Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Problem with Gamebooks Trilogy - Part 3

Can gamebooks be fixed?

So it’s been a while since I completed parts 1 & 2 of the Problem with Gamebooks. This is partly because I have taken some time to reflect on the thought provoking comments the posts have received, but also because it’s been hard to write. The way forward isn’t clearly signposted, and it's complicated. My current ideas are a bit nebulous but I will continue to evolve and share my thinking.

Before I start…
Gamebooks in the classic mould have their merits. Maybe they aren’t broke and don’t need fixing, but the realm of interactive fiction has so much unexplored territory it would be a shame if a few of us didn’t wander off in new directions.

IMPORTANT: The concepts described here will not have universal appeal or application. They have been developed with Mysterious Path (my project) in mind. I have not written a panacea for all the perceived ills of the gamebook (sorry, maybe next time). I hope you find my elucidations interesting nonetheless.

If you can’t be bothered to read part 1 & 2 here’s a quick summary of my current position:

1. Protagonist characterisation is compromised if someone else (i.e. the reader) is in control of the characters actions and thought process.

2. True agency is impossible using a predefined decision tree system.

3. Game elements dilute the narrative experience.

Like a Spock, I have suppressed the emotional argument in favour of a more objective, logical view of the format.

So here it is. It’s a Gamebook Jim, but not as we know it…


A foundation for reconstruction

Two central themes run through my ruminations on ‘fixing’ gamebooks:

1. Technology affords us new tools

2. Gamebooks are books not games


Principle 1: Technology affords us new tools

I accept print books are not going away anytime soon, but digital reading devices offer a rich new seam of possibilities for the gamebook author to exploit. This is irrefutable. We can be resistant to embrace this reality because it may mean we are not in possession of all the skills to realise our ambitions. Part of the attraction of the writer's craft can be attributed to the fact that a lone contributor can generate a world without limits, but this collaborative future between writer and technologist is where things could get really exciting. As Disney's John Lasseter puts it: "Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology". It’s a creative synergy.

Go digital: Less hassle more possibility.

Long term vision
Liberating the reader from the burden of dice, pencils, paper (and fingers between pages) is just the start. Going digital is a real game(book) changer for interactive adventures. Imagine an artificial intelligence as expert as any human author, able to pass the Turing Test with flying colours. A digital narrator able to dynamically construct plots and create dramatic character interactions in realtime based on voice commands from the user, or other natural language input system. You get the idea. Technology is opening up new vistas.

Chris Crawford's ambitious, but ill-fated, Erasmatron aspired to this heroic goal. It sought to model NPCs with an elaborate system of personality traits and emotional relationships. Erasmatron attempted a giant leap but stumbled, possibly due to its solely academic/technical nature. Now there are a series of interactive fiction projects with a sharper focus that are yielding interesting results. As gamebooks go digital the format is in a position to synthesize their successes.

Character interaction engines
In similar vein to Erasmatron, Emily Short’s Versu (IF engine) focuses on character interaction in a changing social landscape. The creators claim it enables the reader to generate narrative outcomes that they didn't script. This is an interesting, tentative step towards exploring emergent narrative in literature.

Plot algorithms
David Benque’s Infinite Adventure Machine takes Vladimir Propp’s 31 dramatic functions of Russian fairy-tale plots and computes story permutations on the fly (in a highly abstracted form). Although it doesn't allow for user interaction this kind of codification of structural plot elements could certainly be leveraged in an interactive novel.

Images, animation & sound
Telltale's Walking Dead brings the production values (and budget) of the videogame industry to bear on the gamebook format. It was critical and commercial success. Whether it can be described as a game or not is up for debate, but it's an encouraging sign that there's an appetite for narrative focused experiences.

Creative tools
Whether we can ever create an algorithm to compete with the best human storytellers is moot. But clearly technology is enabling new storytelling opportunities that join the gap between imagination and computation. And with creative tools like Twine and Inklewriter freely available there is an opportunity for even the most technically-challenged writer to explore some of the possibilities afforded by interactive fiction. Exciting times.

Principle 2: Gamebooks are books not games

Although I'm advocating the use of technology to evolve gamebooks, I am not suggesting we make them more game-like. After my comparison with videogames, I now regard the gamebook as a linear experience, albeit with knobs on. They do not allow freeform input. They do not provide dynamically generated (narrative) output. You progress from start to finish. Although you may meander through them, they are unavoidably linear. Like regular books. If we work within the constraints of this conceit maybe we can retain storytelling’s crown jewels: interesting characters and well structured plots. The gamebook format, in pursuit of interactivity, has stripped out much of what makes a story so compelling. They've thrown the baby out with the bath water (the mitigation is that their original premise was to recreate a solo RPG experience)

Learning from cinema
Cinema has managed to develop it's own language, based on the strengths of the media, and is now firmly established as an independent artform. This audio-visual language helps cinema provide unique narrative experiences, but at its core remains faithful to the essence of storytelling. As digital novelists (or cartoonists) we need to develop our own interactive grammar and exploit our medium whilst staying true to this same essence.

Unexplored territory
Now, novelists are waking up to the possibilites of a digital future. Broadening the talent pool can only be good for the craft. Let's hope this influx of creative minds focus on using interactivity to enhance storytelling and avoids seductive gimmicks. Interactive literature is a craft in it's infancy but has the potential to mature from it's rather quirky beginings into a legitimate story form in its own right.  Dave Morris's digitally enriched Frankenstein is tantalising glimpse into this future. 

Gamebooks: Like regular books... kinda.

So now what?

In an attempt to keep these posts to a comfortable length (for both of us!) I have extended the trilogy!

Now I established a foundation to build on (and rambled a little) I intend to elaborate on more practical ideas around suitable levels of interactivity within linear story and how lead characters can maintain their identity while under the influence of the reader. I may also extend the series with some thoughts on other miscellaneous considerations (audience skew, inclusion of non-narrative interactions, etc.)

First up, what can we do with gamebook protagonists?

Read part four now

Further reading

Reader / Character separation in an interactive comic

Fighting Fantasy gamebooks traditionally adopt a second person narrative mode. You are the hero, and you choose what happens next. This has meant that we get information only from the protagonists point of view. What if we played with this established convention? Would we break the magic gamebook formula?

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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. This intrigues me, and I hope to open a friendly debate. But first, there is a relevant TED talk, Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice, that I highly recommend you add to your research. To summarize, too much freedom, choice, and control leads to dissatisfaction, paralysis, and nonparticipation because the odds are slim that you made (or will make) a good choice. The brain imagines too much that could go wrong with so many options, while anticipating the elusive “right” choice to be perfect.

    Even though I am antitraditionalist, advocating progression and experimentation, I can't help but feel the Versu idea is a step into the dead end alley of displeasure. Audiences are laypeople who need expert craftsmen. You can't trust them with the palette. Imagine if layman Joe sat in his private theater, watching a Shakespearean play. Joe leaves his seat at will to tinker with the props, influence the actors in infinite ways, and alter the tone of Romeo. I fear for how that play will turn out. What will Joe think of the abomination he creates after being handed too much control? Joe needs a true artist, an expert, for his own good.

    In current IF, the author has precise control over all the reader's experiences, because frankly, the reader doesn't know what he's doing as a storyteller. The author ensures that all options, though limited, lead to Joe being entertained.

    Without constraints, we dive into a stew pot—a motley collection of everything, a mess. I imagine that in Versu, players will toy around, eliciting a plethora of NPC behaviors, until realizing their flaws as nonartists. “Hey, aren't I paying someone else to write the dialogue?” As Schwartz might say, they will wonder how profound/realistic/beautiful the NPC responses could have been if a writer had total control. If only Joe didn't have (or know about) his 1001 options.

    I'm reminded of when everyone got a camera on their cell phone, and everyone became a photographer. And they were all horrible.

    Even if Versu only affects superfluous NPC talks, it is defying the precision needed to make good art. Every component of a project needs meticulous care. Personally, I think readers go into IF knowing there are limits, so they are cool with it. What people like about sports is what they're not allowed to do.

    Anyway, this post really got me thinking about the artist-audience relationship and their roles.

  2. I agree!

    I'm focusing on how we can craft better (broadly linear) interactive narrative, rather than how we might engineer emergent freeform story experiences.

    As designers/authors we tend to get seduced by sandbox style entertainment to indulge our own creative spirit. But many don't want that. They just want to be entertained, not challenged.

    Versu has removed the usual IF style text input in favour of a multiple choice system. I presume this is partly to temper the paradox of choice that you describe, and partly to limit the project scope.

    I have included Versu in my post as it is exploring a vital component of story, NPC interactions. As you say, precision is key to character interactions/exchanges so a procedural approach is not a natural fit for more scripted experience (In post 2 I talk about this incompatibility). It's still a young product and certainly worth watching.

    Great comment as always.

    PS I always thought a happy ending for R+J would rock :-)

  3. It's interesting that there have been some really successful kickstarters for heavily ironic CYOA and one of the latest was a CYOA Hamlet! Perhaps this is a nod to the reader's propensity to stuff up the pathos mentioned above! Great series, following with interest...

    1. This series of posts is leading me to a 'grown-up' vision of gamebooks. Dave Morris posted a great article about hiding mechanics to de-geek gamebooks in an attempt to broaden their appeal. I totally agree with this. However...

      I'm loving the ironic too! Mysterious Path, after all this investigation, will probably still celebrate geek. I'm thinking about using the vernacular language of gamebooks/videogames to embellish the storytelling (a bit like the Scott Pilgrim books do). Hit points, stats, etc... should be there front and center.

      Maybe the next thing I do will adopt a more progressive/mature approach. That's where the future lies.