Monday 29 April 2013

The Problem with Gambooks Trilogy - Part 4

Fixing gamebook characters

This post is an overflow from Part 3: Can Gamebooks be fixed? You really should read that first. Better still start from Part 1: Gamebooks are broken. If none of this makes sense don't say I didn't warn you.

The protagonist and characterisation

Gamebook authors have commonly chosen one of two options regarding protagonist characterisation:

1. To anonymise the main character, creating an empty vessel which enables the reader to project their own persona on to the hero, or

2. To give the main character an identity (with backstory, belief system, strengths, weaknesses, etc...)  in an attempt to create a hero more rooted in the events of the story world.

Both these approaches have flaws.

The problem of anonymous main characters

The anonymous/generic approach supposes that by avoiding protagonist characterisation the reader is more able to transpose themselves into the shoes of the hero, and therefore be more deeply connected to the experience. (This identity vacuum is a technique utilised in 1st first person shooters, and a concept I was initially flirting with for Mysterious Path)

In addition, if the events in the story are happening to YOU, it is a reasonable assumption that you'll be interested in the outcome. However, an anonymous main character can limit dramatic scope in a number of ways.

Anonymous characters are:

1. Unable to interact with NPCs in meaningful/sophisticated ways (What do they represent?)

2. Can't be woven into fabric of story/world (Why are they here?)

3. Are devoid of genuine motivations (Why would they do this?)

Pixars 22 rules for great story states: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. This belief is why some authors have given their characters an identity.

The problem of main characters with an identity

Instilling your lead character with a heap of personality, whilst being a potential solution for the flaws of anonymity, is not without complications.

In Telltale Game’s Walking Dead I took on the role of Lee, the nice guy with a troubled past. I could readily put myself in Lee's shoes when facing the games dramatic/moral predicaments, but when Lee acted on my decisions something felt wrong. His reactions were consistent with the way Lee would react, but not the way I would react. The promise, YOU are the hero, was was broken.

It's possible this distancing effect was felt more profoundly because of the Walking Dead's audio-visual production.  I knew how the Lee looked, moved, sounded and (most jarringly) felt. There was no room for me to participate in bringing him to life. Maybe less is more when developing lead characters, but this puts us on the road back to creating anonymous characters (see above!).

How much personality should gamebook characters have?

To break this circular argument perhaps what's required is a better understanding of the forces at work on our audiences relationship with the media characters we create. Maybe some theory (PDF) and some experimentation will light the way.

Or perhaps there's a third option to investigate.

You are NOT the hero

So what exactly am I trying to fix here:

1: I want my hero to be three dimensional (in literary terms) and expect him to behave consistently with his encoded identity.

2: I also want to be honest with my audience about the level of control they have over the hero's actions.

The solution: You are NOT the hero.

'What!?' I hear you cry. 'Well who the hell am I then?'

Well, you are an adviser, commander or other influential force acting on the character. This approach allows the reader to make the important decisions but releases the lead character to fulfill the dramatic potential of the choice (doing it in his own indomitable way).

Rather than the reader being in direct control of driving the plot forward they now guide the hero, who in turn advances the plot. This is a more genuine reflection of the level of influence the reader is able exert over the narrative flow in a gamebook. We are no longer promising true agency (and failing to deliver it). Being honest with our audience is a much better way to maintain engagement.

The other benefit of this approach is that the story's protagonist, now free from the readers direct control, can freely express their own thoughts and opinions. He can react to situations in a way that is true to his character, despite being directed by a higher authority (that's YOU). Whilst fearful of breaking the gamebook commandment - Thou shalt be the hero - I am expecting that our audience will still be able to identify and root for the main character. After all. we are able to empathise with the protagonist in traditional story forms so why should gamebooks be any different?

Not all scenarios will suit this model but Mysterious Path's comic book format lends itself to the 'NOT the hero' approach. The idea of reader/character separation is something I've thought about before when addressing how a comics third person view might affect a reader's sense of identification with the protagonist. If the audience takes on the duty of the hero's spirit guide the comic book format's third person view makes perfect sense. They are watching over events not experiencing them first hand.

Digital friends

By separating the reader and the protagonist we have created a new relationship. A realtionship between audience and our digital hero. Like Tron and his User. Having an association like this at the heart of a gamebook experience could be a very powerful instrument.

Even rudimentary interactions with digital pets in games like Little Computer People (1985), Tamagotchi (1996) and Moshi Monster (2008) are enough to show how strong emotional attachments can be fostered with their 'owners'. These digital pets communicate directly with the audience, breaking the fourth wall. Is this something that could work in a gamebook? This CYOA video paraody shows how you might leverage the technique to create a strong emotional bond with a character whilst adhering to the classic format. As you play through you'll notice the affinity you develop with the narrator becomes more affecting than the story he's telling.

Digital gamebooks could go a step further. Electronic formats would allow creators to forge less binary relationships with their story's characters. Every choice made, that affects the character's mental state, can be recorded with a number of variables (an unfeasible task with a pencil and paper). This relational history could then determine the characters willingness to comply with commands or have a pivotal affect on the character's emotional development or have some other cumulative affect which could alter the flow of the story (There's a whole other blog post here!)

Our hero loses faith in the reader after a series of poor decisions.

You might think breaking the 'YOU are the hero' rule and elaborating on the digital pets concept is a weak foundation for 'fixing' gamebooks. You may be right, but my suggestion provides a framework that makes sense of audience participation, allows protagonist chracterisation and opens up an unusual way to interface with interactive stories. It might just work... for me at least!

Now about those gamebook plots...

Read part five now

Further reading

Hapless Hero

Gone for an Erol Otus meets Akira Himekawa look for the hero. Based character proportions on 28mm tabletop miniatures - with over sized head, hands & feet.
NOTE: This was posted when I was into the Identity Vacuum thing.

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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. I like that idea of the player as a "spirit" (or some other clearly defined entity) because it explains his/her role exactly. There would never be confusion as to how much power the player has. And, the options would make more sense (hero: "Well, I'm either doing this OR this for sure. But what would the higher powers think?")

    It might be a challenge coming up with ways (or excuses) for the hero to consult the player so often, but a little sneakiness would make it work! For instance, a long time could pass in the game world between choices, the hero prays once per night to be given "signs" all throughout the day, the spirit/player is an intrusive nagger because the hero is kind of a novice, etc.

    1. The hero may not formally commune with gods, maybe ideas are simply implanted. Haven't got a specific set of rules for the dialogue between reader and character yet... needs more thinking.

      Investigating how other genres might exploit this concept might help develop the idea too (Star commander directing a planetary away team etc.)

  2. I found this especially interesting as it's a problem which has troubled me on and off for quite a while.

    Personally, I don't feel the gamebooks I loved ever fulfilled their promise to make ME the hero and this actually accounted for a large part of their charm in my eyes. There were countless times when I was left wondering why the main character thought his only options were to draw his sword or rummage in his bag for 'something useful' when I (or indeed any sane and sober individual) would have legged it long ago. Clearly, he already had a personality of his own.

    Similarly, there were occasions when I would decide on an option only to find the character had interpreted it in a totally different way. For example, I might choose to talk to a fearsome necromancer, hoping to mollify him with some smooth words, only for the hapless hero to saunter forward and start badmouthing him like a pro-wrestler.

    In my own attempts at writing gamebooks, I've tried to make the most of this discrepancy by purposely giving the hero a very bullish character and tasking the reader with steering him as much as possible in the right direction, a sort of exercise in damage limitation. It's similar in essence to your notion of a spirit guide, although making this relationship explicit is an interesting next step and I'll be very interested to see how it works. It reminds me a little of what Herbie Brennan did in the old 'Grail Quest' books.

    Thanks for another excellent and though-provoking article!

    1. Both My First Giant and Clavius Boon had great lead characters. I originally assumed that I was able to empathise with them because of my cynical old age and so could appreciate their selfish/belligerent attitudes. But I think maybe there is more to it than this...

      Maybe less opinionated heroes trick you into thinking YOU are the hero, but then the illusion is eroded as they reveal their character during play.

      Potentially establishing the characters point of view early (as you did) allows the readers to get in role. As long as the main characters actions are consistent throughout the story the suspension of disbelief is maintained.

      I am not advocating an explicit separation as a solution for all gamebooks and think your 'damage limitation' approach is certainly worth exploring further.

  3. Came here after reading your interview on Stuart's A-Z.

    Great series of posts. You hit on a lot of the major issues with gamebooks, though I do think you underestimate the element of "story" that already exists in games. Tadhg et al make many good points, but tend to miss the most important element in their rush to make a point: it is not an either-or proposition, and great games can exist on both sides of the divide.

    Tadhg's use of Mass Effect as an example is an excellent case in point. It is a game filled with cut scenes, limits to player agency... and (the rubbish ending notwithstanding) it tells a great story. People don't remember the games because of the brilliant game mechanics or the wide-open world (the words "corridor shooter" come to mind) - they loved that game because of the story. They loved it so much that when the ending was found unsatisfactory, it resulted in a massive backlash. And there are many other examples.

    IMO, few games have game mechanics that are interesting enough to keep the player playing the game once they've mastered the ropes. And - with all due respect to game writers everywhere - the lore of most game worlds is rarely very fascinating. What often keep people playing beyond the point when the game mechanics and the setting have bored them to death is the story. Finding out - and experiencing - the resolution to the story is a powerful incentive to keep playing.

  4. Getting back to your question/discussion in this post, I'll mention here another option than the ones above - which is that you let the player determine their own character.

    This is an approach that I'm working on in my latest projects. Essentially, the game makes the PC reflect the choices the player makes. If he makes a cruel choice, for example, the game might stick the PC with the "cruel" trait. This would have consequences further down the line in the game - NPCs might react differently. The words you put into the PC's mouth could be changed to reflect their behavior. New options might be made available, as befits the personality that the character has. Consequences of choices can be made to vary; if you're known as cruel, then kindly actions might have you viewed with suspicion rather than gratitude.

    It's an approach I am looking forward to explore; though, to be honest, I don't find a big problem with the way things work in gamebooks/games - AS LONG AS the options are consistent with the character. I.e., what I find the most jarring is when the game puts you in a situation, but gives you no way to resolve the situation in a manner that is true to the character. Or when you pick a choice, but the character does something completely different than you expected. This is where the "empty avatar" model is particular troubled, because as a writer it is hard to predict what motivations and values the player sees their character as having. The defined character doesn't have the same problem (as long as the writing is good).

    TBH, I don't see too much difference between the version with a defined PC like Lee, and what you're suggesting as the "advisor" approach. Lee had a back story, etc, but you as the player pulled all the strings. Right from the start, the game lets the player set the tone of the character - is he a garrulous type that chats with the PO taking him to prison, denies everything, curses at the officer, or just keeps silent? In terms of story - completely unimportant (the end is the same regardless) - but in terms of defining who Your Lee is - hugely important. Whether he is a cynical killer, kindly protector or completely erratic is entirely up to the player. TWD did not have enough branches to the storyline for my taste, but it did give you a lot of ways to define the character narrative of Lee, and through him the personality of Clementine.

    Anyway - a bit disjointed this; hope it makes a little sense. These blog comments are not ideal for making long arguments. Perhaps I should write my own series of blog posts on this subject. :-D

    1. Lots of interesting insight/opinion here Michael (thanks!)

      Having the lead character develop the cruel trait based on your choices that would then, in turn, unlocks new 'cruel' options/branches would be very interesting. I like the idea of character growth from player input, it's something I definitely want to explore.

      PS You should totally blog about your ideas :-)