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