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Thursday 30 May 2013

The eyes that saw the overworld

Jack Vance is dead. He was 96, so the news was hardly surprising, but for me the sun dimmed all the same. His warmth and imagination came through so strongly in his work that every reader felt they had a personal relationship with him. I never sailed to Catalina on his yacht, or danced and sang on the beach, or feasted on sausages and beer and argued philosophy with him into the small hours, and yet those seem too real to be mere fancies. For no other writer is it so true that to read his work is to share his joy and humanity.

And then there's the creative debt. Any writer of fantasy, and especially of gamebooks or role-playing games, is standing on the shoulders of Vance.
Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, the Excellent Prismatic Spray, the Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch.
Dungeons and Dragons borrowed freely from the magic system he described in "Mazirian the Magician", but failed to capture the beauty and wonder of a world sunk in the dreamlike depths of the distant future. I shouldn't be casting the first stone, though. Vance's first Lyonesse novels, Suldrun's Garden and The Green Pearl, were big influences on Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword. In whatever I have done well, Jack Vance deserves half the credit; and none of the blame when I have transmuted the gold of his ideas badly.

One of the Dying Earth stories that established Vance's early reputation is available online: "Liane the Wayfarer". If you've never read his work, I envy you. The greatest reading pleasure available in fantasy and SF still awaits.

If Jack Vance's writing has touched you, raise a toast or leave a message of gratitude here.

Monday 27 May 2013

Small is beautiful

I'm beginning to think that if you want a worthwhile movie, you have to go small. No shit, Sherlock, you may say, but I am quite a fan of Hollywood blockbusters - the kind of movie where you sit front and centre and let the experience take you like Dark Phoenix consuming the D'Bari. Yet after two very noisy, soulless CGI-fests (Iron MacGuyver 3 and Star Trek Into Dreariness) it was a relief to catch up with a little gem of a movie in the form of Richard Ayoade's Submarine, based on Joe Dunthorne's novel of the same name.

By the way, a couple of other indie movies I'd recommend for inventiveness, depth and heart are Duncan Jones's Moon and Toa Fraser's Dean Spanley. Though, just to prove I haven't gone all arthouse just yet, I also enjoyed Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion - proper chilling SF that is, with scary aliens and battle robots too, and not much change out of £120 million. Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer also managed to be big and clever at the same time, mainly by having its abundant humour derive from character, thereby not undermining the sense of threat when the story needs to turn serious. (Dr Who could learn a lot from that.)

But enough of the Barry Norman stuff - back to Submarine. I've mentioned Joe Dunthorne's work before, but this seems like a good time to revisit it, seeing as we've been chatting about whether interactive literature can break out of its old dungeon bash origins and earn a place alongside real fiction. Mr Dunthorne started out writing computer text adventures - or so he claims with tongue in cheek - and has tried his hand at writing an interesting kind of gamebook, You Are Happy. There are no dwarves or ten-foot corridors.

Monday 20 May 2013

How do we make gamebooks a pleasure to read?

This is a topic we've been discussing in comments for a while now (here, here and here). But let's first agree on definitions. Gamebooks are evolving, just as the whole object class of books is evolving, and some of the directions they’re going may not use text at all. So, to describe the core medium of prose-plus-choices, I'm going to use the term interactive literature. (And by literature I don’t of course just mean Dostoyevsky. For the purposes of this discussion, Dan Brown is literature too.)

Okay, so here’s the problem. These days you’re as likely to read a gamebook – sorry, a work of interactive literature – on a liquid-crystal display as a printed page. And something happens to the way we read these things in the new medium. There’s a tendency to skim the text and just look for the next set of options. The author puts: “Something whistles out of the darkness of the roof opposite. You twist aside, feeling it graze your scalp. An arrow! The figure is outlined for a second against the moon. Another arrow is already in his hand. What will you do?” And what the reader sees is: “Guy on the roof shot at you and missed. What now?”

How come that doesn’t happen with a novel? I can happily read War and Peace on an e-reader with no impulse to skip ahead. Why, reading a gamebook on-screen, do we suddenly acquire the attention span of a toddler on a sugar rush? As Ashton Saylor pointed out in the comments on a recent post, it doesn't help that gamebooks have an obvious marker (the options) to skip ahead to if the text is boring. So it's even more important than in a regular novel that the text is not boring.

If people aren’t going to read all the text, maybe we could just put in less of it. Jamie and I admired the cut-to-the-chase brevity of Eric Goldberg’s Tales of the Arabian Nights, a big influence on Fabled Lands, but that’s not really a solution to the interactive literature problem. If you write a gamebook that way, it’s tantamount to saying, “Okay, we all know text is boring, but at least there’s not too much of it.” And on-screen the reader will still skim. Even if the text comprises the most elegant little couplets since Will Shakespeare needed a chat-up line you’d skim it, because all you’re looking for is the information content:
There is a gate in the wall. The guard is here.
How about writing gamebooks with better prose? Let's get some of today's top-flight writers on the job. Would that encourage readers not to skim? Not on its own. If a beautiful turn of phrase was all it took to get us reading, narrative poetry would still be on the bestseller lists. It's not less text or better text we need, but a whole different kind of writing.

There’s a big difference between interactive literature and the traditional kind. The fact is, gamebooks have generally omitted most of the elements that make the reader want to take in every line of a good novel. Those elements are:
  • Scene-setting
  • Action
  • Exposition (past action)
  • Speech
  • Interior monologue 
Historically, gamebooks have mostly used just the first two on the list: scene-setting (describing where the main character is) and action (what is happening). That’s because 1980s gamebooks evolved out of Dungeons and Dragons as it was played in the mid-seventies. They often read like a dungeon adventure without the character interplay. If you took all the sections you played through in an old-style gamebook and stitched them together, you wouldn’t get a novel. You wouldn’t even get a very good game write-up.

In a novel, those various elements don’t exist in isolation. Descriptive passages aren’t only for scene-setting. Take the opening of Bleak House. “London… Implacable November weather. As much mud on the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth…" Dickens isn’t just telling us where we are. He’s introducing the perspective (one of several) that we’re going to have on the story, he’s expressing its themes, and he’s giving some clues to what has gone before.

As Hilary Mantel says: "Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action."

I used the same principle for the descriptive passages in my Virtual Reality books, especially Heart of Ice, but that alone doesn’t make a compelling novel. What about those other elements? What’s the magic ingredient that compels us to read without skimming? Well, here’s an important pointer: readers prefer talk scenes...
“Put that away.”
“Don’t try anything. At this range, a 357 Mag will turn your face to hamburger.”
– is way better than the narrator telling the reader that Joe draws a gun.

It’s not easy to write a novel using only dialogue. Ivy Compton-Burnett used to come close, and it’s a little too much of a good thing. That’s why authors make such a big deal about the narrative voice: it allows all of the descriptive stuff to share the urgency and characterful appeal of dialogue. It’s also why you get so many books written in first person. That way, the narrator is directly addressing the reader. First person is sufficiently compelling that authors choose it even though it denies them the most interesting tools of storytelling: dramatic irony, simultaneous action, multiple character viewpoints, and so on.

Very often the old-time gamebooks featured an anonymous, blank-slate character, which made dialogue tricky as it would mean putting words into the character’s mouth. That's going to lead to a disconnect if the reader has been picturing their alter ego as a sneak-thief type and suddenly finds they're bellowing angry challenges at an ogre. You could try using conversation trees, allowing the reader to select every response, but that makes for a long, slow read and hardly results in a smooth flow of dialogue. Some adventure games get around it by having the player set the conversational attitude (aggressive, friendly, guarded, etc) and that determines what the character says. But now you’re outside the character looking in – which is okay for a videogame where the connection with the character is empathic, as in cinema, but not in second-person interactive literature, where the goal goes beyond empathy to full identification.

With a predefined character, it’s less of a problem. As gamebooks started to include character classes or skills, it was possible for the author to build in some assumptions about the character. In Necklace of Skulls, selecting the Etiquette skill means you are of noble birth, and that has a bearing on your conversations with other characters. In Blood Sword, I knew that the Trickster would countenance a whole bunch of dastardly options that the Warrior would dismiss as dishonourable.

Taking a step back, what’s so special about that second-person viewpoint anyway? It’s only there because the early gamebooks were dungeon bashes: “After a few yards you arrive at a junction. Will you turn west or east?” In Frankenstein I used a first-person narrator and to-the-moment writing, both techniques so new that they have only been in use in fiction for about three hundred years.
I’m back at the house. I don’t remember whether I walked or took a carriage after the boat docked. They are bringing Elizabeth’s body here, I know that. The lawn is still strewn with the debris of the wedding breakfast. A string of coloured paper flags, hanging lank in the dew. An ashtray with the squashed stubs of cigars nestled in damp ash. A champagne coupe lies trodden into the flower bed. Amazingly, it seems unbroken, a perfect crystal of aqueous brilliance in the blue shadows under the bushes.
* Pick it up.
* You have to talk to your father.
The theory here is that the whole book is a dialogue between you and Victor Frankenstein. So unless you’re the type who uses the time the other person talking to think about what you're going to say next, you are going to read it without skimming. (I said it’s a theory.)

Another option, which I discussed in a post a while back, is to go with a third-person viewpoint. The trouble is, this tends to jerk the reader out of the story every few paragraphs in order to force them to take an authorial role. I was interested in it as an experiment but, as Paul Mason rightly pointed out, it breaks the experience. In order to get the reader to read all the text, we need the interactivity to mesh seamlessly with the prose. One minute I’m curious to see what Cugel does, the next I’m being asked to decide what he does. In Frankenstein there’s a justification for making choices in that you are Victor’s confidant. Confidants exist within a story; authors (though not narrators) exist outside them.

The only early-80s gamebooks written with a real narrative voice were Herbie Brennan’s Grailquest series, probably because Mr Brennan already had a dozen years’ writing experience when he started them. I have a feeling that when those books appear in digital form, readers won’t be nearly so likely to skim the text. And, happily, we should find out for certain very soon.

Possibly the best advice, then, is to write interactive literature with the same depth you would give to any mainstream novel. The final word goes to Michael Moorcock, whose tip on how to write original fantasy/SF could apply equally to writing interactive literature:
"[This advice] was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies [...] Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt."

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Flying carpets

I spent a good chunk of the last nine months labouring over the Virtual Reality and Way of the Tiger gamebooks in order to convert them to Epub3. It was like steering a helicopter in to land using your feet. No, worse than that: using somebody else's feet. They do say, never say never again, but in this case, believe me: Never. Again.

Still, all that Javascript, Excel and ever-changing tools is now a thing of the past. The books are converted, and if you have an iPad you'll be able to read them when they're released. Unfortunately, apart from iBooks there aren't any ebook apps that are reliably compatible with Epub3, though you'd have to hope Google might champion a good one for Android soon. Or maybe Epub3 is just going to be that firework that never catches light.

Don't ask me the release dates, as this isn't my day job any more. If and when I know, you'll hear it here first, but all we'd better say for now is "spring" and leave the rest blank. In the meantime, here's a look at one of Jon Hodgson's cover paintings. This one is for Twist of Fate, renamed Once Upon a Time in Arabia for the ebook edition. The original paperback now sells for a few hundred dollars, but if you're the sort of person who can see the girl in the red dress amid the stream of numbers, just take a look at the flowchart here. (Blimey. Somebody has flowcharted about a hundred gamebooks? There's dedication.)

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Do gamebooks need text?

The sweet spot for a gamebook app is the perfect balance between graphics and text - which maps, at a deeper level, to the balance between "game" and "book". I said in the last post that Inkle's Sorcery app achieves that, but there may be other sweet spots too. That's really just a guess. I'm basing it on the principle that a gamebook in print form can work perfectly well if there are no pictures, and a CRPG is fine with no words. (The way I play them, anyway - I can never be bothered to stop and read all those tedious parchmenty scrolls, much to Jamie's annoyance.)

But that's just the limiting cases. How about places in between? Inkle found one - are there others? And what about the medium itself? How much of a difference does that make? Reading a gamebook in print is not very different from reading a novel. On the first run-through, at least, you'll probably take time to enjoy the prose. But put the same book onto a phone, and there's a strong impulse to flip through all the jaw-jaw to get to the next set of choices.

I spent the last eight months converting four Virtual Reality titles and the first two books in the Way of the Tiger series into ebook format. Yes, not apps, ebooks. Will readers respond to these as they would to a print gamebook? I hope so; I've kept the print reading experience pretty much unchanged, as you can see from the screenshot above. But is that a valid assumption? If you're reading the books on an ereader, you presumably don't expect graphical bells and whistles. On a tablet or phone, though, you could go straight from playing The Shamutanti Hills or An Assassin in Orlandes to Heart of Ice. Absorbing a story in the form of prose requires a different mental gear, in fact a whole other mind-set, from reacting to hybrid input comprising graphics, text and audio.

To sum up: it is not obvious whether people can read a gamebook like a regular book when it is transplanted from the page to the screen.

If I were writing new interactive books, there are two obvious ways I might go. One is to dispense with the gameplay aspect so that the book is "interactive literature" - that is, it's all about the reading experience. That's what I did with Frankenstein and Jon Ingold did with Flaws. This is the interesting direction for interactive fiction if it wants to grow up.

The other route is to stick with solve-the-plot interactivity but do something with much less text - either as a Fabled Lands type experience with very short descriptive passages and a lot of freedom of choice, or by making it more of an interactive motion comic and dropping text altogether. Of the two latter options, the first tends towards CRPGs - in fact, is really just a CRPG on the cheap - so will not thrive long as a distinct species, I think. The other is just how to arrive back at adventure games by means of a ten-year detour. Which is no bad thing; adventure games have always been waiting for the equivalent of a Wii to bring them to the mass market, and maybe the iPad or iPhone is it.

What do you think is the next step in the evolution of gamebooks? Don't all shout at once.

Saturday 4 May 2013

What sorcery is this?

The strain of fantasy represented by Dungeons and Dragons and the subdivision of same that is Fighting Fantasy are not my cup of tea, but I always had a bit of a soft spot for Steve Jackson's Sorcery gamebooks. I remember actually playing through a couple of them - and bear in mind that Jamie and I spent most of our working days back in the '80s writing gamebooks, so reading other people's wasn't usually the leisure activity we'd pick to while away an evening.

The Sorcery books benefited from Steve Jackson's innovative gameplay ideas (most notably the magic system, based on 3-letter spells that the reader had to cast from memory) and a world that was a bit more interesting than the usual DnD-flavoured setting. Apparently Steve was inspired by his travels in Nepal and, while we're not talking Tekumel here or even Jorune, there is a genuine sense of the exotic that moves it away from being sort-of Tolkien, sort-of medieval. It was also possibly the first time that a series of gamebooks built into one single epic quest. Oh, and it wasn't just room after room in a big old dungeon. In 1985, something new like Sorcery really stood out.

It's fitting, then, that now that gamebooks are enjoying an Indian summer thanks to digital media, the Sorcery series is getting a retool from the Rolls-Royce Ltd of interactive book apps, Inkle Studios. The first of their Sorcery adaptations for iPad, The Shamutanti Hills, was released this week and, as Kotaku's reviewer commented, it "takes the genre to a whole new level".

Full disclosure: Inkle were the developers of my Frankenstein app, and were responsible for its gorgeous look and feel as well as providing the smoothest set of tools for writing I could have wished for - so you may need to correct for a slight bias here. But even allowing for that, I've already spent three or four hours playing Sorcery and it was only released a couple of days ago. So trust me, it's going to be a gamebook-changer.

We were recently discussing the clattery old dice-based combat systems in gamebooks of yore, so I'll start with that. Inkle have dispensed with the random rolls in favour of a streamlined tactical system that allows for an element of skill. Combats are now really rather fun, as strong attacks temporarily sap your energy and, if the opponent attacks more strongly (as in the screenshot below), will also result in you taking a more serious wound. You'll sit judiciously weighing up your choice each round and wincing when a wrong move has you stumbling into the path of the enemy's sword.

As you'd expect from Inkle, the imagery and visual design are glorious. Even something as simple as selecting the three letters of a spell is evocative and tactile, and navigating on the 3D map feels almost like dropping into the title sequence of Game of Thrones. (Okay, maybe I'm overstating it a bit there, but it's a safe bet that's where Inkle are headed in future. Give 'em time.)

So, that map. I expected to find myself skimming the text and just playing the game like an '80s top-down CRPG, but in fact the transition between map and text is pretty seamless. The more visually enhanced and videogame-like a gamebook becomes, in theory, the less patience the player will have for prose. That's not to say that long sections of text can't work in digital gamebooks, just that you have to decide where to set the slider: book or game? Sorcery's specific balance is probably not the only right answer, but it's certainly one of them.

I didn't keep my copies of the original books, so it's hard to say how much of the text is Steve Jackson's and how much has been added by Jon Ingold, but the end result certainly feels fresh and vigorously fast-paced. There are also elegant turns of phrase and sophisticated storytelling techniques like the opening flashforward that I think must have come from Jon. Either way, it's a nice read with most of the traditional DnD campaign tropes given a shiny new trim thanks to the finer and more immediate writing style.

Quibbles there are a few. The map navigation occasionally leads you to expect more freedom than the original structure of the adventure allows. So, for example, you'll venture into a tavern only to find that the option to visit a nearby waterfall disappears for good. Now, if only this had been a Fabled Lands book instead of... Ah, but now I'm dreaming.

The monsters let the setting down a bit. Ratbears. Goblins. Manticores. Trolls. Giant bats. We certainly can't blame Inkle for that. They had to work with the books they were given, and I expect those were originally populated from a Monster Manual for the sake of an afternoon's gaming. The only reason I draw attention to it is that there's that little hint of something special in the world and the religion, and then we get the usual thudding parade of DnD creatures, which is a shame.

Oh, and another legacy from the books is the flip-of-a-coin flippancy with which you may get killed. A witch is casting a spell. Do you leap left or right? Make the wrong choice and you're fried. Gamebook readers of thirty years ago may have stood for that but, alongside all the genuine innovations Inkle has put into this, the old cavalier style of gamebook "GMing" is kind of fusty.

I don't want to make too much of the quibbles, though. Make no mistake, this is a revolutionary app that has for the most part completely rejuvenated its source material. In every sense - graphics, writing, animation, music - Sorcery is a deluxe product worth hours of entertainment for the absurdly low price of £2.99. No, I can't believe that either. Snap it up while you can and count the days until Inkle release the second book, Cityport of Traps. Me, I'm standing outside the walls of Khare even as we speak.