Saturday, April 7, 2012

G: Gamebook Theory

At the risk of seeming like something of a one-trick pony, this post is about Gamebook Theory. I'll try to make this one shorter and more accessible, a bullet-point version, for those who want a quick primer before writing gamebooks of their own, without extensive reading on the subject.

I think there are three important things to keep in mind when crafting a gamebook: Continuity, Character, and Challenge.

Continuity: This is the logical flow of your gamebook. Quite aside from whether you're telling an engaging story that hooks the reader or not (that's Character), your story must make sense. There are many types of choices that the reader can be presented with, including the Shell Game Choice, the Which Door Choice, the Tactical Choice, and more. (See my first few posts on Gamebook Theory.)

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the reader feel that they are in a meaningful universe making meaningful choices. Options they are presented with should be relevant to the story, (meaning something important should be at stake) and the player should be given enough hints to have something to think about when making a decision, without obviously giving away which is the "correct" answer. Finally, the results the book actually delivers from each decision should logically flow from that decision.

Got it? Good. I'll move on. (Feel free to comment or email me with questions, btw, even if you don't come across this for years later.)

Character: This is the essence of your story. Stories don't happen without characters. But having a deep and compelling character doesn't matter if the reader doesn't know it. What's most important in this category is that the character be put into a position the reader can immediately empathize with.

You're on a road, whistling as you walk, when the road forks. Do you go left or right?

What do I care? Does it make any difference?

On the other hand... You're looking for the Lost City of Xian'Tul. If you don't beat your nemesis there, he's going to kill your sister AND be awarded Archeologist of the Year by the Royal Society. Now, do you go left or right?

Suddenly, this choice is deeply relevant to me.

See what I mean? Some of the deeper aspects of a character can come from their backstory and what happened to them as a child, but that stuff only really provides context. The important thing about Character, from a story-craft perspective, is the knotty situations the character finds themselves in. This is what the reader can empathize with, and what makes the reader start to care about the character.

This is true of straight fiction also. What builds character isn't a fancy backstory, but having to make difficult choices on-screen, choices the reader can empathize with. The difference is that, in gamebooks, the reader doesn't have to just hypothetically answer the question, then safely sit back watch the character on screen deal with it. In a gamebook, the reader has to answer the question him- or herself, and face the consequences personally.

Challenge: The third, and arguably most important aspect of a gamebook is Challenge. If your challenge level is off, no one is going to read your gamebook, no matter how beautifully crafted the narrative is in terms of continuity and character.

To get the right challenge level, you want to threaten the player without actually killing him. You want to make the events seem dangerous, and show what hangs in the balance, but you always want to give him a way out, as long as he is clever enough. [Note: clever enough does not mean he can randomly pick the right door out of three. It means he can read into the text, draw logical conclusions from sparse information, and solve puzzles and problems.]

Many gamebooks incorporate a random element, such as combat. This can be a lot of fun for a player, mostly because randomness is inherently exciting. You get to hope for a great roll, and dread a terrible roll, both of which are exciting emotions that mean the game is working.

It's a fine line to walk, though, because if it's too difficult, the player will die too often and get frustrated and walk away, but if it's too easy, the player will get bored without a risk of failure and, likewise, walk away.

Humans are problem-solving machines. Our brains LOVE solving problems. As soon as there is no problem to solve any more, we lose interest. Yet, if the problem seems to not be solveable, or can only be solved by brute force (ie. trying every possible option), or requires too much tedium of the player whenever a failure occurs, we'll lose interest. We're finicky. No one game is going to get it perfectly right, but it's worth it to know what the goal is.

One final exhortation, and then I'll let you go: always make the results the player gets be based on their problem solving ability, not pure randomness. One recent, published gamebook, by a talented, professional gamebook author, included a challenge toward the end which required the player to roll above a certain number on a dice or immediately die. The book was otherwise popular and critically acclaimed, but this decision struck a negative chord in the gaming community, and there were a lot of complaints about that particular challenge. The problem is that the player doesn't get to solve any problem. There's no game to it. You just have to try again and again until you get it right. There may have been a way around it; if so, I didn't find it. It seemed to be required to beat the game, and that is (no offense, should the author happen to read this) terrible game design.

As it happened, in my play-through, that challenge was sandwiched by several others of a similar sort. Lacking enough incentive or motivation to go all the way back and try a different route, I wound up doing about a hundred run-throughs of the same 8 or so paragraph sections, until the dice, by sheer good luck, randomly decided to let me proceed through this particular sequence of combats and arbitrary death-checks. It was not an awesome game experience, and a serious blemish on an otherwise excellent gamebook.

Don't be that guy! Give your player problems to solve, not dice to roll. Don't kill the player randomly or arbitrarily, without giving them a chance to think their way out of the problem. Make your combats of sufficient challenge to scare the player, but make sure the odds are at least 80% or higher that they will win, if they play their cards right going into the challenge. If every random encounter has a 50% chance of killing you, how are you supposed to ever get to the end?

Alright, I'm rambling now. I hope I've made the point. As this is a blog post, I will leave this as-is rather than trying to clean it up, but I hope you've been able to get something useful out of it.

Next time, we will do H: How to Write a Gamebook, in which I will present a short series of 8 steps to writing a gamebook, should you want to try it at home.

Have a great day =)


  1. You're doing a great job of breaking down the gamebook writing art. The randomness element is important. I hope I wasn't the one killing people off with a die roll.

  2. Haha! No, not you. Someone unexpected. It was otherwise a great gamebook!

  3. Ashton, I've already read most of your blog on Gamebook Theory and so far I really like your input on this subject. Being hungry for more of your thoughts, I will remind you that you made the promise that you will write about "including clues in the text to hint to the player which choice is the correct one". How much is too much and how much is too little? I really want to hear what you have to say about hints in the text. Please fulfill your promise!

    1. Thank you so much, Peter! I've been letting this blog languish for way too long already, this is a good reminder to get back in here and make some posts. I'll plan on doing a post on that topic soon!

    2. I am truly looking forward to it.

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