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Friday, 22 May 2020

Making choices matter

I’m often asked if there’s a future for gamebooks. It’s hard to imagine them having anything like the success they enjoyed in the 1980s. People read less these days, for one thing, and videogames are better at the dungeon-bash adventures that made up many early gamebooks. New gamebooks do get written, yet they rarely try to keep up with the richly involving interactivity you find in a good videogame. 

One advantage gamebooks do have is the special FX are cheap. The Witcher has to shell out millions of dollars on artwork, music and voice talent, but in prose you can sink Atlantis or have aliens invade, and all it costs is a few minutes’ tapping at a keyboard.

The same lessons that apply to gamebooks hold true for all forms of interactive storytelling, whatever the medium or the budget. Most important of those is that the interactivity must deepen the player’s engagement with the story. Plot choices tend to be authorial and therefore distancing. Emotional choices work better because they are more like our interactions in daily life. When a friend asks, “What should I do?” they aren’t expecting you to wave a wand and make the universe reconfigure itself. They’re looking for sympathy and support - and suggestions too, but that runs a distant third.

To see how that works in practice, let’s take a look at a traditional drama and consider how it could be adapted to include interactivity. The example I’m using here is Danny Brocklehurst’s 2014 television show The Driver. There are spoilers ahead and the story is too good to waste, so I recommend you watch it first before reading on. Go ahead. I can wait.

OK? Seen that? Good, wasn’t it? Now for how to transform it into an interactive story…

Vince (David Morrissey) is a taxi driver in Manchester. He’s borderline depressive, struggling to make ends meet, his son has run off to join a cult, and he has an increasingly distant relationship with his wife, Ros. Vince’s life needs a shake-up, and it comes in the form of his old friend Col (another superb performance by Ian Hart), just out of prison after serving six years for armed robbery.

Col takes Vince along to a poker game. At least, it seems to be a poker game but really it’s a job interview. Local crime boss the Horse (Colm Meaney of Next Gen fame) offers Vince work as his driver. It’s obviously dodgy and Vince runs a mile – what Hollywood script gurus call ‘the refusal of the call’.

Here’s where the first major interactive opportunity comes. You could encourage Vince to take the job, or you could back him up with more reasons to refuse it. Obviously it’s a bad idea, and just as obviously he will end up going back to the Horse or else there’s no story. The difference is that when it all starts to go wrong, as it inevitably will, Vince will either blame you for pushing him into it or blame you for not trying harder to dissuade him.

In the TV show, the last straw is when Vince gives a lift to two girls stranded in the rain and they rob him – and, adding injury to insult, one of them hits him in the back of the head with her shoe while the other lets his tyres down. Oh, and they piss in the back of his cab. Vince has had enough. He goes to the Horse and signs his soul away.

Clinging to the fiction that he is “just the driver”, Vince thinks he can avoid getting drawn in. He hides the big pay packets the Horse gives him and tells his wife he’s doing some off-the-books work for “a local businessman”.

Waiting for it all to curdle? That’s not long in coming. Col ropes Vince into an attack on a rival criminal, whom he beats severely and dumps in a sealed pit in some waste ground. The job was ordered by the Horse but it turns out Vince wasn’t meant to be involved – Col just wanted moral support, but now he shrugs off what he’s done whereas Vince’s conscience won’t stay quiet. In the interactive version, you’d be his conscience – or else you’d be the voice telling him not to be such a pussy.

In the drama, Vince goes back to the waste ground in the early morning, hoists the badly-injured gangster out of the pit, and takes him to hospital. It’s likely he’d do that in the interactive version whatever you say but, as before, whether you are complicit in the decision or you counsel against it will make a difference later. All of these choices are affecting your relationship with Vince.

Vince goes back to the Horse to tell him he wants out. But now the bad guys are closing in. The Horse has found out his rival is in hospital and naturally he blames Col, who he thinks didn’t do as he was told. So Vince gets to watch his childhood friend beaten to a pulp. See how your advice earlier is going to colour how he feels about you now?

And then Vince goes home to find the police waiting to talk to him – of course, because he dropped that guy right outside the hospital where the CCTV picked up his car licence plate. Maybe you would have advised him to do that differently, to park around the corner or just dump the guy by the roadside and call an ambulance. Your advice might have spared him the extra problem of having the police taking an interest in his affairs.

Ultimately this story is guaranteed not to end well, but every step of the way your decisions are making a difference to how Vince feels and how much he trusts you. Alternatively you could be playing a game where the choice is whether to turn left and fight some orcs or turn right and solve a dragon’s riddle. Which kind of interactivity do you think would be more compelling?


  1. I agree with your views here Dave but I suppose it boils down to a question of what level or type of engagement the reader/player is looking for. Fast food or a gourmet meal? Quick snog or long term meaningful relationship? Short YouTube vid or 8 Seasons of Homeland (I think it jumped the shark some time ago...)? You get my point.

    1. I certainly didn't mean to imply that The Driver is a gourmet meal, Nigel. It's well written but it's snack food at best -- what David Fickling calls "glorious trash". There's plenty of not-so-glorious trash, of course, which is why I thought this was worth a closer look, but War & Peace it ain't.

      Still, one thing I'd say about fiction from either end of that spectrum, high art or low, is that it's good if it makes the reader care. Bad writing, like bad choices, is all about the pots and pans and not about the flavour.