Gamebook store

Sunday 15 February 2015

Hot and cold about interactive literature

I was talking to James Wallis about Powell and Pressburger and how one of my favourite movies – my “hang out” movie, as Tarantino would have it – is A Canterbury Tale. I mentioned that the Pilgrim’s Way passed near my old school and how I’d always wanted to walk it. Possibly I was thinking of cross-country runs around Newland’s Corner with the sleet in my teeth , and the operative word was walk. Anyway, it made an impression on James. The following year he got engaged to the beautiful Cat Muir, asked me to be his best man, and suggested that I and Martin McKenna make ready with him to wenden on pilgrymage.

To my everlasting regret, I wasn’t able to tread the whole route from Winchester to Canterbury. Elixir Studios had just closed down and I was too busy looking for a job to clear two weeks for the simple pleasure of wayfaring with good friends. I should have done. You can’t bunk off halfway through a pilgrimage, not even if you’re an agnostic like me.

Anyway, you'll be glad to know there is a point. James decided that a good angle for charity fundraising would be to do the whole 146 miles without a map. Instead, he brought along a written description of the landmarks we should be steering by: a track beside a field, turn left at the second farm, etc.

Remind you of anything? It’s like Fabled Lands, where you find yourself in deep countryside with something like this to guide you:

The irony there is that Jamie Thomson and I didn’t originally intend the player to navigate using the text. Our first thought was that you’d move a counter around the map, with the usual allowance for terrain type. Regions would be marked with different encounter tables and each city and town would have a number that pointed to the text in the book.

Why did we change our minds? Because navigating by map would have required a little more work on the part of the player, and gamebook readers in the ‘90s weren’t as accustomed to that kind of thing as role-players. Yet when Jamie and I were working at Eidos, and we talked to Ian Livingstone about turning FL into a computer game, we enthusiastically returned to the idea of using the map as the main armature around which you’d build your character’s story. Here’s the first part of our pitch document:
A scrolling map of the world. Key figures (players and powerful NPCs) appear on this map, but you can only tell the profession of characters if they're in the same country as you are (ie, those characters will be differentiated into Warriors, Mages, etc; those in other countries are just shown as a generic character sprite).
That was 1996. Almost twenty years on, gamebook apps like Sorcery and 80 Days made the long-overdue step of having the top layer be the map – just simple common sense because, as James and Martin and I soon discovered on the North Downs Way, trying to find your way around the Home Counties from just a text description is sheer insanity. This is so much better:

But when you switch in the map layer, is that still a gamebook? Leaving aside the question of the “game” part (there is dice-rolling but little or no actual gameplay in almost all the gamebooks I’ve seen), the distinguishing feature of gamebooks is that they are like novels. So let’s go back to basics with what a novel is. You are presented with prose that functions as a kind of blueprint or program for what is going on in the story, and when you run that program in your mind, you construct an imaginary reality. The whole shebang may seem to be in the control of the author, but in fact you are lucidly dreaming your own version of the world with just occasional nudges from the text. (It’s actually the basic mechanism of human awareness too, incidentally, but let’s not get sidetracked.)

That lucid dreaming process is very different from watching a movie or playing a videogame. There the world you’re experiencing is already rendered for you. (And when I say that, you realize I’m not only talking about the graphics, right?) This is why it is easy to interact with any visual or even aural story, but in the case of prose we have to disengage the part of the brain that’s modelling the world around us in order to decide what choice to make. How can we make that easier? Well, there’s a world of difference between parsing this:

and this:
The square is empty. To the north is a river. You do not see a key here.
All this is not exactly new. Marshall McLuhan wrote about hot and cold media (he said “cool” but, y’know). A hot medium is doing the work for you. A firework display, for example, or a blockbuster action movie. A cold medium (comics, say, or novels) requires your conscious participation in the process. It’s a continuum, so the short example of text-adventure prose above is hotter than the novel-like one involving the Gargan twins.

The confounding factor here is interactivity. It’s very easy to interact with a hot medium. A ball flies at me; I swipe it away. But interactivity with a story is more of a conscious process. Do you want the princess to marry the prince or to spend her days singing MOR show tunes? Let me think… Yet as I spin the cogs to decide that, the entire world of the novel must grind to a halt, even begin to fray around the edges, as I’m not consciously sustaining it. So, the more you want the reader to interact – in fact, the more you want them to be a player – the less you must make them a reader.

Arguably the text in an app like Sorcery is crying out to be severely de-novelized, reduced from this:

to this:

or preferably replaced altogether with animated characters. It’s evolving into a game anyway, and in doing so is proving far more popular than a straight “book-like” interactive story app. So why retain features that gamebooks only had originally by reason of historical circumstance, because the only mobile devices in those days were paperbacks and because artwork was too expensive?

Or is there a valid reason for interactive stories to hang onto their gamebook roots and even to play up the novelistic elements? What do you think?


  1. I have a friend who doesn't read, at all, except when he's forced to. He reads signposts and texts and emails, and technical journals for work, but ideas that reading could ever be a pleasure, or that writing could somehow be a craft or be beautiful in itself, are alien to him. I know what his opinion would be: make everything into a game or a film.

    The standard argument against this is: the landscapes (dreamscapes!) you create in your head are better than those on film could ever be. I agree with that, but also, there's the argument that some prose is wonderful and artistic and deserves to be read even if the sheer quality of the writing temporarily distracts you from the story - and that can apply to gamebooks too.

    1. In my own reading I'm certainly happy to be beguiled by the beauty of the prose, Michael. It's why I keep coming back to some authors (no names, but anyone who follows my reviews on Goodreads will guess them) even if their stories never quite show up for work

      That said, during those passages of lyrical writing, when we are so dazzled that we are happy to be distracted from the story, we are also tuned towards feelings more than logic. And that makes interacting via the medium of text particularly difficult. So I would apply Pound's dictum: 'What can be said well in prose can be said better in prose.' He meant in comparison to poetry, but could also be taken to mean that great prose works best in novels, not in interactive stories. Possibly.

    2. Yes it's an interesting question, and I'm still pondering it when I should be in bed. I've just remembered that Graham Nelson, a major figure in that "other" field of prose-only interactive fiction, the text-adventure game, once wrote that an IF game is like "a narrative at war with a crossword puzzle".

      Now I love gamebooks (and text adventure games), but I hate crossword puzzles. The narrative part of the gamebook, however, makes me forget the puzzle part - it suspends my disbelief enough such that the choices I make don't look like just A vs B, but like real turning points in my imaginary life, and so I consider the options much more carefully, turning over scenarios in that little dreamscape in my head. So, I'd argue that the novelistic elements of the gamebook actually enhance the interaction, rather than detracting from it.

    3. An interesting point - and, oh my, I should be in bed too. But if you find that a prose narrative is transportive enough to make those choices seamless, prose being one of those cold media McLuhan talks of, don't you find that images and sounds are even more effective at doing that? The way that a CRPG presents me with choices is much closer to real life than the way a gamebook does it, after all.

      I'm an equally avid consumer of novels, comic books, movies, videogames, and roleplaying myself. But that's the order I'd list them in terms of how interactivity-friendly they are - with life itself coming just after roleplaying in the UV part of the spectrum, lol. So I'm curious whether fans of interactive novels enjoy them out of nostalgia for a form that was dictated by the limitations of the '80s and '90s (which btw is fine) or whether there really is some fundamental advantage to presenting a world of choices in text form which is eluding me.

  2. >>> The narrative part of the gamebook, however, makes me forget the puzzle part - it suspends my disbelief enough such that the choices I make don't look like just A vs B, but like real turning points in my imaginary life, and so I consider the options much more carefully, turning over scenarios in that little dreamscape in my head. So, I'd argue that the novelistic elements of the gamebook actually enhance the interaction, rather than detracting from it.

    Very much this.

    And I don't find the other argument particularly compelling, that images and sounds are more effective at this. CRPG's are heavily stylized as well. Their only advantage is that they are slightly easier on the mind, so to say. Though they definitely can't compare in the "return on the investment" department. And short of simply brilliant voice-acting or environmental storytelling, even slightly clunky prose is capable of the conjuring a strong image in the mind.

    I do welcome maps and menus in text games, but I see them as convenient vehicles for prose that's not just a single uninterrupted wall of text. Interactive prose should never be that anymore. Also, iconic elements are easier to interact with without breaking immersion. In an old gamebook, as soon as I got to the part where I'm asked outright "left or right", or the part where the book told me to add or subtract something or other from my log, or if I want to use this skill or that, the immersion went to crap. Digitally, you can have the "use the Burning Ball of Flaming Fire" icon flash for a second and you know that text option A is associated with the respective skill. Done.

    Also there's the matter of your choices' nature. You said it yourself, old gamebooks barely had any gameplay, so it's up to newer text-adventure authors to actually create expressive choice-systems. Choices could be about any number of things really, from motivation to just alternative ways of seeing the world that imply a change in the character in some way.

    By the way, all of those have been experimented with in parser IF; in terms of environmental descriptions one scene in particular has stayed with me, from Yoon Ha Lee's The Moonlit Tower, where you spin a compass and the mechanical garden around you changes description, with every sentence describing the same things in the same order, just differently, as if in the heat (or cold) of a different season. This sort of point-counterpoint immediately tickles the mind's pattern-recognition, an easy source of pleasure, easily achieved through text. (And rather difficult to do with images, unless it's a static painting-like thing.)

    Also there's the point where player and reader intersect: the role-player.
    You seem to propose a schema where the consumer of an interactive piece is always an audience, either with an aesthetic (reader) or an instrumental (player) agenda. But what if they want to perform? Actually, scratch the "if", they always do. They would make choices as much as, if not more, from a desire to "build" a cool character from the scraps of texts you give them, which is an order of magnitude more than CRPGs allow for. The only truly visible character-expressing moments you have in a CRPG are some sassy dialogue options and some head-stomping moments in combat, complete with nifty visual and sound effects. All else is your digital puppet running around in circles and standing in front of other digital puppets or pieces of scenery to mark moments of contact.

    1. (no doubt some typos in the above)

  3. There's a quote from Auden (which I read on Failbetter's blog, appropriately): "My subjective experience is living is one of having continually to make a choice between given alternatives, and it is this experience of doubt and temptation which seems more important and memorable to me then the actions I take when I have made my choice.”

    Inducing this doubt and temptation is something that text does quite well enough, so we needn't relegate it to merely functional summaries in games.

    1. Undeniably prose does some things at which audiovisuals are less adept, Emanuil. (I'm answering both your comments here, and thanks for taking the time to give such considered feedback.) I know Humbert Humbert more intimately, for example, than I do any movie or videogame character. So prose is good at inner life, at connections, at discursive narrative - in short, at portraying the flow of the mind. But it struggles with some kinds of choices. If I'm walking through the woods in The Witcher and I come to a choice of paths, I can make that decision as subliminally as I would in real life. In prose it has to be: "Will you take the narrow muddy path that winds down to a field of haystacks beyond which you can see a curl of rising smoke, or..."

      Doubt and temptation? And trepidation? Prose can probably carry those off better. And prose is clearly more efective when the choices to be made are not immediately turned into action. In Frankenstein I asked the player to decide if the monster's first sight of the Moon rising filled him with wonder, fear or indifference. Moral or philosophical judgements? Yep, prose is definitely what you need there.

      But there are two kinds of novel. Proper novels use every trick in the prose repertoire to take us inside the skin of another person. Pulp novels, on the other hand, are basically the cheap alternative to movies: bare action-adventure in text form. If a gamebook emulates the former, it can use interactivity to delve into places that videogames would find it very hard to go. (Though see Dear Esther, etc.) What I'm wondering, then, is why so many gamebooks stick to the basic fantasy or SF adventure tropes, where choices mostly are what you fight, what you pick up, what you say, where you go - actions, not inner life. Videogames are better at those kind of choices. By acknowledging that, amebooks could go off in a completely different and more interesting direction now. They could become the interactive version of literary fiction. Instead they mostly stick with the kind of storyline that we used to write back in the '80s and '90s simply because (a) videogames were pretty basic back then, and (b) gamebooks were bought by 9-12 year-old boys. I can think of a dozen reasons why most gamebooks on Kickstarter are dungeon crawls, but the most obvious one is nostalgia. Gamebooks could be so much more; they just don't want to be.

      Btw I'm sure there's also a commercial factor here. Sorcery will have outsold Frankenstein, probably with almost no overlap in readership. Jon Ingold has written interactive stories that are far more interesting than Down Among the Dead Men. First Draft of the Revolution is far more innovative than, say, Holdfast - but the latter raised $30,000 on Kickstarter. There isn't space to discuss that particular tradeoff, but see John Carney's movie Begin Again.

      Finally, in haste: your point about being a performer rather than an audience member. That's certainly why I prefer roleplaying. In both gamebooks and CRPGs the agency you seem to have is really only delivered in little parcels pre-packaged by the designer. Hence the interesting experiments by folks like Emily Short (carrying on from Chris Crawford, in a sense) in drilling down to the level of "atomic" story elements. But can we still call those gamebooks? And would you want the interface to be prose if it could be audiovisual and hence more like daily experience? Be honest.

    2. Why do I have the feeling you're pushing me toward a particular answer? :)

      >> In prose it has to be: "Will you take the narrow muddy path that winds down to a field of haystacks beyond which you can see a curl of rising smoke, or..."

      Or it could be a waypoint on a map. As I said, I have no problem with that.

      >> Doubt and temptation? And trepidation? Prose can probably carry those off better. 

      I meant inducing within the player-reader-performer the sense of doubt and temptation, through compelling text and compelling choices after it.

      >> But can we still call those gamebooks? And would you want the interface to be prose if it could be audiovisual and hence more like daily experience? Be honest.

      I call them interactive text, or text-games. I don't believe “gamebook” carries any meaning anymore to me, except as a description of a historical artifact. I'd like for the interface to be intuitively iconic where prose wouldn't fit. (I mentioned some of these cases, such as choosing directions/skills/anything fiddly like that.) And yes, I do believe there is large unexplored territory in CRPGs where stuff like character progression can be made to follow more novelistic concepts and structures, instead of ticking off XP goodie bags, without losing the possibility of planning and executing plans strategically. (Gameplay, in other words.)

      We have an entire generation now suckled on hypertext, so there's that too. I do like some atmospheric static imagery, to be honest, so I'd have nothing against that either, in a text-game. But here's the thing. Everyday audiovisual experience is not necessarily best represented by audiovisual structures. I firmly believe that. Neither would it be necessary to induce in a role-player that feeling of taking part in something cool, so they would want to go on. Actually, you know that well, p'n'p RPGs are spoken text and little more.

      >>> CRPGs the agency you seem to have is really only delivered in little parcels pre-packaged by the designer. Hence the interesting experiments by folks like Emily Short (carrying on from Chris Crawford, in a sense) in drilling down to the level of "atomic" story elements.

      It doesn't matter if the parcels are prepackaged or not, all that matters is that they be interesting. Also, yes, I like the drilling down to atomic story elements, I know Short and Crawford's work well, and I do agree with Chris Avellone that no designer can provide the excitement you get from dispatching the band of orks one by one with your dwarven warrior, 2 hit points left on him, by exploiting a crack in the rocks where you've hidden. (Or pissing off two competing factions, they sending assassins on you, then stumbling across each other and killing each other off, with you delivering the final shot to the head of their last dying thug.)

      Of course, all of this is an off-shoot of a game's combat system, but character and thematic arcs are so much more interesting to generate in a player's head by well-constructed text, for example by inserting mirror (or contrasting) descriptiory phrases here and there, tweaking a character's line to call back to something said or described before, etc., keeping track of what sort of “character” the player is building so you can dump a nice little (and most importantly, appropriate) dilemma on him. There needn't even be a unified, prepackaged plot arc for that sort of thing. Simply use more tools to make a text “writerly”, instead of “readerly”, as per Barthes. The result needn't be snazzy postmodernism either.

      Finally, yes: Text excites me, by always-already being capable of delivering any given reality much more powerfully than any literalistic audiovisual copy of reality which pretends to represent it “realistically” - and does nothing of the sort.

      P.S. English not my first, sorry if I come across as abstruse :)

    3. Another point. I'm not sure what sort of media, hot or cool, well-constructed interactive text is, especially if fortified with convenient iconic representations (of space, for instance, or of certain kinds of "lore").

      Well-constructed - think of paragraph-length like that of Inkle's stuff, possibly interactive, changeable words, compelling choices, etc.

    4. Sorry for spamming you, but just now thought about this more carefully:

      "Yet as I spin the cogs to decide that, the entire world of the novel must grind to a halt, even begin to fray around the edges, as I’m not consciously sustaining it. So, the more you want the reader to interact – in fact, the more you want them to be a player – the less you must make them a reader. "

      I disagree. When throwing my mind forward to the possible ramifications in a story (and also backward, to relevant detail thus far) I'm not only sustaining the world, but enriching it. Actually, this does double duty if the world and the gameplay are well-welded (haha) together. You're both engaged in tactical or strategic decisions and knitting the elements of the world closer together in the process.

      The only time this doesn't happen is if the choices themselves have no bearing on the larger picture. (Which I suppose should never happen in a text-game.)

    5. I want to get back to all your excellent points when I have more time, Emanuil, but I just wanted to say that for somebody who doesn't have English as their first language, you use it more eloquently than a lot of native speakers do :)

      Anybody else want to jump in on this discussion? Come on now, you know you want to.

    6. Yeah, it's nice and moist in here!
      Now that I reread my posts, I could have done a much better job of organizing my, for a lack of a better word, points... Also, I have the nagging feeling we want more or less similar things from our text adventures and words sort of get in the way of our understanding somehow :D

  4. It’s difficult to find any specific point there that I would disagree with; at the same time, I can’t remember ever opening a gamebook and thinking “I wish there wasn’t so much text in this” or "This would be so much better with sound and moving pictures." I can understand that in a gamebook system that involves backtracking and re-reading, such as that of Fabled Lands, it would be desirable to keep paragraphs succinct and to the point, but I’ve never found the fundamental combination of blocks of narrative, choices, and dice-pen-and-paper “mechanics” to be jarring or inadequate or problematic in any way, not even in a gamebook like Holdfast where the narrative passages are not always short and the mechanics are definitely not for the faint-hearted. Now is that just me, or is it a distinctive “gamebook mode” of reading developed by those of us who discovered gamebooks in the 1980s, or is it something else? I don’t know; but I am inclined to place the traditional type of gamebook in its own category, separate both from novels and from role-playing games

    What I will admit is that I have no experience of gamebook “apps” and only a little experience of the type of interactive fiction descended from the old text-based adventure games; but from what I’ve read about them, it seems to me that they are quite different creatures (with different “temperatures”, to pick up the hot/cold terminology) from the traditional, print gamebook that I am familiar with, and on that point of principle alone, I can agree that it therefore seems of questionable value for a gamebook app to try to emulate the experience of reading a print gamebook. The capabilities of electronic media suggest different modes of interaction.

  5. The fiction games at are prose-heavy, are very popular among a new generation with no background or nostalgia for old-school gamebooks. The best CoG titles are novel-like, and still have clear gameplay elements (tracked automatically). Rather than moment-to-moment action like in gamebooks, they usually focus on character development and thoughtful choices, and the story often spans years or decades. I believe this shows younger readers are still willing to read longer passages in a game-story, at least in the right type of game-story. Most of the games break their narrative into "pages" of one or two screens worth of text, with a decision, or at least a "Next Page" button at the bottom.

    On the other hand, an evocative text game can be created with only Tweet-length passages. "A Dark Room" was the highest-selling game for iOS for several weeks, and is still in the top 100 after a year. It is completely graphics-free, a combination of sentence-long descriptions, resource-management, and ASCII roguelike (where your character is an "@" symbol roving a landscape of letters and symbols). The text itself wasn't especially well-written, but the game created a full but cryptic storyline set in an evocatively grim wasteland.

    Regarding text games with pictures and sounds, I think visual novels are an untapped format. All of the ones I've read are terrible -- interminable bland dialogue and cartoony art. The genre comes from Japan, losing much in translation, and domestic titles seem bent on emulating their roots. However, the format is perfect: unanimated characters are shown against backdrops, and you click through sentences of dialog, narrative, and multiple choices at the bottom. With minimal music, sound effects, and transitions, you have a surprisingly effective digital theater with relatively few assets needing to be created (reusable still artwork, and some generic audio). It looks good in screenshots, and plays very quickly as you click through the prose. Now, if someone would only write a decent story for it...

    1. I have been trying to avoid the appeal to popularity in this discussion. There are two reasons for that. First and most obvious: producing something commercial is not the same as producing something good. I believe I can simply point to Fifty Shades of Grey as Exhibit A there.

      More importantly, none of these variants of gamebook are actually popular in any meaningful sense of the word. As Kyle B Stiff said recently, "The land of gamebooks is a freezing tundra where only the most merciless, die-hard entertainers can survive."

      (Full interview here btw: )

      That aside, there are certain advantages to text. It is cheap, which allows you to experiment and change your mind. Meg Jayanth described having to rewrite about a quarter of 80 Days when the design was changed during development. That'd be grounds for jumping from the window in console game development. And cheap experiments mean more innovation, so there's that.

      Let's put it this way. Suppose you could navigate through life with the usual audiovisual inputs, or you could have a text feed that represented everything you were doing in a novel-like way. Which is easier and more intuitive to interact with? OK, so I don't think there can be much argument there.

      But, as Emanuil pointed out, videogames aren't that great at a lot of the things we demand of a convincing world. We can't talk to characters (literally talk), many of the encounters are repetitive, our inner life is not connected to the rest of the system - not that it can be that seamlessly in gamebooks, come to that.The monster chapter in Frankenstein still has you reading and tapping on text choices, which is just what I have to resort to until the iPad has a connection straight into your brain.

      I agree with you about visual novels. The medium could be used for more (Phoenix Wright is a kind of visual novel, after all) but usually it comprises poor dialogue, a dreary story, paltry graphics and barely any interactivity. That's putting it nicely. However, isn't The Walking Dead a visual novel? I dislike it when the flow of the story keeps lurching to a halt so that an option can be presented on screen - the modern equivalent of a blooming silent-movie intertitle, if you ask me. But still a huge leap forward on dumb which-boyfriend-is-nicer VNs.

      Another format in which text actually fits rather than being a cheap alternative to audiovisuals is the epistolary novel. A gamebook constructed like that would make perfect sense and could use interactivity to explore emotional tensions and upheavals. I'm not talking about Letters from Firetop Mountain, obviously!

    2. >>> Let's put it this way. Suppose you could navigate through life with the usual audiovisual inputs, or you could have a text feed that represented everything you were doing in a novel-like way. Which is easier and more intuitive to interact with? OK, so I don't think there can be much argument there.

      Navigating through a constructed/abstracted environment isn't and can't be as intuitive as navigating through life though. It's a play of conventions. (Even ostensibly "intuitive" interfaces such as an FPS' first-person POV stop being intuitive once you get rid of the WASD.) So I'm not sure what your example points to.

      Are you proposing some sort of virtual reality? (Given the above example as well the "literally talk" thing.

      Also, novel-like representation is something on the order of memory (resynthesizing micromemories in your head, in particular) , not of actual experience. I do know that if I want to remember a particular day, I'm going to want a novel-like representation; also if I want to construct any sort of narrative about a day of mine, or even a particular snapshot of it. Either that or I'm going to use cinematic techniques, which is more or less the same class of thing, only much more difficult to achieve.

      On the arresting the flow of story thing I already commented, I just want to add that in CRPGs you arrest the flow of story all the type, unto literally stopping your pixel-puppet dead in its tracks while you fiddle with some menus or decide what quest goes in what order. Also, I never think that the story in a novel lurches to a halt at a chapter break, for instance, just before lights out for the night. On the contrary, my mind is brimming with possibilities and theories about what went on so far, what will happen next, etc. I don't see how that's not true for well-crafted choices in a choice-based text game.

    3. Virtual reality? Heavens no, Emanuil. I can just imagine what a laborious process that would be. As I said in the post, a visual element can be as simple as having a map instead of text saying, "From here you can go north/south/etc."

      You'll certainly get no argument from me about the strengths of prose in telling a story. What better medium for switching between the action of walking down a street in the rain to a memory of a Mediterranean holiday ten years earlier, for expressing the character's feelings, his memories, the connections he's making, the things that trouble or excite him both on a minute-to-minute timescale and in the wider orbit of his life? As you say, to construct the narrative of a day, prose is perfect. Ulysses as a movie would lose nine-tenths of what’s in the novel.

      Mad Men attempted to depict existential horror when an elevator door opens and the character nearly steps in, noticing just in time that the car isn't there and he nearly plunged down an empty shaft. He stands looking at the twisting cables. But that scene cannot compare to Roquentin's revelation when he regards with horror the roots of the chestnut tree (in Satre's novel Nausea) because prose can show us Roquentin's state of mind. Indeed, the scene in Mad Man really only works to full effect as an intertextual reference to the novel.

      So, prose is great at many things. It's at its weakest, though, in describing action. Yet that is pretty much all it is used for in 99% of gamebooks. Hence my assertion that, if a gamebook is concerning itself with what's going on right now, and what the player-character is going to do about it, then maps, drawings, animation and audio will all do the job better than written text - although admittedly more expensive. If we are going to stick with written text, then, why not evolve gamebooks away from action-adventure (are there really not enough dungeon bash or space opera gamebooks already?) and find other genres that would play to the advantages prose has to offer?

    4. Certainly true. Also, I'm definitely on board with maps and atmospheric drawings.

      But I do feel that you can sort of ennoble even action-adventure (the way Vance, Zelazny or M. John Harrison could in "straight" prose) through using text to play up, for instance, actual character development as a substitute for amassing XP. Basically, provide rewards for good gameplay (or role-play, as the case may be) by making the world and the NPCs suitably reactive, by providing PC character-growth through prose, describing a change and development of attitude toward the world around you - say, different sets of descriptive phrases for this or that, depending on character-development. It's something that a visual medium simply cannot do; the environments there are almost entirely inert.

      Thing is, canon "action-adventure" RPGs - in the Infinity Engine mold, for example - provide a decent strategic challenge on top of a mostly decent narrative. As a fan of "atomistic" and emergent storytelling, I can't help but think that text is the most cost-effective way of achieving this sort of granular evocation of different parts that link up in a cool way, creating a story in my head, even if there isn't a unified one on paper.

    5. Also, I do believe that there's useful tension, even a moral one, in reconciling minmaxing with possible unsalutary effects this could have on the narrative.

      Imagine a system where you can either spend or hoard XP, spending being linked to short-term benefits, hoarding being linked to "advancement" through a richer background for the character, learning skills through interesting narrative that deepens your understanding of the character, forming certain bonds with powerful allies, etc. XP literally represents your experience in the world.

      Now imagine a PC that spends all their XP short-term and they're really, really, really good in a pinch; but they're completely flat, a competent, one-trick bit player in a story where they could've been much more. It's an interesting trade-off both on the minmaxing and the narrative front.

    6. It's funny (well, ironic) that when I was working on trying to build a "cascade of events" emergent story engine about twenty years ago, a friend in IT kept urging me to build the prototype with a text output, but I was stuck on going straight to animated characters. Ironic because I was taking that view despite being a former gamebook author. Decades later, Versu came along to do sort of what I'd been aiming at - though I wasn't ever trying to reproduce Regency drawing-room manners. I would have counted it a victory to get emergent stories on the level of Winnie the Pooh.

      Versatility is a valuable asset in almost any game. *cough* See Game Architecture & Design, by Morris & Rollings, chapter 3 *cough*

  6. Seen it, read it repeatedly, is sort of an inspiration and a handbook to me, actually ;) (Even though I'm still building up the courage to try my hand at all of this.)

    Another good thing about text in this regard is that people are intuitively sensitive to syntactic patterns, hence my Moonlit Tower example. One can get a lot of pleasure slotting different content in the same places in a sentence (or a short paragraph) and accreting palimpsests of alternatives in their minds. For that reason I liked 80 Days' approach a lot, where choices were actually a continuation of the paragraph's last sentence.

    This sort of compare/contrast patterning It's also a nice way to stitch a story together out of pieces of text that aren't necessarily in complete causal connection with one another. As soon as the AI knows the player's gone through situations [A], [G] and [W], it could tweak situation F so it contains the echoes [a], [g] and [w], or any combination thereof.

    1. Using text as memory - ie kind of a free indirect style. Yes, I like that, though it's also possible to do the same thing with visual or aural cues. In Tekumel roleplaying, even the sense of smell is used to evoke certain associations.

      Inkle's engine is perfect for slotting in text in the way you're describing. You can either set pieces of text to cycle, so as to make the description of a place slightly different each time the player comes to it, or you can make text conditional. Whether Victor refers to the monster as "it", "he" or "Adom" in my Frankenstein app depends on some early choices.

      Have we scared everybody else off, do you think? I thought there would be a lot more opinions flooding in on this topic!

    2. I think we may have :) (Or the ones that would chip in haven't gotten around to it yet.) Hope the conversation's not not too much of a slog this way :)

      Otherwise, yes, text as memory, building narrative not out of connected events but out of thematic and imagistic correspondences and contrasts, sort of like a lyric poem or Hemingway's elliptic prose. And yes, sure it can be done with images and sounds; movie soundtracks actually work remarkably like that, with themes and variations crawling parallel to the scenes, subtly influencing mood, etc. But text is more readily available; and structural correspondences, if well-constructed, are rather more difficult to miss. So the player would be able to fill in the narrative blanks without *that* much trouble even if the situations themselves are completely atomic.

  7. It look like the Mrs Giggles review of Fabled Lands agrees with you that MMOGs have replaced gamebooks: "There is probably nothing much here to wow someone who prefers the gorgeous effervescence afforded by World Of Warcraft, but gamebook enthusiasts may find ample novelty value in this experiment."

    1. Well, Jamie and I always thought of FL as a sort of make-do PnP prototype of a MMO - and that was before MMOs. You can find the story of how we tried to get it going at Eidos here:

      IIRC that review also took me to task for using the word paladin for a champion charged with defending a palace - and yet (Charlemagne and D&D aside) that's exactly what the word means. (I could have said hatamoto, I guess, but the whole point of Lords of the Rising Sun was that it translated the terms into English equivalents. When Will Adams met the Emperor of Japan, know what he put in his diary? "I met the Pope.")

  8. I have to admit, I am not sure that making it a game will solve the problem. It is true that game-like elements disrupt the image you are building of the world, but all mediums have elements that do that to some degree, whether they be health bars, factual errors, or simply differences between the auther's intent and the sensations actually evoked in a given reader leading to a clash. In any genre you have to be able to suspend disbelief: learn to keep your immersion going even when these things kick in.

    Also, I am not a fan of the reductionist approach to description. Building my own vision of the world of fiction is all very well, but I can do that myself for free. Why am I paying the author? Surely to guide my visualisation into places where it would not, left to me, have gone. Description is an important part of that. I enjoyed Sorcery because it gave me enough description to mould my mental image into a genuine flavour, and one I wouldn't have produced myself. The bare-bones description may prod me into producing a mental picture, but is it going to be any different from one I could produce anyway?

    Finally, I am not sure that games do yet have that immediacy in all areas. It is true that, to compare two approaches to the open world genre, Fabled Lands does not perhaps have the immediate impact of Skyrim. But it has considerably greater depth and plausibility. Its descriptions produce a realistic (given the set-up assumptions!) world which i can fully immerse myself and "believe" in. Skyrim is a very enjoyable game and can be immersive, but it is also an exercise in determindly ignoring the facts that the mighty province of Skyrim is about 3-5 miles across, the mighty and ancient cities have a couple of dozen buildings, tops, and the battles that decide the fate of an empire have a couple of dozen participants if you're lucky.

    Until technology reaches the point that actually immersive worlds can be created, gamebooks still have a niche.

    1. That's certainly one thing text is better at: "You traverse labyrinthine tunnels that stretch and twist for miles," or, "After three days on the road you reach the walls of Jakalla". If that were represented visually, you'd actually have to slog through it - even with a zoom-out and a fast-forward, it's more intrusive.

    2. Wrt Sorcery, I must admit I just skim-read the text. That probably explains why I kept missing important clues, lol, but looking for clues hidden away in text is just an exercise in English comprehension anyway.

    3. Oh finding the clues is easy. You just proceed until you die a in a miserable and humiliating way, then on your restart look for any mention of the thing that did you. Clue will be there.

    4. I'd say it's strange, skim-reading 50-100 word-long paragraphs. That's like 1/5 to 1/3 of a standard page. Second, you can call it looking for clues or you can call it paying attention to the world. If you hear about a rare-manuscript collector living in the city of B'hblargh, and you happen to come across one such manuscript and remember about the guy, you could go B'hblargh and have him decipher it. If the info on him isn't there with the express purpose of cluing you in and nothing more, I don't count it as an English comprehension exercise at all. It just follows the inevitable template "receive information - make connections - act on them". You can't evade this in any medium.

  9. Some great conversations here!

    I find nothing wrong with works like Sorcery! And still consider it very much a gamebook. Story-telling in the cinema, and most digital entertainment, has evolved over time.

    Gamebooks should continue to evolve as well. Using music, sound effects, and digital "helpers" like maps, bookmarks, and dice - all help to add to the experience. What is left behind is still a great story. What's left behind is still a medium that requires the user to read and use his imagination.

    There will always be those that prefer a paper-back book instead of a digital tablet, or a black-and-white film instead of its color predecessor. But just because cinema now has sound and can be watched from the palm of your hand doesn't mean we can't still call it a "movie" - it's evolved.

    1. Dice in digital gamebooks? That I'd call atavism, not evolution! But that particular bugbear aside, Rick, I agree with you that the medium is evolving - and evolving into more than one thing. The Walking Dead is to Warlock of Firetop Mountain as trilobites were to amoebae. Year Walk is hallucigenia, say. But in all evolution, some early forms go extinct, and that's my question. Is there anything in the traditional prose gamebook that will preserve it? Maybe just in the books you come across in a game like The Witcher... Are those enough to still show the genetic record of gamebooks, would you say?

    2. All right, how would you describe this exact thing that has no option but to go extinct? And how would you describe the evolution of features that you would prefer to see?

    3. That's what the blog post is about. I accept Rick's point that storytelling media are always evolving. In some cases the earlier forms remain valid (stage plays compared to movies compared to cable dramas). In others, the new form does everything better ("better" can include "more to prevailing tastes") and then the older form withers away. Epic poems were much more popular than novels in the early 1800s, and now they've gone the way of the trilobite.

      But here's a better example of what I'm saying. Delaroche is said to have declared, “From today, painting is dead" - coincidentally about the same time that epic poetry was pining for the fjords. Painting didn't die, but it did evolve away from representational art because photography usually can do that better. So painting had to evolve into new and more interesting directions. It started to focus on the internal rather than the pure image. That's what gamebooks could do. No more "solo D&D adventures" - those are the equivalent of a fruit bowl still life, they are. But to use prose to delve into areas that videogames don't find it easy to go? That works. I'm still not convinced I'd use written text if I've got the option of audio, mind you.

    4. Yes, but how is audio anything more than an effect with a striking, but limited usage? And you say below that you can't think of an interactive story you'd rather tell in prose. How would you tell it, escaping from prose altogether? How would that enhance interactivity, and in what way?

    5. OK, take Frankenstein. Victor is talking to the player and asking for advice. So, making the best of a bad job and a limited budget, I have him "talking" in prose and I use "writing to the moment" to make it sound immediate. But if I'd been given another $10,000 I'd far rather have made that an interactive radio play.

      How would I rather have done Heart of Ice? As a full CRPG in which every conversation with the NPCs in Du-En might increase or decrease their chance of trusting me. It would be a far richer experience, and one you could replay many times. The only downside is the $20 million pricetag!

  10. So here's a question. If you can make an interactive story without thinking of the budget, is there any reason you would choose to make it a gamebook rather than something else?

    1. "Something else" being the key phrase here. What else, exactly? Alistair gave a pretty good example of how limited even last-gen stuff like Skyrim is at building a world that's more than a backdrop. How do you imply emotional or intellectual attitude to the world through audiovisuals? How do you imply a rich, deep backstory? How do you create thematic depth through details?

      Not saying this is completely outside the realm of visual representation, but I'm honestly curious about the exact execution.

      Also, you can't make anything without thinking of the "budget" - in other words, about the restrictions, be they self-imposed or not.

    2. I'd certainly prefer to use audio than written text. Think of Dear Esther, for example - would reading all that enhance the sense of fragmentary memories, or lose it altogether? Or the overheard TV sequences in Max Payne - I liked those, but I snarl in frustration when I have to read a book that I've come across in a CRPG. That's because those books are so tediously written, of course, not that I hate reading in general; but even allowing for the fact that Sam Lake is a much better writer than the typical CRPG designer, Max Payne's use of audio was more effective than text could have been.

      So the answer is no, Alin, I can't think of any interactive story that I'd rather tell in prose. And as prose gamebooks flail around looking for a justification to not go extinct, we see variations (third person, past tense, etc) that usually weaken the medium's already flimsy suitability for interaction.

      But, as Emanuil says, you can't forget about budget. After I'd finished Frankenstein, the publisher said to me, "Have you seen Telltale's Walking Dead? Wow, that's the future of interactive storytelling." And all I could say was, "You gave me less than $10,000 to design and write Frankenstein. Give me a hundred times as much and I'll give you something as good as The Walking Dead." They want it; they just don't want to have to pay for it.

  11. I've been thinking about this for a few days now. A few things that have occurred to me along the way:
    If I'm given a choice in a gamebook between turning left and right, or west and east - i.e. the choice is purely geographic - , then a map (or signpost) may be better than the words. If the choice is between 'run after that car!' and 'quick! get your horse to chase that car with!' then I don't know how well the map would capture that better than prose.
    If an entire gamebook is based upon geography, where the goal is to be in a particular place then I can see a map being a useful top-level interface. Otherwise... well, I've not played all the way through Frankenstein yet but I don't see a map as being helpful there, because you're not navigating.

    I think in general, having a map can help. It takes some of the weight off the prose; you can use the prose to point out the salient features, what matters to a character at that moment, without slowing to set up the world around it. But I think this happens in lots of different media. Audio books or audio plays can be a good example: you have the characters speaking (possibly including a narrator), but you also have sound effects. Done right you can convince a listener that although they're only hearing the conversation between three people, there are more than three people in the room.

    I've also just remembered that most Fighting Fantasy books also devoted full pages to artwork (typically of the monsters). Some gamebooks added smaller pieces of art between sections - probably to take advantage of the whitespace created when you try to start a new section on a new page - but these only augment the prose, they don't tell the story without it. I like that the Frankenstein app gives you a story written on pieces of rough-edged paper which are pinned together.
    I have a number of two-player 'Football Fantasy' gamebooks which only depict where the action is on the pitch and which team has the ball, but while actions have consequences there's no narrative causality, an opposing player can't be irritated or worn down.

    I think in general it's just about feeding the reader the information they need to make informed choices, without getting in the way of them having opportunities to make choices. Getting the reader's patience to stay in sync with the pacing of the story is a difficult feat.

    1. Sure, I don't think maps are going to be the solution for every interactive story. They'd add nothing to Frankenstein, for example - even in the last section, where Victor is hunting the monster from Athens to Istanbul and up through eastern Europe to Scandinavia, the focus isn't on cartography. But then, Frankenstein was designed to be a literary artefact, whereas most gamebooks in the old days were really CRPGs with no budget for code, art, or audio.

      So we all accept gamebooks are evolving. In one sense, they evolved into The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain - and into Dragon Age: Origins come to that. In another sense they evolved (via Tales of the Arabian Nights and Fabled Lands) into Fallen London and 80 Days. In another they evolved into Frankenstein, in another into Versu, in another into First Draft of the Revolution. Etc etc. And there's even a tribe of Yanomami indians who still make gamebooks about dwarves and half-elves exploring dungeons, lol.

      So I agree that different styles/forms call for different interfaces. But, nostalgia aside, is written prose going to remain a desirable feature in any of those forms? I think it has survived mainly for budgetary reasons. Often those are the most compelling reasons, of course.

  12. Weighing in here - though I've read all the previous comments I don't have time to respond to them individually, I think it might be useful to examine the word 'immersion' a bit more.

    As a new IF writer, I've found the conflict between immersion (make the reader forget they have a book in their hands) and interactivity (give them something to do, some autonomy and control and participation) give rise to a fascinating set of opportunities. If I want my reader to be immersed in a place, then yeah, video and film and animation is probably going to do a better job than descriptive prose. If I want my reader to be immersed in a consciousness, then prose is the single best tool for doing that. If I want my reader to be immersed in the way that one particular consciousness experiences, imagines, navigates and remembers a place - then I still think prose is the best way to do it. I'm a novelist so I am hopelessly biased, but I'm so much more interested in internal landscapes and psychogeographies than I am in paragraphs that could easily be exchanged for maps.

    I guess the kind of immersion I'm curious about is more to do with character - and developing character in an interactive form also has its challenges. I've just finished a novel-length interactive fiction where we mapped out an entire backstory for the protagonist. In novels and in real life, we get to know people by the choices they make, the things they say, the memories that are filtered through to us. In interactive fiction I might have to delegate some of the control over what choices my character makes (I can't say she's timid - not if the reader gets her to make all the bold choices...) but I can decide how and when to deliver her memories and fantasies to the reader.

    Something else I've discovered, while working on this project, is that all the options open to me as an interactive fiction writer really only make obvious or embody in a more physical way what my mind is doing when I read an ordinary novel. I might imagine what is going to happen in the future, think about alternatives that a character might have explored, remember earlier scenes when reading a later one, skip ahead, re-read, the prose might trigger memories from other books, from my own life, ideas for my own creative work, etc etc etc. I know it isn't a perfect fit, but I read somewhere recently that hyperlinks and hyperlinked fiction were only enacting, in a more obvious way, what poets and novelists do when they use metaphor - putting two surprising things next to each other, making the connection and showing it to the reader.

    This is a bit rambly. There are either several points here, or non. Either way, I've enjoyed eavesdropping. :)

    1. Hey Jenn, glad you could drop by. And rambly is good. We like rambly :)

      I hope it's clear (I think it is) that I'm not saying that maps are better than prose. At the risk of seeming ridiculously egocentric, I'll quote myself here:

      "A well-written novel, the most immersive of all forms of storytelling, should command your full attention and belief. Yet, even while held by the spell of belief, you can appreciate the novel simultaneously on several levels: as a description (honest or otherwise) of the events of the plot; as insight into the characters' feelings and relationships; and, on a level beyond the plot seen as a make-believe reality, you can tune into the themes and resonances that the author has placed there that make it, not a mere account of events, but art."

      This was why I turned away from "gamebooks" when I wrote Frankenstein. I was quite clear that it should be seen as interactive literature. I wasn't even keen on having illustrations, which after all we don't demand in novels after about the age of five. So it was amusing in the Guardian review to be criticized by Kate Pullinger for failing to include sound FX, zoomable images and electrical sparks:

      "There are period etchings and medical sketches, but these don't respond to touchscreen resizing – no zooming in to examine that flayed corpse more closely. While Morris has parsed and reoriented the story effectively, he hasn't fully exploited the device's capabilities in order to reanimate the wild technological imaginings of the story."

      She failed to realize that if anybody at Inkle or Profile had suggested adding that kind of Flash-era multimedia frippery I would have shot it down instantly. Far from enhancing the story, it would have distracted the reader and damaged the sense of immersion.

      So I'm all for interactive literature. However, prose is not always used to full effectiveness the way it is in a good novel. The Sorcery books, like most gamebooks of 20-30 years ago, use prose as a cheaper alternative to visuals. You know the kind of novel that's equivalent to: "Baretta's foot slammed into the door. The wood splintered and he threw himself into the room, pistol spitting bullets..." It's the book somebody writes because nobody will shoot their film script, and most gamebooks, being "solve-the-plot" stories, use prose in a like manner. I'm saying those kind of gamebooks are ready to join the dodo; kinda cute in a goofy way they may be, but their rightful place is still a plinth in the museum.

      Interactive novels of the kind you're talking about, though - now those are very interesting. And there are a lot of experiments waiting to be tried in that space, many of which unembellished prose will be the perfect medium for.

  13. Late to the party, and this is going to be brief because I think it deserves a blog post in response when I've mulled.

    There *is* an issue with long chunks of narrative text that invite skimming to get to choices. In Fallen London and in Sunless Sea, we have strong in-house rules about how much text you can have before you get to a choice for exactly that reason - and we still sometimes do too much. This is particularly a problem when the player sees the text repeatedly - something reviews of both FL and SS have pointed out.

    There is, also, unmistakably, an element of nostalgia in the skeuomorphism of gamebooks. I mean, virtual dice in apps? And I fiercely agree about the importance of maps - this comes up again and again.

    *But* especially in the era of continuous partial attention, players are very good at fruitfully skimming writing. They pick out choice phrases and colourful incident, which become mental landmarks in their own right. The effect is in some ways a lot more like poetry than like prose. This also forgives some aspects of repetition, when the effect is more like returning to a favourite street corner. Funnily enough, it was Blood Sword and Fabled Lands (among others) that taught me that - when I'd return to one of those choice paras that had a sentence or two of nicely tuned description, it evoked a pang of recognition for the first time I'd passed through.

    1. Well, I'd say that Fallen London - Sunless Sea even more - are examples of gamebooks that *have* evolved. And I agree completely with you that the poetry of the well-turned phrase in FL and SS brings an additional beauty on top of the economy with which it conveys what's going on. When I cited that "he thinks the King is weak" example, it would of course need some nicely turned prose, but then it could work better than the long example. (For our purposes, that is. If it were a novel I'm happy to take the decompressed version.)

      Funnily enough, Jamie and I had to feel our way into brevity in the Fabled Lands books. Jamie's opening sequence in War-Torn Kingdom is almost as decompressed as a standard gamebook. But the more we pared the text down, the less hardcore gamebook players seemed willing to make the leap. I guess most of them weren't familiar with role-playing, where you are always striving to set the scene for the players in just a few choice sentences.

      And then I went and wrote Frankenstein with some pretty long swathes of prose between choices. But is that a gamebook? It's not "solve the plot" anyhow.

      I'm looking forward to that blog post when you have time. Drop a line in the comments here when it's done?

  14. >I wasn't even keen on having illustrations, which after all we don't demand in novels after about the age of five.

    Humph. I peer searchingly over my lorgnettes at you. Gorey? Gunther Grass? Alasdair Gray? Austen's illustrated Hamlet?

    1. This aversion (strange in a dedicated comic book fan, I grant you) dates back to when I read the Norse myths as a kid. I liked the dreamlike way you were never sure about things like scale. Are giants much bigger than gods, only a little bigger, or the same size? In prose alone the answer can just be, "Yep!" Pictures apply a tyrannical literalness.

      Another example: the Br'er Rabbit stories, which I read about the same time. The illustrations made it clear that a "Tar Baby" was just a child who happened to be black - throwing away the chance of another happily ambiguous reading.

      So my objection to pictures in a novel is that prose does the job fine without them. When the author themselves has chosen to include pictures... well, then it's a matter of reader choice, I guess. For me, l'auteur est mort.

    2. I find the idea of aversion to in-game illustrations to be rather odd, but this post has at least helped me understand why someone would wish to remove them and allow their imaginations to run wild, free of the "tyrannical literalness" of images.

      I recently received some fanmail for my Android gamebook Westard Dystopia which, while generally very positive, included what I thought at the time to be a bizarre request: Include an option to turn off images. I didn't understand it at the time due to a lack of included reasoning behind the request, but the above post clarifies the desire somewhat. I suppose I had simply automatically assumed that images were a staple of the genre. It never occurred to me NOT to include them!

    3. I can't really speak as a devotee of the medium because I see myself as a roleplayer, not a gamebook reader. Certainly if somebody gave me a novel with pictures in then I wouldn't look at them. I want my imagination to render that world, not the artist's!

  15. Interesting post. I'd like to add a few thoughts:

    1. One advantage text has over audio-visuals is that it's easier to skip through on subsequent readings. I'm not looking forward to replaying Telltale's Walking Dead because I'll have to sit through the cut-scenes, move the protagonist around, re-do the action events, etc. It's even worse in most computer rpgs. I'm never going to replay Dragon Age: Origins again because I can't bear the thought of going through all that combat again.

    2. I've actually played some text-reliant narrative games that took a reductionist approach to the prose. They offered lots of choices, lots of goals to pursue, and they were quick to replay, but they were ultimately shallow experiences. I enjoyed some of them because they had well-designed feedback loops, but there just wasn't enough detail to make me care about their stories and adding animation and sound wouldn't have changed things very much.

    3. I think there's a lot of market pressure from gamers to make interactive stories be all about making choices as frequently as possible and I think this has distorted the art form. I'd rather make fewer choices that have interesting long-term consequences than make frequent, shallow choices that don't have any lasting impact on the narrative.

    1. You raise some very good points.

      1. Anything that you have to replay over and over is bad design. Why force the player to repeat it? (It begs another question: why have death in gamebooks? We've discussed that on this blog many times.) Text is more skimmable, true - but to evoke that in defence of text is kind of damning with faint praise. Better to not design so that repetition is inevitable.

      2. Are we talking about Fallen London? Because I find the text there to be minimal and yet highly evocative. Less can be more, as long as you get a writer who is prepared to stretch beyond bare descriptive text and inject a little poetry.

      3. I agree that more choices aren't necessarily better. It depends on the way in which the player is expected to relate to the story, and the degree of agency that implies. To take an example far removed from gamebooks: as a kid I used to read Ellery Queen whodunits. About three-quarters of the way through the book, there was a page saying, "OK, dear reader, you now have all the facts. See if you can solve the murder, then read on." Other than that page, those were straightforward novels - but the degree of connection they achieved goes beyond many gamebooks.

      As I said earlier, I didn't feel the need to keep the choices coming in Frankenstein as fast as in Fabled Lands - though I'm sure the overlap between the two readerships is pretty small. And in visual novels you seem to only get offered a choice every hour or so, and the choice you make rarely seems to affect anything. Maybe I've just looked at the wrong visual novels.

    2. 1. I don't disagree that forcing the reader to repeat things over and over again is a design flaw, but it's something I've encountered in almost every electronic interactive story that I've ever experienced. Both Western and Japanese works are guilty of this. The ability to fast forward through the text is common, but outright scene skipping is rare. Gradually revealed flowcharts of the plot that the reader can click on to replay previously read sections are rarer still. And aside from secret cheat codes, I've never seen a work that allowed the reader to directly set flags or stats to previously earned values. These aren't difficult technical problems, so why do you suppose this design flaw continues to exist? I honestly have no idea.

      2. I wasn't thinking about Fallen London, but it would fall under the category of having too much brevity for my tastes. "Less is more" is acceptable to me when it's applied to setting, but not when applied to character. If the level of characterization drops beyond a certain point, then I'm just not as invested in the story.

  16. Hey Dave... about the map as an evolution of gamebooks, I think in games like 80 Days it works great because the game is about the map, about the journey. It's like the text part are secondary.

    However in Sorcery 2, I find the map a little obtrusive (only a little). The game there is the text, the branching, and sometimes, for example, at the jail just starting the game, you must use the map to examine each corner of the cell, and that feels weird.

    On the other hand, I'm playing Assain in Orlandes, and has certain travelling across the fields and such, and it feels right, you know, the flow of the reading is not interrupted with the map.

    I need further explore Sorcery to get a conclusion about the use of map in text games, but that is... if they part of "the game" if travelling across the map is an important feature, then it has sense, like in 80 Days, but to use lightly to every game, I think it could be a little out of place.

    1. It strikes me this can be reduced to a discussion of the relative merits of CLI vs GUI - though nobody out there is probably going to speak up for CLIs.

      It's true that maps are only going to suit interactive stories where navigation is important. So perfect for the first Sorcery app or books like Fabled Lands when you're in the travel-between-cities part, less useful when you're just trying to decide whether or not to climb a tree or pick a lock, and no good at all for character-focused interactivity like in Frankenstein.

    2. About reducing the discussion to CLI and GUI I just wanted to point to that thought about the maps, that's all.

    3. You're right, Ruber. I was making a more general point there about the entire discussion, but I also found that some of the uses of the map to make choices seemed a little awkward in Sorcery. Just some examples like climbing the tree or exploring the cell, as you say. Given the structure of Sorcery (ie that it's a map-plus-text gamebook rather than a full point-n-click adventure game) those sections would have been better handled in text than via the map. That's not to say that another graphical solution wouldn't have been better still, but (as Inkle readily admit) the advantage of text is that it's cheap.

  17. Of possible interest: there's a parallel discussion about this post going on at

  18. I've been having another think about this. I don't think prose is the main issue. I think it's an issue in the sense that information needs to be conveyed to the reader and there are always going to be different ways to present information efficiently so they don't disengage from your world, but when I think that the act of reading prose might itself be disengaging the reader, because it postpones their choices and requires patience, I think it gets to the issue of interruptions.
    First, you can't interrupt a gamebook while it's talking to you. You can skip ahead to the next choice, but the story won't react to your ignoring what happened inbetween. All it can do is try to keep you listening to what it has to say until it decides it's time for you to act.
    Second, a gamebook can't interrupt you. If it decides it's your turn to act, it can't take your lack of immediate decision as a sign that it should carry on telling the story until you decide to intervene. And every moment it 'chooses' to wait silently for you to make up your mind disinvolves you.
    Is that a fair point?

    1. There's nothing in principle to stop a digital gamebook from doing both of those things. For a long time I've thought that adventure games ought to carry on telling the story if you don't do anything. You'd still have the option to pause the game, but if you are genuinely stuck then after a while the character could figure out what to do next. Who knows, it might even encourage more people to play adventure games.

      Prose is not the issue, you're right. Prose handles some things that are very hard to handle using other media - though audio might be preferable to written text in most of those cases. However, in most plot-&-information scenarios, visuals beat prose. For example, a crime scene strewn with clues. In prose you have to list one clue after another, including in that list a bunch of things that are just red herrings, which is almost inevitably asking the player to skim. Visuals give you all that information at once.

      I realize that gamebook purists are interpreting all this as "text evil, visuals good" but that is not what I am saying. Text could be the perfect medium for some kinds of interactive story. But it's not very good for the traditional action-driven swords-&-sorcery adventure that was the staple fare of the gamebook medium 20-30 years ago.

    2. Btw, your point that "the act of reading prose might itself be disengaging the reader" reminded me of an earlier discussion we had around these parts on the good and bad ways to utilize prose in interactive stories:

      So maybe we ought to reopen the comments on that post too. There could be a whole lecture course in this one topic :-)

  19. I believe that there is much to be said for increasing the visual elements to game books, the Sorcery! apps being an excellent example of the usage of an interactive map. That said, there still seems to be a market out there for game books which rely primarily on text to convey a sense of environment, direction, and character.

    A valid reason for gamebooks to hold onto their roots and play up novelistic elements? I think there is more than enough room for authors and designers to branch out in both directions. My preference for text-based interactive tales is very simple to explain: I enjoy reading. I realize that love of reading page after page 'walls of text' is almost anachronistic in today's society, but I feel very little need for flashy interactive maps and puzzles in my gamebooks. I'm MUCH more interested in world building, story, and fantastic descriptions.

    I suppose one could counter that with 'Well then why not simply read a book? Why a gamebook?" The answer to that is a bit difficult. On one hand there's the nostalgia factor. I was raised on gamebooks and when I grew up I felt that there was a severe lack of interactive fiction aimed at adults. This is still the case in large part, although many game books and interactive fiction released lately have done their best to fill that deficit. By 'for adults' I don't necessarily mean pulp violence or sexual situations either, I mean adult-level prose and characterization which was and still generally is lacking in most game books. Aside from that, there is simply a base enjoyment to reading a novel where you can change the outcome based on your choices. What I truly long for is a series of full length novels with adult-level prose where you can choose the direction the action or plot takes. This is what I was hoping Destiny Quest would be when I saw the size and density of the prose. DQ is great for what it is, but it truly deserves the 'Diablo of Gamebooks' reputation that it has been given as the plot takes a back seat to combat and item gathering.

    I tried to reach some of these goals in my game book Westward Dystopia, but I feel that I fell a bit short of what I actually wanted. I sacrificed a great deal of character development for gameplay and adventure/fighting elements which work great for a game book, but didn't quite reach the level I wished to have with characters possessing hopes and dreams that a reader could relate to and imagine themselves having. What I hope is that readers will find that I have crafted a world and environment that is interesting to explore and will keep them thinking after they put the book down. The kind of world building you accomplished with Heart of Ice which I still think about quite often (I would buy a sequel in a heartbeat, heh) It's a difficult balancing act to get right when designing interactive fiction. I also made the conscious decision to include digital dice (which I know you're no fan of) because I felt that apps like Appointment with FEAR fell flat with their mechanics working behind the scenes when compared with Gamebook Adventures. Perhaps that's just the old fogey in me clinging to the pencils and dice of the past or maybe a visual representation of the mechanics just works better for some people, it's hard to say. One thing I did to attempt to break the mold somewhat was to do a little self-conscious 4th wall breaking in having an in-story reason explained behind the reader only being presented with a limited number of choices after every section. In a perfect world, we could write stories that could branch off in hundreds of directions, but such a story would take years and hundreds of thousands of words to realize.

    I suppose my rambling point is that there is room for interactive fiction to branch out into more visual representations of apps and video games, but there is something about simple interactive prose that has a lasting appeal to me and I hope that doesn't go away any time soon.

    1. Ah, the question of dice in gamebooks is a whole other debate that - yep, I just looked back and we discussed it here:

      And that led on to the more interesting question of whether interactive stories should be designed with random elements at all:

      And Paltogue wrote a very interesting post on Lloyd of Gamebooks about how even action-driven gamebooks work a lot better (and are more dramatic) if fights aren't resolved randomly:

      If we collected all these old posts together there'd be a whole book of this stuff. But I digress. It's interesting what you say about reading. I devour novels at a pretty fast rate, so nobody needs to sell me on the value of prose. A good novel can do things that no other storytelling medium can achieve. Most gamebooks, though, just wouldn't rate against a novel. I'm flattered that you like Heart of Ice, but at best it's high-quality pulp. If I were to turn it into a novel as it is then it would hardly compare to Greg Bear or David Brin, say. (I'm not being unduly modest; I'll put Frankenstein alongside them any day!)

      Although I'm an avid gamer, I don't ever feel the need when reading a novel to make choices. How would Lolita be improved by interactivity? Or 1984? Or The Sun Also Rises? Or The End of the Affair? But if you can answer those questions then I'll be sure to buy your interactive versions :)

    2. Not being a fan of remakes, I likely would not see the need for nor advocate an interactive remake of any classic literature. I feel that if a story is going to be interactive it would need to be designed that way from the ground up. Adapting a traditional book which, by definition, has a singular path through with no room or need for deviation, into a gamebook with multiple paths would necessitate a considerable amount of changes to the source material, as well as the introduction of plot points never found in the original.

      On the other hand, if a book or series is designed to be interactive from the beginning, there is much more you can do with it. The player/reader can join several different factions, explore alternate motivations and reach vastly differing conclusions at the end of the story.

      The concept I wish to explore in my series is a riff on the structure of gamebooks and the nature of time as a wheel within them. The overarching plot for the series explains the player's repeated delves through different paths and endings, allowing every path to be series 'canon' to the story. A concept I have been working on integrating in the books is that of the author, myself, willfully constraining the main character to certain paths, making some choices more likely than others, and manipulating the mind of the character/player into finally choosing the path I want in order to manipulate the current iteration of the wheel to my favor (my avatar in the series is JD, a sentient computer who creates the gamebook simulation which volunteers (the readers) are run through) Ultimately, the author is the antagonist, creating alternate paths by which the player can die, prematurely aborting the simulation, and introducing limited choices for advancement to force the player where he wants them to go step by step, iteration by iteration.

      Now it's entirely possible that I simply may not have the experience as an author to convey these concepts effectively. My first book came out a bit more pulpy than I had originally intended. The above concept is spread out across multiple novel-length books which appear on their surface to be more action-oriented gamebooks with vastly differing endpoints. Each book has its own plot which is perfectly playable on its own, but the external story plays out through all of them, detailing the volunteer/reader delving into the simulation in attempts to discover a secret to avoid a major world-ending catastrophe. The reader does not actually play the protagonist, he plays the volunteer exploring the protagonist's memories searching for answers only the protagonist knows.

      Point of all of this being, I think there are still realms to be explored yet by authors interested in interactive prose without fully changing the medium into what may as well just be a video game. The fact of the matter is that most gamebooks are written in a young adult and/or pulp style, but there's no reason that should be a requirement for the medium. I wanted to transcend that barrier, but I believe I fell somewhat short (although I'm still proud of the first book and the second and third which are both about halfway finished) by focusing too much on gameplay elements and less on the actual character development. It's a difficult line to find between game and book, but in some ways that's half the fun of creating them. Plus, I'm still honing my craft so hopefully things will just get better over time.

      Anyway, I enjoy your blog and while I don't always agree with everything, your posts and your books have done quite a bit to help shape me as an author. I very much want to play Frankenstein, but unfortunately I only have Android devices at the moment. When I get my first iOS device, that's the first app I intend to purchase since you consistently seem incredibly proud of it.

    3. I can help with that, Jeffrey. Frankenstein has been out in Android format for quite a while now:

    4. You know what's crazy? I searched for that numerous times and never found it (plenty of other Frankenstein apps on the marketplace, but I never found that one. Then I read about how you only wanted to put things on iOS from now on due to poor Android sales so I assumed it simply wasn't released on Android. Thanks for the link! Purchased!

    5. Poor Android sales? Apps on iOS only? Huh? There must be another Dave Morris out there saying these things!

  20. Quite odd . I suppose it's entirely possible that I misattributed an anti-Android sentiment to you after reading it from another gamebook blogger. I distinctly recall reading it, but I am clearly in error thinking it was written by yourself as I find myself unable to find the post in question.

    After being unable to find your Frankenstein app in the Play store, I came here looking for a link some months past, and noted that your sidebar lists it as "Available in the App Store" with no mention of Android which must have cemented my mistaken assumption that it was never released on Android at all. Either way, I have it now and I'm halfway through part two. It's not difficult to see now why you are so fond of this particular work. It is exactly what I've been looking for interactive fiction to evolve into: adult-level high quality prose which reads as an interactive novel.

    1. Thank you on two counts, Jeffrey. First for the praise (obviously!) but also for highlighting that omission. I need to correct the sidebar tab so it points to a page with links to both versions. Hope you enjoy the rest of the story.

    2. I finished Frankenstein the other night and immediately went back to play it again. Section 2 from the perspective of Adom was just brilliantly done and kept me up nights just thinking about it and how I would deal with being born into such a situation.
      As an aside, the link you gave me earlier is dead and the app seems to be removed from the Play store. I already gave the app 5 stars, but I wanted to write a proper review.

    3. That's very annoying. Thanks for pointing it out, Jeffrey. It's doubly frustrating because I paid for a developer to create an Amazon Active Content (ie fully interactive) version, and the publisher said, "Wait until the Android version is ready and we'll publicize both." And I waited, and then Amazon closed down Active Content - so the money spent developing that was completely wasted. And then the Android version finally came along, the publisher gave it zero publicity, and now it seems not to be available. This is why more and more authors are going indie these days!

      I think there's an epub version out there somewhere but I'm not sure of the link. "Frankenstein by Dave Morris" and "epub" might find it.

      Anyway, thanks for the 5 stars but I guess the only place to put a review is the App Store. Or on your blog? Either way, I appreciate your interest and kind words.

  21. TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

    do you take the road less travelled turn to 50
    or take the more frequently travelled path, in which case turn to 86

    1. Funny you should say that. After I wrote Frankenstein, Profile Books (the publisher) asked what I'd like to follow it up with. They favoured Dracula, but I suggested an interactive epic poem based on Homer's Odyssey. I don't think they realized I was serious.

    2. Seems like and Interactive Odyssey would be pretty pulpy -- go here, kill something, go there, escape danger, etc.

      I haven't bought Frankenstein as it's not my thing, but I would totally get Dracula. You mentioned epistolary novels lending themselves to interactivity...

    3. I'm not convinced The Odyssey is *merely* the 8th century BC's answer to Conan, but there no doubt is a lot of action-adventure to it. I think if I'd done it then it would have been the first gamebook actually written as an epic poem, anyway - could be wrong about that.

      I already did Crypt of the Vampire, so no need to go back to that. But if I write any more text-driven interactive stories I'd certainly go with a literary rather than pulp/genre focus.

  22. With reference to text and interactive novels, would you consider a game like Planescape: Torment an interactive novel? I know I would.

    1. I probably wouldn't call it a novel as that implies that it's told in prose - but an interactive story, certainly.