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Thursday 3 February 2022

Two styles of gamebook design

A few people have asked about the differences between my Vulcanverse books (The Hammer of the Sun and The Pillars of the Sky) and Jamie's (The Houses of the Dead and The Wild Woods). When we wrote the Fabled Lands series our styles were pretty similar, so you can't always spot where I (or in several cases Tim Harford) wrote parts of Jamie's books. 

Nearly thirty years on, we write very differently and I'd be surprised if somebody playing the Vulcanverse books couldn't tell which of us wrote what. It would be hard nowadays for Jamie and me to split a book down the middle, as we did with The Keep of the Lich Lord, and not have readers spot the join.

On a trivial level, I notice that Jamie will put things like, "if you have codeword X, read on," so you get to see in the same section various alternative outcomes that you shouldn't really know. Of course, that only matters if you cheat by reading on when you don't have the relevant codeword. Here's an example from The Wild Woods:

On the other hand, I plan the logic diagram as if it were to be handed to a coder, separating each step in the process into its own section. In an example like the one above, I'd split those filters (the codeword, the title, the tickbox) into separate sections, like so:

One advantage of that is it's a lot easier to bug-check the book. If the Vulcanverse gamebooks are ever turned into a CRPG, in mine those logic gates are already fully planned. Jamie's approach uses up fewer numbered sections, and means less page-flipping for the reader, but it can lead to some very long chunks of text.

Jamie uses a lot more codewords; I use a lot more tickboxes. That's because tickboxes are fine for any non-global change, and so I tried to limit the number of times the player would need to refer to the codeword list (codewords being necessary for something that changes the world in more than one location). Neither approach is wrong; it's just a stylistic choice. And some people have told me that the "elegant logic" argument doesn't persuade them in favour of tickboxes because they don't like writing in their books.

Another difference is that Jamie's Vulcanverse books are much more comedic (as you'd expect of the winner of the Roald Dahl Award) so he'll have gods and other mythological figures talking in modern slang. No less a talent than Joss Whedon did the same thing with the Greek gods in his (unproduced) Wonder Woman script, and it's the entirety of Taika Waititi's approach to his Thor movies. Which is not to say that my own Vulcanverse books are without humour, but it's more character-humour in my case, so a bit like Thor: Ragnarok compared to the first Thor movie. Take your pick, or better still enjoy both.

Also, I do a lot more with companions in the Vulcanverse books than Jamie does. Instead of companions, he tends to have more localized character-based stories -- the insolent butler, the orphan you have to return to his uncle, the sick child whose father is destroying the woods, and so on. The trade-off is between highly focused mini-narratives and the more general interactions you get with companions, of whom only Loutro (in The Hammer of the Sun; I picture him played by Toby Jones, incidentally) is guaranteed to get a full character arc.

And there are differences too in the way we construct our books; Jamie tends to have fewer and longer sections. Still, just as you get different styles between the writers on a TV show, hopefully the variety only goes to enhance the whole.

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