Gamebook store

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."


  1. re: "interactive literature," I prefer to call them "interactive novels," because it sounds less pretentious. (Dan Brown definitely writes novels, though they may not be literature.)

    I've had a lot of luck adding in page breaks, where the player has to push a button to see more text, rather than just scroll down to the options. The idea is to get the player to interact in some way.

    You see a similar effect in table-top RPGs. If you're doing all the talking as a game master, players tune out and forget what you said.

    If the fun of interactive novels is the interaction, then your role as an author has to be to make the text conversational. That means you're not supposed to deliver monologues, at least not without waiting for your conversational partner to nod or acknowledge what you've said. Pause in your monologue to ask the reader what she thinks/feels about the unfolding situation.

    That "conversational" style is also the reason why we've all adopted the second-person format. It's not merely because that's the way D&D did it; there's a *reason* why D&D did it that way. (Have you ever tried playing D&D with the DM and players describing events in the third person? It's surprisingly awkward.)

    In the Choice of Games style guide, we use body text in the second person, but the options appear in the first person. The author speaks to the readers/players directly; they respond as themselves, just like a conversation.

    1. Though I wince to say it, what Dan Brown produces is technically literature. We must resist the use of the term to reflect work considered to be of a certain quality, for then it becomes subjective and more or less useless. In this instance I wanted to include other possible forms of literature (plays, oral fiction, comics, exchanges of letters like Emily Short's First Draft of the Revolution, etc) even though novels are the main one being discussed here.

      Over the years I have encountered several D&D players who speak of their chracters in the third person. I can't see why they bother to roleplay if they have so little sense of engagement. In our own games (not D&D), only Nero ever referred to himself in third person - and he was nuts. Well, grandiose.

      Personally I'm more interested now in exploring the first person style, as in Frankenstein. We could call it "free first person" as the reader is still being addressed, just that the narrator is no longer an omniscient author but rather the character in the centre of the action.

      I like the Choice of Games approach - much more natural than the old "lofty GM" narration of most '80s gamebooks. Second person has its pitfalls, though, as Grey Wiz has discussed on his blog.

  2. These are all interesting ideas about how to develop “interactive literature”. I think they could all be used to argue what I’ve always felt, that interactive literature is potentially a more sophisticated literary form than conventional literature; and on those grounds they should be pursued, with the aim of liberating interactive literature from the common perception of the gamebook as being a second-person dungeon crawl that puts greater emphasis on the “game” than the “book”. I shall have to take your word for it that there is in fact a tendency to “skim” an on-screen gamebook; but if so, I would suggest it stems from treating the gamebook as being primarily a game: if the reader is treated as a “player” whose aim is to “win”, and if you win by making the correct choices, then the options at the end of the paragraph will become the most important feature, the text being relevant only for its basic information content.

    I would have thought that readers are less likely to skip ahead in conventional literature not so much because the format is better for storytelling, but because if the text in a piece of conventional literature is boring, then the reader will simply give up and abandon it. I think that to keep the reader of interactive literature engaged with the text and to give interactive literature a wider appeal (beyond those of us who are already gamebook fans), you need to form the right mix of ingredients, many of which you have outlined, so that whatever path the reader follows, they find themselves immersed within a compelling story, with a desire to find out what happens to the characters rather than simply to “win” at the end.

    1. If we're going to discuss the places interactive literature can take us that conventional literature can't (and I say this as more an aficionado of the latter than the former, most of the time) we mustn't overlook the original Max Payne. For sheer creepiness, few things can surpass the dawning realization that you might actually be a delusional, painkiller-addicted nutjob rather than the elite undercover cop you thought you were.

  3. I wonder if embedding the options available to the user in the text (like many Twine stories do) might also solve the problem.

    1. I'm not sure that would help draw the reader into the story, though. A lot of interactive fiction seems to overlook that slightly crucial point.

  4. Worth considering too is the French gamebook series "Défis & Sortilèges" where you could play 4 determined heroes within the same story (the 4 first books where "Fabled lands"-like, one book per character in the same world at the same time but with his/her own objectives; while the 4 others were "Blood Sword"-like : 4 heroes together in the same quest). Thanks to its developed but playable rules, its interesting universe and its brilliant style of writing, this Gamebook series was surely second best one ever published in French after Blood Sword (of course, I discard Fabled Lands which was never translated...).
    The first book of Défis & Sortilèges can be legally downloaded there :


    1. That Défis & Sortilèges book looks good... At last, I've found something to justify this last decade I've spent learning to speak French. J'étais sur que ça vaudrait la peine un jour !

    2. Argh, now I'll have to learn. Une bière, s'il vous plait won't cut it anymore.

    3. All the more they're pretty well-written... The whole series (and many books by Dave & Jamie;; oups, mon Dieu !) can be found not-so-legally but without risk on Scribd. (concerning G.Sagot, the main writer of Défis & Sortilèges, I suppose he's rather satisfied that his books are not forgotten...). By the same author, there is the unfinished series Metamorphoses. Very linear (that's the main drawback of some books written by him) but still brilliantly written, and it takes place in a fictional celtic-based universe. Amusez-vous bien !
      (et Dave, retourne en Chaubrie pour apprendre le beaulangue :-) !)

    4. Ah, so those gamebook PDFs are still out there, are they? If anyone wants a print copy of any of the Virtual Reality books, I recommend you find a pirated PDF, upload it to, and you can order your own personalized paperback copy at a very reasonable price.

      I want to read Monsieur Sagot's books, but I'm thinking that Google Translate won't really do the job.

    5. Yes, the French ones are there. (but, of course, they don't include the ones that were never published in French). I'm not sure that a pirated PDF printed on Lulu would be cheaper than a good old second-hand paperback in Britain (for France, that may be different for books never published there, but I personnally prefer PDFs for forest preservation). On Scribd, you can download a document under a doc.format. The pictures are lost, but then you can try to translate rapidly with Google translation.


  5. Do you feel it's actually true that readers are more prone to skipping passages of text in interactive literature than novels? I'm not so sure that the medium dictates that; rather the content, how well it's constructed and how necessary it is to the story.

    It's true that there's a temptation to speed-read sections of IL text so as to get to the options quicker, but don't we do similarly in novels to skip ahead to dialogue of interest or the next compelling incident? Particularly if the text being skipped doesn't add anything to the story, whether in plot or characterization. For me, I'm equally likely to skip the description of another cluttered wizard's study as I am to skip descriptions of a character's house or a town.

    I agree with Graham though that I'm much more likely to simply give up on novels than I am IL, where it would have to be pretty dire for me to stop reading mid-way through. For example, Sky Lord. :)

    1. I don't skip anything in a good novel, so evidently the content does make a difference. If an interactive novel is constructed so that the text is only there to convey information, readers will skim it to parse the information they need.

      I do give up on novels, but that decision is made before the end of the first chapter (often in the first few pages). Sometimes the book gets thrown across the room :)

    2. I speed read novels, but I don't skip anything. If a reader gets all the information from a paragraph, does it really matter if he lingers over the beautiful prose?

      I'm a tutor, and I'm working with a 10-yr-old reluctant reader. He read out loud to me a section from an FF book, every word, but when I asked what happened, all he could tell me was that his character read something from a book. A spell, he said after a moment. After I prompted him several times and pointed to specific places in the text, he understood that this was an ancient book, he learned a spell to cast dragonfire (I think) and that he should only use it to do good, at the right moment, or else he'd die.

      When I read the book before him, I only needed to skim the section to glean all that information. I had to notice every word, but only the important ones needed to register.

      My hope is that one day he'll be able to do the same. He'll be able to skim a section, knowing what to look for and how to find it.

      But I'm using these books as educational reading to lure reluctant readers into reading a lot of books. Maybe that's a different kind of reading than you want from readers.

    3. I guess I would counter with: if you can get all the information you need from a painting or a sunset in one glance, why stop and stare at it. Certainly as a writer of fiction I hope that readers are deriving more than information content from what I do. That said, it's easy to forget those like your pupil who are struggling to get even the basic information. I hope he can one day appreciate there is beauty there as well.

  6. Deeper down the strange rabbit hole we journey. In the flickering candle-light a dark-haired girl picks a leather-bound book from the dimly-lit warren floor and gingerly opens it. "This is most curious...", thinks Alice, "...a book full of blank pages, entitled 'Gamebook'.".

    "Do gamebooks need text?" Says Alice.
    "No.", says Rabbit.
    "Do gamebooks need art?" Alice questions.
    "No.", says Doormouse.
    "Do gamebooks need physical media?" Alice ponders.
    "No.", says Hare.
    "Whither textless without art, or artless without text, my dear?", says Hatter.
    "But that is silly and you are all silly - what use is a gamebook without text and no art?", says Alice.

    In exasperation, Alice throws the useless book away and leaves the squalid dankness of the warren, little realising that as she leaves, the pages of the book are heating up next to a solitary candle. As she struggles to find her way from the labyrinth of tunnels, the invisible ink that the pages were written in is revealed in full...

    # end bizarre dream sequence

    1. Well, I seem to be a little late to this recent series of gamebook/CYOA articles, so bear with me (I blame my weird-wide-web browser).

      I think a key point is that gamebooks were so very late to develop in the historical record. Physical books have been around for centuries, and during that time the format has accrued the respect and indeed dependancy of the genral population. However, gamebooks were in comparison so very new - and initially aimed at kids - that they were simultaneously derided by a majority of people, and also very quickly replaced by the rapid evolution of the home videogames phenomenon. Pity the poor neglected gamebook...

      Cue text adventure videogames, and then a computerised graphical graphical revolution that spawned graphical adventure videogames. All the cool toys suddenly needed a mouse, keyboard (or gamepad) and video-bling. Yet, we also still have many new text computer adventure games of excellent quality. It is reasonable to conclude that there is no "one true way" in designing games - just as there is no single best form of artwork (e.g. painting). "Newer" does not necessarily mean "better", only "different", and we can all be richer for the breadth of those experiences. This analogy can also be applied to gamebooks.

      The problem is that most people have already been conditioned with a fundamental prejudice against the gamebook format - either because they mistakenly assume that "grown-up" literature is superior or because they view "cool" videogames as superior. Both viewpoints are detrimental, but Frankenstein and the Sorcery "app" demonstrate that the application of videogame-centric design and slick marketing can all of a sudden get people interested in a format that they otherwise wouldn't care about. Due to this general lack of interest over the last couple of decades, the unmined potential for gamebook development and experimentation remains huge; gamebooks are an art form that has barely been tapped.

      The internet itself is one huge hypertext repository, which could be perhaps thought of as just another form of expression for the gamebook paradigm (or vice-versa...). The end result is comparable - if a person can follow blog links and operate a web application - and millions do so every day - then there there is no practical reason that prevents them from enjoying a gamebook.

      However, a note of caution. A race to the lowest common denominator in the pursuit of profit has been clearly evident in the videogames industry for quite some time, and it is not necessarily a good thing for the consumer when taken to excess - case in point the increasing dearth of high-quality gameplay in AAA computer games due to a business-centric risk-averse focus on shallow "casual" cloud-based gaming and microtransactions. The Sorcery "app" blends the paragraph format with virtualised tabletop boardgaming - which makes business sense given the current boardgaming golden age. In that sense, the Sorcery "app" perhaps bears a closer relationship to Barbarian Prince, Runebound or Tales Of The Arabian Nights than to it's strictly book-centric parent.

      How best to ensure that gamebooks flourish? Many different styles of gamebooks in multiple formats with many different mechanics, please!

  7. Haha, I too frequently give up on novels in the first few pages. Sometimes throwing is involved. I was once stuck on a long-distance bicycle trip with nothing but Charlaine Harris for company. *shudder* We don't talk about those times.

    Anyway, I actually completely agree with Graham that interactive literature has the potential to become even more sophisticated than standard literature. The fascination with the potential there is a lot of what keeps me interested in this genre. I love seeing the experiments every year in Windhammer, and I'm very curious about what's going to come of it that we haven't even dreamed up yet.

    This is why I think we can't give up on the third person perspective in interactive literature. It's so ubiquitous in extant literature, if we cut it out of interactive literature, that's a major branch of possibilities that we're just denying to ourselves. I do agree with you about the risks of doing interactive third person, but I think further experimentation is in order before writing it off. Which is actually rather relevant to a whole other discussion...

    But to address the larger question you've asked here, I don't have answers, but do want to point out that asking the right question is half the battle, and with this blog post, I think you've asked the right question.

    You've reminded me how intrigued I am about the possibilities of interactive literature beyond the tradition of "gamebooks." I'm definitely interested in exploring that space, both with my current projects and in the future.

    On the topic of skipping text in gamebooks, at the end of the day, I really think it comes back to simply the quality of the story. If we had gamebooks--or rather, interactive literature--with the depth and quality of character, setting, action, tension, theme, development, and writing excellence that we see in the top 1% of novels (the really popular ones) then people wouldn't be inclined to skip. The reward for reading would no longer be the challenge of trying to "get to paragraph 400," it would be the fascination of participating in an evolving story.

    That's what I think we should be striving for.

    1. I don't think you want to be reading books on a bicycle trip, Ashton. Too much risk of them slipping off the handlebars.

      I certainly agree it's worth experimenting with 3rd person, and even proposed it a couple of times myself. The first was for a Dying Earth gamebook I pitched to Simon Rogers, which would have worked like this:
      and the other was for preschool gamebooks:

      Of those two models, the second looks more fun. Little kids listen to stories as if they were participants, whereas trying the same thing with a grown-up book puts the reader in an authorial role. That's the snag. But there may be other ways to do it that would be more engaging. Like my pal Tim Harford says, it's important to just try new things because success often begins with failure.

  8. Efrem Orizzonte22 May 2013 at 12:07

    As a child, I used to skip the text to get to the choices ASAP. Because it was a game, and it was about MY choices. For a child, being able to make your own choices is very important. Even when the choices aren't actually yours, as in gamebooks.

    As is often the case, the "game" part of a gamebook clashes with the author's literary ambitions. I twice took part in a writing contest for short "gamebooks" (40 sections max.). Both times my works were judged negatively because there was too much to read! Thing is, the "game" part implies that some parts of the story have to be read more than once for every one time you want to read a new part. This being the case, I can't really blame those who prefer shorter sections. I myself stopped reading the eight "book" in the iOS Gamebook Adventures series, because there was just too much text for me to bear in what is essentially a game. (in those gamebooks, the fact that you get "achievements" for exploring new sections of an adventure is all more reason to want shorter sections)

    And this is why I consider "proper" gamebooks different from what we now like to call "interactive fiction". Interactive fiction reads just like a regular book - especially with the wonderful engine seen in Dave's Frankenstein. But for that to work, you HAVE to throw any "gaming" aspect out of the window. Gaming means forced repetition, and as you grow older, repetition is not something you want enforced on you. BTW, we're also seeing this in video games, which today are easier than they used to be because the audience is older and doesn't have as much time to play the same section again and again.

    1. I'm not sure that gamebooks have to mean repetition - unless you're getting killed a lot and having to start again. You could just read the gamebook once and put it aside. There's a certain repetition in things like fights, of course, but then we're back to the question of whether gamebooks have to have fights and/or dice.

  9. As suggested above, the text itself should keep readers entertained. When the medium is writing, write well or be ignored.

    I suppose a tactic could be to have hints in the text that help perceptive players win. But sneaky fixes like this shouldn't substitute good writing.

  10. About:
    "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. "

    This is not mandatory. I'll like see a game book that in the creation character, allow to select some adjective from a list, like "gloomy", "risk-taker", and so on...

    1. Easily done in digital form, as the dialogue can be made conditional on hidden variables like the ones you suggest. I used this in my iPad version of Frankenstein, where characters said different things according to their degree of alienation, pride, empathy, etc.

      Not so easy in a print gamebook, though, as you'd have to continually break up the text with: "If you are morose and have lost an eye or limb, turn to X. If you are a risk-taker and have drunk coffee, or both, turn to Y..." Etc. Suspension of disbelief might suffer just a bit.