Friday 15 March 2013

The Problem with Gamebooks Trilogy - Part 2

How are gamebooks broken?

In Part 1: Gamebooks are Broken I claimed games and books don't mix well. This post is going to attempt to explain the key incompatibilities between game and book.

Why are videogames such a useful comparison?
I use videogames as a primary focus for comparison, because they, more than any other medium, have attempted to address the narrative/interactivity divide.

In their infancy, limited by processing power, videogames were pure interactivity, Pong and Pacman ruled. Narrative was not an option. As the quality of audio/visual delivery grew, so did the aspirations of the game industry. Initially they borrowed heavily from film's storytelling toolkit, as immature mediums often do (like inceptive television broadcasts were merely radio with pictures). Players where now being asked to stop playing and start watching, and so the 'cut scene' was born.

But now more industry voices are joining the argument that games are not the place for traditional narrative. Nintendo's revered videogame innovator, Shigeru Miyamoto, advocates that game designers should forget characters and focus on experiences. Some are claiming narrative heavy adventure games deserved to die.  With the emergence of the indie game scene, a new breed of inventive developers are taking a fresh apporach. For example, The Journey enables players to enjoy an emergent narrative and The Unfinished Swan processes a fragmentary narrative, both a departure from traditional linear storytelling. Unfortunately the mainstream industry hasn't given up on clumsily spoon-feeding us story in attempt to make us 'feel' for their avatars, as the new Tomb Raider attests.

For me, games and linear narrative media are fundamentally different... and here's why:

Dichotomy 1: Character vs. Avatars

Linear fiction has main characters
Actors in linear narrative forms (films, books, comics) are complex entities, pre-programmed with distinct traits and behaviours. They possess character. They react to dramatic situations in a way prescribed by their psychology, encoded via a personal history. They can only be themselves. Often a main character changing some facet of their personality (exhibiting growth) is central to plot resolution.

Games have avatars
Avatars in games are your vehicle for agency within the game world. They do as you command, faithful puppets. Despite designers trying to create personas for their avatars, they can not overide the players wishes.  This is what game theorist means when they says there is no such thing a player character (only electronic dolls). Character is a trait only available to the NPC, for they are beyond the players direct control.

And gamebooks...
In gamebooks 'YOU are the hero'. This premise adheres to the avatar model. But critical to the avatar concept is the ability to express yourself, to invent strategies. This is something that can not be achieved with the prescribed choices offered in gamebooks. It requires intricate systems: non-binary input, enemy AI, physics engines, procedural effects, etc.

Avatars need agency not destiny.

Dichotomy 2: Destiny vs Agency

Linear fiction utilises destiny
Linear narrative media is based on a rigid narrative structure. Each act, scene, fragement of character interaction is expertly woven into the narrative as a whole. The outcome is inevitable, the characters fates are sealed. Changing any of these perfectly balanced elements would undermine the solidity of the authors narrative argument. The story fabric would unravel, it would become a different story.

Being unable to influence events is a central conceit of linear storytelling. Events collude to create the maximum drama, comedy, tragedy. Artful storytellers utilise this linear format to set up dramatic climaxes, play with expectations and misdirect. The story is in charge.

Games utilise agency
Videogames allow a high level of agency. They are a series of interactive loops within loops, of action(input) and reaction(feedback). A player is able the to affect the outcome via a series of intricate inputs, to alter the game world around them. Any attempts to enforce a narrative structure can only diminish the sense of agency.  Any pauses in play should be reserved for quickly setting objectives, players should be able to quickly return to the action. Games out the player in charge.

And gamebooks...
Gamebooks present players with a faux agency, a limited selection of choices with predetermined resolutions. Gamebooks are a rat run, a maze, a jigsaw. There is a single solution (at least to the 'true' ending). This disguised linearity is enforced by a series of fold-back paths and instant death paragraphs.  It's trial an error. Good writing can make navigating the maze more entertaining... but its not agency. Proper agency allows players to attain mastery and really influence events in the game world.

In a gamebook we are participating not playing.

Dichotomy 3: Participants vs Players

Linear fiction has participants
When Brian Eno talks about art being interactive, he is really describing the secondary process that occurs when observers interpret the work. They decode, they add meaning, they complete the experience. This is not true interaction, the observers involvement has not altered the original work. Their is no feeback loop. An observer would more accurately be described as a participant.

Games have players
In games you are pitted against another player or AI. There are win conditions. Any outcome is possible at the start of the game, within the defined rules. So important to the game experience is this 'open' outcome that the validity of single player mode is coming under scrutiny. Some predicting that  always-on-connectivity will result in the death of single player mode, or at least acknowledging that single player games need to evolve.

And gamebooks...
Choose-your-own-adventures are built on a destiny mechanic. Despite a few branching paths and multiple endings, a gamebook is essential linear fiction (if you exclude any dice rolling battles). I would argue that a gamebook experience is more akin to participating in an authors fiction than playing in a designers game world. This is not a criticism of gamebooks, rather a statement of fact. Perhaps this is a niche they could more comfortably occupy, a polar opposite of the massively multi-player online death matches.

In this post I have ridden rough shod over the definition of 'game', while this evergreen debate rages on, I am not particularly interesting in trying to get Mysterious Path to fit into a box.  Rather, I am more focused on the understanding which interactions are most suited to the gamebook format. And it is this understanding that I will build upon in The Problem with Gamebooks - Part 3.

Can gamebooks be fixed?

Read part three now

Further reading

Learning from webcomics, motion comics & infinite canvas

Reading comics on digital platforms has been approached in various ways, which solutions will provide design insight for Mysterious Path?

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. Those are powerful arguments, excellently constructed.

    I should probably have placed this in part 1, but gamebooks have weighty advantages to balance out these limitations. They employ the art of "not knowing", which I find utterly gripping, better than a book or video game. In the latter two, the only way to not know an outcome is to improperly stop reading or playing. True power is consequence.

    We are apes, craving power and the social climb. Gamebooks provide this, albeit clunkily as you said. Looking at regular books now, I can't help but think: meh, I can't *do* anything with that. I am powerless. In a video game, I feel as condemned as you describe in gamebooks because there are only so many moves, situations and buttons.

    Meanwhile, gamebooks can manifest literally anything--a billion creatures on a million planets, all in one sentence. The computer is the reader's brain, currently outperforming any system. Video games have clear limits here; Developers can't mention too much because players demand to be shown everything, which is too expensive.

    And all this power in gamebooks is delivered with ease (simply turning the pages) despite the potentially infinite complexity of the command. Video games master sight and sound, but gamebooks can crisply describe any sensation, even pain and proprioception.

    Finally, one writer can produce a finished product for cheap. Video games...yikes!

    I find all these benefits outweigh any conundrums with the gamebook medium. Writers may whittle down the problems you mentioned, but I'm sure some will remain inevitable, inescapable. It will certainly be fun to see what people come up with.

    1. Thanks Nicholas, most of my arguments are borrowed from the links embedded in the post (you should definitely click through and have a read). Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that...

      'Not knowing' is a strength I hadn't really seen. Because you are not playing in defined system, anything could happen. The narrative is not constrained by rules, rather by the authors imagination. This is a definite win for the format.

      Making the most of the advantages of your chosen delivery method is key. As you mention, each form has it's own unique strengths and weakness. I've chosen a comic presentation which will be different from books (as well films as videogames). Design works best when you work with the constraints rather than against them.

      Budget is definitely a real constraint too! As as a one man band I would like to be able to develop as much as I can myself. I already know I will need to draft in expert technical help. But limitations can be a positive too. I can easily have a multitude of dialogue options for my characters without worrying about increasing the costs of recording voice talent.

  2. These last couple of articles (and their associated comments) contain some of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of the shifting territory between books and games that I've yet encountered. Thanks so much for providing that.

    My own take on the situation is so hopelessly vague that it's not worth recording here. I just think it's a very interesting time on a particularly lawless frontier. The rise of mobile platforms and the burgeoning indie games scene seem to be driving readers and gamers closer together and so many fantastic projects like this one, inklewriter and versu are springing up along the border that it will be fascinating to see where things go from here.

    As an avid fan of books, gamebooks and games (living proof, I feel, that all three have distinct merits provided they are done well) I think I'm going to be well catered for whatever happens!

    1. Thanks Lee. I am aware I've neglected advancements in IF, and other literary attempts to 'go interactive', it's a glaring omission. I also think independent tabletop RPGs could make some valuable contributions to some of these design problems (maybe I'll write another post)

      I think the most interesting solutions will come from multi-disciplinary thinkers. People who are working in the gaps between the traditional formats. People who get it the bigger picture.

  3. The first point is a puzzle I have recently been wrestling with. In all other forms of media, the protagonist is typically one of the most interesting characters and the one who is expected to behave in a particular way. With gamebooks, we lose all of that. The main character is now out of out the author's control and we can make no assumptions about him. As a result, the central character becomes exceedingly dull. We can't force him to make witty one-liners, run away from danger, or have a hidden agenda, because the player might not imagine him the way we do.
    One way around this is to surround the central avatar with a cast of colourful characters, characters who do understand the laws of your world, controlled by the author and have different goals (not just "get to the end of the game").

    1. I think you've articulated the problem better than me! Surrounding the stories avatar with interesting characters is definitely one route to try. Relationships with NPCs in gamebooks usually suck. Walking Dead (Telltale Games) do an admirable job.

      There's also potential in putting the reader in control of a support/impact character rather than the protagonist. Here you could influence the direction of the story, get interesting reactions from the lead character and explore/develop an interesting relationship. Frankenstein (by Dave Morris) is the shining example here.

  4. Dudes. It's not that Gamebooks are broken at all. Gamebooks are a Genre that have limits to interaction, but that does not really mean broken, any more than you can say Novels are broken because they read from front to back. The issue is modernizing and inventing new ways to enhance the structure of what has already been established. Maelorum has fixed a lot of these issues so if you want to see how far a Gamebook really can go, it's worth looking into. But there are just some limits you have to accept. Printed book content will never be as expansive as digital content, period, but if done right, they can offer a more personal experience, after all, no one will remember Dead Space 3, but The Hobbit will never likely be forgotten.

    1. Claiming gamebooks are broken feels a little like heresy. Back in the day they'd certainly hit a sweet spot. The rise of D&D, videogames in their infancy (therefore not delivering a comparable experience) and a media excited by boys reading! All these factors contributed to their popularity in the UK.

      Entertainment consumption is now radically different. Do gamebooks have a place in this evolved landscape? Over time I became more interested in finding out what could be done with a digital gamebook format to make it relevant to a new wave of tweenage dungeoneers.

      Tin Man Games has suggested there is an appetite for smart phone 'original flavour' gamebooks among an audience too young to enjoy them the first time round. This would lend credence to the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' school of thought (Although Tin Man are commendably experimenting with new IP and targeting different audience segments too)

      These posts are really about my personal exploration of the limitations you mention. So rather than embellish the old design, I am trying to deconstruct it, to ignore what's gone before and see what opportunities for innovation are provided by digital delivery.

      Maybe 'broken' is perhaps a little provocative, but to me gamebooks certainly feel like a sub-optimal/quirky experience. Of course there is room for a broad range of experiences under the term gamebook/CYOA. I'm not advocating one form over another. I am advocating experimentation. I don't believe gamebooks (or interactive fiction) are an established narrative paradigm. For me, like Henry Ford, it's not about a faster horse.

      Maybe there are a plethora of products that have solved the issues I've mentioned around characterisation and agency (including Maelorum - which I will definitely be checking out). Please let me know, I'm certainly not claiming to have exhaustive knowledge of the space.

      I appreciate I'm living in a theoretical bubble and I have no product in market. I'm therefore not heavily invested in the format and so might appear a touch irreverent. This is not my intention. I'm just trying to stimulate debate. What I'd love to see is a post on 'Why gamebooks are perfect'. Someone set me straight :-)

      I admire anyone who is out there walking the walk and not just talking the talk. It's more than I've achieved to date. Thanks for your comment.

  5. I think you've hit the nail on the head with Henry Ford's faster horse (my apologies, if you're a visual person, for the awkward image) and I personally believe that gamebooks have a bright future on mobile reading platforms which will allow them to offer far more immersive experiences.

    I don't mean just that they will be able to employ sounds, animations, cut-scenes etc. Although these can add to the experience, I think text will necessarily still be at the heart of anything which might be considered a gamebook, but that this text can itself be enriched.

    In a standard gamebook, for example, a merchant might always give you the same bit of dialogue, or at best there would be one or two variants which directly affect the gameplay (are you good, evil or neutral, for instance). In a digital gamebook, however, the merchant's patter could vary at sentence or even at word level to give a much more individually-tailored reading experience. He might address the player by an appropriate title, comment on the current weather and make an avuncular fuss over a recently wounded arm/leg/head/whatever. His speech would be different if he has not met the player before, or if he doesn't like the player's race/class/jerkin.

    This sort of thing is surprisingly easy to write if you are using inklewriter, ren'py, twine or similar tools. I'm not walking the walk myself just yet, but discussions like this are giving me increasingly itchy feet...

  6. I’ve been following this debate with some interest. It is actually quite heartening to see others wrestling and exploring the same issues that I struggle through on a daily basis while writing the DestinyQuest series.

    With a few more years of gamebook writing under my belt, I am starting to see a disparity between the ‘game’ and ‘book’ format. I’m working on the third of the DestinyQuest series at the moment – and to put it next to the first book I wrote nearly five/six years ago, they feel very different. Almost bookends to my own evolving thoughts as concerns the gamebook format.

    I break it down into story and experience. The story is what would appeal to your conventional reader, the narrative and choices, the page-turning if you like. Readers like to enjoy strong characters and plots, get caught up in intrigue, and feel like their decisions are having a real impact on the evolving story.

    Experience is the game-aspect – the dice-rolling/combat interactivity. This appeals to your game-player and strategist. It is where, to an extent, the story halts and the reader is asked to do something different – be it combat, taking challenge tests, rolling dice, purchasing equipment, managing inventory etc.

    I came at gamebooks from a video game angle, so my first book (Legion of Shadow) was more experience and less story. In the second book, I tried to find a closer balance between the two. With book three, I think I have shifted a lot more into the story camp. There are many reasons for this, but the one which is pertinent to this debate is my concern that modern readers (of the print format) aren’t so inclined to mix the two these days.

    Certainly, that is an impression I get. It is almost as if story (the act of reading text) and experience (the act of ‘playing’ and interacting) use different parts of the brain. I’ve had a few friends who said that they started a book enjoying both but as time went on they found it ‘easier’ to just focus on the story and choices. The game aspect, the dice-rolling and stat-keeping, takes them ‘out of the story’.

    By comparison, those who enjoyed the game often focused on that at the expense of the story, skimming sections and flicking through multiple threads to find the 'best items'. The story and character were less important to them; 'winning' and stat obsession were.

    I’m not sure apps have the answer either. I find when I’m playing gamebook apps, my brain is automatically switched into ‘experience’ mode rather than story. So I end up skimming text, picking out the pertinent facts, just so I can reach the next big shiny interactive button. That might come from the fact you are playing these on iPad/iPhone etc so you are aching to be pressing and touching the screen and interacting rather than being halted or scrolling through lots of text.

    Video games work because they are pure experience; the story is given to the ‘reader’ in an interactive way using the senses. It’s interesting that I often skip text sections in games (such as when you pick up lore books etc) as I want to keep ‘playing’.

    I think with DQ I am trying to please both, but I wonder if it creates a greater divide between the two. That an experience gamebook should solely be game with very short paragraphs and less story; the story gamebook almost removing the dice-rolling entirely and be focused solely on narrative and choices (so, interactive fiction in the style of Dave Morris’ Frankenstein).

    I don’t have the answers, but just wanted to share my thoughts. This is a fascinating series of blog posts; thank you for sharing them.

    1. Thanks Michael.

      Great to get insight into your writing experience. It's very interesting to see how you evolved your approach to the books over the course of the series. It echoes my thought process. It's also great to hear what real customers think!

      I'm leaning towards a more 'literary' approach to the gamebook as it feels like this is a unique strength of the format, but I am (still) struggling to completely let go of the game elements.

      I don't think there are any 'right' answers. I think part three of this series of posts will most likely be a collection of areas to explore rather than any definitive manifesto.

      I really need to get out of my navel gazing mode and start creating something.

  7. Firstly, I'd like to commend you, Mr Grey Wizard, for engaging with these issues in a courageous manner. Highlighting the shortcomings of our favourite art forms can be like an intervention with a loved family member - it's uncomfortable, but sometimes necessary.

    I feel that my Tweet RPG system goes a certain distance to dealing with some of these gamebook issues. For example, because Tweet RPG adventures are fluid, with a loose plan that can be adapted at any stage, the players can have an effect on the story and gameplay in a less prescribed manner. For example, when I first put my 'death/failure' mechanic into action, there was a general response that it didn't really work. So I consulted with the players and created whole new approach to the issue, which redefined the progress of the adventure.

    However, Tweet RPG can work the other way too. As the writer/GM, it's my responsibility to lead the story to its conclusion. Although some Tweet RPG adventures have had more conservative 'gamebook-style' endings i.e. the one true conclusion on page 400, most of them have been resolved with the conclusion that I consider to work best on a narrative level. The players may want to steer the story elsewhere, which then makes it my job to effectively close off the possibilities of other endings. For example, the most recent Tweet RPG adventure ended with two choices, leading to two different conclusions - a) save your friends, but surrender to the enemy, b) or escape with the rebels, leaving your friends to be executed. A few players stated that they voted for option a, but with the intention of putting a rescue mission into action. With the conclusion I had planned, this wasn't going to happen. Therefore, I had to make it clear that even if this course of action was chosen, an escape mission was impossible. This demonstrated to the players that I had listened to their thoughts, but had good reason not to give in.

    Hope those thoughts are an interesting addition to the discourse - I think the long and the short of it is, let's just have fun!

    1. Cheers Sam.

      Although gamebooks share the multiple-choice format with Tweet RPG adventures, they are exempt from this critique as they have a human pulling the narrative strings.

      Gamebooks have no GM. There is no collaboration. If it's not written down it's not going to happen. Gamebooks ultimately need what Tweet RPG has... a mind capable of dynamically generating the most 'dramatically effective' outcome. A synthetic GM.

      A skilled human storyteller is difficult to replicate with an algorithm. Chris Chrawford's noble attempt with Erasmatron crashed and burned. It drowned in complexity.

      Digital can enable passages to be less fixed than their printed counterparts, as Inkle's Sorcery demonstrates with it's procedural sentence construction. This technique is certainly a route worth further exploration and would create more customised experiences.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Looking forward to your next adventure.

  8. I have to disagree on a number of things here. First off, great story doth no a great game make. Character arc is what makes a great video game in the new era. The problem with games like Skyrim is that when you have exhausted every possible fetch quest and main quest in the game, you are left with a 2D avatar. You have zero input beyond the screen in front of you. Your imagination did nothing, with the game machine doing everything for you. All of your attacks, damage, magic spells, shouts, etc. mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Everything has a predetermined impact on the world around you. You are a silent protagonist, voiceless with menu commands to navigate chatting with local townsfolk. You didn't CREATE the dialogue, nor did you determine the responses of the NPCs, which are determined MONTHS (if not YEARS) in advance of the release by people who sit at a table. The scenario writers sat down and guided the player through the game with carefully chosen words. It gives the player an impression of "free choice," but that boils down to "do I wanna do that quest now, or later." The only "choice" at that point is when the quest will be complete.

    Now, take the original Final Fantasy. Four nameless characters out to save the princess from the evil Garland. Once that is done, the players go from heroes saving a princess, to heroes saving the world. Is it linear? Mostly. Some dungeons can be done out of order, but the game is more or less "complete" when you defeat Chaos and ending the time loop. The game is superb, because the characters are (essentially) YOU. You choose them, and you get to find out the story as they grow and mature how you want them to play. This is not at all like Skyrim, which is just one big fetch quest. Lone Wolf game books operate much like this, with YOU in the middle of a large war for the continent of Magnamund. But, you have the final say, because even though the book has one ending, you can get there by multiple paths. Did you go under the mountain, or try going around it? The paths wind up in the same place, but along the way you have two different encounters. And depending on your choice during those paths, you could end up dead. But, that is where the combat system comes into play.

    See, most CYOA books relied upon "make the right choice," with every wrong choice ending in your death. I had turned my back upon CYOA books back in the late 80s to early 90s, until a friend of mine told me about the Lone Wolf books. You mean, I didn't have to die when I made the wrong choice? Sweet! Oh, believe me. There were still plenty of "your life and your quest end here" moments. But, they weren't as plentiful as CYOA. Most of the deaths experienced were because of stupid choices, or just dumb luck of the draw on the random number table in the back of the book.

    I think you are too harsh on game books. Yes, many of the poorly written ones are "you are dead" as soon as you make the wrong move. But, Lone Wolf, AD&D Adventure Gamebooks, and Grail Quest went above and beyond the call of CYOA. Simple combat rules, good paragraph structure, and decent length. Nothing feels "awkward" or "out of place." Next time, do your homework before running your mouth.