Gamebook store

Saturday 27 April 2013

Games from a parallel universe

A decade is a long time in gaming. I look back at my book Game Architecture and Design, co-written by Andrew Rollings, and it's clear how different today's triple-A games are. (Technologically, that is.)

GAD is a big book. If you're in the interrogation business and waterboarding isn't getting results any more, consider investing in a copy. A couple of clouts around the lugholes with this meaty tome and those terrorists will be singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with at least as much enthusiasm as Roseanne Barr.

One problem Andrew and I had was that we needed to discuss the concept and design stage of games without referencing real games whose creators would not have appreciated our putting words in their mouths. Where time didn't permit us to interview those creators, we got around it by making up games that could stand as generic examples of their genre. Andrew and I both being physicists, this came as naturally to us as starting with the case of a spherical cow.

It worked perhaps a little too well. For a couple of years after that, I'd have people asking me in job interviews how they could get hold of games that we'd actually only dreamt up to make a specific point. Then, looking at GAD the other day, I realized that some of those examples do make for quite tantalizing game concepts. And, since we quite often end up talking about games or gamebooks that might have been, here's one. This is just as it appeared in the GAD chapter on "Look and Feel" back in 2004, by the way, so you'll have to make allowance for the ten-year-old comparisons:

The world of Gaze is La Vista, a single vast city that is technologically advanced (electric cars, computers, surveillance satellites) but socially conservative.

Our first view is a gray, unchanging surface that is moving like a featureless landscape below us. Then, catching sight of an observation port, we are able to take in the shape and size of what we're looking at. We realize the gray material is the skin of a dirigible, which moves slowly away like a weightless ocean liner to reveal...

…the retro-futuristic cityscape of La Vista. This is the city of the future as imagined in the 1930s and 1940s: vast office blocks, streets like canyons, gleaming skyscrapers of concrete and glass catching the sun. It's bright, clinical, and overwhelming.

Our viewpoint descends through wisps of cloud around the highest buildings. Recall the futurist architecture of the Third Reich, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the Empire State Building, The Hudsucker Proxy. The quality of the light is hazy; the daylight turned to brass close to street level by the fine dust of those swept-clean city streets. Sleek cars like huge cryo-capsules whoosh down tarmac avenues on silent tires. Looking along the block, the avenue goes on and on until lost in the distance, unchanging like a reflection in a pair of blue mirrors.

The crowds on the streets are uniformly dressed: the men in dark suits, the women in gray or white dresses. This is not a world like ours with a dozen different fashions and colors. And that means that the occasional splash of color on a hoarding or in a window display is all the more striking.

And it's quiet. The cars are electric and make very little noise. The people hurry to work without a word. In our opening shot from high above the street, the first sound you hear is just the lawnmower hum of the dirigible's rotors.

What feature of all this is startling? We see it as the camera spirals down, taking a leisurely view of the streets and the people and then turning towards the center of the city as it reaches ground level. We're now looking into the burnished bronze glare of the sun. What we didn't see before was a massive statue that towers above the buildings, matching the highest skyscraper. At first it might evoke a resonance with the Statue of Liberty, but then we see the spiked crown, the balance, and the blindfold. This is not Liberty. It's Justice.

Main playing screen
Gaze is an action-adventure game and the main screen is a third-person view like in Enter the Matrix or Max Payne.

Something we must decide: Does the view ever cut, or is it a continuous tracking shot throughout? Grim Fandango and Dark Earth use the cut and all shots are static, allowing pre-rendered backdrops. This favors adventure games with strong storylines, because you can use the cut to create suspense: a sudden high angle with the hero far below, a shot from behind as a door opens, etc.

In such games as Tomb Raider and Enter the Matrix, the story matters less. Action is more important and so a smooth tracking shot is sustained throughout. Where every action counts, the player doesn't want to keep switching views.

The graphics engine will determine if the number of characters on screen would be an issue. It would be nice to be able to at least hint at the heaving mass of humanity filling the streets during the rush hour, so as to make more of the utterly deserted streets during the rest of the day. Obviously, the first-person viewpoint always has the advantage that it's one less character on screen. In any case, Gaze is a game of suspense and nail-biting tension rather than in-your-face bloodbath action, so, in fight sequences, we'd expect only a few opponents to be on the screen at any one time.

Our thinking on this has been that we'll probably go for a continuous third-person tracking shot most of the time, as per Max Payne, with very occasional cuts or pre-scripted camera movements at key dramatic moments.

Overview screen
Our original impression had been that, between encounter areas, we'd switch to a 2D map of the city on which you'd click to go to a new location.

The problem with that is that it's not immersive. It would be far better to have a seamless way of moving between the two views. The ideal would be to pull back from the hero in the close-up main view, and keep moving up and away until you had a high-angle shot of the city with the hero now a tiny figure down on the streets. Not quite as ideal, but almost as good, would be to start pulling out and then cut to the high-angle shot.

Obviously we'll want to keep the screen as uncluttered as possible. We'd prefer to avoid having a status bar. Instead we'll show injuries on the hero himself (a torn shirt, scratches, bruises, and so on) and by the way he's moving (bad injuries cause a limp, he hunches down nursing his arm, and so on).

Selecting items from your inventory takes you to an extreme close-up of the hero pulling items from inside his jacket, while the full range of items in the inventory is shown across the bottom of the screen. (This view will be more immersive than switching to just a clinical scroll-through item list.) You pick items using either arrow keys to get him to pull out one item after another or with function keys tagged to the full inventory of items shown at the bottom of the screen. You can reorganize items in the inventory so you'll have at hand those items you'll need in a hurry.

We need to decide how to handle items that are dropped. We could say you can deposit items only at a storage locker, say. Otherwise, it's possible to get a very cluttered screen with far too many objects on it. Another way is to have a generic "dropped object" graphic and you discover what the object(s) is/are only when you pick up that graphic.

For character style, think of those chunkily drawn private eyes in big suits that you get in comic strips from the 1940s. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, seems to have been the main influence on that style.

What we’re envisaging is that most people in La Vista (the city) seem heavy set and move a little stiffly. Their chiseled features evoke a robotic impression. Don't make too much of all this, though; be subtle. Just because they're conformists doesn't mean they have to stumble around like sleepwalkers!

But our hero, Bracken, is a free spirit, not a cog in the machine, and the graceful way he moves tells us that. The same is true of Gaze, the mysterious woman for whom the hero is searching and who seems to hold the key to changing this stagnated world. When we get to animating the characters, it will help to think of Bracken as a hawk: proud, swift, capable of both fierce concentration and ferocious activity. Gaze is a tropical fish: fragile, languid, ethereally beautiful. The incidental characters share a kind of late ‘40s uniformity so, to mark a contrast with that, imagine the protagonists cast as silent-movie era stars: Rudolph Valentino for Bracken, Louise Brooks for Gaze.

Monday 22 April 2013

Undeadwood buried

Back in August I announced that we had a new gamebook project in progress with the working title of Undeadwood. Its real title was going to be The Good, the Bad and the Undead, but the more I think about it, the more I prefer the former. The pitch was "30 Days of Night meets Django Unchained," but that doesn't sound like something I would personally queue up for. (Funnily enough, though, if you said "A Fistful of Dollars meets Cronos," you'd have my money like a shot. Fine distinctions, I guess, as far as the wider world outside cinema geekdom is concerned.)

Even in October I still had hopes. By November I must have known better, but I am adept at denial. Anyway, it was destined to remain a shrivelled thing, hidden from the light. Jamie and I talked briefly about doing it as a comic instead, but that's unlikely now. It has joined the distinguished ranks of gamebooks that never were. That stake is not coming out.

We did at least get as far as a back cover blurb. Well, I say back cover, but it was one of the titles going in the Infinite IF series, which means an ebook, so the blurb was really just for the website:

Texas, 1870. The small, dusty mining town of Affliction, alone and isolated in the middle of the Badlands is the only place with a gaol for fifty miles in very direction, the only place Marshal da Silva can take his captive, the brutal outlaw, Walter Corse.

But when he arrives in town with his prisoner in tow, it is strangely deserted. The wind moans through the dusty streets and dust devils dance where the townsfolk once walked. But when the night comes... so do the vampires. Affliction has been overrun by them, and many of its inhabitants have been turned. The others are kept as food for the rest. The marshal and the outlaw find a shotgun-toting saloon girl still alive and free. Together they must hold out against the vampire hordes until morning.

Notable vampires include the Sheriff William Masters, Reverend Ezekiel Smith, Jacob Colt, the undead gunslinger, Jimmy Nighthorse, an Apache scout, and several other vampire versions from the mythology of the Old West.

Eventually, the marshal and his companions must take the fight to the chief vampire, Tizoca, the Bled One, an ancient Aztec vampire awoken from her sealed tomb by an over-eager treasure hunting archaeologist, along with her ‘consort’, a Portuguese Conquistador – in fact, the marshal's great, great, great grandfather.
(Okay, okay, so it was notes for a blurb...) If that whets your appetite for gun-totin' gamebook weirdness, all is not quite lost. Per Jorner wrote a great gamebook called The Bone Dogs that's a bit Wild West, a bit magic realist, and you can get that free right here.

The Good, the Bad and the Undead actually began life as a proposal for a first-person shooter that Jamie and I floated at Eidos in the late twentieth century. In that version it was a modern-day western, Dusk Till Dawn style, and I'm not sure whether it had any vampires in it, as our original write-up said:
The town is overrun by all the freaks, monsters and weird stuff that was inside Dr Marvell's Travelling Booth of Wonders. The hero's first job is just staying alive long enough to get to the bottom of things. There are pygmy tyrannosaurs, skeleton outlaws, giant fleas, Sioux medicine men, homicidal fire-breathers, crazed knife-throwing dwarves, and bearded fat ladies who sound like James Earl Jones on steroids. How all these nasties came to be in Dr Marvell's booth doesn't matter. How they even fit inside the booth doesn't matter. All that does matter is they're out for your blood.
Yeah, I know - but FPS isn't exactly about the integrity of the story, you know. Anyway, I guess we could post up the detailed notes for the storyline(s), but in the absence of the book itself (or game itself) it's just so many ideas; there's nothing to play through. However, James Wallis thought "Undeadwood" (the title, that is) would make a great Kickstarter - and he should know better than most - so if anyone wants to have a crack at that, be my guest. I'd like to read it, or play it, or watch it - especially if you can work in an Al Swearengen vampire.

The image is by PurpleFilth on DeviantArt. It's from his own RPG and you can check out his other work, and the terms of the Creative Commons licence, here.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Does interactive fiction need randomness?

I've made no bones (ha ha) about not liking dice in digital gamebooks. I’m not talking here about randomness in general (we’ll get onto that) but yer actual spotted cubes. When I’m playing a print gamebook – or, as is far more likely, playing an RPG – I don’t find the action of rolling dice especially disruptive. It’s tolerable, anyway. But when the book is on a screen, interrupting the flow of the story to show some animated dice clattering around just strikes me as inflicting brutal and unnecessary harm to any sense of immersion.

This is a personal view, however. As a designer, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be dice. Some gamebook nostalgia buffs like having them, and if the implementation isn’t going to cost too much then why not offer the option? But it should be an option. Someone who has never played a print gamebook will, quite rightly, find the use of dice to make no sense whatsoever. It’s like having animated turning pages and rustling paper sounds. Only worse.

But if not dice – if we want to move onto a new generation of gamebooks without dice – what are our options? (And incidentally this is a good point to mention that the evolution of gamebooks is also the subject of a series of very interesting posts on the Mysterious Path blog.)

That opens up the whole question of randomness. In a face to face RPG, typically when I hit a foe with a sword I might do 2-12 points of damage or whatever. In a computer RPG, on the other hand, the amount of damage is usually fixed for a given weapon, opponent and combat manoeuvre. Here’s why. If I can see my lucky or unlucky dice roll on a tabletop, and feel (utterly unsuperstitious though I am) that I was in some way responsible for that roll, I can accept it. But if I get into the same fight in a CRPG and lose because lousy numbers are generated, I’m not going to keep playing. It’s the device that made the roll, not me. I want victory in a videogame to be about tactics, reaction speed and choice of weapon, not blind luck.

In a digital gamebook it’s not likely to come down to reaction speed, nor indeed to the simple stabbing at controller buttons that satisfies us in most videogames. How do we play to the strengths of the medium? One way is to reason that, reading a gamebook being a cerebral sort of activity, maybe the fights can have a more cunning rule mechanic. This is what Inkle and Steve Jackson (the UK one) have done in the Sorcery app. You pick an attack strength, so does the opponent. The higher number inflicts damage, but also fatigues the attacker so that he can’t put as high a number next round.

This fits with the sense you get when playing a digital gamebook that you are laying a story behind you as you go. In the case of Sorcery (or Frankenstein) that’s explicit in that the sections of text are stitched together. You could show that text to somebody else and they could read it as if it were the novelization of your adventure.

I like this because it’s how we perceive time. The future is fizzing with all these quantum possibilities, the past is fixed in one shape. But hold on. If we are indeed creating a novel-like experience as we play, doesn’t that beg the question of how much prominence should be given to fights and other tests of skills, whether randomly or strategically decided? I’ve blogged before about how fights are tricky in fiction. I can’t actually remember the last novel I read that had a fight in it, and I’m willing to bet that even in A Song of Fire and Ice you don’t get very many – and that they aren’t ever described blow by blow unless (a) a lot hangs on the outcome and (b) there’s something clever, dramatic and unexpected about how it plays out.

The thing is, how much fun is it to read, “You strike at the goblin, but he parries. He ripostes and you react too slowly. His sword lays open a long gash in your arm.” It doesn’t matter if, instead of generating this stuff procedurally, you have Jeanette Winterson writing it for you. It’s just not interesting. Which makes me suspect that, in the context of a digital gamebook, it isn’t interesting to play either.

Some will say at this point, “But I like picking my main weapon, my armour, deciding when to drink the healing potion, selecting a combat stance.” Then, honestly, you need to play The Witcher, which does all that stuff with a lot more excitement and eye candy than you’re going to get in a medium that is principally prose.

That’s not to say gamebooks have to drop the gameplay aspect. You can have “interesting choices” in stories. 007 games his showdown with Oddjob – much to the delight of my eight-year-old self. And do you know how Conan defeats the peerless swordsman Mikhal Oglu? Pure gameplay. The tactic is so surprising and brilliant, in fact, that Roy Thomas doesn’t even need to show the ensuing fight. There’s no randomness there, of course. The smart choice trumps all others.

But how much do we want the gameplay to be visible? If the Game of Thrones TV show had on-screen bars showing characters’ declining political influence stats, would that make us more engaged, or less? One of the reasons that role-playing isn’t more popular is that most people don’t have the kind of mind that can see “Strength 14” on a sheet and turn that into an intuitive feel for the character. Storytelling has rules, as anyone who has done improvised storytelling will know. It’s just that those rules are a lot more implicit, interesting and subtle than THAC0.

In short, if we want more people to read gamebooks, we need to de-geek the mechanics. Mostly that means hiding them altogether, as in Frankenstein, where I do have stats (Trust, Empathy, and so on) but the reader never gets to see them, only their effects. And, if you can’t see the stats being applied, there’s no point in randomness. It’s simply no longer relevant to creating an engrossing interactive story.

Thanks to Farrin N. Abbott of CopyCatFilms for the intertitle card.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Do gamebooks need dice?

You could start by asking why dice rolls were ever part of gamebooks in the first place. Actually, we need to go a step further back, because dice were not a feature of the first really popular gamebook series, Choose Your Own Adventure. So let’s rewind to the mid-1970s, and the Fantasy Trip solo series which is probably what rules-heavy gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy evolved from. The purpose of books like Death Test by Steve Jackson (the US one) seems to have been to help newbies get the hang of TFT if they didn’t have a group of fellow players. So the whole idea there is to replicate the experience of a face-to-face role-playing game, and dice are just part of that.

Okay, but why are there dice in role-playing games? Because RPGs grew out of tabletop wargaming. And why use dice there? Because sometimes the unexpected happens. Because sometimes the Athenians force the Spartans uphill. Sometimes you hear a click and it’s: “Misfire! Kill the son of a bitch.” (Which, incidentally, I would never have credited if I hadn’t played Avalon Hill’s Gunslinger.) Sometimes a level 1 civilian throws a roof tile and it kills the level 12 general.

I like my RPGs to have dice. Yet I prefer those game sessions where dice are never rolled. Paradox? Schizophrenia? No, it’s the possibility of dice that I think is essential. Much more than a means of showing that the unexpected can occur, and thus ramping up tension, dice are democratic. The umpire (GM if you must) can’t just say, “You’re taken prisoner,” because I can resist arrest, hide, grab a chandelier chain and swing over the guards’ heads – or try, at least. And it won’t be the autocratic authorial whim of the umpire that decides if I succeed or fail, it’ll be the dice, referenced against the skills listed on my character sheet. That’s what stops role-playing games from getting as arbitrary and unfair as the points system at Hogwarts. In the shared storytelling experience that is role-playing, dice are the court of appeal that stops one person from taking over the whole narrative.

Yes, but… in the case of a gamebook, there’s no question about who wears the authorial pants. I can’t just stick a pin in the map and say I’m sailing off to explore the uncharted wastes. I have to take the quest I’m given and stay on the rails that the author has provided. The only function of randomness here, it would seem, is to increase the sense of threat. That single orc or militiaman might kill me, especially if I’m already wounded from an earlier fight. Just have to grit my teeth, roll the dice and see how it turns out.

The risk here is that I might get unlucky and die, and that’s in nobody’s interest. From the gamebook author’s point of view, that makes a very unsatisfying and anti-dramatic story – I climbed the wizard’s tower, snuck past the spider-god, swiped the jewel of power, evaded the poisoned traps, but then got killed in an unlucky fight with a mugger on the way back to my inn. And I’m not happy because I now have to go back and start again – or ignore the bad dice rolls, which is equally unsatisfying as it breaks the spell of immersion. In that case I won, but only by cheating. Suddenly, the jewel of power is starting to look like paste.

Incidentally, notice that the big climactic fights in gamebooks are almost never left to the dice. There’s an item or clever tactic that you have to use. That’s because the author is aware that the flipside of an unlucky death – achieving victory by a sheer fluke – is equally unsatisfying. Think of the final showdown in movies like Galaxy Quest, Kung Fu Panda, or Jack the Giant Slayer. It’s never about a lucky roll.

In M A R Barker’s Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks, unlucky dice rolls rarely spell death. Usually it’s a fate worse than that (for the character), but something much more satisfying (for the player). In non-interactive stories, the perception of coincidence is often the jumping-off point for adventure. Bran Stark’s life might not have been nearly so interesting if he’d taken the stairs. When seat-of-the-pants role-playing gets into this territory, it is better - more thoroughly credible - than any other form of narrative, bar life itself.

But, unlike RPG umpires, gamebook authors can’t allow interesting offshoots from the central story to spawn indefinitely. That’s why we get the ultimate fail: the death paragraph. Not death by attrition, mind you. Be so careless as to let yourself to get down to one hit point, and you deserve to die from the puniest of mantraps. By death para, I mean the choice that will kill you even if you were in perfect health. And that is only put into a gamebook to block off a route the author didn’t want to have to write – so he or she gives you the illusion of choice, only to inflict the ultimate punishment (an authorial raspberry) when you take it.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at what place, if any, randomness has in the modern world of digital gamebooks.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Why interact with stories?

I already posted up a brief summary of my talk at Off the Page last month. If you want to see the whole thing, it's now up on YouTube (above) along with the slides.

One caveat: some of the early slides in the video don't sync too well with the audio, so if you wonder why I'm talking about Breaking Bad all of a sudden, just hang on a few seconds and all will become crystal clear. (Do you see what I did there? 'Cause Jesse and Walt cook... Oh, never mind.)

For those who don't have seven minutes to spare to look at YouTube (among whom I'd probably have to include myself) you can read my summary of the argument here. And I probably ought to reiterate the context of the talk, as several people have wondered about my references to "publishers". That means book publishers, these talks being about how publishing is being transformed by technology. The clue is in the name: Off the Page.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A saga of the hero twins

I've been doodling some sketches for the covers of the Infinite IF books. This one, for Maya heroquest adventure Necklace of Skulls, is going to be painted by my favourite Dragon Warriors artist, Jon Hodgson. Which is really rather exciting, actually.

There will be few interior pictures this time out, so if you want to appreciate the great job Russ Nicholson did in evoking the One World when the book was first published, I recommend snapping up a secondhand copy on Amazon. Or you could wait for Russ to post those illustrations up on his blog, which he plans to do shortly.

I'll sign off with the doubtless du Maurier inspired opening of the book:

Last night you dreamed you saw your brother again. He was walking through a desert, his sandals scuffing up plumes of sooty black sand from the low endless dunes. It seemed you were hurrying to catch him up, but the sand slipped away under your feet and you could make no headway up the slope. You heard your own voice call his name: 'Morning Star!' But, muffled by distance, the words went rolling off the sky unheeded. 

You struggled on. Cresting the dune, you saw your brother standing close by, staring at something in his hands. Your heart thudded with relief as you stumbled through the dream towards him. But even as your hand reached out for his shoulder, a sense of dread was growing like a storm cloud to blot out any joy. You saw the object Morning Star was holding: an obsidian mirror. You leaned forward and gazed at the face of your brother reflected in the dark green glass. 

Your twin brother's face was the face of a skull.