Gamebook store

Friday, 13 April 2018

What now?

What Now? was a gamebook series that Leo Hartas and I took to Walker Books. The pitch document has a reference to gamebooks having been around for ten years, so I was either thinking of Death Test, which would date the What Now? pitch to 1988, or of Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which sets an upper limit of 1992. Hazarding a guess I’d put the date of this concept around 1990.

It wasn’t the first time I’d thought of doing a gamebook in the form of a comic. This one was different because it was for younger readers.Each book would have 28 or 29 content pages, with 4-5 full-page illustrations and the remaining 24 pages consisting of up to nine comics panels per page. We estimated a total of about 130 sections ("paragraphs" in traditional gamebook parlance) given that some sections would require more than one panel before the reader was presented with another choice.

Knowing more about publishing than we had when we started out, Leo and I appreciated that a full-colour art-heavy book of the sort we were envisaging would have to be a co-edition. That is, Walker Books would need to partner with other European publishers so that the books came out in multiple translations. That’s why we decided to use icons instead of text for the choices.

Because the lead character would appear in the illustrations, these books would have been third person, with the reader guiding the character and maybe having a conversation with them, rather than the first-person style of most gamebooks.

The people at Walker were enthusiastic. Not so enthusiastic as to offer an advance right off, but I remember a bottle of white wine was brought out at the meeting. That was rare by the 1990s, when those boozy publishing habits seemed long gone.

“We want to see thrills and spills, fun and laughter,” the editor told us. My heart sank. That meant they wanted us to do a sample before they’d commit – and a sample of something like this, to be at all representative, required us to plan out the whole system and produce a substantial chunk of one of the books. Even so, we went away keen.

But… no, you didn’t blink and miss them; these books never happened. I can’t remember exactly why. It could be that Leo’s contact at Walker Books went freelance. Or maybe we just couldn’t clear enough time in our schedules for such a daunting chunk of work, seeing as I was busy on Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Leo had cutaway books to do for Dorling Kindersley.

The idea of an interactive comic book was interesting, but I would much rather have done a version for older readers. I never got on with “kiddie humour” even when I was a kid, and while the fairytale feel of What Now? would have been interesting to work with, I'm quite sure the editors were expecting Beano-style comedy, and that style of British slapstick did not appeal to me.

From the interface and the kinds of puzzles we sketched out I think I was already leaning towards the career in videogames that I moved to five or six years later. Even so, it’s a pity we never got to do these. I enjoy working with Leo and I think the pleasure of that collaboration comes across in what we do. As it is, all that remains of the proposal now are a folder stuffed with roughly sketched pages and the pitch document below.

WHAT NOW? gamebooks

Gamebooks for older readers have been around for at least ten years now. Each year a new series comes out, but usually they’re in the same old "Fighting Fantasy" mould. WHAT NOW? books are something new.

These are gamebooks with a difference. Intended for younger readers (7-9 years), the plots are straightforward and uncomplicated. These are fantasy stories, but not the kind of fantasy that’s filled with dreary dungeons and dismal ores. WHAT NOW? will have fresh, funny, vibrant plots with a hint of fairytale magic about them.

The idea is that the reader guides the hero or heroine through a series of adventures and puzzles, selecting the next picture panel to turn to by deciding between visual icons in the picture. These give the option to talk to characters, run off, look around, solve mazes and puzzles, open doors, etc.

The books combine the best in interactive fiction with the flavour of a good cartoon: vivid characters, enthralling situations, and a comic-style format geared to the world of the younger reader.

The Ingenious Genie
The clever King of the Genies has turned the tables on mankind. Instead of a genie appearing whenever a magic lamp is rubbed, the person rubbing the lamp vanishes off to serve the genies. Since the city of Baghdad relies on genie magic, you must help Abdul enter Genieworld and set things right – by arranging a more equitable deal between mankind and the genies.

[The story had Abdul having to run errands for the genie who’d summoned him while also trying to resolve the dispute between humankind and genies. If he failed in any of his tasks he got expelled back to the mortal world, which gave us a neat way to have the possibility of failure that just took you back to the start. These weren’t books you could die in.]

The Dinosaurs Next Door
The world has gone crazy. Dinosaurs are digging up the roads, delivering the post, and having tea in the local café. Guide Colin as he goes back in time with Professor Swetybenk and teaches cavemen the secret of fire so as to prevent all this. But how is he going to manage that. when the only caveman he can find is terrified of flame?

The Sun King’s Crown
The Sun King has had his crown stolen by robbers from the far side of the moon, and now no one knows when to get up to do their day’s work. The cocks aren’t crowing and the sun isn’t shining. Princess Aurora decides to go into Moonbeam Wood to find the crown, and she wants you to help her.

Running Like Clockwork
When the Earth stops revolving one morning, it causes a lot of problems. People have to anchor themselves to the ground to keep from flying off into space, for one thing. Chang, exploring a tunnel in search of his pen-pal in America, falls through to the centre of the world and finds the source of the trouble. Maybe you can advise him what to do?

The Bad Ship Nightmare
Pirates on the Sea of Zees have been waylaying sleepers and stealing their dreams. They fight, not with cutlasses, but with pillows, teddies, lullabies and cups of cocoa. Silver, a nine-tailed cat, might just be able to find the pirates’ treasure casket and unlock the hoard of dreams. The snag is that Silver is so lazy that all he wants is to lie down and have a kip, so you’re going to have to coax him into doing it.


  1. Some interesting story hooks ! Perhaps if you had time this idea could be resurrected as an "app" for the current iteration of 7-9 year olds - touch screen technology a perfect fit for those 'decision' icons ?

    1. Maybe if Choice of Games wanted to start a kids' line...

  2. I had a gamebook comic once. It was the same size as those Commando! comics.

    IIRC, you were a spaceship captain, and it starts off with you being captured by aliens. One of the options is to try to escape to hyperspace. (Don't do it! Your power level is below 20% so you'll be lost forever. It tells you this in the introduction). In then goes into an epic war or something. Dirty aliens try to convert your atmosphere to theirs, what to do? And so on.

    That was good fun.

    1. Lost forever after a hyperspace jump, eh? That's pretty much the starting premise of Jamie's and my book The Wrong Side of the Galaxy. Yet I don't *think* we ever saw that comic...


      I think it is better in my memory of it as a 9 year old than it really was!

    3. I'm quite lucky in that a lot of the stuff I liked aged 9 still holds up today. Not all of it, though. There are books I devoured back then that I now couldn't wade through one paragraph of.

  3. I think this may have been one of those ideas which looks great on paper, but which somehow just doesn't live up to potential.

    Or at least, I'm basing that off the 2000AD Diceman series of interactive comics (game-ics?), which had all the ingredients for success - launched at the height of the gamebook craze, included leading British comics heroes, written and illustrated by major British creators. And yet it only lasted 5 issues.

    There may well have been publishing dramas behind the scenes to account for that, but I do seem to recall it being given a good promotional push at the time.

    Still, you had some strong ideas for your series Dave. And I detect a touch of the genie story working its way into Twist of Fate. So nothing's entirely wasted. :)

    1. PS. Loved your Brexit gamebook Dave. Not a sniff of Pat Mills, I'm pleased to say (and I mean that most positively).

    2. Thanks, Michael -- and for your review on Amazon too. (I like Charley's War, but I know exactly what you mean about Mr Mills.)

  4. The French group responsible for some excellent gamebooks actually did a gamebook in the form of a comic in 1988:

    I have it and it's very interesting. I don't know how much of these were printed and sold, but I can imagine the pain of planning and making such a project. This is a fully illustrated, full-color, A4-size comic book with more than 50 pages and a grand total of 100 "references". It's the same size as the typical Astérix comic book.

    1. A problem with doing it these days is that comics storytelling has tended to become "decompressed". A scene that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko would have dealt with in 6 panels now stretches out over several pages. That would burn through a gamebook storyline pretty fast.