Monday, February 20, 2012

What makes a good gamebook - Part Two: The Game of Narrative Choices

Hello everybody =) Thanks for being patient. After the positive responses to Part One of this article, I have wanted to take my time and make sure not to let you down with Part Two!

The goal today is, of course, to discuss the game side of a gamebook, and what makes a good game in a gamebook. When I read this article by the excellent  Raph Koster (author of "A Theory of Fun") I had a bit of an epiphany: I was thinking of discussing things like combat, inventory, game balance, etc--but the true essence of the "game" in any gamebook is not any of that stuff, it's the narrative choices you make.

A lot of gamebooks have other game mechanics layered in as well: inventory, combat, magic, you name it--but all gamebooks share the core mechanic of narrative choices. This is a "game" in Raph's terms, because the entire gamebook is a problem to solve. The solution is the "best" ending. The problem is finding your way there through the maze of narrative choices. For this to be fun, the choices along the way must be interesting, meaningful and relevant. The player should be provided with enough information to have a chance of success without having to brute-force the problem (using trial and error), but not so much that the solution is immediately obvious.

What I'll do today is go over some common errors, as well as some good types of choices that we often see in gamebooks. To get started, let's look over some of the flawed narrative choices that are frequently used:

The "Which Door" Choice: One common flaw, and one which is a particular pet peeve of mine, is not providing enough information on which to base your choices. This is commonly seen in the "which door do you go through," or "do you go East or West" type of decision. If you have no clues whatsoever what's behind either door, then you might as well flip a coin. There's no choice. Don't get me wrong: luck has it's place. Even this type of faux-choice can be called for if you want to inject some randomness, but it should never be mistaken for a choice.

The "Cake or Death" Choice: The flip side of that first error is giving too much information. If the player has enough information to be able to definitively determine which is the correct path, then he has too much information. If you're offered cake or death, there's not a choice, unless you're a suicidal maniac. Obviously, you want the cake! You should be able to figure it out, or at least make a good guess, with a close reading of the text, but it should not be clear and obvious, or why offer the choice at all?

The "Shell Game" Choice: A third flaw steps outside of the paradigm of either of the first two, and that's simply making the results of a choice unrelated to the options presented. Like the shell game con, you don't get what you think you're choosing. If you're choosing between apples and oranges, and you get cake with one and death with the other, then wtf? It takes all significance out of the choice for the player, because whatever thought process they went through in order to arrive at that choice is invalidated. 

The "Blah" Choice: Finally, I would like to assert that too thin a narrative is itself a game-design flaw (in addition to simply being a weak story.) The reason for this is that the central game mechanic of gamebooks is that of making choices based on narrative. The narrative gives you the terms of your choice. The narrative gives you your reward or penalty. If you don't care about the characters or the outcome of the story, you can't take much pleasure in getting to read the "best" ending.

There's some examples of bad uses of the narrative choice. Now, let's take a look at how narrative choices can be handled well. I'll go through a few good examples to provide contrast.

The "Apples or Oranges" Choice: It can feel very rewarding to pick between two options, both of which offer a benefit, but with benefits that are different enough so that one can't be quantifiably defined as better than the other. This is often seen in picking skills or powers during character creation (see Lone Wolf), or in having a certain amount of money to equip your character early in the game (see The Wizard of Tarnath Tor). This gives a lot of food for thought in guessing which will be most useful, and also gives the player a chance to start identifying with their character. Think of trying to choose between a rope or a better weapon.They are fundamentally different, but both could be useful, depending on what you run into.

The Tactical Choice: Following up from that one, another good choice is one that gives the player a chance to take advantage of skills or equipment they may have previously acquired. If the choice presented hints that one resource or another will be more useful down each path, then it ties into a prior choice made with the same character, allowing the player to exercise an overall strategy. Then, each time a player comes through on different play-throughs, they may make a different choice, based on how they've prepared themselves this time.

The "X or ?" Choice: Another good option is the choice between a known quantity and an unknown quantity. Do you want to brave the guards you know are at that door, or sneak down into the dark tunnel below, with no idea what might be down there? This gives you something to think about, yet there's also no clear right answer.

The Moral Choice: Last but not least is the moral, character choice. Will you kill the enemy you've defeated, or show mercy and let him go? Will you assume leadership of your city, or walk away? Will you keep the jewel of power, or destroy it? Your estranged brother apologizes, do you forgive him or hold him accountable? A character of questionable moral integrity offers their services; do you accept? In some senses, these are the most interesting choices, and the ones every gamebook should be striving for. Not only do they provide meaningful choices but they also help tell a great story, and give the player a chance to really get personally involved and invested in that story.

This list is hardly comprehensive, but it at least provides a starting place to begin discussing choice theory in the terms of gamebooks. There's just one more point I'd like to make before I leave you:

The Principle of Choice-Based Results: The results a player gets should always be determined by choice, not by raw luck. It's okay to provide choices that manipulate odds. It's okay to have the challenges a player is presented with be determined randomly. It's even okay if terrible luck can sink the player even if you make perfect choices. But it's important that at the end of the day, the results be primarily determined by player choices, not raw luck.

To phrase this another way, it should always be possible to succeed with good choices without requiring good luck as well. If you have to pass an arbitrary dice roll in order to have a chance of succeeding, the author has done something wrong. Players sit down to read a gamebook in order to solve a puzzle by reading the narrative to search for the best path, not to play, "let's roll dice and try to get above a 10!" Choices are at the heart of the game, and nothing should ever supplant their rightful place there.

Well, I think that has about summed up what I've got for today. Hopefully I've provided some food for thought, as far as how to best make use of narrative choices as the central game mechanic of any gamebook. I'm sure there are a lot of directions to go from here, not least of which is analysis of some of the systems provided by specific gamebook rule-sets. But this at least provides a place to start.

To borrow a phrase from Stuart, "Happy gamebooking!"
[Edit: I've made some changes to the formatting of this post to break it up and make it a bit more readable. Those followed with some edits to the content :P]

[Edit #2: Does anyone here know Blogger well enough to have any idea why those extra spaces between paragraphs are showing up randomly between some paragraphs? As far as I can tell, I have two "enters" between each set of paragraphs. I've tried again and again to get rid of them. I just can't figure it. Thanks!]


  1. That's a great list, Ashton and it highlights a fundamental challenge for all of us gamebook writers.

    I still have to find that perfect balance between the 'which door' choice and the 'cake or death' choice. I want someone to have to think to get the best choice but not have the best choice either too obvious or random.

    Daggers of Darkness and Fangs of Fury are full of shell game choices. Want to pay 2 gold coins for a lift on a horse. It's a trap and you're now dead. Want to go into a village? Your magic torch has been stolen and now you have to enter a dragon man filled cave to get 500 gold coins worth of treasure to get it back. Did you manage to enter the top level of the Fangs of Fury? Well done. You've just been ambushed by 3 mage warriors. I had literally no idea what the consequences of my actions would be, but most of them weren't fatal, so I just sat back, picked at random and enjoyed the completely random narrative. Such choices can be fun but only if you don't take them seriously.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Stuart. And I think you're right, this is a fundamental challenge. Furthermore, I think there is no perfect answer. We're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    I will say, though, that one thing I enjoyed about your gamebooks (thinking of Rulers of the Now in particular) is that I felt you did this part very well. I remember noticing at the time being pleased by the logical consistency between the choices I made and the results I got. Now, in that case I remember getting through in one try, presumably because I paid attention and made the right choices. That may indicate a little too far in the "Cake or Death" direction... but I never felt like it was so obvious as to not even warrant a choice. So kudos to you there; your gamebooks have been some of the best I've read on this front.

    As far as this post goes, and what I'm trying to do here, I'm pleased to see you using phrases like, "the 'which door' choice and "shell game choice." A lot of my intent is to start developing a vocabulary of gamebook theory. If these terms enter common usage, then maybe we as a culture (of gamebook authors) can stop using these kinds of flawed choices.

    Actually, let me rephrase that. I don't want to stop using these types of "flawed" choices altogether... I just want them to be used intentionally, when they are used. Like you said, such choices can be fun if you don't take them seriously. They can be fun. It would be a shame to lose them.

    When I was talking with a friend of mine as I was planning for this post, he made the observation that whenever you're talking about theory of a craft, one of the important things to realize is that all the rules can be broken. The benefit of laying down the rules is not so that no one will ever break the rules again; it's that, in knowing the rules, one can better know how and when to break them to the best advantage.

  3. Good points and thanks for the kind words about Rulers of the NOW - I think you are spot on - I do lean too much towards cake or death (probably due to some childhood trauma involving Crypt of the Sorcerer) but with Rulers of the NOW, I tried to make sure that certain ways of thinking brought the same results (for example, trusting in those in authority is bad) for the player to work out. After reading some reviews, I may have been a bit too obvious about it. However, I did then have an exception where getting locked in jail may have good results.

    I agree with what you said about knowing how to break the rules. Here are some gamebooks that seem to get away with using the bad choices you mentioned.

    Deathtrap Dungeon: Full of which door and blah choices but pulls through due to what TVTropes refers to as Rule of Cool. Also has a ninja.

    Fangs of Fury, Daggers of Darkness: As I mentioned above, almost all choices are shell game choices but it's ok because it's entertaining and rarely lethal. Chasms of Malice is too lethal to count.

    Lone Wolf: A lot of the series could be considered Cake or Death (or in some cases, where your choices have absolutely no effect on the game, cake or cake) but it is one of the most richly detailed fantasy wolrds with a huge story arc where you are a warrior with cool powers.

    Creature of Havoc: Lots of which door and shell door choices (and at the beginning what you do is determined randomly) but for some reason its insane difficulty has made it much loved by the fandom probably due to its brilliant backstory, the fact that you start off as a monster and the fact that getting to the next step feels like an achievement (getting out of that dungeon for the first time was great). Even its pendant bug ( seems to enrich the experience. I think if you want a book full of exceptions that actually work, this is it.

  4. Visitor from What you had to say on the nature of "gamebooks" is valid (our site, particularly, emphasizes the story over the mechanics). Also - for my interest level - the column would've been about 2/3 the size of this one. To my mind, that's about the same length as anyone interested in literature is prepared to read as a blog post.

    It's a very thorough, thoughtful article, and I commend you for the website and this publication. The "game"storybook is especially under-appreciated as an art form.



  5. Really, really interesting. I wrote all my 8th Continent gamebooks without being familiar with these distinctions, and yet somewhere along the line, I must've internalised a lot of what you've said: I think I have very few of these gaff choices.

    You said: "Players sit down to read a gamebook in order to solve a puzzle by reading the narrative to search for the best path, not to play, "let's roll dice and try to get above a 10!" I agree - rolling the dice was always the first thing to dispense with in the FF books. Randomness can be the scourge of games of all types - it's why I hate Risk, for example!

    But I would also say that a lot of modern gamers are perhaps after a slightly different experience than this. It may be something to do with the wealth of (free) games out there now, or perhaps the potentially completely untrue idea that we have less time these days, but I think players are not as interested in replaying and grinding through (sometimes unfair) puzzles, such as the FF books of old. I think a lot of players, sometimes called 'casual' players, want to solve the puzzle if it's relatively easy and can pretty much be done the first time through.

    Certainly this is how I am these days!