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Friday, 11 March 2022

The Marmite of gamebooks?

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.


  1. Comment are back, yay! You can't please everyone all of the time, Dave. For what it's worth, I really enjoyed The Hammer of the Sun and will go back to it at some point. I'm not sure I'll be getting around to the others for a good while though, they're so much more time consuming than standard gamebooks.

    1. Perhaps that's part of the problem, Andy. None of us has as much spare time as we did in our fancy-free -- I do I mean family-free? -- days. For what it's worth, I don't think I tried and failed with Hammer of the Sun. It's exactly the book I intended it to be. I just misjudged how many people would actually enjoy exploring and discovering the plotlines for themselves. It's a bit like Mirabilis in that respect -- that was a comic I enjoyed working on, and that turned out just how I wanted it to be. But it didn't get a lot of readers. Since I'm writing the Vulcanverse books as a paying gig, not a labour of love, I've reluctantly concluded that I can't write them the way that pleases me. I have to write what will appeal to modern gamebook readers, which seems to mean giving more of a push towards the big story quests. But thanks for your kind words and your kind review, as ever. It's nice to know that some gamebook players out there enjoy the kind of sprawling exploration of story threads that I do.

    2. This comment wasn't initially meant as metaphorical, Dave, but I've thought several times today, I can't stand Marmite. I can't stand Marmite. I cant sta.. hang on a minute, have I ever actually tried Marmite? Whether that be The Hammer of the Sun, or Mirabilis.

    3. I'm even more undecided, Andy. Sometimes I like the idea of it, sometimes I think it's far too salty. It depends what toast it's on. With sourdough and unsalted butter, yum. (Usually.)

      Getting back to story tastes, I came across a comment by Damien Walter (cited in the previous post) saying that he loves Star Wars and Dune because they are saviour stories. And I realize I hate saviour stories. I much prefer the plucky little guy doing his best (Frodo, say, or Jack Ember) to a bloomin' Chosen One saving the day.

  2. I have to say I fall into the category of discovering the story for myself and you most certainly achieved the "yellow brick road" , in comparison when I read book 1 after book 2 I almost felt it was too straightforward then. Still enjoyed both immensely. Looking forward to linking my my open quests / dialogues together via the next books now. Here's hoping for delayed sales for ye once book 5 comes out. The writing deserves it.

    1. Thanks, I'm hoping that book sales will pick up once the series is complete. Maybe some people have been put off by the example of Fabled Lands, though in the case of FL each extra book just adds more content, whereas Vulcanverse has an epic plot that will be resolved in the last book.

      Certainly Jamie's books and mine in the VV series are very different in gameplay style, and my intention in book 5 is to strike a balance between his emphasis on directed quests and mine on exploration.

  3. Ultimately, the books are boring. The opening was intriguing and, as always, well written with choices about the character’s past. But the rest was insipid. Setting is everything and the setting here was unengaging. Compared to Blood Sword and the land of Legend, and the settings in the Virtual Reality Gamebooks (and Golden Dragon), the setting here is bland, dull pastiche. The player character was anonymous and no decision points were provided to enable the PC to form a discernible character. The process was heavily handedly mechanical; far from being clever, ticking boxes repeatedly and being asked questions about the mechanics broke any illusion of engaging in a ‘real’ world. For me the alternative is simple: strong narrative, plenty of player agency, but crafted in a way that generates character and atmosphere, strong setting alluded to in numerous textual clues. Personally I wanted open world adventuring in Legend but found instead a box ticking exercise in bland, atmosphere-free Greek legend-lite. Like a computer game with all its disadvantages and none of its fun.

  4. Happy to see the comments are back!
    Ironically this post has induced me to buy all four books. I've only played Houses of the Dead and Pillars of the Sky so far, and both only for a bit, so I'll save a more thorough response (and, yes, an amazon review) for later. Also, among the books you've co-authored, I really only know the Fabled Lands series well, so I'll use that as a reference point. And obviously, here's to hoping book 8 will pop up soon!

    The Vulkanverse books cover a comparatively vast area (plus, assumably, long narrative quests), which is good. I guess that's because there is no distinction between waypoints where you choose which way to go next, and random encounter paragraphs as in Fabled Lands. So obviously there's a lot of wandering in the dark involved. But it's true, the real quests are hard to find (and companions even more so). I have yet to find any. I really enjoy the rather long and diverse descriptions of the scenery! What worked better in FL, to my taste, were the encounters or places of special interest. In FL you'd always have them announced in the text, and then you'd find them again amongst the choices what to do next. In VV you only find them in the choices and not the text itself, which results in an odd sensation. Also, I second that the more complicated mechanics with the ticking system mess with the flow of the narration. I share the sentiment that the protagonist in VV is rather unengaging and anonymous (as compred to a FL character), but have found it challenging to put my finger on the reason why. My best guess is that in VV there is such a huge discrepancy between peasants and gods, but at the same time the protagonist engages with both. While the former are sort of beneath you, the gods are so remote that you end up feeling rather an outcast in the middle. Compare a FL vendor who has purpose, gives you missions and may reward or comdemn you. In VV that's a nameless peasant. And while in VV you're supposed to mingle with demigods, so far I've only ever been brushed off, or, through a stroke of luck, almost killed one legendary being off accidentally. I think it has something to do with what drama had with the "staendeklausel" or "fallhoehe", only the principle working against the narration in this instance.
    In the FL kickstarter (it that must not be named) you mentioned the importance of a good map for any gamebook. In hindsight I fully agree. VV books need a better map.

    All of the above are only small issues, though, and I really enjoy playing the VV books! I have gotten good at restoring shrines, and if I ever find a weasel, I'll make it bleed. I'm looking forward to book five!

    On a final note that has nothing to do with you directly, but is bugging me a lot: The mock-up homepage for VV, especially the tab "gamebooks and lore", is in some parts badly written. Clearly a series of gamebooks of Greek mythology that comprises more than three books does not qualify as a trilogy, there are only so many possessive pronouns in English, who's to say how many exactly, it reads at points like rambling (says the prater), alternates between the use of ampersand and the conjunction "and", features the use of multiple question marks and so on. (I checked on it to see if there's a release date for the Workshop of the Gods.)
    I feel that this literately does a disservice to a great series of books!

    1. Thanks for such in-depth feedback, Andi. I was interested by Mark's point that he found the character anonymous, especially now that you've confirmed it. Our idea was that the player would overlay their own idea of the character, but Jamie and I are coming from a roleplaying background where that's usual practice, and I think we'd forgotten that most gamebook readers are not roleplayers. But that's only part of it -- what I found most interesting was what you said about the character not connecting with the NPCs. You do get lots of interaction with the companions and also with important NPCs like Psyche, Pandora, Cyllarus the centaur, Ma and Pops Krithare, etc, but they are mostly encountered in The Hammer of the Sun.

      Well, I will try to make the final book more to everyone's taste. Fewer tickboxes, for one thing!

      I'm afraid I have no control over the Vulcanverse website or world design. If I had my druthers I'd have done an open-world series set in an original world (Abraxas, say) instead of Greek myth. But I will see if Jamie can get them to tidy up the text on the site, at least.

  5. Hello from France ! Sorry to read that you received few reviews, and that sales are not quite as expected.

    As far as I'm concerned, I am highly enthusiastic about the whole concept. The four books are on my shelf ; I'm just waiting for the fifth to start playing, and going in any direction I want ! So keep on the way you do !!

    Also a huge thank you for all the books, all the years of images and dreams Dragon d'Or and Terre de Légende have put into my life ! You're a part of youth, and not a small one. (I'll never forget the rusty knight blocked in the inn - pure poetry and sense of wonder). Thanks for everything, and can't wait to have the central piece of the Vulcanverse puzzle !

    1. I'm hoping that reviews will pick up once the French and Italian editions of Vulcanverse are available. And when book 5 is released -- Jamie and I are working on that currently.

      Your kind words about earlier books are very cheering. The rusty knight was great. (I can say that without immodesty because he was Oliver's idea.)