Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gamebook Theory 3: Putting the "Game" in Gamebook (or taking it out?)

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?


  1. Great post as always, Ashton. A good example of a gamebook without a 'best' ending is Heart of Ice by Dave Morris (you can get it for free here

    I won't give anything away but what you consider to be the best ending depends of the reader and the values they have. I was discussing the book with a friend and we both had different preferred endings so I guess we would win if we could achieve the ending we wanted. This meant that we had to sample all of the endings with several play throughs. Your book The Gates of Heaven and Hell had such a choice. I preferred one ending out of the three successful purely because of my moral outlook. Someone with another moral outlook may have considered a different ending to be the winning ending.

    I think Lone Wolf had an excellent challenge staircase but the challenges got a bit contrived after book 12 as that is the book where you killed the most powerful Deathlord. Eventually, you start taking on gods.

    Having the tension of a random system but making sure that players' choices matter is another tricky gamebook issue. I try to make sure that the player has tactical choices so that they can choose what they think the best way is of playing the odds. There will always be bad dice rolls but they won't feel so unfair if you feel that you did everything you could to play the odds.

    I guess some ways of keeping the game element is to have a scoring system so that you have to reach a certain ending but how you did it affects your score. I did this with your book Peledgathol. I may have reached the good end, but I also tried to do so with the largest number of dwarves possible. In that case, I challenged myself to find the options that maximised the number of dwarves I had at the end.

    You can also have several 'good' endings but have good, better and best endings so there is a challenge staircase but instead of it being based on stats, it is based on your choices.

    Puzzles can be fun or very frustrating if you can't do them. There are some things I consider puzzles that have more than one answer for example, the strategy part of Peledgathol could be a puzzle - you have four seasons to get as many dwarves and resources as possible - what do you do? Could be considered a puzzle.

    Thanks for all the great posts! Keep them up.

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  2. Loving this gamebook analysis series Ashton (love yours too Lloyd!) ... Think I agree with *almost* everything you've said thus far! I'd say more but I'll save that for my own articles (which I'll get around to soon I swear!) ... Keep up the great work!


  3. Thanks for the kind and thoughtful comments, guys!

    @Stuart, thanks for linking me to Heart of Ice. This looks awesome! Sitting down to read it now. Also, I'm very curious about two things. One, which ending did you prefer in Gates of Heaven and Hell? Two, how many dwarves were you able to end with on your best play through of Peledgathol?

    @Brewin' thanks for the support! It means a lot to hear that from you ;) I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on your own blog!

    1. @Ashton

      With Gates, I preferred to keep both gates closed as I did not want to kill anyone and thought that Earth is more interesting with a wide range of moralities.

      With Peledgathol, I don't have my sheets any more but I think I've worked out the optimum route so I'll play again and tell you later.

  4. I just read your blog posts about gamebook design and they've been incredibly helpful! For about a year or two I've been developing a fantasy world for fun and general use. I've decided that the first thing I actually want to do with that world is write a gamebook. I've never done this before, so it probably won't be too good, but hopefully it will be fun to write. I'm considering creating the gamebook in a videogame like format so that items can be more easily kept track of.

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