This is an article in my "Gamebook Theory" series. For prior articles, see Part 1: Story or Part 2: Narrative Choices.
Last week, we talked about the narrative choices as the "Game" in "Gamebooks." This was based on Raph Koster's model of a game being essentially a problem to solve, and a gamebook being essentially a problem of finding the "best" ending. This week, I'm curious: What if there is no "best" ending? What if there are a number of endings, each telling a different story? Would it still qualify as a game? Or at that point, is it simply an interactive story, and you're just getting a different story depending on the choices you make?
I don't have answers to that, but I do know this: I like--no--I love interactive stories. That's the whole point, to me. But at the same time, if you have the option, why not include elements of a game? People like challenges. People like overcoming challenges. It's fun.
Well, this raises a new question: "What kind of games can be included in a gamebook? What options do we have, as far as challenges to present the player with (without compromising the story)?"
As I'm in the planning stages of several gamebooks at the moment, this is a very relevant question for me. As such, I'd like to beg your patience as I consider a few of the types of challenges that a player can be presented with as a "game" element in a gamebook.
Narrative Choices: Last week, we discussed this exhaustively, so I won't go into it in detail here, except to say that you can make a challenge of the choices. As Stuart pointed out in that post, it's hard to find the balance between a "Which Door" Choice (no basis for making a decision) and the "Cake or Death" Choice (obvious correct answer.) Moving away from having a single "best" ending and toward having multiple different endings helps resolve this problem... but then is the narrative choice really a game-mechanic at all, or simply a way of interacting with the story?
Combat: Combat is one of the most obvious challenges that can be thrown into a gamebook, but I have mixed feelings about it's usefulness. Theoretically, moments of crisis and physical challenge should be the most exciting in a story. But I'm a little worried that because they are so intrinsically exciting, they have been overused to the point of making them dull.
The problem with combat is that, unless there is enough context to get the blood flowing and the adrenaline pulsing, it presents, from a purely mechanical, player-experience perspective, little except a chance that your character will die and your story will abruptly end.
What fun is that?
This is a general problem using dice-based challenges. It definitely presents a sense of challenge, sure. But if that challenge is just to suddenly and, almost randomly, force you to start over, is that really satisfying? Or is a victory by brute luck really satisfying? A good challenge should be skill based. But how?
For combat, I think one of the best ways to do that is to present the Illusion of Danger. (More thoughts on the Illusion of Danger, but I will save them for a future post.)
One way to make combat more interesting is the Challenge Staircase. By Challenge Staircase I mean the cycle of challenge, reward, bigger challenge, bigger reward, etc. Taking out a big monster feels more exciting if you couldn't take him before, but you've hiked up the challenge staircase far enough to take him now. The success of this model can be seen in games like World of Warcraft, Diablo II, and many, many more.
This is tricky to implement in a gamebook, because gamebooks (at least gamebooks now) for the most part don't have the range of system mechanics necessary. Tin Man Games does make this possible, at least, via the acquisition of weapons and armor.
What I would like to see, in order to take advantage of the Challenge Staircase as a game mechanic, is a more regulated growth of player power and monster power. If we evoke the risk/challenge/reward feedback loop and make the player feel like they've earned their progress, then when their progress allows them to do things they couldn't do before, they will feel a satisfying gaming experience.
What about a Puzzle? A puzzle could provide a satisfying intellectual challenge for the player. Solve the riddle, figure the answer, save the day. Sounds great! There's only two problems with a puzzle. First, they are hard to write. And if you write a bad puzzle, that's worse than no puzzle at all. Second, there is no replay value. Absolutely zero. Once you know the answer, you know it forever, and that particular challenge will never challenge you again. But for that first play-through, has potential for real awesomeness. (Mystery novel as a gamebook, anyone?)
That's a few ideas, but I hardly feel like the list is comprehensive. I'm going to go back to the drawing board to keep coming up with more ideas of kinds of challenges we can throw at players. Building the toolkit.
In the meantime, what do you guys think?
What kinds of challenges do you see in good gamebooks?
What are your favorite challenges to see in interactive fiction? (Your least-favorite)?
Do you really think challenges in gamebooks are necessary? Could you have just as good a time reading a piece that took out the challenges, so that your decisions simply lead you to a different story, not necessarily a better or worse one?