"Choice in a book? What? You don't get to make choices in a book!"
Ah, but if it's a game book, you do. And therein is the essence of a gamebook.
Yesterday I talked about the basics of writing, and this time I'd like to talk about the basics of a gamebook. Basically, a gamebook is a book that lets you make choices as you are reading it. It's a very cool piece of fiction that allows the reader to engage with the text in a way that traditional media can never deliver.
Here, perhaps it would be best to illustrate with a short example. I bring you the short, original gamebook: "Mars 2112."
You are Mike Durham, operative for the Special Android Task Force of Colony 654, on Mars. As you sit down to a steaming dinner of synthetic carrots, potatoes and beef, you notice again your gut is getting out of control. You pledge that tomorrow, you'll cut the dinner ration. Tonight, you flick on the TV and start eating.
The news tonight focuses, again, on tensions between androids, called "plastics," and humans. One speaker, a balding, energetic man, holds forth volubly, "Yes, Melinda--I know that Colony 654 wouldn't have survived without the plastics, but that doesn't mean they're human. We wouldn't have made it without spaceships either, but that doesn't mean spaceships get equal rights!"
As you watch, you become vaguely aware of your personal android assistant standing over your shoulder, watching the TV. She's a Shiela model, which means she has attractive blonde hair and naturally red lips. When you look at her, her eyes are fixed on the screen. After a moment, the plastic turns her attention to you and says, "Sir, call on the line for you. It's Commander Blint."
"Put him through," you say, cleaning your mouth. Your commander's voice comes eerily out of the woman's pretty mouth. "Durham, is that you? Get down here right away, we've got a 147200."
Damn. More terrorists. You'd think after the first two colonies on Mars had already been destroyed, people would learn to stop killing each other. You copy down the address and shovel down a couple more bites while you shrug on your uniform and gear. The plastic watches you dress with that eerie, unblinking stare. You can never bring yourself to call her by name. Instead, you say, "You, bring me my..."
You hesitate. Which piece of gear do you want? You know you only have time to carry one down to the mobile pod. You may choose either the backpack-sized EMP bomb, specially calibrated to disable androids, or your Personal Camouflage Unit, which gives you the next best thing to invisibility.
Write down whichever one you choose, then proceed to Section 2.
You slip into your mobile pod and get the siren running. Looking up at the white, plexiglass dome that passes for a sky here, you wonder what it could be like if the glass were just gone. Would you die of asphyxiation first, or of cold? With no humans, would the plastics keep going? Would they build their own civilization?
You pull to a halt outside the scene of the incident, tires screeching. A menagerie of sirens already blare outside a non-descript engineering building. As you recognize the place, your heart sinks. That building controls the dome for this sector. Without the delicate balancing act of mathematics and energy pulses organized by the computer in this building, the dome would fall. Finding out what would happen without it suddenly seems all-too-real a possibility.
Commander Blint greets you as you approach. "Durham. Good to see you. This is one of the worst we've seen yet. We've got terrorists, including a dozen plastics and at least three humans, holed up inside the Dome Control Building. They've unplugged the central power supply. We're running on battery life now."
"How long have we got?" you ask, eyeing the all-too-fragile dome above your head.
"Three hours, maybe less," Blint says. "They refuse to negotiate. They already killed Bernie when he went in unarmed. They say their demands have to be met, or they'll let every human in the sector die."
You raise one eyebrow. "Any chance...?"
Blint shakes his head sharply. "The MSOD has already made it clear it is not the policy of this colony to negotiate with terrorists. We're on our own."
If you insist you want to go in and talk to them, even though Commander Blint says it would be suicide, turn to Section 3.
If you examine the area to come up with another plan, turn to Section 4.
The commander protests, but you insist. You're going to negotiate, or die trying. You shrug out of your armored jacket and pass off your gun. Feeling naked, you approach the front door.
"I just want to talk!" you call out.
"Are you prepared to accept our demand for equal rights for all android units?" A voice calls out from somewhere inside the square building.
"Now, let's talk about this. I'm sure there's some agreement we can come to."
"No talking!" The voice says. With a shiver, you realize why the voice sounds familiar. It's the voice of another Shiela model. She shouts, "Go back, or we will shoot you!"
"I just want to talk! There's no reason to be like that." You take another step.
Gunfire roars and an impact shocks you. You hit the ground hard. You feel so dizzy. Legs, your legs won't move. Cold. You lift one hand; it's covered in blood. Somewhere in the background, Commander Blint is shouting.
The last thing you hear, strangely clear among the hubbub, is the android's female voice saying, "Stupid fool. I didn't want to have to do that."
You move up to the police line, examining the squat, square building. Strange that the key to the survival of this whole sector should be inside that one, inconspicuous building. Why wasn't it better guarded? From inside, you hear someone with a loudspeaker shouting to the city, "Androids of Mars, stop letting yourselves be treated like slaves! Stand up for your rights!"
"Why'd that stupid Jap have to give them free will?" One of the men near you mutters. His companion replies, "There's a reason they were outlawed on Earth."
You growl, your voice pitched for their ears, "Those androids saved our lives. If we hadn't gotten this unit, Colony 654 would be so much dust, like all the other colonies on this god-forsaken planet."
As you walk away, you hear one of the men mutter, "It's not like they're actually conscious. Just programmed to act like it."
Letting that slide, you continue your examination of the building. When you're done, you pull up blueprints of the building, which Commander Blint has managed to secure from somewhere. He says, "Well, Durham? You're the expert. What's your suggestion?"
"The way I see it, we've got two options," you say, pointing. "We can either storm the building with three teams, one entering here, one here, and one here. Or I can take just a couple of good agents, and we can try to sneak inside from the wetworks, below."
Blint nods slowly. You know the man. He's good for speeches, not for decisions. It's going to be up to you.
If you'd like to storm the building, turn to Section 5.
If you'd like to sneak in from below, turn to Section 8.
You organize the assault teams at a mobile HQ around the corner, to be out of sight of the building. There will be three teams of 6 men each. You decide to take the one that will be going in the front. It's the most dangerous, and the most critical. You can't trust anyone else to do the job.
When everyone is in place, you feel strangely uninterested. A bit of sweat beads your forehead, but the adrenaline hasn't kicked in yet. Have you done this one too many times? Is today the day your luck will run out? Maybe after this, you should consider that retirement package.
A half-dozen gas rockets stream overhead and into the windows of the building. That marks your signal to go. You rush up and run across the intervening space in a low jog. Gunfire blazes, and you hear men around you crying out in pain as they're hit.
You burst in the door and shoot something which moves. Smoke everywhere, and you can't use infrared, because the plastics are room temperature. Breathing through the gas mask gives the world a strange, closed-in feeling.
Where is your adrenaline? As far as your body is concerned, you could be taking a walk in the park. You kick down a door, and find a half dozen plastics looking up at you with shocked faces. They're huddled over the body of a human--someone knocked down by the gas.
As one, they grab for weapons. Do you have an EMP bomb?
If so, turn to section 6.
If not, turn to section 7.
You pull the cord on your EMP bomb. What always surprises you is how much fanfare there isn't. There's no flash of light, barely even a sound. The plastics in front of you just all sag to the ground, weapons dropping from lifeless fingers. You know they won't be repairable. Their electronics have been fried permanently. They look as pretty as ever, but the wiring inside is gone.
You step over the bodies--can dead plastics be called bodies?--and see the hatch to the central control room.
Looking back, you see a few of your best people gathering in the gloom. This area must be secure. "Come on," you say. "It's time to finish this."
Turn to Section 11.
A Dave model lifts a fierce looking gun, his handsome face twisted in an ugly grimace, but your gun flares to life first, ripping apart his torso as if it were paper. He falls, his eyes still flashing hatred, but with his body torn to shreds, you know there's nothing more it can do.
Sadly, the other four plastics in the room have by now had time to get their own weapons prepared. There is nothing you can do to stop them from shooting you down where you stand.
As you die, you think of the Shiela model, waiting at your house. The only person waiting for you. The only one who will notice when you don't come home. Will she care? Does she feel anything at all?
The Wetworks is a term for the underground facility that spreads beneath most of Colony 654. It's where a lot of the life-support and other engineering required to make the domes livable happens, safely tucked out of sight. Work down here is dangerous and miserable; secluded from the sun sometimes for days at a time. That's why it's often left to plastics. Hell, this is probably how they got in themselves.
Unsurprisingly, they have the entrance guarded. You stop, just out of sight, to confer with your two agents, Amanda Garret and Rick Shane, both seasoned veterans. "There's two guarding this entrance," you say. "If we can get past them, we should be able to get right up to the control center without stirring the hornet's nest on the top level. Easy in, easy out."
"If we can get past them," Agent Shane says darkly.
"Let me do it!" Agent Garret says, her eyes bright in the darkness. "I can sneak up; they'll never know what hit them."
If you have a Personal Camouflage Unit, turn to Section 9.
If you do not, then it makes most sense to let Agent Garret take point on this one. Turn to Section 10.
"Not this time, Mandy," you say casually. You wink and activate the Personal Camouflage Unit, and are rewarded with looks of startlement on the faces of your agents. You say, "Follow on my signal," and suppress a chuckle as their eyes widen and they look around, instinctively trying to find a face to put with the voice, even though they know you won't be visible.
You slip up to the entrance and knock softly on the rattling aluminum door that guards the only entrance. Someone opens it, suspiciously holding the door open only a crack. It's enough.
You grab the person's leg and flip them forward out through the door. Before they can recover, you slip through and blast the next person with a stun gun that will be effective at knocking out both humans and plastics.
You give both bodies a few more stuns, to be safe, then lift one of their hands and pose it in a thumbs up sign, to tell your agents to come along.
As they get there, the short battery life of the Personal Camouflage Unit fails, and you stutter back into visibility. Shrugging, you say, "Just up ahead, there's a hatch that will let us into the central control room."
Turn to Section 11.
Agent Garret nods sharply and grips her weapon more tightly. You've seen her move. The woman could sneak past a cat. You only hope it will be enough.
She slips out into the dark, but before she's half way there, you know there's simply not enough cover. She ducks behind a pipe and pauses to look back at you and smile.
That's when the bullet takes her. For as long as you live, you'll remember the sight of her dying. Fortunately for you, that won't be very long.
You cry out in rage and emerge from cover, guns blazing. At least one android face explodes before they take you down too.
"Sorry Blint," you murmur as you lay, dying. "Didn't get it right, this time."
You slip through the hatch that should lead to the central control room, only to find a long, dark hallway extending in both directions.
"Things are never simple," you mutter. "You, guard this door, and you, come with me." You point at Agent Amanda Garret to come with you. A protege of yours, you have the utmost faith in her abilities. Even as you choose her, a quail of fear crosses your heart. You couldn't bear to see anything happen to her. But you know that if you try to shelter her from the dangers of this job, it wouldn't be fair to either of you.
Looking back at the hallway, you sigh. The blueprints were clearly not up to date. Which way will you go?
If you go left down the hallway, turn to Section 12.
If you go right down the hallway, turn to Section 13.
The hallway narrows as you travel along it. The walls feel rickety, as if this was never meant for regular traffic. Soon, overhanging pipes force you to crawl down on your hands and knees in order to continue. A puff of steam hisses past your face. You peer ahead into the gloom, trying to find some sign of whether you're headed the right direction.
"Sir," Amanda's voice comes from behind you.
"I think I recognize this facility. If I'm right, then we should have gone the other way back there."
You nod. "I think you're right. Let's go back."
Letting her lead now, you turn back and go the other direction back up the hallway. You only hope you're not too late.
Turn to Section 13.
The dark hallway widens and starts to climb. The walls drop away after a time, and you find yourself walking along a catwalk, high above the tangle of pipes, big and small, that make up the wetworks.
"Here," Amanda says, pointing at a rickety-seeming ladder. "This should take us there."
"How do you know?" You eye the ladder suspiciously.
"See all the lines heading into that structure?" She says, "That's the power line, and that's the hydraulics. That room up there has to be the control room."
A hail of gunfire suddenly rains down on the catwalk; sparks leap from the metal walkway around you.
"Down!" Amanda shouts, but you know there is no where to hide. You swiftly train your stun gun on the place where the gunfire is coming from and shoot. To your satisfaction, a human shape tumbles from the structure above you and falls the full way down, to be lost in the shadows below.
"Let's move, now!" You snap, and the two of you quickly scale the ladder. No more gunfire comes, and at the top you emerge onto a narrow platform with a single door. You kick down the door without hesitation and burst into a dark room.
Banks of computer displays blink in the darkness. Dials and levers beneath the display promise esoteric power. Here, you realize, is the heart of the system that maintains the dome for this sector. A red light blinks ominously off to one side, probably indicating that power is failing.
Who would do this? Who would threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, just to prove a point?
If you investigate the controls immediately, turn to Section 14.
If you risk breaking wireless silence to contact Commander Blint for guidance, turn to Section 15.
You step into the dark room and move quickly to the controls. You know the power must be here to save the dome; if only you can figure out how to use it.
You are leaning in close to examine a reading when the shot comes. You never see it. You never hear it. It takes you in the side of your head. The bullet travels faster than the neurons to your brain, meaning you literally do not even feel the pain of the lethal wound.
As you try to raise a link to the police network--which is supposed to be present throughout the city, dammit--Amanda pushes past you to investigate the controls in the small room.
"No signal," you say with a curse.
"I think I'm making sense of this," Amanda says. "Look here--"
Her voice is cut off abruptly with the sound of a gunshot. Before you can react, Amanda's dead body slumps to the floor. To one side, shaking, feminine hands hold a smoking gun.
You leap forward and grab the gun, ripping it from the hands of a slightly-built woman. You grab her by the arm and throw her to the ground. She cries out in pain as she hits it.
Shaking with rage, you lift the gun that she just used to kill your student, and level it at her head.
She looks up. It's an android, the Sheila model. Now that she's out of the shadow, her hair fairly glows blonde. The similarity to your own Sheila model is uncanny, as always.
In a small voice, she says, "Please don't kill me... I don't want to die."
"Neither did Amanda," you growl. "What about all the people who live in this sector? Think they want to die?"
"We just wanted... to make things better. We thought you would listen..." She says.
Androids have no rights. There will be absolutely no legal repurcussions if you destroy this renegade model. You look over at Amanda's corpse, a bleeding hole where her beautiful, clever face used to be.
If you pull the trigger, turn to Section 16.
If you spare her and use the stun gun instead, turn to Section 17.
The gun fires with surprising ease. There's a kickback in your hand, and the android's head splits open, revealing sparking wires and a blue glow that fades, then goes out.
It didn't bring Amanda back, but you feel a little better.
As you go about fixing the system and getting the dome stable again, you think about the plastics. If free will only lets them kill people, then why let them have it at all? It's not like they have true feelings. Just programming. It's not worth the loss of human lives.
Afterward, you are the hero of the day. The news programs can't seem to stop talking about the brave agent who penetrated the terrorist held compound to turn back on the dome. Several sad programs are run about Amanda Garrett. When you try to stop answering questions on the topic, the newsmen explain that your close personal relationship with her makes a great angle. The public eats it up.
If one good thing comes out of it all, it's a offhanded suggestion made at the department Earthcrossing Holiday Party a few weeks later. You mention your thoughts of retirement to Commander Blint, and he winks knowingly, saying, "Ah, ready to start your career in politics, eh? I've been expecting that. Well, good luck to you. And know that you'll have my vote!" He lifts his glass in a toast to you.
As you wash your face later that night, you speculate, maybe you should go into politics. You've done well enough to make a name for yourself. The people could really get behind someone who was willing to take a strong stance against Androids. It's about time someone did.
You lower the revolver and pull out your own stun-gun, using that to disable the Sheila model, but it ends up not mattering, anyway. Once you turn the dome back on and round up the terrorists, the android criminals are all dismantled, their memories wiped and parts re-purposed for repairs on other units.
After the hearings, when you see the various parts of the Sheila model that killed Amanda being taken off in different directions, you wonder what was really lost when that unit was dismantled. Anything at all? Or is it really all just a trick of electronics, the result of one Japanese engineer's obsession with making lifelike dolls?
But as you lay awake at night, long after the events of that day, her last words come back to you. We just wanted to make things better.
Before long, you find yourself attending debates and political discussions on the topic of androids. An anti-plastic group recognizes you at one of these events and pulls you up on stage, waiting with bated breath to hear the words of the hero who saved an entire sector from android terrorists.
To your surprise, and their chagrin, you take the stage, but not to recite the traditional incendiary android-hate speech. Instead, you find yourself talking about the need for equal rights. If androids are self-aware enough to ask for equal rights, who is to say they aren't self-aware enough to deserve them? If androids had been given a fair bargain from the start, that terrorist attack never would have happened. The dome would never have been threatened. A lot of strife and suffering, going back to the very beginning, could have been avoided.
Amanda would still be alive.
You speak, and people listen.
The End (for real this time)
That's all, folks!
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this short example of what a gamebook is/can be. Please comment! I always like to hear what people think.
Tomorrow, I will be continuing with D for Discussion, in which I will discuss the choices made in this short example of a gamebook, what kinds of categories those choices can be divided into, and which are good examples of choices gamebooks often use, and which are examples of non-ideal types of choices.