Thursday 7 March 2013

The Problem with Gamebooks Trilogy - Part 1

Gamebooks are broken

The Mysterious Path project intends to revisit the gamebooks (CYOAs) of the 80's, to reinvigorate the format, to drag the experience into the touch screen age and try and make it relevant again. And lately it feels it's getting harder to drag. It's reluctant to join the 21st century. It's working against me.

An early Mysterious Path wireframe concept. A game comic thing.

I think I always knew something wasn't right, that something was holding me back from diving head first into the project... but I wasn't sure what it was (something other than lack of time and talent!)

I started with naive optimism on the possibilities of digital gamebooks.

Later came the angst ridden paralysis where game and narrative modes refused to gel.

Now it feels like the gamebook could be a fatally flawed construct, better left in the museum.

The projects honeymoon period is concluding and I am asking questions that are casting shadows over the direction of Mysterious Path. I know I'm not exactly inventing a new entertainment paradigm, and should just lighten up a bit, but as any meaningful next steps will require significant effort, and possibly expense, it would be nice to have some validation or robust logic to back up any design hypothesis.

So it's time to kick the tyres.

Recently two statements destablised my product vision:

Narrative is not a game mechanic
Raph Koster

There's no such thing a player character
Tadhg Kelly

Both statements, backed-up with solid argument, immediately shed light on the design challenges I had been wrestling with for Mysterious Path. The statements strike at the core of what I had previously seen as a potential strength/differentiator for gamebooks of the future. Better storytelling. Their arguments explained why I had been struggling to make headway.

I believed Gamebooks could occupy a niche - a game experience with a narrative focus, more suitable for consumption on mobile devices. I had already decided to reduce the proposed multiple play modes (to avoid a Shenmu-like smorgasbord of interactivity) in an attempt to focus on the core promise of interactive story. But these two statements strike deep into that promise.

Games and Story don't mix.

I am encumbered with awareness of two truths:

1) The original paper-based gamebooks were flawed.
When not bathed in the rose tinted light of nostalgia, gamebooks are a curious concoction. A book that has no defined central characters. A book without a traditional plot. A book that allows luck to determine whether you can read on. 

2) Games can't tell stories.
I am in agreement with Tadhg and his storysense theory. Videogames are at their best when they create believable worlds for you to roam, and at their worst when you are watching cut scenes or enduring narrative exposition. Games are for playing not watching.

Could it be that the gamebook is simply the worst of both worlds? A game with limited interactivity. A book without engaging characters and narrative. An experience that neither satisfies an audience that craves deep POV, multi-dimensional characters and weaving story arcs nor an audience that seeks immediate audio/visual feedback from their inputs within a digital world. Surely a marriage of games and books can only result in compromise of their unique strengths.

The Gamebook. A powerful hybrid or diluted experience?

So I'm asking: Is my vision for a new gamebook format fatally flawed, or can the digtal age provide fertile ground for evolution? and... Can videogames teach me anything about interactive storytelling, or will it remain an elusive aspiration?

Well that's the pessimistic bit over, thanks for staying with me (Note: Negativity is a creative necessity. If I've put you on a massiver downer click here, better?)  I'm not trying to bad mouth gamebooks. I'm a fan, why would I even start a project like Mysterious Path if I wasn't? I just need to understand their limitations to progress. Next I'll try and identify what's not working and see if I can find some foundations for reconstruction.

This all got a bit long so I split it the post into an epic trilogy:

Part 1 - Gamebooks are broken
Part 2 - How are gamebooks broken?
Part 3 - Can gamebooks be fixed?

Read part two now

Further reading


I won a logo competition for those fine folks at Tweet RPG. Draw robots win prizes. Life is sweet no?

Follow the Mysterious Path on Twitter or Google+

What is this Mysterious Path?
Mysterious Path is half comic, half 8bit RPG, half choose-you-own-adventure. Mysterious Path will be an interactive experience playable on your phone, tablet or desktop... eventually. Imagined by the one man army that is Grey Wizard (and some occasionally helpful retainers)


  1. Now this is very though provoking and it raises some good points, especially the idea of how we would look at gamebooks without the nostalgia of the 80s.

    It's hard to get the balance between game and book right in a gamebook and only the best do so. However, a good balance of game and book are not necessarily needed. Since gamebooks could appeal to a wide range of people from hardcore gamers who have no one to play with at the time or people who want to be participants in telling story, trying to get a perfect balance may be a bad thing where one ends up satisfying no one. Some of the gamebooks I love the most have some quirk or unique feature about them which makes up for the imbalance. Moonrunner has some great scenes and characters; Heart of Ice has a great setting with an interesting choice at the end. Avenger! has some excellent world building. It's more about doing one thing really well and so appealing to a large majority than getting the perfect balance.

    So then if no one gamebook will satisfy everyone and the gamebook that tries to satisfy everyone is more likely to satisfy no one, the big question is what and who are gamebooks actually for?

    Well I like them because I like games but play gamebooks when I don't have anyone to play with. When i was a teenager, I would just scan the text for game relevant information. Over time, I've come to appreciate the story part more and imagine myself in the situations in the book.

    There are many other reasons such as cooperative storytelling, the thrill of beating a challenge or wanting to play a game by yourself amongst others.

    My gut feeling is that most people who read gamebooks prefer more story over gameplay for a few reasons - 1) They read so they probably like stories. People who prefer gameplay probably play computer games, board games or RPGs instead. 2) There is a lot more work with lots of gameplay and it might break the immersion.

    Which means that digital gamebooks might be a good thing as you can have a complicated system but the device does all the bookkeeping for you, giving you the chance for more immersion.

    Maybe I should write a blog post from this comment.

    1. I am not as well versed in 'gamebook' as yourself and so my opinion is coloured mostly by those early innovative, but clumsy, Fighting Fantasy experiences (which is why I am always interested in your informed opinion).

      As your GAMEbook/gameBOOK post points out, there are many variants. I am trying to find a format I can subscribe too.

      Roleplayers are generally a creative bunch, the tabletop experience is more about ideation than mastery. Collaborative story telling is a unique aspect of RPGs, this has culminated in the emergence of 'Story Games'. But not everyone is a creator, some people just want to be entertained.

      Multi-player is an interesting area I had not really thought about, indeed certain sections of the videogame community are claiming 1player is dead, and with mobile devices you are always connected so why not leverage the potential? A turn based multi-player experience would be a worthwhile experiment (Like Words with Friends meets RuneQuest)

      Yes, you should write a blog post!

  2. Well, if it wasn't possible to interact within a narrative then our real lives would be very boring...

    That's not necessarily gameplay, of course. Interactivity is quite a different thing from gameplay. I am interested in seeing if there are interesting ways to interact with a story (hence Frankenstein) but I am not particularly interested in returning to the gamebooks of the 1980s. Both those things could be because I am, first and foremost, a role-player.

    We think of gamebooks as a second-person dungeon bash because that's what was cooked up by the people who copied the people who copied D&D, and 1980s publishers were in no hurry to mess with a winning formula. The format of the gamebook can be used for other things. Rather than cite Frankenstein again, I'd point to Telltale's Walking Dead game. Structurally that's a gamebook, it just happens to have a big swinging 3D engine in front instead of some purple prose.

    I think this is the direction you're moving. Away from the "game" aspect (never true gameplay anyway) and towards a possibly richer seam of interactive fiction. Or am I only reading my own preferences into your analysis?

    1. You've preempted Part 3. I cite both Frankenstein and Walking Dead as examples of progression, also concluding that gameplay and interaction are not the same thing. Damn your Sherlockian mind.

      Defining my audience is key to making appropriate design decisions, something I've knowingly avoided. While interactive literature is certainly a more refined experience for someone of my advanced years, I wonder about what a younger audience might find satisfying.

      PS I get very little choice in my own narrative. I am a passive participant to the better half, the days of freewill a long behind me.

  3. This is a great article that asks all the right questions when looking at progressing the artform of interactive storytelling and I think its important that all of us in this field try and move things on to make compelling narrative games. However coming at it from a slightly different angle (and playing devil's advocate a little), I do think it's easy to over-analyse the flaws to a point where the actual desires of the end reader/player is sometimes forgotten or misplaced.

    Sometimes those flaws that we find in gamebooks are actually a good thing I think and making a modern gamebook using elements of these so-called flawed systems is actually an okay thing to do - don't worry about it too much. There is a whole hungry market of people who think so too. The feedback we've had from our recent FF app releases shows me that people actually crave the simplicity - even the cruelty - that these gamebooks deliver. For balance we also have detractors saying that these styles of books should remain in the 80s, but it's way more positive than negative on the whole.

    The way progression is viewed I think is relative too. When we show our gamebook apps to younger people at shows like PAX, many of them have never heard of a gamebook before, yet have played Mass Effect or epic RPGS. Once the penny drops, it actually blows their mind. "So this is like a book AND a game? Wow. That sounds amazing!" is something I hear a lot. To them an interactive book that they can take around with them in a bag that they can play in bite-size chunks and not have to remember button combos or mass amounts of exposition which they are used to in an epic console game IS progression to them! They want something simple that satiates their need to read, their need to make interactive choices and simply to be entertained on that 10 minute bus journey.

    I'm not for one moment saying we shouldn't try new things or progress interactive narrative in other ways and I believe what Dave Morris has done with Frankenstein and in the past with making a sandbox gamebook like Fabled Lands is genius and very much needed. Ultimately I guess I'm saying that if you want to make a gamebook that uses so-called older narrative branching then that's okay and you will find that if it's good people will want to read it! I've also struggled with the anxiety of wanting to do the next cool thing and even though we make advances in each gamebook app we releases, I keep coming back to the *flawed* system because I love it so much and I'm totally at peace with that. And other people do too! :D

    1. Is this Tin Neil? I am honoured. If you're another Neil I'm pleased you left your thoughts but you know... it would have been nice if you were the real Neil.

      Re: classic gamebook play mode. This is where I started, trying to create a homage, warts and all. I do have a problem with over thinking stuff, but sometimes it can yield some interesting findings - but more likely lead me on a merry dance. Often my head says one thing my heart says another. Damn you vital organs.

      I'm pleased the kids are into it, am definitely considering targeting a younger audience (or an Adventure Time all-ages type crowd)

      For the Tin Neil only: Looking forward to the next crop of FF apps & congratulations on the crashing the top paid apps list. Keep fighting the good fight.

    2. Yup this is Tin Neil. :D

      Keep at it! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.