Gamebook store

Saturday 31 March 2012

Frankenstein book trailer

It's gone live! The
Frankenstein trailer, beautifully put together by awesome design/code maestros Inkle Studios, is now on YouTube. And in less than a month you can buy the book itself - for iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. If you think you know "gamebooks", think again, 'cause this is a whole new species.

Friday 30 March 2012

Gamebooks on The World at One

The BBC had a short (very short) feature on gamebooks on their World at One radio show yesterday, ostensibly to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the genre - though really they should have done that in 2004. If you're in the UK you can listen to it here for the next 7 days. Zip right on through to the last 5 minutes if you don't want the discussion on oil prices.

It's as completely flippant, patronizing and inconsequential as you'd expect of BBC coverage of a topic like this, but at least you get to hear Ian Livingstone gamely going along with it with a finely judged tone of Mancunian irony. What I liked was when the interviewer asked, "Will we ever see a literary gamebook?" A very timely question, answered here.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Something creepy in Crawley

Here's a page from the Catalan edition of Dark Lord: The Early Years (as it is to be titled in the USA). Jamie arrived at my house the other day bearing wine, chocolate and various foreign editions of the book. (There was a Spanish one as well, but you don't get to see Catalan every day.) So we drank the wine, ate the chocolate, and now I'm discovering how much fun it is to teach yourself a new language by reading a translation of something you're very familiar with.

Jamie will be at Adelio’s in Crawley, West Sussex, this weekend (Saturday, March 31) talking about fantasy writing, Frankenstein, Fabled Lands and, of course, Dirk Lloyd. You can get tickets here or at the door. Adelio's is at 12 Brighton Road, Southgate, Crawley RH10 6AA.

Monday 26 March 2012

And then two come along at once...

Somebody at Gollancz must be a real gamebook buff, as they've put up this Fighting Fantasy style marketing piece on their blog. It's to mark the launch of the Destiny Quest book The Legion of Shadow, which (to give you the quick, non-interactive version) is being published as a hardback in May - although this product page says it's a paperback. Hmm. Hardback or paperback? I'm pretty sure the blog entry must be right...

What with that and Ian Livingstone's new FF book, Blood of the Zombies, which is due out in August (certainly in paperback, and maybe on a bunch of digital platforms too), old school gamebook fans will have a bumper year.

Friday 23 March 2012

Have a little (poetic) faith

Nobody any longer reads poetry, apparently, so it is now relegated to the role of design feature to make a book look swish. Actually I quite like poetry myself, but that hasn’t stopped me doing my own little act of Philistine vandalism (if that’s not mixing cultures) by plundering some fragments to serve as chapter headings in my interactive retelling of Frankenstein.

If I write out the list of poems I drew on, you can tell the criminal brain of the bunch right away:
  • Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Dryden et al (1717)
  • Auguries of Innocence by William Blake (1803, published 1863)
  • Despair by Shelley (early 1800s?)
  • Mont Blanc by Shelley (1817)
  • Fear in Solitude by Coleridge (1798)
  • Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Byron (1812-1818)
Five of those could have been read by Mary Shelley during her stay at the Villa Diodati, where the original Frankenstein novella was written. It’s highly likely she did read three of them there, at least, seeing as both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were present too. Coleridge and Dryden she would have read as a child. And then… there’s that Blake snippet:
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
It’s the one that begins, “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” You see, you did know it already. Quite a modern poem, when you put it alongside the Byron and Shelley, and I think it unlikely that Mary Shelley ever read it, even though Blake knew her mother, having illustrated her book Original Stories from Real Life. It’s a small world, especially if you’re an 18th century London intellectual.

So what if the Muse inconsiderately didn’t introduce those two lines into the domain of artistic culture till a half-century after Frankenstein was published? They seem so perfect as a description as the monster’s fate, and at the same time expressive of the whole idea of fateful choices in an interactive novel, that nothing else would do to open the second part of the book (my version, that is) which tells the monster’s story. Even the original novel is sprinkled with quotations from recent poems by Percy Shelley – contemporary works when Mary wrote the book, no more egregious than lines from Pete Doherty appearing in a videogame. Yet, of course, they could not be there, because the ostensible author is Victor Frankenstein, who died in 1798 or ’99. Since he probably didn’t find a bookshop selling Coleridge’s works near the North Pole, the only one of my choices he could conceivably have been able to quote is the Ovid. And Victor would probably have known it better in the original Latin, the language he falls back on (again, in my version of the novel) when he needs to have a conversation with a doctor in Athens.

Emerson warns us about foolish consistencies. I haven’t had Victor and his friends speak like characters in a Regency novel – mainly because people in the early 1800s didn’t talk that way either, but also with the excuse that it’s mostly a translation from French anyway. You won’t see any wristwatches. The current affairs that occupy their interest are those of the 1790s. The poems, though - those we must see as outside the framework of Victor’s narrative, just like the illustrations and the iOS code in which the app is compiled.

Now, if you really want to take me to task for wilful anachronism, how about Victor’s conversation with an Oxford chemistry professor about the effect of ethyl methanesulphonate on human tissue cultures? Over to you, Dr Tyrell.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

A lich you can't scratch

The Keep of the Lich Lord returned from the dead this week as another visually arresting app from Megara Entertainment. If you're a Fighting Fantasy fan, you may remember this book as my and Jamie's contribution to the classic UK gamebook series.

The Megara version comes with new art and new text - I know, because (see below) I never put "a" Cerberus in anything! So, even if you played the original book, it's obviously worth picking up the app for all the new material. I'm told there are over a hundred illustrations, all in full colour. All Megara's excellent work paid off and the app shot up into the charts in both the UK and USA. Oh, and you might like to know that, as an added bonus, Megara has relocated the action from FF's world of Alan to our own Fabled Lands universe!

The Lich Lord app is for iPad and iPhone only, but we're aiming to change that with our future gamebook releases, which will ideally be available on as many platforms as possible: Android, Kindle, Windows, iOS and whatever else we can manage. Big plans. I'll tell you when I know more.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Professor M A R Barker

The highlight of my college role-playing sessions was Sunday afternoon at Jesus, eight or nine of us crammed into a tiny seminar room. Whenever I popped next door into the big room where a couple of dozen Dungeons & Dragons players used to gather, I’d find them advancing down a corridor menaced by vile jellies and arguing about how many lanterns were packed on their mule. “Petal Throne?” sneered the gnome-faced dungeon master. “That’s that game with the unpronounceable names.”

Certainly it didn’t seem like role-playing was a broad enough term to cover what was going on in both those rooms. We’d be enmeshed in court intrigues, escorting imperial princes, doing dirty work for our clan elders, or searching for the ten keys that would free Lord Ksarul, the Doomed Prince of the Blue Room. Mention “the hideous owl-bear” to us and we’d just think you were talking about a disagreeable French waiter.

Empire of the Petal Throne was a role-playing game based on early D&D rules and very lavishly published by TSR in the mid-‘70s. I was never the slightest bit interested in the orcs-n-all universe of D&D, but if Gary Gygax was known for nothing but his championing of EPT then he would deserve a flame to be kept burning in eternal honour of his memory.

EPT was written by Professor M A R (“Phil”) Barker. He spent his whole life creating the world of Tekumel, where the game is set. It helped that Barker was at least as accomplished a scholar as that other great professorial sub-creator, Tolkien. His deep knowledge of anthropology and linguistics means that Tekumel is a thoroughly convincing world. But it’s not just the academic foundation that makes Tekumel great. Barker was also a creative genius on a par with Jack Vance, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard. He populated his world, not with the usual gamut of goblins and zombies, but with entirely original creatures. You think Avatar defined a sense of wonder? Until you’ve visited Tekumel you have no idea.

That college Empire of the Petal Throne group of mine included Mark Smith and Oliver Johnson, as well as Robert Dale, Dragon Warriors contributor, and Steve Foster, designer of Mortal Combat and the old Spectrum game Eureka. In the vacations, and after we came back down into the mundane world, Jamie Thomson joined in too, and John Whitbourn, author of A Dangerous Energy, and later Paul Mason, of Fighting Fantasy fame, and Tim Harford. Not much of Tekumel made its way into our work, though; we all respect Professor Barker’s creation too much to swipe from it piecemeal. The book of mine that most nearly conveys the flavour is probably Necklace of Skulls; and of Jamie’s, The Court of Hidden Faces. But those are pale reflections of the original.

As I write this, I have beside me a stack of letters that Professor Barker wrote me throughout the ‘80s. I used to pester him with questions about Tekumel and he would kindly reply in great detail. Once I sent him a problem that had arisen in our campaign – a complicated dispute between two clan-cousins over the sale of a (very rare) steel sword. He convened a court of his own players and returned a five-page ruling of the Appellate Court of the Palace of the Realm of the Glorious and Ever-living God King. I cherish the note attached:
“The depositions and your letter were handed around the table; people made notes, disputed, wrangled and made learned speeches. What surprised me was the that the players did so well at it, really role-playing their cultural perspectives to the hilt and trying to turn themselves into Tsolyani jurists, with all that that entails. Modern Americans playing at being judges in an utterly foreign culture – fascinating! I cannot recall when our group has had this much fun! We are all beholden to you people for including us in your game in this very enjoyable way.”
Another of our group, David Bailey, CEO of Black Cactus Games, made a Hrugga-like effort to get a Tekumel MMO off the ground about eight years ago. It seems amazing that US studio executives would finance British epics like Lord of the Rings and Narnia, but not the greatest work of fantasy ever – and that by a home-grown American genius. As they say: go figure.

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (MAR) Barker, known to his friends as “Phil”, died on March 16, 2012, aged 83.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Why Prometheus?

Why, you may ask, “the modern Prometheus”? Prometheus gave fire to mankind, of course, but I think that’s not what was uppermost in Mary Shelley’s mind. As well as Prometheus Pyrphoros, Ovid tells us, there is Prometheus Plasticator: the creator of (male) humankind. It’s a Roman revision of the myth, but one that makes sense as it provides him with a personal motive for siding with Man against the gods. So it sharpens the story and deepens character too. I guess that makes Ovid the Russell T Davies of his day.

It was left to Hephaestus to create woman (the infamous Pandora, designed by Zeus as a punishment for mankind) and a little echo of that myth too survives in Frankenstein, though the female creature has not been well treated in any of the versions of the story. In the original novel she never even gets to be animated:
…on looking up, I saw, by the light of the moon, the dæmon at the casement. A ghastly grin wrinkled his lips as he gazed on me, where I sat fulfilling the task which he had allotted to me. Yes, he had followed me in my travels; he had loitered in forests, hid himself in caves, or taken refuge in wide and desert heaths; and he now came to mark my progress, and claim the fulfillment of my promise.

As I looked on him, his countenance expressed the utmost extent of malice and treachery. I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise to create another like him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and, with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew.
In the 1935 movie, she rises from the slab and enjoys a very brief bad hair day before the spurned monster blows up Frankenstein’s castle with them both inside it: “You stay. We belong dead.” (Oh yeah, in the movies the poor chap talks like the Hulk or Simple Jack. No erudite references to Paradise Lost for him there.) And in the recent stage adaptation (pictured) by Nick Dear, she comes to life but then Victor Frankenstein kills her out of spite when he realizes he will never be able to appreciate the sublime sentiments of love that his creation, noble savage that he is, is able to express.

And in my new interactive version? There, as you’d expect, the creation of the female monster is a major part of the plot, and there are several ways it can play out. But if you think I’m going to discuss them here… I’m tempted, but it’d take a dozen blog posts. You’ll have to buy the book to find out.

Friday 9 March 2012

Are you trying to make a monster?

Outside the games industry, interactivity is often met with fascination and fear, and it’s never long before somebody asks, “Will the reader be able to choose the ending?”

Would you want to? A good story is meant to surprise and delight. If you could bring yourself to pause the action just before Holmes grapples Moriarty, and decide who will go off the ledge, you can’t have been that enthralled. And how would that kind of interactivity enhance your enjoyment anyway? If complete control of the plot is what you’re looking for, the solution is simple: become a writer.

Instead of choosing the ending, then, maybe good interactivity should allow you to influence the ending. There’s something to be said for that. Literary academics are fond of psychoanalysing characters, and it’s a small step from there to giving them advice. “Hamlet, get off your arse, mate.” Of course, characters in a story – just like your friends – don’t have to take your advice. Or how about this: they could misapply your advice and then blame you. Now it’s getting interesting.

The kids’ gamebooks of thirty-odd years ago all followed the obvious model of an omniscient narrator presenting you, in the role of protagonist, with limited information: “Here are three caskets, of lead, silver and gold.” Characterization of the main character is difficult because hearing your avatar talk about things that you as reader know nothing about can really mess with suspension of disbelief. The interactivity inevitably reduces to problem-solving. And I like problem-solving, but it’s not really what’s interesting about fiction.

A more fruitful kind of interactivity is to have a first person narrator with whom the reader can have a dialogue. You’re his Hopkirk, his Harvey, his Tyler Durden. That’s the approach I’ve taken with Frankenstein. In five of the book’s six parts, you are the voice of Victor Frankenstein’s conscience – or ambition, or reason, as you prefer. The effect is very different from a game. It’s like reading the novel. But where, in the original, Victor’s self-pitying introspection can become wearying, here you have the opportunity to challenge him. In striking up a dialogue – a relationship, in fact – you become more invested in his fate. You’re not solving the problems of the plot so much as exploring the crannies of character.

For that reason, perhaps, Michael Bhaskar, my editor at Profile Books, was kind enough to say he thinks it’s a better read than Mary Shelley’s original. I certainly feel it’s a worthwhile experiment, and it opens up other rewarding forms of interactive fiction that are a far cry from, “You see a bloodthirsty ogre at the end of the passage.”

I don’t think this is the future of books, though. The novel as a form does not require fixing. Never, when reading War and Peace, did I wish I could break out of the story to call up a map of a battlefield or research 19th century Russian etiquette. Sometimes I might grudgingly refer to the notes at the back, resenting the interruption of the narrative flow even as I did. If it’s a good novel, I don’t want it to have pictures or sound effects or 3D. It doesn’t need them. A great story holds you spellbound in the world of your imagination. Or rather, and better, in the fusion of your imagination with the author’s.

Which is, when you think about it, a truly rewarding form of interactivity. And it’s been there all along.
Frankenstein is coded for iPad and iPhone by inkle and will be published by Profile Books in April.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Frankenstein - bringing a classic out of the attic

I’ve just written my first gamebook in sixteen years, the interactive version of Frankenstein that will be published for iPad and iPhone by Profile Books in April. Maybe it would be more accurate to say it’s my first “gamebook-like” work for sixteen years. Why so coy? Because, if we use a word like game too freely, it becomes meaningless, and then what can we say about games? By one definition:
“A game is a problem to be solved.”
But not always the other way round, obviously, otherwise a sudoku or crossword puzzle is a game. Now, Raph Koster might be happy with that, as he says:
“Games are puzzles.”
But, you know, love is a puzzle. A story is a problem to be solved (if you listen to Hollywood screenwriting gurus, anyway). What use are those definitions? Sid Meier says:
“A game is a series of interesting choices.”
Which I like, but it essentially requires that you understand what gameplay is before you experience that smile of recognition at his definition. The barer truth, of course, is that a game is anything that’s marketed as a game. But then that raises problematic expectations. If I were to review Dear Esther and rate it as having little or no actual gameplay, wouldn’t I be missing the whole point?

And then there’s replayability. A true game is almost endlessly replayable, precisely because those choices are interesting – that is, there’s never one right decision. But, much as I enjoyed Dungeon Siege or Assassin’s Creed, I’m never going to replay them. On the other hand, I will happily re-read a great novel or watch again one of my favourite movies, and they’re not games at all.

You can probably see why I chose to be a creator, not a critic.

Getting back to the monster in this particular lab, Frankenstein is certainly structured like a gamebook. It’s 155,000 words long (by comparison, a typical Fighting Fantasy gamebook is 60,000 words; Choose Your Own Adventure rather shorter) and at a rough count it’s got about 1200 sections. A monster by anybody’s standards.

I have been asked if it has multiple endings. In fact there are several, as subtly different as the question of whether Clarence lives or dies at the end of True Romance, or whether Deckard gets to drive around in Shining woodland with Rachael, his replicant love. The ending question, though, to my mind misses the point just as much as do considerations of gameplay or replay(re-read?)ability. Every choice is an interaction with the main characters. It affects your relationship with them. Where a novel ends is a tiny part of the whole experience. People enjoyed the meaningful multiple endings of Heart of Ice, but those work because of the route you take to get there. It’s the same with Frankenstein.

Do you get to play the monster? Not really, but yes, is the best answer I can give to that. Do you get to play Victor Frankenstein? No, but you will get to know him. Imagine your best friend is going through a crisis. (Hopefully unrelated to having created a potentially homicidal new lifeform – but this blog has a lot of readers, so you never know.) Your friend asks you for advice. He may or may not trust you enough to confess certain things to you. Would you call that a puzzle, or problem-solving? Or even a game? Yet it is undeniably interaction.

That type of interaction, in the Frankenstein book, will engage you emotionally, intellectually, politically, aesthetically and maybe spiritually. When you have finished, everything you’ve read will be laid out there behind you – a complete novel, the precise text of which will be unique to each reader. I could say the experience will be unique to each reader too, but that is after all true of any novel. Yes, ebooks and book apps are a whole new era, a revolution, a tipping point, yada yada. But at the same time: plus ça change

Thursday 1 March 2012

Chill, Dark Lord

Dirk Lloyd book 2 A Fiend in Need is published today. That's all I wanted to say, really. Nothing to add to what I said earlier in the week, except to reiterate that it's great, and if you are or were ever the kind of kid who dreams/dreamed of world domination - or know such a kid with a birthday coming up - then you'll love it.

Here's my favourite bit, for reasons that are immediately obvious:
Suddenly there was a loud cry and a black flurry of feathers burst into the room. Chris leaped back in shock.

‘What the…’ he stuttered as a black crow, as black as blackest night flew in through the window and alighted gracefully on Dirk’s shoulder. Dirk didn’t bat an eyelid and continued to work on Chris’s phone.

‘Hello, Dave,’ he said. ‘Meet Christopher.’ The Black Storm Crow cocked its head and eyed Chris with evil intent, its red eyes glowing. It lifted one claw and extended its talons in his direction.

‘Now, now Dave, Christopher is a friend. Do you understand? Friend!’ With that the crow gave a disappointed caw, and settled down on Dirk’s shoulder.

Chris just stared, gaping. Dirk looked over, a mischievous grin on his face. ‘He’s a Black Storm Crow. They are drawn to the Dark, to those such as I.’

Chris shook his head in amazement. Yet another freaky Dirk thing! And what had he called it?

‘Did you just call it Dave?’

‘Yeah! Dave. Dave the Black Storm Crow.’
Jamie is doing a tour of schools and bookshops in Sussex this week, and later in the month you'll find him at the Games Workshop in Crawley. (Dirk liked the name of the town.) All of this is very UK-centric, I'm afraid, but some good news for US readers: Dirk Lloyd book 1 is being published in American hardcover edition in October.