Gamebook store

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.


  1. 1) Random numbers are distinguishable from unknown numbers, but only when rereading/replaying. Randomness can still have a place even when all stats are hidden.

    2) Hiding all of the stats takes it too far, IMO. Having a "Show Stats" button is fine, as long as the game is enjoyable without requiring the player to check her stats. (I think I might have enjoyed Frankenstein more if I had a sense of how my choices were affecting the model.)

    1. But would you have wanted just to see the stats? That's the equivalent of the political influence bars for Game of Thrones - it's tell, not show. Better to discern the impact of your decisions in what actually happens, surely. In Frankenstein, I doubt very much if adding messages like "Alienation has increased by 1" would have helped foster a sense of immersion. But then, it wasn't a gamebook.

  2. Minimalism like Ico?

  3. In Silent Hill: Shattered Memories you have hidden stats that you never see. They're do with various psychological factors that are meant to represent you as a person. It's not perfect, but I do like how there's nothing telling you what these stats are or what raises or lowers them. The only way you know that you must have done something is that the appearance of enemies and different locations changes depending on your stats. On top of that, the ending changes depending on your stats.

    Shattered Memories is in no way a gamebook or a CRPG, but I think it does lend some credence to what you say. I personally do not have a problem with stats, but in all honesty I do not see an issue of hiding them in interactive gamebooks. It can be irritating if you get bad rolls or results from a RNG, but to be honest I get annoyed from either so personally it doesn't bother me.

    So I have to agree. Keep the stats hidden and let people work out what changes what. I've personally designed visual novels with hidden stats that affects various sections depending on choices you mad earlier in the game. I think it makes for a much more immersive experience and encourages people to think about why the character, or object, or place, changed because of the choices they made. It's must more fun than knowing you suffered a stat penalty because of choice x putting your stat below the threshold for a good outcome. It makes things too mathematical and destroys the theme.

    1. I must admit that I'm surprised by some of the (few) complaints about Walking Dead hiding the stats. People say, "I expected Kenny to do this and he did this other thing. I should be able to see his Loyalty stat." Well, how do we do that in real life? We talk to people, we look at what they do - and from that we intuit their attitude towards us. Sometimes we get stitched up; sometimes a friend unexpectedly confesses they're in love. That's the fun of it. Seeing stats displayed on people's foreheads would make life so boring!

    2. I loved The Walking Dead and did not really consider it a gamebook. Indeed, I was a bit disappointed at first as it seemed a very limited game -- but that was largely as I'd not understood its nature. Once I started "playing", I was drawn into the narrative, the moral choices and the character dynamics in such a way that I was left an emotional wreck by the end. Clearly, it *is* a gamebook of some description. Perhaps this sort of thing is the "next gen" of gamebooks?

      I think this is the route that interesting interactive fiction needs to go. As you know, I've been tinkering with ideas for a Gamebook app, but the more I think about trying to digitally re-create the gamebooks of old, the more I realise that it's not bringing anything new to this space and I need to think differently. The only people my current app would appeal to would be nostalgia nerds who read all those 80s gamebooks ;-)

      Stats, random rolls, complex combat: none of these things are actually that interesting to me on their own and I'd much rather hide as much of that stuff as possible, instead focusing more on the interactive opportunities offered to the reader to shape the adventure in unexpected ways. Of course, that's far more complex than writing a 400 page limited choice gamebook, but ultimately is likely to be much more interesting, engaging, and hopefully more emotionally satisfying.

  4. I don't see the point of dice in digital gamebooks.

    But won't de-dicing interactive gamebooks make them more wordy, less visually sophisticated counterparts to The Witcher, Elder Scrolls, and Dragon Age?

    I wonder whether the current platform has the capacity to support this direction with making the games feel dated and old. Many of the most visually attractive interactive apps I have remind me of a prettier Baldur's Gate, and that game came out in 1998!

  5. Oops, I mean "withOUT making the games feel dated and old".

    1. I agree there's no point in gamebooks treading the same path as The Witcher or Dragon Age. That's a fight they're going to lose. Stat- and dice-based gamebooks thrived in the 1980s as the graphics in CRPGs and adventure games were not a lot more sophisticated than a book.

      To hold their own nowadays, gamebooks need to evolve off in a whole different direction - indeed, I don't think we'd quite so blithely use the term "gamebook", while at the same time accepting that "interactive literature" is way too dry. I like the look of Inkle's Sorcery app, but can't help feeling that the text (massively cut up and abbreviated though it is) is only there for legacy reasons. What they've produced is one iteration away from being Baldur's Gate, and at that point the gamebook aspects might as well be discarded.

    2. I'm of the opinion that gamebooks evolved already - into RPG PC and console games after the rise of the PC, heh.

      I love gamebooks - my son introduced me to them, and they really appealed to the geek gal in me - but I am not sure what their place is in today's world.

      Yeah, I'm not sure even whether I want to call today's interactive apps "gamebooks" either. They are so different. I just like to think of them as "adventure game apps".

  6. You don't need to implement the rolling of the dice within the app. People can digitally read the story on their devices and still roll their "real" six sided dice "with their hands"! There are some apps which handle it this way.
    As you mentioned above there are many old gamebook fans who like rolling some dice and you can be sure that you will loose nearly all of them if you even think of the option to remove stats and dice rolling from digital gamebooks. They simply would be no gamebooks no more and it's the worst thing one could do regarding this genre.
    If there are so many new fans who tolerate this, I hardly believe. Me for my share will not buy a single of your upcoming books if the stats and/or dice rolling will be completely removed!

    1. I'm guessing you didn't look at Frankenstein, then. To set your mind at rest, the stats have been retained in the reissued Virtual Reality and Way of the Tiger ebooks, and WOTT even has random number generation for skill-checks and damage. Interactive fiction that I write from now on will explore new and different directions, but I'm not planning to revise the old books as I know that the market for those is all about nostalgia.

  7. If there is dice chucking the game part of the gamebook should be strong enough that situation that requires dice is such that I'm taking calculated risk.

    1. Fine, but then what is the purpose of the risk? Suppose you have a Climbing skill stat and you put points into it to get it to level 9. So you decide to scale the wall of the Round City in Baghdad, which makes sense because your Climbing skill is higher than your Stealth or Disguise. So I say, "Roll two dice and score less than or equal to your skill." Now say you roll 11: "You plummet fifty feet to the hard paving stones. Your broken body will be found by the guards in the morning."

      Okay, that was a calculated risk. But it's a lousy ending to the story. Now you either have to go back to the beginning, or you can cheat - neither is satisfying.

      My point is: what is that even doing in the gamebook? How is it an interesting choice? Where is the gameplay (beyond checking your sheet to see that Climbing is indeed higher than Stealth)? Imagine the same scene in The Witcher... It would need to be a mini-game, because just watching your character fall to his death because of a random result would be hair-pullingly frustrating.

      All these years we've been reflexively applying random skill-checks in gamebooks because that's what we'd do in a face-to-face RPG. I want to see some new thinking.

    2. That example does highlight the problem how the game part is used. The game part should be about making meaningful choises.

      Lets say you are playing a gamebook about master thief, skill check where you stumble and die at beginning would serve no purpose in immersion.

      I am saying if the game part does not add anything to experience why it is there.

      Ideal would be, expanding on that example that careful player can walz through the gamebook like a pro thief without any rolls by making right choises but player who wants act out his fantasy as hot-tempered dashing rogue will get different experience but might find himself in jail etc. and gamebook goes to alternative direction.

      Maybe there is limited time, time is tracked by adding amount in entries and you try to rush things because you are trying to make up for time lost in wrong choises.

    3. Matt made a good point about puzzles. If you think about how adventure games handle things like thievery, it is all about problem solving (puzzles in the broadest sense, which can include environmental puzzles, conversation trees, etc). If the game part does not add anything to the experience, as you say, then why is it there? Often skill-checks are just included in gamebooks to cover lazy design by the author.

    4. I do not know other answer than that some designer guys put it there. I would be perfectly happy for gamebook where I can have the thrilling adventure and risk completely depending on how "smart" I am. dozen amusing and horrifying deaths are more fun if they come out of my own dumb choises and not out unlucky dice rolling.

      If you have to, or if you for reason must put dice chucking there I would like it to be something meaningful and thrilling in gambling sense and you know not round after round of boring combat. Even better if it would be something depending on player choise, player choosing the possibly destructive gamble because he thinks he has the odds sorted out.

    5. I agree with this. I can think of a few Tin Man Game "books" where I started out as a master swordsman, hero of whatever, champion of champions... only to fall a roll and die while trying to leap across a cliff. Or, in one distressingly humiliating experience, dies to a RAT because the rat has a gazillion more attack and defense scores than me.

      I actually think the Way of the Tiger is one example of a series that have a nice balance in that you start out as an apprentice of sorts and there is never a die roll that feels gratuitous. Blood Sword is another nice one.

  8. "In short, if we want more people to read gamebooks, we need to de-geek the mechanics."

    I'm rapidly coming around to this point of view. I mentioned in your "Dice" post that when I read gamebooks in the 80s, I was much more interested in the story than the gameplay mechanics, and I suspect that many other readers felt the same way. I want to have the adventure, but I don't want to have to work too hard to do it! :-)

    To me, mechanics get in the way of enjoying the book. I don't care whether I'm Skill 12 or Skill 5, unless that lower score means I can never finish the book. A buffed-up mega warrior with high stats may well appeal to a younger reader, but as an adult I'm more concerned about a character's personal relationships, their choices and the drama arising from those.

    Do gamebooks needs any gameplay mechanisms at all? If you want a character to secretly enter the city by the sewers or by climbing the city wall, then just offer the choices and follow each one through to a different outcome. No extra interest is added by having to make a stat roll to successfully climb that wall, especially if you fail. As you noted Dave, the outcome of failure is unsatisfying anyway, so perhaps all that stuff should be done away with entirely?

    It's the same with combat. It's exciting to enter battle in a FPS, a visual medium that works extremely well for this sort of thing. But battling a row of four zombies in prose, who all have similar stats and where I have to imagine the entire battle -- dull, dull, dull. Battles where each move is worked out by the designer and has accompanying text are more interesting, but still suffer from the likelihood that most readers aren't interested in the battle itself, just the outcome.

    One thing I do still enjoy in gamebooks though are puzzles, especially those that involve item collection and thinking how to cleverly use different items in different situations. Stuff like that could be easily retained and may offer interest to the readers who enjoy puzzles. However, it's still unsatisfying to reach a point in the book where you can't progress because you missed an earlier item, so alternate choices should still be offered.

    Overall, for a text based gamebook, I think we can probably do away with most of the mechanics and simply focus on better narrative choices that build a more unique story for each reader.

    1. I agree completely, Matt. When Blood of the Zombies was released, Ian Livingstone said in an interview that he greatly reduced the complexity of the combat rules because most people these days don't have patience for all that book-keeping. I think he's dead right, but the simpler rules of BotZ just reveals the pointlessness of endless fights. I enter a room, roll two dice, that's how many zombies I kill; surely everyone can see there are no interesting choices there. We don't need simpler rules so much as we need better interactive stories.

  9. I agree that dice in digital gamebooks are unnecessary, although I like them for the nostalgia value. What I disagree with is that randomness has no place in gamebooks - for the book to be a 'game' I believe there need to be elements of it which are outside the reader's control. I have no problem with 'doing everything right' and still failing because of a random number generator.

    Randomness punishes players in most games, even if it's just the choice of moves a computer-controlled opponent makes (be it an opponent in a fight or a fellow competitor in a race, or even some environmental variable like a pedestrian getting in your car's way). I think the trick is making the punishment less frustrating to the player - rather than a failed Climb check resulting in a fatal fall it could result in injury and drawing the attention of the town guard. Only a series of failures (and/or a poor decision or two) should result in a 'game over'.

    I would be tremendously bored with an RPG of any kind if my weapon did the same amount of damage every time I struck with it (making it entirely derivative), or if combat was reduced to a paper-scissors-stone like mechanic. In a gamebook the latter is even worse, because once you know the order of choices to make there would be little replay value and combat might as well be done away with altogether.

    1. Certainly if we're talking about a gamebook in which climbing the wall is one of the choices, I'd hope that the consequence of falling would be more interesting than death - or even than losing a few hit points, which is just a step on the road to the epic fail that is the death paragraph.

      Not all games are random, of course. But that's kind of a side issue, as what I'm saying is that if modern gamebooks want to grow beyond the nostalgia market, they probaly need to think about reducing the rules-heaviness of their gameplay altogether.

      Fights are a good example. How many fights are there in a typical Fighting Fantasy style gamebook? One for every fifteen paragraphs, say - about thirty per book. If writing a gamebook with thirty fights in it then, yes, you are probably going to need a fairly complex combat system just for variety. But that whole "open a door, fight, open a door, fight" model derived from 1970s Dungeons and Dragons. Does anybody role-play like that these days? My own role-playing group might not have a single fight all evening. If RPGs found a more interesting direction, why not gamebooks too? We don't have to be stuck in 1986 forever.

  10. I wonder if randomness in gamebooks can be based purely on the stats of the initially created character, or would that also be as unsatisfying as using dice (or whatever) to determine outcomes?

    The reader/player creates a character either using typical dice rolling methods to create stats, or by picking say five skills from a list of twenty.

    Randomness in the story is then created based on the values of the stats or the skills chosen.

    There's nothing new here of course, but it's a way of having some variety injected into the narrative without requiring further dice rolls, etc. It gives the player at least some sense that they are playing a character they created, rather than a fixed character of the author's choosing.

    And of course this can lead to some degree of re-playability (even if such a thing in gamebooks isn't truly possible)

    Is this level of "randomness" acceptable/worthwhile, or is it as equally unsatisfying as using dice to determine outcomes?

  11. As much of an old-school throwback as I might be, I would not find much appeal in the use of simulated dice in an electronic gamebook. If I were to read an e-gamebook (gam-ebook?), then I would want it to do something that would be impossible in a print gamebook, and that “something” ought to lie in how the story and the reader’s interaction with it are structured, not in bells and whistles like animation or sound effects. I enjoy statistical housekeeping, but I can accept that if the emphasis is heavily on the story, then it is appropriate to keep the stats hidden; and furthermore, in an e-gamebook it would presumably be possible to make the stats and their mechanics sufficiently complex that to display them would neither be helpful nor interesting. However, as I’ve suggested before, I think that randomness can still have a place. In a gamebook format, the reader will always be faced with a fairly small number of choices, each of which has a definite outcome, even if that outcome and indeed the range of available choices itself depend upon hidden variables. The story might actually become more immersive if it is injected with a hint of real-world unpredictability, which might be partially recreated through a limited degree of randomness, some small jiggling of the way in which the stats play out (analogous to the rolling of unseen dice), so that even if the reader attempts to repeat exactly the same course of actions, there is no guarantee that events will unfold in exactly the same way.

    1. True, Graham, but we are back to the replayability issue - which I am beginning to think is a shibboleth that isn't nearly as important as people make out. If I play a gamebook through once and enjoy it, it doesn't bother me that much whether I could play it through again and have a totally different adventure.

      Now, I say that but in most of my gamebooks I have tried to have two or even three distinct routes through. But it's rarely just a case of, "Do you go left or right?" Heart of Ice, for example, starts with the choice of going east or west, but it's really a choice of whether you trust Kyle Boche enough to travel with him. Although I guess, having tried it one way, you might very well want to go back and see how reacting differently to him might play out (especially as the whole book is about trust vs ruthlessness) and that is kind of a random factor, as you're having to make a snap judgement with very little to go on.

      Okay, maybe you're right :-)

  12. Now this is a really great debate that is making me analyse my values as a gamebook reader - are the things I like based purely on nostalgia and therefore holding me back?

    I like the idea of better stories and interaction in gamebooks but I also like numbers and stats. Just how strong is my character? Could it wrestle a bear? (however, I think that side of me is the geek heaviness that most people would not have). I also like the idea of having a character that I can grow and improve, so I would like some kind of score to show my degree of success. The nature the score(s) would depend on the scenario I am playing as I would like them to fit in with the flavour. Wealth for a merchant game, maybe enemies defeated in a game where you play a knight or soldier or level of magical power if you are a wizard.

    Then there are two things about randomness that I enjoy:

    Maybe there could be random scenarios in gamebooks at certain points, usually having low relevance to the plot but may serve some minor function such as improving your score a bit or teaching you something about the scenario (like a classroom). They would all have to be pretty equal in terms of how good or bad the consequences of each encounter could be to make sure the player does not feel cheated. Old style gamebooks settled for combats but nowadays, we could have more complicated encounters with conversation trees and consequences that could only become apparent later on.

    Another thing I like about randomness is the excitement of risk when I may win or lose. The example of either climbing the wall or dying would not be something for modern gamebooks for reasons you have said but there is room for a risk with a certain level of consequences such as win or lose small, so you can succeed whatever the roll, but what is decided is how much you succeed.

    I also like randomness when I am getting a nice reward. I wouldn't mind getting a random reward as long as they are of a similar power level and if none of them are necessary for success.

    Having stats would work best when they can be related to something concrete in the world such as money earned, enemies defeated or parts of the magic staff recovered rather than something abstract such as magic score.

    I feel this comment turning into a blog post.

    1. That's what I'm hoping for, Stuart - that this discussion rolls on into other people's blogs. (Be sure to put a link here in the comments if you do that post, won't you?)

      I am a stat-thinker myself, but my Damascene moment came when my wife said that she couldn't associate numbers on a character sheet with a character's abilities. She knows the principle, but it doesn't work for her - and probably not for most people. (Only 25% of the population are Myers-Briggs type N, even fewer among women. Now look at the typical RPG group...)

      But this is not a question with one right answer. In my own role-playing games we use GURPS 4.0, which is the ultimate male dream of a rules machine for hardened M-B TN types. And I don't intend to retrofit my old gamebooks to remove the stat-based choices because - well, those are what they are. But I find myself thinking about what kind of gamebooks I should write in future, and I do think making them less rooted in RPGs and more in story feels fresh - and probably will reach a wider audience too. I haven't seen Trial of the Clones but most of the reviews focus on how funny it is, not on its rules mechanics.

  13. When I come to a discussion I'm interested in that's already got 28 posts, I often read them and then feel, 'I don't know what we're batting around anymore.' But here's what I feel like saying.

    A gamebook with no random elements is a CYOA. Choices lead reliably to outcomes in 100% of cases. Which is fine if you want a CYOA gamebook.

    If we then install a tactical system in our computer gamebook which includes interpretation of numeric stats and the like, but still includes no randomness, choices can still ultimately lead to reliable outcomes in 100% of cases. I.E. Once I know the desired strategy in each case, it's 100% repeatable. There may be far more alternate cases on the way, but I can make them all redundant once I know the right choices to make. Though that's assuming I want to make 'the right choices', which usually coincides with combat. In a social-themed game, I may want to see all the alternate choices, and they may not be experienced as alternate to anything. They're just what happens.

    These are the principal reasons I like randomness. Where there is combat especially, but in general a bit. The consequences shouldn't be 'fall off the wall and you die', but there needs to be some frisson that things can modify the situation unpredictably, which is just out of reach, but which I am aware of as I read. Dice make it absolutely clear when such a moment occurs, and show the mechanic of it. That's why they're so hard to beat. Whatever visible thing one replaces them with, it's going to be some stand in for a random number generator. The alternative of rolling a die but showing nothing (neither stat nor die) may render the moment invisible. I could reach the end of such a game having no sense of whether various stats or choices changed what happened at any point, though this depends on the writing, and on what knowledge I can gain from replaying - if I'm interested in doing so.

    My argument is basically that randomness is a thing that exists that a lot of people like for pretty elemental clarity and joy-of-life reasons. I don't see much value in being coy about it if you're going to use it in a gamebook. Should you use it? You will know based on your game subject matter and content. I don't think it's helpful be semi-hiding its presence or coming up with complicated ways to try to obscure its workings. Even people who have no numerological affinity may simply like to know when the game went one way when it could have gone another. And a bit of randomness and probability spice up the boring cleanliness of outcome which tactics tend to invite.

    I don't think the Game of Thrones stat window example is relevant, though. The point of watching a TV show is that you can't control what happens to anyone. This discussion is about games, where you can.

    - Wade

    1. I absolutely agree that you don't want to semi-hide gameplay stuff if that's the point of the experience. Some people do like rolling dice to fight orcs. (I don't get why they aren't playing Bioshock instead of reading gamebooks in that case, but that's just me.)

      As for stat bars - that example wasn't about interactivity, it was about immersion. But again, if the point of the game is to influence stats, those maths-wiz types will probably prefer to be told, "He has 3 Hits and 20 Loyalty" rather than to see the character looks very sick and to hear him say that he trusts the medicine you're giving him. The part I struggle with is that I don't really want to know the numbers even when I'm playing an RPG - and I'm a Physics grad. I tolerate stats because it takes the strain off the game's referee if players take up some of the book-keeping chores for their own characters, and also because I don't believe RPG referees are incorruptible. But it's a necessary evil, and it's lousy for keeping me rooted in the story whether interactive or not.

      There are no random elements in Frankenstein - except of the kind where you have to make a decision with incomplete information, such as stepping to the right or the left of the monster's ice cave, so your choice may as well be random. But does that make it CYOA? Maybe it does. It's not much like Prisoner of the Ant People, though, so I feel sure there must be some difference.

  14. I think I've overdosed on analytical interactive text thought since I took a genuine interest in that a couple months ago, so forgive me if the following seems like undigested mush. (Also, English, not my native language, so there's that, too.)

    The main point of an interactive text would seem to me to be interacting with it. Sounds dumb, I know, but if there is a "game" mechanic at the heart of gamebooks, it would be interaction.

    Raph Coster says narrative is not a game mechanic. Of course it's not, unless you're playing some crazy form of Scrabble or a crossword puzzle where you fill in narrative situations and elements instead of words. It would seem to me though that narrative fulfills the double role of feedback mechanism and game *system*.

    Game mechanics usually serve as a way of bringing the game state, predicated on the game system, in line with the player's goals, through constant feedback.

    What's the goal in reading a gamebook or playing IF though?
    Is it to "beat" it somehow?
    I suppose the pleasure of "beating" a text game would be linked with some sort of learning to manipulate the game system through tactical/strategic thinking.

    How much value does "tactical" or "strategic" thinking have if, in practice with a text game, you're mostly just keyword-skimming and if, after you've selected a choice, the principal reaction is "Cool, didn't get killed! Cool, text looks congratulatory! Onward!" Also, how much value does *text itself* have in this case?

    Remember how you spent months writing that 60K-word gamebook? You know how many of those words the player/reader responded to as he would respond to an immersive fictional environment? You know how many he ever *read*? You'd better not know.

    (I like the term "interactor" more than player/reader, so I'll use that from now on.)

    Text, unless completely perfunctory, is *not* an efficient medium for that sort of thing. And the only thing that perfunctory text *does* have going for it is that it's cheap and easy to implement. It's also horrifically boring, much more than even the most primitive roguelike graphics - at least they have spatiality and iconicity that sort of spark the imagination, if not anything else.

    What sort of game system knowledge would an interactor bring to bear, then, if he/she were to try and actually read the gamebook? What sort of system would be genuinely fruitful for text-interaction?

    I'd say that would be the system of the language of static fiction, as established by grammar and convention; the same way that gamey games ultimately fall back on math and quick and smart task-management.

    That mountain of fictional conventions and word-texture that gamebooks and IF *consist of* is, forgive me the slight understatement, a bit of a hint as to what the mechanic of interactivity should try and explore in interesting ways.
    (As well as the conventions of interaction itself, like the convention that if you can interact with something, then you're "solving" a "problem", especially in a gaming context. An author could play it up, play it down, or just riff off it.)

    The essentially linguistic/literary principle of end-focus, for example, usually forms a synergy with the principles of interaction, effectively saying "This here part is the thing you should mostly take into account when you interact."

    1. As to the sense of achievement - in other types of game it comes from the feeling you've beat it with the powers of Korean-quick fingers and/or math. The colorful 'splosions and blinkety lights just add to that, but those are just iconicity again. I don't play the SC2 campaign scenarios to have some douche pontificate at me during the cut-scenes. (Unless it's over some awesome 'splosions.) Any attempt at affecting story or interesting character is totally lost on me because of the hours I've just spent gaming the system by mashing and mathing. I'm expecting cool colorful images, nothing more.

      In a text-game the elemental reward would be text and the primary way we gain it would be how we read, remember, and form our expectations and connections within it.

      If the author wants to emphasize player agency, the reward would be text that takes into account player input.
      If the author wants to emphasize richness of setting, it would be juicy feedback from seemingly random actions like touching and smelling and listening and tasting and looking at stuff or just walking around.
      If the author wants to emphasize meaningful story, he/she would tie in a bit of both of the above with a number of purely static-fictional things done at least at the level of good static fiction.

      All the while fighting the interactor's urge to lawnmow through the text taking superficial pleasure in its variety. (Oh, I got five choices here! Let's thumb through all of them, see what the book says differently!) That's ultimately a problem of the interactor, of course, but still one could try and tantalize him/her into following a more consistent line than just wandering around the text, testing its boundaries, ultimately to his/her disappointment (Well, I breezed unthinkingly through all the 5 options! That was fun... I guess.)

      My main point, fresh from a couple of articles on why moral choice in RPGs has been overwhelmingly dumb, is that things like moral choice - or immersive storyline/setting/character interaction, - shouldn't be reducible to math, or only reducible to math after going through an affecting wringer of choices, simply because for the player it stops being a moral choice and it becomes a tactical or aesthetic one. ("So if I become a Lich, my player portrait will be a cool bejeweled skull vs. a generic Gandalf's second cousin if I'm an Archmage? Unspeakable mysteries of the Undeath, here I come! And I meant to play a damage-dealer instead of a healer anyway." So not the point.)

    2. I like your emphasis on agency, Trip (and your English is just fine btw). Cut-scenes and shoehorned storytelling irk me because the simplest story that emerges out of player interaction will beat any amount of scripted material. I remember discussing this in Game Architecture & Design over 10 years back in relation to almost accidental emergent storytelling in Outcast.

      I don't mean that chunks of dialogue can't be scripted (for the time being they pretty much have to be) but that once leaning forward to interact, I don't much enjoy getting the cut-scene that results from the designer's frustrated desire to be a movie director.

      The dialogue exchanges in The Witcher or Drakensang, though, I have no quarrel with - because they're in-game, because I get to interact frequently in the conversation, because the story doesn't feel like it's forcing me, or all of the above.

      There are plenty of text-based interactive stories where the main purpose of interacting is to get a stat increase. The problem there is that, once translated to an app, that is just going to make you want to rush to the next bunch of choices. Jon Ingold at Inkle did once say to me that he wouldn't have constructed an interactive novel the way I did Frankenstein, as he preferred much shorter sections of text between options. Happily he added that, having seen my approach applied in Frankenstein, he thought it worked there. If it did, maybe that's because the reward is in what happens next, or in the prose itself, rather than in the stats which are, of course, hidden from you.

      That one was 155,000 words, incidentally :-) But I don't mind writing 60k+ words that any given reader might never look at. Over the entire body of readers, nothing is wasted. And some people actually read these books in sequence, like a William Burroughs cut-up. It's an interesting experience if you've never tried it.

      I'm going to come back to some of your other excellent points but it's a sunny Saturday evening here in London (we don't get many of those) and a bottle of Singha beer is calling my name...

  15. You made me think about the super detailed descriptions of the knife fights in Dune, including all feints and counter-feints (and counter-counter-feints)...

  16. I think we have all missed the essential basics of the gamebook design.

    It’s about trust.

    The reader has the trust of the author to play onto the next section.

    However we all know about the five finger bookmark and rerolling our dice.

    What digital gamebooks should focus on is recreating that trust.

    1. Personally I don't mind if players of my gamebooks want to cheat. I said as much in the intro to a couple of the Blood Sword books. And who are they cheating anyway? It's not like cheating at a tabletop RPG.

      Digital gamebooks shouldn't really be recreating print gamebooks at all, though. A new medium brings new strengths and new creative opportunities. There's no point in ending up with legacy features that really belong to an earlier medium.