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.