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"