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Monday, 7 May 2012

How many endings does a gamebook need?

How many endings does a gamebook need? It isn’t really a case of one size fits all. If you’re writing a simple dungeon-style bash to slay the wizard Devilbad Dre’ad, there only needs to be one ending – the wizard’s demise followed by a pat on the back from a grateful populace. (Okay, it’s two endings if you count all the death paragraphs, but really those are just restarts.)

When I wrote my Leone-inspired SF gamebook
Heart of Ice, I knew it would need to have multiple endings. The basic premise was save-the-world, but there were others chasing the same goal as the reader’s character and, in most cases, the plans those rival heroes (or antiheroes – well, I did say it was a Leone movie) had for saving the world involved different variations on destroying it. Obviously a black-or-white outcome was never going to work for that story. (The multiple endings of Heart of Ice were also a sort of nod to the various cuts of Blade Runner, but that’s a detail.)

The pitfall with fixating on the number of different endings is that it puts too much emphasis on plot – and plot alone can’t be what’s interesting about a novel or movie, or we’d just read the summaries on Wikipedia. Great Expectations has two endings, and it’s one of the best novels ever written, but not for that reason. Prospero invites the audience to supply the ending of The Tempest (“I must be here confined by you, or sent to Naples”) and it’s one of Shakespeare’s patchier plays – but not on account of that epilogue, which is vintage Bard.

Look at it this way: a novel is a program for the mind. You run it on your brain by reading it, and that gives a unique experience. Then we come away with Pip’s or Prospero’s life in our memory, almost like events that happened to us. Just looking at the plot will tell you what the program does, but you don’t get to experience it. You have to be there for the whole story for the ending to matter and make sense.

That’s not just true for regular novels, it applies to interactive fiction too. As the reader of a gamebook, I might be striving to achieve one of several different outcomes, like the protagonist in a Coen Brothers movie, but a good story is never going to deliver the ending exactly as expected anyway. What makes the difference is the route I take to get there – and that is just as much in my own mind as it is in the flowchart of possible choices the author has presented me with.

In Frankenstein there happen to be several distinct endings – I didn't count, but there must be at least six or seven. If you look at them from a plot point of view, they’re not wildly different. I didn’t have one where Victor creates a race of little frankenkinder and another where he goes off and becomes a botanist instead. All paths through the story lead to Victor’s death. (Since it’s a tragedy, I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) But consider all the stories you might have experienced up to that point:
  • Two villains: a cold, ruthless madman pursued by a murderous monster.
  • Two heroes: an idealistic visionary and the tortured, sensitive child-man he creates.
  • One hero and one villain: which can play out either way round.
  • Or something even more interesting, in which both our characters are flawed but have some of the qualities of greatness – the defining scenario for a tragedy.
And the differences go deeper than that. You may uncover a story in which Victor genuinely loves his cousin Elizabeth – or in which he finds her a more relentless and unwelcome presence than the creature. It could be a story in which he honestly believes the creature has a grievance, and tries to make him a mate to ease his loneliness – or in which he refuses to, on the grounds that a race of such monsters would threaten the whole of mankind. It could be a story in which he knows that the creature is the cause of his friends’ deaths – or in which he suspects a more complex web of deceit, leaving the creature conceivably even blameless. It may be a story where the creature is a man, or a monster, or both – and where he either regrets or glories in that fate.

At the end of all of that, you may reach one of those half dozen final paragraphs. The number of stories you may have travelled through to get there, however, is infinitely greater.


  1. OMG, that's awesome! What tool are you using? It looks like a mindmap, but what exactly does it contain? Just keywords or entire text passages?
    I wrote a gamebook as well, but it essentially had only one end. There were, however, several sub-plots that the reader could hit or miss and a number of events that shaped the way to the finale significantly. But if I wrote it again, I'd do it your way and figure out a handful of cool endings. I think that's what readers expect from a gamebook no matter the genre.

  2. Interesting that you mention Blade Runner in the context of multiple endings. The Blade Runner adventure game (1997-PC) had thirteen very wildly different endings - and was an excellent game aswell.

  3. Aceofdice, that visual is output from Inkle's (the coders) engine once my design was fed into it. It displays all my sections as nodes - a much neater-looking flowchart than the one I originally created for writing the book :-)

    Jiminy, I remember the Blade Runner game well, and it was one of my major influences in creating an "emotional interactivity" in which the narrative and characters develop according to the choices you make.

    1. Interesting! Would you mind posting a screenshot with one or two uncollapsed items, Dave? That'd be great.

    2. That would just be the flowchart. So, a paragraph of text with two or three options coming off it to other paragraphs of text. The structure of this thing is no different from a gamebook, it's just in the type of choices that it's different. A pretty good example is here:

    3. Pretty impressive. Thanks!

    4. This is the Inkle writer, I believe?

    5. It's the flowchart output from Inklewriter. I actually wrote the app in Word using Inklewriter's markup language, so it could then be fed in and compiled.

  4. Two points stand out for me that really strengthen a gamebook, I feel - and here I'm thinking back to the gamebooks of the 80s and 90s, in particular. The first is being able to create a really unique character - you player the character that YOU have created, and named, rather than the character that the plot of the book imposes on you. And here, of course, the Fabled Lands books are a good example. You can play a troubadour or a wayfarer or a mage, as the mood takes you - but even better, you can play a troubadour who's cowardly or one who's brave; you can play a mage who defeats beastly beasts, or one who troops about mugging people in the streets.

    The second is a rich backstory - one that's an integral part of the gamebook's plot. One of the later Fighting Fantasy books, Dead of Night, took a stab at this, for instance. You don't boogie out into the wilds to rescue some pretty damsel - it's your parents who've been taken hostage in this case, and you have to liberate your home town from a horde of invading demons. The book wasn't bad, but still not one of the standout FF titles.

    And it's tricky to juggle these two factors, because backstory will of course tend to shape the character's development. In Jamie's 'The Way of the Tiger' series, Avenger's heritage and upbringing are the very heart of the story - and yet you don't get a great deal of liberty to develop Avenger as you might wish. Sure, he might be able to knock arrows out of the air, or he might be immune to poisons - but no matter what, he's a rather heroic ninja master. In Joe Dever's 'Lone Wolf' series, you might play a Kai Lord who's more focused on developing his psychic powers, or one who's more of a ranger, but it's still a story about a man who strives to defeat the Darklords, and rebuild the Order of the Kai. By the time Lone Wolf rolls around to book 19 or 20 he has so many superpowers he's pretty much a god in human form - but he's still heroic, noble Lone Wolf, no matter what.

    Balancing the two factors takes a lot of depth - and, most likely, a hefty word count. The computer game Baldur's Gate does a good job of this - you play the child of Bhaal, god of murder, and yet you are raised in the peaceful confines of the library-citadel Candlekeep, by a benevolent stepfather. The knowledge-filled setting allows you to justify a wide variety of 'professions', in RPG terms; at least as importantly, there's such a conflict of influences on your character that your nature might branch in any direction at all. Is Candlekeep your 'Smallville', allowing you to blossom into a Forgotten Realms sort of Superman, or will you bow to your dark heritage, and turn into General Zod?

    But then, Baldur's Gate is a computer game. Not a gamebook.

    I'd say character is at least as important as plot. If the author of a novel can create characters the reader cares about, the battle is half-won. In a gamebook, there's that extra dimension of the reader embodying (whether in first- or third-person) a character they care about. But the principle remains the same.

    1. I agree with the "only connect" ethic, Paul. It's very difficult as a gamebook author to do that in 2nd person because you can create a backstory, as you say, but the character him/herself is entirely in the hands of the reader. Most people are not roleplayers, and every time I have to write any kind of emotional reaction ("Your blood boils as you see the sneer on the face of this man who slew your sister...") it breaks the suspension of disbelief, as I'm having to tell the reader what they are supposed to feel.

      It's possible to get around this to some extent by creating (hopefully) rich secondary characters, but the player character must necessarily remain a bit of a blank slate in the middle of that. They have a story and a list of motivations, but that's all. Third person would definitely be worse (then the reader just becomes the author) but I would like to see more uses of first person in gamebooks. I don't think we can expect it in the next FF book, though!

  5. I think I meant 'second-person' rather than 'first-person' above. Or rather, that by addressing the reader as 'you', the book places them in the position of a first-person player.

    I guess the earlier Blood Sword books sort of become the backstory of the later books. You meet Icon the Ungodly, for instance, when you're a young stripling of an adventurer - a blank slate, as you say; by the time you're definitively facing off against him for the last time, so many years have passed in the lives of the characters - and, probably, so much time has been spent reading three chunky great doorstop books in the meantime - that it's really a climactic moment. This would be an example of those rich secondary characters you mentioned, I presume.

  6. I think part of the reason why people want multiple endings in gamebooks is the "game" aspect. Multiple endings really let both plot and characterization shine, especially in games like Heart of Ice where the character is a cipher and the only characterization comes through your decisions. Once you get the Nemesis keyword, the question "is this wrecked world worth saving?" immediately slams into center stage. What is your character going to do when they have the power to start everything over again? Are they going to try to save the world as it is, or finish it off and make something better?

  7. I think that's definitely true of gamebooks, and of story-driven games like Mass Effect. Back in our Eidos days, Jamie and I talked about turning HOI into a PC game - wish we had, we'd have been a few years ahead of the whole trend there! In the case of Frankenstein, I'm careful to call it interactive literature rather than a gamebook because the aim is not merely to make plot decisions.