Gamebook store

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Caught in the coils

The Coils of Hate was one of the two books that Mark Smith wrote for our Virtual Reality gamebook series. Even thirty years on, my feelings about it are conflicted. By the time Mark handed it in, I’d moved on to another project for another publisher. Then the editor at Mammoth Books, who published VR, called me to say the book needed some work. Actually, a lot of work. Some links were missing. Others were doubled up. Some of it wasn’t typed, just handwritten on bits of paper. You could get a découpé sense of what was meant to be going on by just reading through the manuscript, but you couldn’t actually play it.

I spent the next two weeks trying to reverse engineer the flowchart and fill in the missing sections. I had my other deadline to worry about, so you can bet I was fuming, but it wasn’t all Mark's fault. The flowchart-planning side of gamebooks had never been his forte, and during the writing of this book he had the additional problem of two young kids who had been thought to be merely boisterous but had recently been diagnosed as autistic. Given the pressures, he produced a marvellous piece of writing. The characters came alive with their own hopes, fears and weaknesses. The setting was so vividly evoked you could taste the fog rolling in at night, smell the river-water lapping against lichen-spotted stone bridges, feel the fear lurking down narrow alleyways. And the theme was serious and meaningfully explored. It would have made a superb fantasy novel.

Mark is a big fan of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover (as I did quite recently) that The Coils of Hate was inspired by Fritz Leiber Jr’s short story “The Cloud of Hate”. But although Leiber may have had the original idea, Mark did it better. Leiber’s story is really just about anger and violence. Mark drew on his own family’s horrifying experiences in the ‘30s and ‘40s to show what hate is really like once it takes hold of people’s minds.

I said that Mark struggled with flowchart design. Jamie tended to take care of that in their Way of the Tiger and Falcon books, just as I took more of the weight of game mechanics and logic off Oliver Johnson's shoulders for our collaborations. But to be fair to Mark, the structure of The Coils of Hate was especially ambitious. You can undertake multiple activities: opportunistic thievery, investigation into what’s going on, organizing the victims of the pogrom, making sure your friends are safe, and so on. And all that while events are unfolding over time. It’s even more complex than Can You Brexit.

While I was writing a new gamebook for Jamie’s Vulcanverse, I got to thinking how I’d have structured The Coils of Hate. To start with, you’d need keywords that would “remember” how far you’d got through the overall story arc. Say the action is split into four acts. So Keyword_Act_Two tells the book you’re in the second act. (It wouldn’t be called that, obviously; it would be Libation, say. Something that didn’t draw attention to the fact that it’s a time-counting logic flag.)

After completing a subquest, you’d be directed back to a “time counter” paragraph that would then route you to the current act. Something like this:

What about those subquests? The book needs to remember how far you are through them, but that might not (often will not) be linked to what’s going on in the overall arc. For example, maybe you’re calling on your friend Lucie. The first time you meet her she is blithely dismissive of danger. The second time she’s had a bad fright and wants your help. The third time there’s a chance she might betray you to the Overlord’s secret police. So that could work something like this:

And within each option there could be a filter that checks which act you’re in. For example, Lucie might conceivably betray you in the third or fourth act, but not before that. So entry 180 in the example here would then ask, “Do you have the keyword Proteus or Kindly?” and if so you’d get routed to the betrayal storyline; if not there’d be a different encounter with Lucie.

Keywords are needed when something has changed globally that needs to be checked for in multiple places. For example, if the Judain (the persecuted community in the book) are all ordered to wear yellow patches on their clothes, that's something you might see or discuss in several different branches, so I'd use a keyword.

Tickboxes on the other hand track local changes. For instance, the first time I visit an informant some militia come in and smash up his shop. On subsequent visits the book needs to know that the shop is shuttered and there's broken glass on the floor, but a tickbox will do because that's not a condition that makes any difference anywhere else. (We try to minimize the number of keywords because the reader has to check through a whole list every time one is called.)

What triggers the next act? That could be accomplished by tickboxes like we saw in the last example. So the hub section for one of the acts would look something like this:

Taking the prison option, for instance, you’d get into a series of adventures, at the end of which you’d reach a section like this:

Thus, after undertaking four subquests in the current act you're routed through to the next act via section 499 where you'd be given the keyword for that act*. If you were already in act four (as you are in this example) that would lead into the endgame for this book, which involves a showdown with the embodiment of hate as depicted on the cover. Various items and keywords acquired during the adventure would steer the outcome of that battle.

I'm not planning to rewrite The Coils of Hate (Stuart Lloyd already did that) but I am occasionally tempted to revisit the Shadow King storyline that Jamie and I cooked up over twenty years ago. That has the main character trying to stay alive in a world devoid of life but infested with vampires -- sort of an H G Wells take on I Am Legend. I'd definitely need keywords to globally track the passage of time, and tickboxes to record how far you are through various subquests. But is there enough demand for gamebooks these days? Not like there used to be, certainly.

*Any subquest that can only be accessed in the current act would route you back to the hub section for that act (100200300 or 400) but subquests that can be accessed in more than one act would need to send you back to the master hub, ie 555.

1 comment:

  1. The point was made on Facebook that you don’t want to steer the reader through filter sections too often as it can get laborious. It’s the sort of thing that an app like my Frankenstein gamebook ( ) can handle so much better, because the code does the work. So use sparingly, and balance with keywords.