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 toolsI 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.
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.
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.
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 gamesAlthough 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.
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.
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
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)