as I’m aware, pretty much all interactive fiction has cast the reader as the protagonist:
Your suitors come to you with three caskets. By choosing a casket, you thereby designate the one you will marry. Will it be:So that specifically locates the reader in the narrative. A direct analogy is the first-person narrator in a conventional novel. Contrast with a narrative in which the reader has an authorial role:
The lead casket? Turn to 77
The silver casket? Turn to 101
The gold casket? Turn to 290
Entering the village, Ketzel paused to consider two buildings dominating the main street. One was a squat low-roofed dwelling set on study black timbers. A man stood on the porch sweeping idly at the grey dust that had blown in off the plains. To the other side of the street: a tavern with three chimneys of extraordinary height. The glaring, red-whiskered man at the door was evidently the proprietor.Narrative style
Before Ketzel could even begin to consider his next course, something happened that would force him to change all his plans.
A dust-storm? Turn to 82
A duel? Turn to 109
The reappearance of an old foe? Turn to 260
Interactive fiction has always been based around a single protagonist, for the simple reason that a second-person narrative leaves no alternative. The result is a pretty straitjacketed type of genre narrative. If the hero is Conan, a certain kind of adventure is likely. If Sam Spade, another. But it’s all genre; you’re never going to get Crime and Punishment, much less The Great Gatsby.
And, of course, the “you-are-the-hero” form requires the writer to abandon all his most powerful storytelling tricks. There’s no cross-cutting to increase tension, because you only have the one viewpoint. Likewise, no dramatic irony. You can surprise the reader, but it’s hard to use most of the tricks of suspense that rely on the reader knowing something the character doesn’t.
Look at a novel like War & Peace that interweaves the lives of many characters. There is a sense of a real living world inhabited by many different characters - all with their own histories, hopes, projects and fates. A bigger and more involving story is possible than you could ever get with: “…as you crest the hill you catch sight of the French army.”
Jettison the second-person view, and interactive fiction too can start to tell those kinds of stories.
Most interactive fiction in the past has been driven by dice-based game mechanics because the genre had its roots in fantasy role playing. However, the game aspect can be off-putting to many readers. As I said before, most people prefer their fiction without the accompaniment of dice, and prefer not to have to keep notes as they read.
The Virtual Reality series in the early 1990s showed that it is perfectly possible to construct an interactive novel without resorting to dice. In our next interactive novel, we’re going to dispense with rules-based gameplay altogether. The setting and story premise will be enthralling in its own right. The pleasure of exploring it via multiple narratives would only be lessened by intrusive game mechanics.
Durkesh pulls out the tube of blue concentrate. Does he have a +3 magic vial? If so, reduce its magic bonus by one on the adventure sheet and then turn to 44. If not, turn to 303.But how about:
Andrew raises the pistol, which startles him with the noise of its bang. A cloud of pungent smoke fills the space between them. The troops fall back as their officer staggers, clutching at the blood welling from his white waistcoat. In the confusion, Andrew makes his escape into the woods, running until he hears no sound of pursuit. What does he encounter there: an angry hermit (turn to 175), a girl of some beauty (turn to 260), or an abandoned chapel (turn to 304)?Summing up: we’re talking about an interactive novel in which the reader participates as author, not protagonist, to determine what befalls a cast of characters in a rich storyline. Would it work? Only one way to find out…