Last year Jamie and I published the first four Vulcanverse gamebooks – a revisiting of the open-world concept of Fabled Lands – to mixed reactions, at least as far as my contributions to the series were concerned. In gamebooks I like to leave the player to their own devices as much as possible, because that’s how I prefer my roleplaying games. If the referee starts to feed me the hook to a story, I’ll sigh and go along with it because he or she has put the work in, but I’d rather pick my own goals and discover stories for myself.
The idea of a pure open world gamebook is that you will explore and come across various elements of a story in no particular order. You might find a silver key and wonder which door it unlocks. Or you might be faced with a door that needs you to go in search of a silver key. Or a wizard might tell you that if you go to such and such a tower and locate a locked door and open it with a silver key then you can bring him the item you’ll find there and get a reward.
It's sometimes said that open world gamebooks lack quests, but’s that’s not true. Spoilers here for The Hammer of the Sun, in which you can team up with the last devotee of the river goddess Tethys, and he will teach you the mysteries of the cult, and if you find certain sacred objects and perform the rituals you have learnt you can bring back the river that once flowed through the desert. In doing that, you restore the fortunes of a city that fell into ruin when the river dried up. In that city you can build yourself a reputation, help to increase the city’s prestige, and make friends who will steer you on other quests. And then further events bring the city back to the edge of oblivion, and only you can save it and raise it to greater heights than it reached even in its heyday. And that in turn embroils you in a gathering mystery and potentially a major war.
So there’s a lot of story there, but few breadcrumb trails to get you started. You might gad about exploring tombs and pyramids or fighting dragons or getting involved in a bunch of unconnected mini-adventures. And sometimes you’ll hear a hint about what you need to do to make the river flow again. What I was aiming for was a hidden kernel that the player would stumble upon, and it would then suddenly unfold before your eyes into the Yellow Brick Road of a long and inviting narrative.
That maybe worked back in the ‘90s (and not for everyone even then) but we all have less time now. No filmmaker now would spend two minutes having Sherif Ali ride up to an oasis, or several minutes of Bowman jogging around Discovery One. Some readers of The Hammer of the Sun came across the city storyline before their patience ran out, and their reaction was enthusiastic; here’s James Spearing:
“While open world books have a reputation for not having major story arcs, this gamebook combines the sense of freedom of exploring this large desert area, with moments where your previous actions spark major world-changing events. Even the map gives clues about where you might need to visit, and it soon becomes apparent that there are at least two major quests that give further meaning to exploring, as you visit various similar sites to unlock new secrets.”
But if you are unlucky enough not to unearth the start of an important narrative early on, it can mean quite a negative experience, as Andreas Brueckner describes:
“It felt like I was walking through the desert for an hour without anything really happening. I was asked now and again whether one or another person was with me; the answer was always no, giving the feeling every time that I was missing something. Then I died. […] At the beginning of a game there should be some simple quests that bring you closer to the game world, whereas here you start with boredom and wasteland.”
The clincher for me was the video review at the top of this post. Here’s a discerning gamebook critic who has been very positive about my earlier work but who has been disappointed by not having had enough guidance towards the major quests in the Vulcanverse books. He explains his reasoning very clearly -- which is something every writer should be grateful for, even when they are being told some painful truths. Also, I have to acknowledge that sales of the Vulcanverse books have been very poor and almost nobody has bothered to review them. Clearly there is a lesson I must learn.
Luckily we still have one more book to come in the Vulcanverse series. That gives me the opportunity to cater for the players who don’t like to be left to explore without any guidance. Jamie is busy with the NFTs and so forth for the online Vulcanverse, so it was already on the cards that I’d do most of the writing for Workshop of the Gods. Now, properly chastised by my critics, I’m putting my mind to ways that I can steer readers who start in that book towards the major plot threads that are waiting for them in all the others. Expect something different that will, I think, appeal to both the fans of truly sandbox play and those who want some gentle nudges in the direction of the story.