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Friday, 5 December 2014

Little touches, big effects

I’m not the kind of person who googles themselves. I just wanted to get that clear at the start. No nude selfies in the cloud either, come to that. How it happened, I was looking up Destiny Quest Infinite for a future post and, wham, out of the blue, here’s this reference by Yuliya Geikhman of Adventure Cow about one of my old gamebooks:
Heart of Ice made it clearer for me what I expect from a gamebook: the knowledge that my past actions influenced my current situation.”
That happened to dovetail nicely with a review, equally serendipitous, by Paul Gresty of another Critical IF gamebook (or Virtual Reality, if you must) Down Among the Dead Men.
“…Nuances crop up throughout. When I played as a changeling sorcerer, who knew nothing about my origins, I passed mysterious buildings that seemed oddly familiar, and I wondered whether I might once have lived there, once. When I played as a pirate queen, disguised as a man, I struggled with the difficulty of hiding my sex during my travels with my fellow pirate escapees.”
Those customizing touches are all the way through my interactive reboot of Frankenstein. The things Victor says about the monster, whether he refers to him by name, whether he’s a “he” or an “it”. Of course, Victor’s attitudes (attitudes that the reader has shaped and influenced, by the way) show not just in his language, they inform his every choice too. But we’re talking here about just those small cosmetic tweaks of phrasing. They are every bit as important as the real decisions and points of logic, in the same way that character and theme are no less the lifeblood of a novel than its plot.

Inkle’s engine made designing and writing Frankenstein so easy. I just had to preface a line of text with a tag and Victor might address his fiancée as “my love”, “my dear”, “dear cousin”, or just “Elizabeth”. I made full use of it, I can tell you. When you consider there are over 1200 sections in Frankenstein and pretty much every single one is made up of multiple strands of text that are displayed or hidden according to variables like trust, ambition, and empathy, that’s getting on for a Borges-level order of textual infinity.

But here’s the thing. You don’t need to use a trick like that a thousand times to evoke the sense of a world that adapts to and is reflected by your choices. Tiny flourishes serve just as well. Take the backstory hints that Paul Gresty liked in Dead Men. There might only have been two or three of those in the whole book, but once you plant little seeds like that in the fertile soil of a reader’s imagination, you can grow a whole jungle of implied possibility.

The novelist J L Carr wrote A Month in the Country, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. When he’d first submitted the manuscript, his editor sent it back complaining that, although it was supposed to be set during a sweltering July in Yorkshire, the author hadn’t conveyed the sense of oppressive heat. Carr added three sentences, waited a few weeks, and then sent it back saying he’d rewritten it with the editor’s notes in mind. “That’s much better,” came the reply. “Now you can really taste the sweat.”

With no conditional text, an interactive story doesn’t feel like a reactive environment at all, but only a sterile maze the reader is wandering around inside. But if you’re working in print, put in too many conditional clauses and the book-keeping required by the reader destroys any sense of immersion that the adaptive text is trying to create. Just an occasional callback to the character’s past, or to the actions he or she took already, is enough to create a story where choices feel like they really matter. A pinch now and again, that’s all you need to wake the world up.


  1. "Oppressive heat" in Yorkshire?!?!?

    1. Even Britain gets occasional summers, you know!

    2. Not since when I'm around... at least I wouldn't call it "oppressive heat"...;-)

  2. I've played with Inklewriter, a bit. How different are the "professional" tools? Was it a case of just using the existing Inklewriter, then putting the output in a custom engine for Frankenstein? Or were there extras in the authoring tools as well.

    Frankenstein is wonderful, but I put it down early on my first attempt at it. I got a sense (which reading your blog assured me wasn't true) that my choices made no difference in the path of the story. I wonder if a similar trick could have applied there - an obviously story changing beat very early on that told the reader "your choices will make more than cosmetic differences, trust us". But that might have altered the flavor you were trying create substantially.

    Ah well. Since no one piece of art is perfect, I guess we'll just have to make a lot of it. :)

    1. There were no authoring tools back then. I just typed everything in Word, using a logic markup which was a streamlined version of stuff like:

      {if spoke_to_Henri == true:
      "There you are, Henri."
      "Has anyone seen Henri?"

      Only a *lot* more streamlined than that, so it was a lot easier to just write the book without having to switch into heavy logic mode.

      Then that text was just imported into the Inkle engine, compiled and ran. Of course, Joe & Jon then had to pretty it all up.

      A very early choice that I had planned would have completely changed everything about the story at a very fundamental level. It all came down to how you answered the narrator's question, "But surely you know my name?" But I didn't have time to write the alternate version that would have branched you off into. Maybe I'll get to that in the audiogame version ;-)

    2. Interesting. Was this a markup you put together, ad hoc, or is this something they put together?

    3. Inkle have their own markup. They provided me with a list of viable commands. At the time I didn't fully appreciate how very well thought out it was, but working later on the EPUB3 version ( not with Inkle) I found that many developers use much clunkier markup - and don't always document as thoroughly as the Inkle chaps, either.

  3. As a footnote, here's how David Bailey and I planned a Tekumel CRPG that we bagan to develop at Black Cactus:

    "The heart of Tekumel is freedom of choice. Within the necessary constraints of designed levels, we want the player to feel as though his or her actions are what count. Every player’s experience will therefore be personal and unique to them. To help evoke this, the player will be able to develop his skills in freeform adventures between the pre-planned levels that advance the storyline.

    "The starting point for these adventures is the player’s clanhouse, where he returns for R&R between military campaigns. The player will see his rise in status reflected in the clanhouse. Furnishings become more magnificent. When you enter the hall of trophies, you will see the spoils of war you took in previous battles. Your weapons adorn the walls of the clan armoury. Banquets and music become more prominent as your own glory enhances the fortunes of the clan. Your clan brothers and sisters become more richly dressed.

    "This provides the player with a reward for his success. He didn’t only win a battle, he gets to enjoy a hero’s homecoming as well. The sentries outside the clan elders’ quarters will lower their spears to block your way in the early stages of the game. Later they bow in welcome and open the doors for you, signalling your acceptance among the highest echelons of the clan.

    "Importantly, a player can go to the clan elders and have their actions explained to them in a way that makes clear how their actions affected their honour and influence. They will be told, sometimes patiently (and other times in no uncertain terms) just how the clan would react to them repeating a certain behaviour. Next time, you might not leave that beggar to starve at the clan gates …

    "Equally importantly, a player can go to the clan shrine, and there, by meditating on the aspects of the spirit soul, any changes to their spirit can be revealed in a visually impressive manner –all glowing gems, radiating lines and moving swords and glyphs.

    "From the clanhouse you can also select from several freeform adventuring options that allow you to increase your attributes and skills: hunting trips to improve Body and stealth, temple ceremonies to improve Spirit and divine favor, library research to sharpen Mind and magic, underworld expeditions to develop Dream and combat skills, or arena duels to increase Id and gold and glory.

    "Typically there is time for just one between-level activity before your legion recalls you to active duty, so choose wisely. These are the skills you will need to win the throne.

    "Finally, in the centre of the clan house lies the clan archive. In it, shown by the interwoven threads, knots, colours and story scrolls, the history of the clan is told. The player’s life story will start out as a single thread, then as they gain allies and trusted friends, that thread becomes a string, the string a cord and the life of the player takes on new colours and more prominence in clan history.

    "By digging into the clan history, the player can assemble a scroll that contains the life they have led, and it will show each skill gained, each friend or enemy made, each significant gain or loss of honour and influence and each critical change to the spirit soul. This record is permanent, and will be printable and downloadable to Tekumel game servers."

  4. Interesting. Was this a markup you put together, ad hoc, or is this something they put together?
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