Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D: Discussion on Mars 2112

Yesterday, I posted a short sample gamebook. It's 17 entries, with maybe half a dozen real choices, but hopefully there's enough substance there to give you an idea what gamebooks are about.

It was a fun experience for me to write a short gamebook that quickly. I definitely found myself enjoying the world and the themes as I was working on it. This is possibly a story (or at least, a setting) that could bear a more well-developed treatment. 

Anyway, my intent today is to break it down a bit, and talk about what it's doing, what's good and what's bad. Ready... Go!

I've been amusing myself on this blog by describing kinds of choices that gamebooks can offer readers. The short gamebook I posted yesterday, Mars 2112, was designed to showcase a few of those kinds of choices. Let's go over them...

The very first choice you make is to pick the equipment you bring with you on your mission. You are forced to pick one of two options, a weapon or a stealth device. My intent with this choice was to demonstrate the "Apples or Oranges" style of choice, a choice in which the reader must pick between two things that cannot be easily compared to one another. This is good, because there is no "right" answer, and yet it is still a meaningful choice.

The other thing I would like to point out about this first choice is that it may be jarring for some readers to be presented with a choice about equipment when the text so far has been so story-based. It's a shift of gears. For experienced gamers, they will know what to expect and may enjoy this kind of choice. For someone new to games in general, and gamebooks in particular, I speculate that being asked to think about equipment alll of a sudden may not be fun. What do you think?

Next, you are faced with a choice regarding whether to go against the Commander's advice and try to talk to the terrorists, or search around and examine the building to consider an assault. My intent with this was to offer a "Cake or Death" choice, as an example of what NOT to do in a gamebook. I'm afraid that I might not have completely succeeded, because despite numerous hints that talking to them is not a good idea, the text still leaves enough room for speculation that someone might try anyway--especially given that many people's moral codes may require them to attempt talking rather than jumping to killing, even if it's dangerous.

A true Cake or Death choice is any choice in which one answer is clearly better. This is not something you want to do, but I was trying to demonstrate it for the example's sake. What do you think? Did I get there? 

Because this gamebook is so short, most branching storylines involve prompt player death. This is to avoid too many branches to the story that could cause the word count to bloat. That said, there is at least one choice that does take you through one of two different possible (viable) paths.  If you make it to section 4, you're given the choice to storm the building or sneak in. This falls under two categories of choices, one good and one bad. 

The good category this falls under is the "Tactical Choice," which is just the term I've been using to describe when your choice in one area may depend on situational factors, such as how much life you have left or, in this case, what equipment you brought with you. If you have the EMP grenade, storming the castle is the better option, but if you have the camouflage unit, then stealth is the better path. This requires the player to engage with the text, consider all factors, and then rewards the player with a possible "right" decision if they successfully think it through.

There is a school of thought that having a "right" option isn't good--but really, it's a little bit more complicated than that. If there is a right answer, then the player is faced not with a choice, but with a calculation. The challenge isn't for the player to pick between two competing values, but instead to think through the tactically correct approach. This isn't bad; it's like doing math. You have a problem, you solve it. If you solve it successfully, you get a reward. But it is important to remember that it isn't a real choice--unless the player doesn't solve the calculation correctly, and makes the decision based on other factors. But that carries it's own problems. Ideally, this type of problem should strike a good balance between providing enough hints in the text that there are clues as to the right answer, while not giving the answer away outright. It's not an easy balance to strike, but when successful, can be very good. Finding the clues to make good choices is one of the fun mini-games in a gamebook.

The other reason that I like the "Tactical Choice" is because, while it is a calculation, the answer can be different depending on past choices the player has made, or other factors. This helps prevent it from becoming stale, as if the player is in a different situation next time they come around, they get to solve the problem again, rather than just remembering the answer from last time.

All this is discussion regarding the tactical aspects of the choice whether to storm the building or sneak in; it's a modest example of a tactical choice, but it is one. But you'll remember I said this choice falls under another category as well, a less-desirable category. This choice, in Section 4 of Mars 2012, also falls under the category of "Blah" choice.

The "Blah" choice, according to my blog post on the topic, is one where the reader doesn't have any narrative reason to care. I won't say this wholly falls under this topic. If you're interested in tactics, this is an interesting choice, and you do have reason to care because of the stakes if you fail your mission. But it is not a character-driven choice, and to me that makes it less interesting.
What do you think? Do you care about this choice in the story, or is it just a roadblock to get through? Do you have a moment of fun in considering the tactical aspect of the choice? Do you think the answer is too easy and obvious, or not obvious enough?

And with that, I'm going to call this post here. We're only 4 sections in, but the discussion is shaping up to be longer than the original piece. Typical. Tomorrow, we will continue with "E: Even more discussion on Mars 2012!"

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your own projects!

P.S. I came across something in writing this, and that's the concept of including clues in the text to hint to the player which choice is the correct one. That's a dynamic I haven't discussed yet in my Gamebook Theory series. I'll have to look at that more closely in a future post. (Maybe after the A-Z Challenge!)


  1. Great post - you really break down the types of choices well.

    Clues in the text is a good one. The one that stands out most for me is the cue in the background of Battleblade warrior about which gems to use.

    Looking forward to more from you, Ashton!

  2. I think I must not have read Battleblade... is that the name of the gamebook? This sounds intriguing...

  3. Battleblade Warrior - it's Fighting Fantasy 31. It is a quite good gamebook - it has some great scenes and the clue in the background. It's worth a go - there's definitely nothing wrong with it.

  4. As you know, Ashton, I've been thinking a great deal about gamebooks and choices in the last few years. After doing some research, I've come to the conclusion that we don't simply test the reader's logic, we actually test their attention, memory and knowledge. That being said, the example you gave of "Cake or Death" isn't completely accurate. It is true that the protagonist has been warned about the danger of being killed, if he tries negotiations, but that clue is well hidden in the text and a reader, who is skipping to the choices, could easily miss that hint. I say that this is a very valid test of how much attention the reader is paying to the story. It could have also been a memory test, provided that the gamebook was much longer and the clue was given many paragraphs before the given choice, somewhere towards the beginning of the story.

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