Sunday, February 12, 2012

What makes a good gamebook - Part 1: Story

I'm working on a major gamebook project at the moment, one which means a lot to me, as it represents my first chance to potentially get published. As I approach this project, I've been doing a lot of thinking about gamebooks, what they are, and what makes a good gamebook.

A good gamebook incorporates elements of both a novel and a game (as the name implies.) I would say that all too often, the historical gamebooks lean more towards "game" and away from "novel." Something like the first two Lone Wolf books would make great novels, even if you took out the game side. But something like Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, would not. If you took out the game-ness of it, there wouldn't be much left.

Let's take each of these in turn, looking at the novel aspect, and then the game aspect, understanding that gamebooks need both to be successful. (EDIT: Because this ran into being waaaaaay too long, I'm splitting this into two posts. This post is about the story aspect. Next post will be about the game aspect.)

Gamebooks are both easier and harder to write than novels. The very nature of a gamebook, with branching storylines and a demand upon the author to accomodate player choices, makes it intrinsically harder to construct a narrative than it would be with pure long-form fiction. You can't put together the ideal plot and pacing. You can't keep secrets from the player, the way you can in fiction, because the player is making choices for the hero. You can't jump from one set of characters to another, because the reader sees the wolrd only through the eyes of a single character. You can't come up with just one story, you have to make up a dozen, and then figure out how they all interweave, based on the choices the player makes. It's hard.

At the same time, gamebooks are in a sense more forgiving than novels. Warlock of Firetop Mountain perhaps wouldn't have flown as a novel, but it was certainly a success as a gamebook. Because you literally can't write a gamebook with as much tightly controlled narrative structure as you can a novel, you don't have to. The standards, as far as the story goes, simply aren't as high. That said, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to tell good stories. In fact, I would argue that though developing the plotline is harder (because of the branching nature) there is something to be gained from having branches to the story.

What you gain from a gamebook is the opportunity for a reader to get involved in a way you never can with a novel. The reader may not be whisked down one perfect plotline. But he or she can explore the world, the  character, and choices or outcomes in a way that you never could with any other strictly linear storyform. No other genre gives the audience this much control, aside from video games. And video games, all too frequently, do whisk the audience down one tightly controlled plotline, with only minor variations. The best games, like Fallout, give you real choices that effect both your path through the story, and the outcome of the story. Other games, like Skyrim, give you only the illusion of choices. You can pick which order to view the story in, but your choices don't change those bits of story once you get there. You never make choices that have any real effect on the world. (Note: I am writing this based on what I've heard about Skyrim. Please don't eviscerate me if this is incorrect, in your opinion!)

To see my favorite examples of how a gamebook can make a story interactive in a delightful and engaging way, see some of the stories by Endmaster on the Storygames website, such as Eternal or Necromancer. These gamebooks are described as more "story" than "game." They are, in fact, written using the "simple" gamebook engine, which has absolutely no features except the ability to make choices as you progress through the story. No hit points, no combat, no inventory, just choices. They are works of art. (Of course, some of Endmaster's other stories are... well, let's just say they defy description. That, and, I'm never introducing him to my children.) But those two, at least, exemplify something that I would like to see more of in gamebooks: a true interactive story.

What makes it successful as an interactive story? Well, for one thing, there's no "which door do you go through" choices. (I hate "which door do you go through" choices. I should maybe do a future blog post about this.) A few choices you make are success/failure type choices. "What method will you use to try and achieve your goals" type choices. But the vast majority are character choices. You know, the kind that in novels and movies bring the story to life. The kind that say something about the person making the choice. But this time, you don't have to sit there and watch while someone else makes this choice. YOU can make the choice. YOU call the shot, and once it's done, you get to see what happens because you made that choice. (Why did I just slip into the fighting fantasy style "YOU"?) Maybe your sister dies. Maybe you reconcile with your father. Maybe you end the world in cold fire. The point is, the choice is meaningful, and you get a different story because of the choice you made.

This comes back to why writing a gamebook is harder than writing a novel: the author doesn't get to just write one story and call it a day. An author as ambitious as Endmaster must write a dozen stories, each of which makes sense as an evocative story, each of which the reader can access based on the choices he or she makes.

But telling a good story is only one half of what a gamebook is. If you just wanted to tell a good story, you could write a novel. Of course, you would lose the interactivity that is the soul of the gamebook, but my point is, there's more to a good gamebook than just telling a good story. Gamebooks also open the door to include a "game" aspect, which can be fun in and of it's own right. Not every gamebook has to be a work of art in order to have value. Some can be fun games. Or, in the very best of circumstances, they can be both.

Because I've run out of time, we'll have to explore the game side of a gamebook next time. In fact, I think I'm finding that there's more here than can be covered in one or two posts. I might want to do a series about the kinds of choices you face in gamebooks, and my opinion of the value of each kind of choice.

One final question: One thing I'm struggling with is how much to prioritize editing while blogging, vs. just getting my ideas out there and posted, even if it's in a raw form. For anyone who actually read this whole thing (Stuart, I'm looking at you ;) do you feel this is fine as is, or could it have benefited from some editing?

Blogging in general seems to be more impulsive and free-form, but for most people, that means short. For me, impulsive and free-form means long, which all too often results in TLDR. So please, give me your feedback! Should this post have been edited before posting, or is it fine as is?

See you next time with "What makes a gamebook good - Part 2: Game"


  1. Just a random internet dude here, but I really enjoyed this. I think this is pretty concise for what you wanted to say...maybe a couple lines here and there could have been cut.

    However, you say:
    "You can't keep secrets from the player, the way you can in fiction, because the player is making choices for the hero. You can't jump from one set of characters to another, because the reader sees the wolrd only through the eyes of a single character. "

    My guess is that someone could write some really interesting gamebooks while trying to tackle these two "can't"s. Looking at interactive fiction, for example, I can find analogues Spider and Web (for the former, a truly clever design which features an unreliable narrator) and the venerable Suspended (for the latter).

  2. @Stuart: I got your comments, thank you!

    @iguanaDitty: Thanks for the feedback! I'm very proud to have gotten my first comment by a random internet dude ;)

    I do think it would be interesting to explore the possibilities and push the boundaries. In fact, in my current project I am already planning on stretching the envelope at least a bit by injecting "interludes" between major scenes of action, in which the reader gets a glimpse of events happening outside the sphere of the player character.

    I don't know "Spider and Web" and "Suspended." Where would I find these? I'm curious.

  3. Hello Ashton. I'm an interactive dramatist working in the same field as you and it's a great pleasure to read your thoughts on interactive narrative.

    I think it is possible to create an interactive narrative that deals with multiple characters and points of view, it's just going to be very big and very hard. I have a project that is ambitious enough, but I think the best solution for executing it is to have a team of writers. Interactive fiction is growing, so I'm sure the genre will demand a narrative of that size at some point.

    Until then, I wish you well on your major project and look forward to more posts.

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed it the post! There should be more coming soon.

    What kind of interactive narrative are you working with?

  5. I'm working on decision-based branching narratives (CYOA), but with more emphasis on story that game. I'm not writing in the fantasy genre because so many others do it well - better than me - and I'm more interested in other genres. I also think that by writing in other genres, the 'interactive fiction' audience will grow. I'm also really interested in Transmedia and the use of different mediums and platforms in interactive narratives. It's a bit like a toy shop, actually; very exciting!

  6. This is what I love to hear, Marie-Paule :) I love the fantasy genre, but I don't think it's the only, or even necessarily the best, place to explore this kind of story. What do you mean by Transmedia? What other kinds of mediums and platforms do you have in mind? Are you thinking something performative, like live storytelling, but engaging the audience in making choices for the hero?

    I'm very interested in what could be done with this type of narrative in other genres. I can't wait to see what you come up with!

  7. Transmedia is a storyworld that can be expressed across several different platforms. I'll let Sparrow Hall tell you all about that in his short video here:

    Personally, I want to use comics, video, written text and where applicable, physical objects (not necessarily all at once, but maybe), and have all of those things feed in to the narrative. Different platforms should be un-lockable when users make specific choices, leading to new content that furthers the story...all of this is in the future. First I want to get more people enjoying CYOA. Personally, I think it's the future.

    It is possible to do a live performance where the audience chooses the actions of the hero, but I think it will need a very skilled cast who can improvise properly. I was asked to direct a CYOA play in Leipzig last year, but I wasn't satisfied that the performers could do it, so I'm yet to prove that theory.

    1. I just noticed this comment again, after Necromaster's comment brought my attention back to this post. I think what you're describing here is absolutely fascinating.

      Have you looked at the Active Fiction ebooks by Tawna Fenske? It's still in writing, but it's closer to the kind of interactivity you're talking about than to the traditional "gamebook." There's only a few choices in each book, but the books are being published in a series, and the events of subsequent books are dependent on the reader's choices (which they can track because it's all digital.) At this point, it's not much different from readers getting to phone in to choose which male the heroine should select, but it does start to demonstrate the potential.

      I also think that the idea of crossing media boundaries with a single story is a very interesting one. I do find that media can supplement one another, making each feel more meaningful... Wow. I can only begin to imagine some of the possibilities with this, but it would take a certain amount of backing and a team. Not something one could so easily pull off all by one's lonesome, unless one is very, very multi-talented.

      I'm sad to hear that the CYOA play in Leipzig didn't work out! I think that would be so amazing. Have you ever heard of that actually happening? Or do you have any future plans to try again?

  8. You certainly find a lot of interesting things when you type your own name into a google search. Never expected to be mentioned in a blog.

    Cool article.

    1. Wait, *you* are Endmaster? I'm your biggest fan! I love your work on the Storygames website--as you can see from my blog posts. I mean, Ground Zero is a little too blunt even for my hardened internet-borne sensibilities, and all of them could use a good editor, but you'll see in my writing that time and time again I use your works as examples of how to do a gamebook right. I take my hat off to you, sir.

    2. Yeah, it's me, End Master. I don't even use AIM anymore, but it was the only way I could make a comment on here. (And I don't even think it linked to my online handle correctly since it was "necromaster51")

      Anyway, I read the other two parts too and like I said it was a cool article overall.

      Oh just to let you know the Storygame site you linked to actually goes by the name Chooseyourstory.

      I hang out over there, but my real home is Infinite Story which is another CYOA site which has a lot of content as well. I've got a couple extra stories on that site that aren't on CYS. One called "Legend" which might be of interest to you since it incorporates Fighting Fantasy style inventory and stats. Probably my only attempt at making a more of a game rather than story. It's also one of my more toned down stories as far as graphic content is concerned.

      That's about it, and currently I'm still working on adding a few more major story branches to Eternal.

    3. (Somehow my original post got deleted. I'll try again)

      Yeah, it's me End Master. I don't really use AIM that much anymore, but this was the only way I could really make a comment.

      Anyway like I said I read the other two parts of the article and it was cool overall.

      Oh by the way, the Storygame site you linked to actually goes by the name chooseyourstory.

      I hang out there but my real home is Infinite Story which is another CYOA site that has a lot of content. I have a couple extra stories there, one of which called Legend which might be of interest to you since it incorporates Fighting Fantasy style stats and inventory. Probably my only attempt at making one of my stories more game like. It's also one of my more toned down stories in terms of graphic content.

      That's about it and I'm currently in the process of adding more story branches to Eternal.

  9. It was great, Endmaster made a post on the website's forums about it and I'd like to point out that the link to the website (Not the stories) was incorrect. It's not Otherwise it was a pretty good article.

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