I was just about to say it myself when I heard Leo's son Inigo in the background: "That's completely wrong, Dad. The whole point of role-playing is that you get to make up your own character. You don't want to be told who you're playing."
Inigo's right. In my view, the referee of a role-playing game ("games master" if you must) gets to control the world, all of the events and the NPCs, but the PCs are sacrosanct. The players are in charge there. If I'm going to start laying down the law to my players about their own characters, I might as well stop running the game and spend my time writing a novel instead.
That's the same philosophy I applied to my gamebooks. It's not easy. On the one hand, you want the reader to feel in charge - that's the whole promise of "YOU are the hero". But to deliver a satisfying story, characters have to be changed by the things they experience. In a second-person gamebook, then, there's the dilemma. Do you make character development explicit in the text (which requires you to tell the reader how they feel about things) or do you let the text just describe what happens and allow the emotional and/or moral journey to occur in the mind of the reader?
It ought to be the latter, but many readers do seem to want spoon-feeding rather than the unfettered freedom implied by interactivity. "The book was unsatisfying," they may say; "it didn't tell me how I was supposed to feel." And in videogames these days we're used to having very strongly defined characters (Lara Croft, the Witcher) and only rarely get the protean possibilities of an enigmatic personality like everyman Gordon Freeman.
In Frankenstein I got the best of both worlds. Most of the book is narrated in first person, allowing Victor Frankenstein to develop just as a character in a novel should - the difference being that your advice shapes how he develops.And in one part of the book, you are given the traditional second-person treatment but even there the inner life of that character - vengeance or love, hope or despair, anger or pity - is entirely up to you:
A thaw sets in as the days start to become noticeably longer. One morning, you are cupping your hands to drink from a pond when a shaft of sunlight hits your face, which appears with fiery clarity in the water.Many of my old gamebooks describe events in the character's past - a foe, a murdered friend, a missing brother - and even define a role such as the Dragon Knight of Palados in The Temple of Flame. But the character's emotional and moral reactions to what he or she experiences (and even gender) are left to the reader. The process of reading a book does not, after all, happen on the page but in the mind. The book is a key to unlock creative experiences of your own. Never is that more true than in overtly interactive fiction. The journey is not in the hands of the writer, it's up to you. But for that to work, you have to be willing to bring your imagination.
Of course you’ve seen your reflection before. But this time it comes as a shock. You are so used to spending the day watching the family that you have come to fancy yourself as one of them. The red, gristly countenance with the round yellow eyes and skeletal grimace is like some creature of the depths staring up at you from the water. You feel a thrill of fear, as if it might reach up and drag you down into a mire of darkness from which there is no escape.
You scurry back thirsty to your lair, pulling the twigs and leaves behind you as if that might shut out the scrutiny of some immense, unseen, celestial eye that is somehow judging you. And if such an eye exists, what does it make of you?
* That you are hideously ugly?
* Or rather that you’re different?
Illustration by Quentin Hudspeth and used under Creative Commons Attribution licence.