Gamebook store

Thursday, 9 April 2015

How to park a jumbo

We've talked about it before, the elephant in the room of gamebooks. Text is what I mean. Prose. Words words words. The "book part" of this strange hybrid medium that squeezed its way into existence at a time when people had got a thirst for interactivity but games still took twenty minutes to load up off a cassette tape.

Earlier posts have thrown the elephant a bun or two. We considered the problem that text gets in the way of interaction. In which case, do gamebooks even need text at all? And if we have to have text, how do we make people want to read it?

Jon Ingold of Inkle was discussing these points at GDC. You can see the talk here. It turns out he never liked what I did with Inkle's engine, namely my interactive reimagining of Frankenstein. Ouch. Turns out he also doesn't care for Crime and Punishment, though, which takes the edge off.

I got the same vibe from the editors at Profile Books (the actual publishers of Frankenstein, though you would hardly guess it). They loved Telltale's Walking Dead - and quite right too. Why couldn't I have given them that instead of 150,000 words of text? But, publishers, here's a tip: if you want videogame production values, you can't pay the typical minimum-wage advances to authors and expect them to return a few months later with a nifty 3D interactive movie.

All right, I'm being disingenuous there. These days you don't have to spend north of five million dollars to make a decent-looking game. Indie development has brought the focus off Uncanny Valley emulation of blockbuster movies and back onto gameplay, panache and style. Apotheon, say, or This War of Mine. This might be your Golden Age, gamers; make the most of it.

People think a writer's job is moving words about, but that's the first fix. In the very beginning, as you're laying the foundations and erecting the scaffolding of the story, what's churning around inside your skull is a flood of images, character traits, emotions. The shape starts to reveal itself in snatches of dialogue, mood, key events. When you're ready, when it's fully marinated, that's when you put it down in words. If your medium is the novel, it will all be rendered into words eventually - but even that is only a program, a code that will run in the reader's brain so that they can construct their own experience of your story. It's those cassette tapes all over again.

For writers working on a movie, or designers on a game, that process of communicating the final experience is far clearer. You know right from the get-go that all that documentation you're writing is not the thing itself, it's the blueprint that will be used to make the thing. It differs from a novel only in that the reader of a novel has to do for themselves, and in their imagination, all the work of the development team.

If gamebooks have a future, we can surely agree it will be in digital form. No one disputes that the medium is evolving and that its boundary with videogames is getting so blurred as to be meaningless. Is Sorcery a gamebook? With each instalment the prose fades further into the background. In a game like This War of Mine we don't even talk about a "text component"; the text is just one more way of presenting the game world to the player. So it must become with gamebooks. The writer must think in terms of all the media (text, audio, images) and mix them as the story and the budget allow.

I've recently been discussing a new interactive story app called The Frankenstein Wars with Jaume Carballo, content director of Cubus Games, and Paul Gresty, who will be writing it. Referring to how an all-new interactive story needs to be conceived right from the outset so as to make full use of all component media, Jaume said:
"Keep in mind that we have to write the text over a structure comprising interactive maps, plans, images and so on. We're not doing an adaptation of a '90s gamebook, we're creating an interactive story app, so the team must work together. We don't want to end up with tons of text written thinking just in the story and not in the mechanics."
With that, I'd say he bagged the elephant. And just before it could go into musth. Phew.


  1. I get your point. But I prefer Frankenstein and Necklace of Skulls over Sorcery! Text is still central to my enjoyment of gamebooks. The rest is just extras.

    1. I'm glad you liked them, Joakim. However, it looks like the days of text-only gamebooks are pretty much over. One valid new iteration was, I think, the literary interactive novel (like Frankenstein) but I doubt you'll see any more of those. Publishers will look at Sorcery and they'll look at Frankenstein, and those are apples and oranges, but the bottom line is that apps that emphasize the videogame apects will outsell those that are interactive novels. Text will just be a part of the whole, and when it is used it won't be as prose in the novelistic sense.

  2. It's interesting that novels remain as strong as ever, despite the prevalence of television, film and video games. In fact, TV programs and films based on books are regularly compared unfavourably to their textual source material. And, conversely, popular television programs and films often spawn successful series of spin-off novels (sometimes regardless of the actual quality of the writing or stories...).

    For me, visual media deprives me of an opportunity to personalize the author's story; however articulately an author evokes his creative vision, the reader's imagination has broad reign to bring new colour and detail to the unfolding scene. And presumably this is the same for the many people that continue to buy novels in their millions (if not billions). So what is it about interactivity that deters modern audiences from picking up a gamebook?

    I guess the act of exercising conscious control over the story suspends the immersion, and the mental image conjured by the text can waver or falter as the brain directs some of its effort to Making a Decision. If only there was a way for the reader to make all the decision in advance starting story (without giving away any surprises) that would still generate an engaging and fulfilling novel.

    1. Going right back to Fabled Lands in the mid-90s, Jamie and I could see that readers didn't have the patience to wade through lots of text between decisions. Hence the short sections in FL - and if we did it over again, we'd make them even shorter. But that thinking (as I said in a recent post) applies to action-adventure gamebooks. Naturally in something like Sorcery you don't want to have to read 500 words about a goblin before you decide whether to sneak past it, attack it, or talk to it. But Frankenstein, like any proper novel such as Crime & Punishment, say, is about the characters and the story, not just a skim-through to the next hack/sneak/talk decision. You hopefully read the prose in a novel because you enjoy it - but not most gamers, obviously.

    2. >Lee wrote: "If only there was a way for the reader to make all the decisions in advance."

      Nicola Morgan, in her YA novel Wasted, does something like that. You make a choice towards the end and that changes the final chapter. In app form it would be easy to implement a much more thorough version of the same idea. You'd choose your lead character's strengths and weaknesses at the start, and that would customize the experience for each reader. But me, I'll stick to Dostoyevsky ;-)

    3. Actually one of the things I disliked about the FL books was how short some of the entries were. It was hard to properly get a feel for them due to the brevity of the sections. Don’t get me wrong, I liked them. A lot. But I get the feeling I’d have liked them a whole lot more if some of the sections had been fleshed out and given the depth they needed.

      As someone who plays, and writes, a lot of text adventures / interactive fiction, the games that I think of favourably are the ones with a lot of text. Sounds? Graphics? They're just distractions. I loved the Sorcery books, but the apps just felt empty and soulless to me.

  3. Hm. Maybe I'm just being old but I don't enjoy the games on my Xbox anymore. Where is the story? Where are the characters? And why do I feel so lonely? Why do the games lack any meaning? Playing with friends, we create those missing elements, but playing alone, it's creepy. On the other hand, reading a novel or a well crafted gamebook (physical or virtual) I'm walking hand in hand with the author, and the sense of loneliness is gone. (there are actually some video games that accomplishes the same feeling, but they are few). If the kind of new interactive story app you write about manage to accomplish that - what shall I call it, humanness? - I'll be very happy. Otherwise, I'll stick to my novels and old forgotten gamebooks. On the other hand, I don't have to sell games to earn money, so please take my opinions with a pinch of salt.

  4. Maybe I'm just slipping in between generations here, but I'd rather my imagination be sparked by text than laid out for me by a video game. I enjoy reading your articles, and I'm sure your right. Maybe I'm whimsical, but I hope a seed can be planted.

  5. Joakim, Alex, I agree that many games are superficial. Movies too, and even novels. It's Sturgeon's Second Law: 90% of everything is crap. But there are games these days that make a connection, that have that quality of humanness you describe, Joakim. The question is, can that quality also be found in gamebooks? Deathtrap Dungeon is no substitute for Tolstoy - nor Sorcery, no matter how admirable those apps may be in other ways. Frankenstein has it, I think, but as Jon Ingold says in his talk, far fewer people wanted to read that. However, many millions more will read Crime & Punishment than will ever play a gamebook app, so maybe the developers in this field are completely missing the point?

  6. I have been playing computer games since 1986, and would agree we are currently in a golden age. I lost some interest in early 2000s a bit, everything became a bit too commercialised as it was realised how much money was to be made. But over the past few years I have pumped hundreds of hours in to games like the Dark Souls series. I also thought Apotheon was excellent, although I completed it too quickly. And community funding has lead to the likes of Pillars of Eternity which I am waiting to get stuck in to after Bloodborne.

    With books.. I keep reading that the days of the printed book and the gamebook especially are over. I guess I'm just a very untypical person then. I own a kindle, but I collect books (mainly weird fiction) and greatly prefer the physical object, the tactile sensation, the art and the feel of handling a real book. Niches seem to be springing up for lavishly made small press publishers who make outstanding artifacts, but just the same I am happy with a battered old paperback from the 70s or 80s or a mouldering hardback from the Edwardian era. Often these physical objects hold memories themselves. I also like to really own the item. When a book is in existence, that's it. Apart from physical degradation over time. With kindle its data, which has to be migrated, stored device charged up etc.. I feel like I don't really own it. Data has to be maintained and stored or it will go out of existence, unlike a book.

    As regards gamebooks, for me no computer game can compare to the experience of reading a book or vice versa. This is why I never understood the reasoning that computer games killed off gamebooks. They never even overlapped in my mind. I was playing my Amiga and Snes in the 90s and still buying new gamebooks that were released. I daresay you are right about what would sell these days, and the gamebook apps are nice and all, but my preference would always be for a physical printed gamebook close to the look and feel of the original gamebook craze. I realise I'm untypical and only speaking for myself here!

    1. Good points, Neil. This thread is reminding me yet again that followers of this blog are not typical of the wider world of gamers or readers. I've never been a gamebook reader, but I do churn through a whole lot of fiction and non-fiction, and I tend to use the Kindle just for samples or for Project Gutenberg books that don't exist in print form. It's not that I have any particular emotional connection to print books, just that I prefer a codex to a scroll.

      The deeper question behind this post and the earlier ones linked to above is: what is a gamebook? Deathtrap Dungeon is, Frankenstein is - but how about Sorcery? Isn't that really just a simple CRPG? Oh, but there's text? There's text in any CRPG - quite a lot of it in some cases. Would an opera-lover approve of Once Upon A Time In The West? Would a book-lover approve of the TV version of Wolf Hall? Depends on if they're purists - but in any case, the rest of the world will vote with their dollars, and the film makers and game designers have to follow where that leads.

    2. The boundaries do become blurred. There are CRPGs that are like gamebooks and maybe we will see an increase of gamebooks that are like CRPG. I welcome it all really, as long as the quality is there.

      Some CRPGs have plenty of text, Pillars of Eternity which I mentioned above is one. I can remember when Morrowind came out for PC and as a gamebook player in the 80s it was the realisation of exactly the type of game I wanted. And it has on screen text rather than voice acting.

      Even among gamebooks that are traditional gamebooks, they can be quite different. Some of the early Fighting Fantasies were more like puzzles with a single true path, they could never be confused for Fabled Lands, which is surely more like a game than a book.

      I'll be honest, another factor that motivates my interest with gamebooks is nostalgia. You're not going to appeal to many new customers with that though!

    3. Both Inkle (with Sorcery) and Tin Man (with Fighting Fantasy) have started out by appealing to the nostalgia market - though in fact I doubt if anybody who bought Sorcery knew or cared that it was based on a gamebook series from 30 years ago. The form that even Tin Man's apps are now taking is moving away from traditional gamebooks. The subject matter that seems to sell is still orcs, steampunk, dungeons, etc, so apparently nostalgia is alive and well. The games industry spent 15 years circling the same old tropes until the indie movement pointed the way to more interesting possibilities.