Gamebook store

Saturday 30 March 2013

Inkle's digital Sorcery

If you're a longtime gamebook fan then you'll be aware of Steve Jackson's Sorcery series of linked gamebooks with a blend of unusual game mechanics and puzzles set in a world that was part Nepal, part Middle Earth. Tekumel it wasn't, but it was streets ahead of the competition back in the '80s.

I don't know if the Sorcery books ever explicitly connected with the Fighting Fantasy world of Alan, but in the minds of the readers I'm sure it was an easy glide between the two. (And in fact Wizard Books's new edition explicitly places them in the FF series, which clinches it.)

But that was then. It was a time when trees had to die so that we could read. Now dawns the age of backlit glass and pixels, a world in which gamebooks stand blinking like a cosily familiar but hopelessly befuddled elderly relative. So I've been curious to see what Inkle Studios would do with the iPad adaptation of Sorcery.

Inkle, as you may know, supplied the luscious visual design that burnished the iOS version of my Frankenstein interactive novel. The expectation for Sorcery, then, was that we'd see a graphically enhanced port of the books onto iPad. Now that Inkle are unveiling some details, it looks to be much more interesting than that. Sure, there's a lovely drawn 3D map by Mike Schley and dynamic character animation for the combats by Eddie Sharam. But instead of just a gamebook on a tablet, what we're seeing here is an evolution of gamebooks into something new.

On the surface it looks like a top-down CRPG (which is something much more likely to get a few hours of my time than a Fighting Fantasy book) but the truth is more complex and more interesting. You can go back and forth around the world Fabled Lands style, which I don't think was a feature of the original Sorcery books. More importantly, look what they've done with the text. It develops as you go - not in a simple old-style gamebook way, where the text you read depends on whether you take the money or open the box. Oh no. The style of the narrative - the way things are described, the way you speak - is shaped by the way you're playing.

Say you stride boldly into every battle. The system learns that and gives you text that portrays you as fearless. The things you say will be forthright and challenging. It's the original concept of Fable, only here it looks like it might go deeper than the colour of armour you wear over your Union Jack underpants. And the text that is being written aggregates a complete story, right down to the level of having procedurally-generated descriptions of the fights you get into. You could give the end result to a friend and it's the novel of your imaginary life. This is sounding a lot cooler than "roll two dice and add your Skill", isn't it?

The first Sorcery book/game is coming out in May, with the sequel due by the autumn. In my view it's a game changer, and the best hope for traditional "D&D-style" adventure gamebooks to find a niche along CRPGs in the 21st century. However, don't think for a moment that I'm giving up on my forthcoming Infinite IF gamebooks. They have something going for them that FF has never been renowned for: the quality of the writing, the story and the characters. That's why we're releasing them as ebooks, not apps, and have purposely kept them free of animated frills. But more on that next time.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Twenty-twenty talking

I gave a rapid-fire presentation at the Groucho Club last week. It was one of those PechaKucha things, or Sancho Panzas as my mum would call them. You put up twenty slides and try to say something sensible about them in twenty seconds. Each, that is. A whole twenty seconds per slide.

Well, I don't know if anyone there could follow what I was talking about. I enjoyed the other presentations, though, notably by Phil Stuart of Preloaded (who ran through a bunch of really intriguing and original games that showed the medium is starting to flex its creative muscles) and Dean Johnson of Brandwidth (who showed what his company are doing with Mark Staufer's evolution of the novel, The Numinous Place).

The evening was organized by Four Colman Getty as part of their new Off The Page series of events. The idea is to look at how publishing and technology intersect, and the specific focus of this first one was gaming. You see, it all makes perfect sense.

My thesis was how I'd like to see interactive storytelling evolve. Yep, in 400 seconds or less. For those who weren't there - or even who were, and couldn't follow the machine-gun exposition, I've written up the gist of the argument for the Huffington Post and you can read it right here. Though really I need a few hours to do it justice.

Comments welcome, here or on the HuffPo site. Photos for Off The Page here and copyright Roger Blagg.

Friday 22 March 2013

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn!

"The only flaw in this stuff is R.E.H.'s incurable tendency to devise names too closely resembling actual names of ancient history -- names which, for us, have a very different set of associations. In many cases he does this designedly- on the theory that familiar names descend from the fabulous realms he describes -- but such a design is invalidated by the fact that we clearly know the etymology of many of the historic terms, hence cannot accept the pedigree he suggests. E. Hoffman Price and I have both argued with Two-Gun on this point, but we make no headway whatsoever. The only thing to do is to accept the nomenclature as he gives it, wink at the weak spots, and be damned thankful that we can get such vivid artificial legendry."
That's Lovecraft himself, sui generis creator of an entire mythology, talking in a 1935 letter to my old penpal Donald Wollheim about the work of Robert E Howard (specifically, his invented history of "The Hyborian Age").

I have to agree with HPL. Fantasy novels full of names culled from the author's vague memory of bits of history and myth are the main reason I don't read much fantasy. We can allow Howard to get away with it, as HPL did, because, firstly, he was an exceptional writer and, secondly, he did at least understand the derivation of the names he was using. He would put Aesir in a northern clime, have swarthy barbarian mercenaries waiting for their pay outside the walls of Carthage, and so on. It helped to paint a picture. It was a conscious choice by the writer, it wasn't laziness or ignorance.

But most fantasy writers are not blessed with Bob Howard's vivid imagination or natural storyteller's instincts, and cities called Vishnu in a medieval-ish Western-y setting just come across as witless. Likewise confusing the function and even gender of historical Greek or Roman gods - just make up your own, for Zeus's sake.

Lovecraft was a man who stuck to his guns even more than Two-Gun. Whatever the cost (and it seems to have been huge, in terms of health, finances and happiness) he steered a straight course by the principles of his craft. In his lifetime he enjoyed nothing like Howard's popularity among the readers of Weird Tales, despite the proselytizing efforts of a small and devoted band of followers.

But look, here we are seventy-five years later and the Cthulhu Mythos is one of the great modern IPs. I'm not sure Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola would have careers without it. (That's a joke, by the way, but only just.) The reason it has such power is because it is a pure and complete sub-creation, as Tolkien called it. When Lovecraft needed a name for an invented god, he didn't do the easy thing and reach for Bulfinch's.

The lesson, I guess, is that if you want to create great fantasy (and fantasy, when it is done well, can be great indeed) then take the path less travelled. Dig down into your own imagination. Invent places we've never seen outside of dreams and give them names that resonate on a deeper level than just "Kishapur" or "Ragnarberg". You may die a pauper's death, but your existence will have brought to the world something of true and incomparable value: originality.

Monday 11 March 2013

Novel approach

As a counterbalance to all the gamebook posts recently, roleplayers out there might be interested in news of the Ophis campaign setting which was where Oliver Johnson and I originally planned to go in the Dragon Warriors world, Legend. We wrote a massive amount for this - the background, mythology, city maps, NPCs and new monsters, and a couple of paperbacks' worth of scenarios. And we even planned out the obligatory trilogy and got started on the first novel.

Well, most of that is probably doomed to languish in a drawer for another thirty years (literally a drawer, too; we banged it out on typewriters and it is stuffed into a bunch of card folders!) but we can bring you a taster in the form of that novel, The Land Below the Sunset, which is currently being serialized on free reading channel Wattpad. In a nutshell:
It is a time of warring city states. A long, bitter war that has left the land barren and the people sick. A war that ends not with victory for any side, but with the unstoppable progress of plague across the world. In the sprawling city of Deliverance, at the mouth of the great river that divides a continent, Propriano of the Astralis family, heir to a noble tradition, finds himself abruptly in a pivotal role in his people's history
Take a look and, if you like it, do please spread the word. I'm just itching for any excuse to dust off all this great material - and I can say that in all modesty because the Gothic-drenched atmosphere and hallucinatory weirdness is 99% vintage Johnson.

The image above is by xXsilvbarisXx on DeviantArt. Looks a lot more alien than the concept art for most SF/fantasy fiction, doesn't it? Now, if you'll excuse me I'd better get back to the (sigh) Javascript for these gamebooks...

Friday 8 March 2013

Patience, grasshopper

The mad hunt for bugs in the epub code of the upcoming Infinite IF books has left me with no time for anything else, but hopefully this little taste of a certain famous gamebook series will make up for the dearth of posts.

Those covers, which you'll get to see in all their glory in just a few weeks now, are courtesy of Mikael Louys, sorcerer supreme at Megara Entertainment, and his talented artists Aude Pfister and Mylène Villeneuve. I've been looking at some of the advance material for Megara's Way of the Tiger RPG and it's looking pretty Orb-some.

To anticipate some of the questions about this series:

Will there be print versions?
Osprey are describing the series as "digital only" on their website, but you can bet I'm lobbying strongly for print editions. I don't believe ebook-only is a viable publishing strategy for any books, but most certainly not for something like this. You want something you can collect and keep. Well, I would.

What will the apps run on?
Technically they're not apps, they're fully interactive ebooks, and they'll run on any epub3-compatible e-reading software. Currently that means iBooks, Astri-Bee for Android devices, and Firefox's e-reader plug-in. (If you use that last one, you'll need to switch on Javascript; look for the cog icon at bottom left of the screen.)

What about artwork?
There are a few new filler pieces for the ebooks by Bruce Hogarth, and I'm currently designing covers for the four VR books. (Note to self: hire an artist.) If I get to set up the print books, and if Russ and Leo agree, we'll use their original artwork for those

Are there going to be more Way of the Tiger books?
What's the obsession with Way of the Tiger anyway? Maybe I should read them. If the first two are successful, we'll hopefully go on and do the rest and maybe even continue the series, which fans have told me ends with the hero stuck in a hellish cobweb about to be eaten. I expect Mark Smith had just been watching The Fly on TV or something. "Help meeeee!"

Will the Infinite IF series include any other classic gamebooks?
Fabled Lands LLP owns the rights to Falcon, Golden Dragon, Blood Sword and Duel Master. I can't see how we'd do the last two in this epub3 system - only something like Tin Man's gorgeous apps would do them justice - but Falcon and GD would be easy enough. (Just as long as I don't have to code them. The experience of writing all the Javascript for Frankenstein and four Virtual Reality books over the last seven months has been quite enough, thank you.)

What about all-new gamebooks?
Well, Undeadwood didn't happen. That's a shame, but it doesn't mean we won't try other new titles if the series takes off. Personally I'd like to push the envelope a bit towards the more mature character-driven approach I used in Frankenstein, as zombies and dungeon bashes have zero appeal to me compared to stuff like the Story Mechanics' 39 Steps, but the overall imprint for Infinite IF is called "Osprey Adventures" so I suspect that my own experiments in interactive fiction are more likely to come out elsewhere. Meanwhile, Jamie is going to be fully tied up on Dirk Lloyd and our new kids' series Starship Captain - which is what put the kibosh on Undeadwood. But there's no shortage of excellent gamebook authors out there who we can enlist. Hey, it worked for Jackson and Livingstone.