Saturday, June 23, 2012

A new perspective on 'Nintendo hard' gamebooks

So I was doing a little research into Old School Dungeons and Dragons scenarios and inevitably came across the Tomb of Horrors, a place filled with death traps and powerful monsters where even the fake versions of the demi lich Acererak could take down several adventurers.  I managed to find a version updated for DnD 3.5, which, while very severe, is actually a toned down version of the original, acording to the Tomb of Horrors TvTropes page.

Although the chances are that you'll lose half a dozen characters before they get into the tomb, this Nintendo hard scenario was voted the 3rd best ever in Dungeon Magazine 116.

Something clicked in my brain after reading this.  I've long been an advocate of having decisions in gamebooks having logical consequences and making sure that characters are not killed early and often for making a wrong turn or for not picking up item x three rooms back. 

However, I think this approach seems to be leaving out a certain group of readers. 

The evidence has been around me for a while; I just hadn't noticed it.  For example, there are several RPG systems such as Call of Cthulu or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay where death is not only inevitable, it is usually favourable to the alternatives (going insane from seeing an eldritch abomination or being mutated by the forces of Chaos for example) or it is just an accepted part of character creation such as in Dungeon Crawl Classics.  Despite the inevitable bloodbath, people are still entertained by these games and continue to play them. 

This Grognardia retrospective on the Tomb of Horrors provided a little insight into why it is still entertaining - it appeals to gamers as a challenge in order to win.  Being able to win the Tomb of Horrors would certainly be an achievement by showing off your initiative and problem solving abilities. 

As I have written in my Adventurer blog post, gamebooks cannot approach such challanges in the same way as the gamebook author cannot anticipate and plan for every option available to the players in advance.  However, there is this great post from Fighting Fantasist which quotes Pete Tamlyn in this article stating that if all of the decisions in a gamebook were fair and had logical consequences, then the gamebook would be far far too easy (on the other side of the coin, some Lone Wolf books are too easy because of the logical consequences to decisions but they still provide entertainment due to Magnamund being such a rich fantasy world to explore and the fact that Lone Wolf is an epic saga).

Which leads me to the reason why gamebooks  such as the Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon are considered classics despite the fact that they are full of decisions with arbitrary consequences and victory being decided on whether you just happened to have picked up the correct items for the end. 

They are challenging and some people like a challenge (such as the champion and puzzle solver gamebook player type).  Even an unfair challenge. 

Also, all things considered, the penalty for losing these games is the death of an imaginary character who you rolled up three hours ago.  Not big when you think about it.  It's not like it was a level 17 rogue/ranger who I had put months of effort into. 

I guess when I was younger, I got too precious about my characters dying and wanted to cheat to save them, but, by reading about the Tomb of Horrors, RPGs where characters always get killed off and blogs of gamebook playthroughs where most of them end in failure (here, here, here, here, here and here), I have come to the conclusion that, with certain provisios such as fair dice rolling and being part of a fun story, having your character die horribly or fail to get the treasure doesn't necessarily put a dampener on the entertainment value of a gamebook. 


  1. There's two interesting ideas on these books which may have a marketing impact.

    The first is that by creating 'nintendo hard' gamebooks, the writers are ensuring that the reader needs to play through the book multiple times before finding the optimal solution - in video game theory, this is seen as a time-sink, which functions to elongate gameplay. It serves the sales figures better if the customer has to keep trying at the game, because if they felt the games were too easy, they may not bother to collect others in the set. After all, who would want to collect a bunch of games that were so easy you could finish them within a few hours? Better to ramp up the challenge as far as it'll go.

    And of course, the second idea I have is that they were quite fully aware that their key demographic audience were going to cheat on these games until the sun went down! I finished most of them when I was a kid, but only by cheating, and I think most people did the same :)

    1. From these comments, it seems that everyone cheats at gamebooks (and why not - it's not like you're hurting anyone's feelings cheating in a gamebook).

      Also, yes, it does elongate gameplay and it must feel nice to get to the end. In some cases, getting to the end doesn't end the fun as I would want to check out the other places.

  2. I think it depends partly on the context. Deathtrap Dungeon, by its very nature, is supposed to be Nintendo Hard. Therefore when something unfair happens, as a reader you shrug your shoulders and remember not to go that way next time. Unfairness becomes annoying in gamebooks when death is completely unexpected and illogical. Walking through a pleasant forest, turning west at a junction and falling to your death at the bottom of a disguised pit trap is just irritating and serves little purpose.

    1. Good point. I guess people should be less bothered about dying if the gamebook warned them of the difficulty level beforehand.

      Levels could be:

      Easy: All choices are logical. Instant deaths for being ultra stupid (do you want to jump off this cliff).

      A bit random: bad things may happen randomly but they are not lethal (you are ambushed. fight a goblin).

      Ultra hard: Opening a door may cause you to explode. Or it may not. Walking over there might kill you too. Just expect to die. A lot. Before you get victory.

  3. Actually, Marsten, I think what you're describing is called "Save/restore gameplay" or "learn by dying". While some measure of it is unavoidable, it's generally considered very bad game design to rely on it overmuch, because the player gets frustrated and gives up. (Then he yells and screams online about how game X is awful and impossible and you shouldn't buy it.) For this reason, the reigning philosophy in modern game design is that it's better to err on the side of being too easy rather than too hard. If the game is too easy for the player, he can still enjoy it and feel like he had a satisfying experience.

    Gamebooks are a somewhat different format, however. Personally, I don't mind getting my clock cleaned so long as I feel that I can now do better next time. Impenetrable or dice-dependent books, however, get on my nerves really fast. The latter is only solved by exhaustive search of the paths, while the former allows you to know exactly how to win the game and still lose because of bad rolls. I try my best to play fair on pathfinding, but I will cheat like a mofo on die rolls. ^_^

    1. Good point. Dice rolls are out of our control so it feels more unfair to lose to them than to lose due to a choice. I remember Mark Rosewater writing about a scenario in Magic where if you have five lands and a Wrath of God in your hand (for non Magic players, the lands are no use and Wrath of god is a game breaker) and your opponent makes you discard a card of their choice and chooses Wrath of God (what you would expect), then you are less bothered than if they played a random discard spell and Warth of God was selected (you had a 1 in 6 chance of losing your game breaker, so you feel cheated).

      I couldn't find that article, but here are a couple of others about randomness:

  4. You're talking about Fake Difficulty, though.

    But, really, I don't think any of this matters. Who actually plays gamebooks by the rules? When I go through a gamebook, I usually try to read through all the possibilities. "Cheating", technically, but how else am I going to see everything it has to offer? I mean, let's assume that my very first time through I lucked in to the optimal path and won--I missed out on reading 75% or more of the book! Why would I buy a book and not read 75% of it?

    1. Now, this is very interesting. You're right, cheating can range from anything to fiddling the odd die roll to skipping combats to just looking for the best paragraph in the book.

      It will be good to identify all the types of cheating and they could be assigned different difficulty levels in a gamebook.

      Honest: No cheating.
      Fiddly: You can reroll a set number of dice.
      Hard man: You win every combat.
      Time Lord: You can flick through the book and go to any paragraph you like.

      Of course, this is still ultimately moot as the player can still do what they want. They can just work out how good they are at the gamebook - it's a bit like using wizard mode in the Moria roguelike game. You can do loads of crazy stuff but you don't get the honour of a high score.

  5. This is an area I am really interested in - as, when I was devising the DestinyQuest game system, I had to face that decision on 'player death' and whether this should be permanent. In the end, because DQ is combat driven, I settled for the 'reload' and try again option, with no penalties save that you must face the challenge that killed you from the start. I was drawing on my computer game experience for this - the philosophy being:

    1) People have invested time and effort in their hero
    2) People won't want to start over again (particularly in a big book, where you might have to turn back 400+ pages)
    3) People will cheat anyway.

    I was hoping my system would actually eradicate cheating, as there is no need to. The challenge comes in correctly gearing your hero to pass the challenge.

    It's a system that, like everything, has proved like marmite. Some love it, others hate it. I've been surprised by how many people I have heard from and talked to want to have penalties and instant deaths. To me, these always turned me off some gamebooks, forcing me to cheat - and by cheating, lose the impetus to play 'by the rules'. I don't know what the answer is, but I am certainly exploring some cool options as I plan up DQ3, to make death more meaningful.

    1. Interesting points. Your DQ heroes are unique and I have spent a lot of time building mine up, so I would be upset if my hero died. Plus, it's cool to not get killed.

      Trying to get inside the minds of the haters, they might be thinking that since they can't die, then, given enough time, they will reach the victory end (of which there is only one) eventually anyway, so the means of getting there becomes academic. However, it does matter to me, because I like to measure my victory by also seeing how high I can get my speed/brawn/magic and what powerful items I can get and how much gold I can get. There is more to victory than just reaching the good ending.

  6. I agree with the others above that this is a very interesting topic, and something I struggle with as a game-designer and gamebook-writer. I think in the heyday of gamebooks, back in the 80s and 90s, this kind of fake difficulty was much more common, to the point of being the status quo. But current sensibilities lean toward avoiding fake difficulty, even to the point of maybe making it too easy.

    My personal impression is that most readers don't like the "Nintendo Hard" kind of challenge, but that there is a vocal minority which do. But I don't actually know numbers on that. Tomb of Horrors, packed with fake difficulty, is the most popular DnD module ever.

    You've read most of my stories, Stuart; I'd be interested in hearing where you think I fall on the difficulty scale. I feel like maybe my stuff is often too easy, but I'm not sure. What do you think?

    1. Once again, the vocal minority might be swaying me decisions. We need a survey on this kind of thing.

      As for the difficulty levels in your gamebooks, here's what I think:

      Gates of Heaven and Hell: very easy as all decisions lead you to the same point and there's no way to not get there. Bear in mind, though, that it is a great story and won highly commended in Windhammer (demonstrating that difficulty level is not everything).

      Peledgathol: Quite difficult, but not unfairly difficult. Working out the strategy to get enough soldiers etc. is an interesting puzzle and I do have enough information to do it, but the first time I played, I didn't sport it. The decisions you have to make are interesting and difficult to, such as 'what do you sacrifice to save your people?'

      Castle of Bones: Medium difficulty and doable as long as your stats are about 6 or more. The choices have logical consequences and careful reading is awarded (I still jumped off the cliff, however, just to see what happens because Nintendo hard gamebooks have trained me that crazy decisions might lead to victory).

      I haven't played Grimlock's cave yet :/

  7. I'm very much with Ashton on this issue, in that I'm convinced that most gamers dislike hard games (hard of course, being an entirely personal and subjective metric), but you will always have a vocal minority requesting that games become harder.

    Save and reload exist in computer games for a reason; it is no fun to be forced to start over again in a game - unless you as a gamer _want_ to start over again.

    I doubt very many players - after taking a choice that leads them directly to death - decide to go back to the beginning to continue the game, rather than just going back to their last wrong decision.

    Losing due to bad rolls/skill choices probably feels like a more legitimate way of losing, but is obviously equally easy to fudge for the impatient player. I'm not convinced there is much point in trying to prevent players from cheating as in DQ. If players want to cheat - they will.

    A better solution, perhaps, might be to devise a system allowing for variable challenge levels while playing the game. That way, those who want a really tough game can get their fill, while those who prefer to coast through the book can do so - assuming they do not roll abominably on their dice, of course.

    1. Good point. And there could be a mechanic that allows players to reroll abominable dice rolls a certain number of times.

  8. Blair_ya : I think that if each game was both quite divergent and also strategic, a scoring system like Nethack could work players could replay it to get better scores. Divergence could be provided by having randomised loot, or like Destiny Quest where you need to choose one of three rewards! Good old wandering monster tables or Fabled Lands style encounters! May the quest for the Amulet of Yendor begin!

  9. Say what you like in regards to Deathtrap Dungeon,yet in my book its fun yet clunky ride that holds the kind of atmosphere hardly found in games of later.It holds a great deal of good memories for myself and anybody that played everything those years prior its worth getting once more,despite the fact that newcomers may not discover it excessively available its most likely worth a couple of quid.

    Jessica Hall.

  10. I never understood the "Nintendo hard" phrase. I mean I played a lot of SNES and N64 games when I was younger and most of them were pretty easy.

    1. If you look at the TvTropes page for it, it refernces 80s computer games in general, before people had any idea on game design.