Thursday, May 11, 2017

The great potential of Gamebook Adventures and what is wrong with them

The following article is an excerpt from Peter's Gamebook Theory blog.

Let me make it clear, I am not claiming that Gamebook Adventures is the best genre of them all nor I am saying that it has the greatest potential. I am simply stating that I have found Gamebooks to be teaching the most meaningful lessons of all the games I've played so far. This genre, probably for the lack of other game mechanics, puts the character in many different situations and the player is given a limited amount of possible actions to choose from. Making such a choice must be based on critical thinking, educated guessing and calculating the risk of possible negative or positive consequences for the character on the way to achieving the final goal of the adventure.

Meaningful choices haven't always been part of the Gamebook Adventures. Just take the arcade approach of the first Fighting Fantasy books for example! They are filled with "Which Door", "Cake or Death" and "Shell Game" choices (more on this terminology can be found in the blog about Gamebook Theory by Ashton Saylor) and the only way to get to a good ending in those books was to explore the adventure land, filled with countless instant death chapters and way too many battles (too much of the adventure outcome was left to pure chance), through trial and error until the ultimate path was eventually discovered.
The very first Fighting Fantasy Gamebook: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Fighting Fantasy Book 1

Please, don't get me wrong! I have a lot of respect for the pioneers in the genre, the legendary writers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. They laid down the basic foundation of something that captured the hearts of millions around the globe and has been keeping the love for adventure alive in many generations now. All I am saying is that gamebooks have come a very long way since the dawn of the genre back in 1982 when "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" was released in Great Britain. I believe that the ultimate example of how much gamebooks have improved since then, is the great work of Stuart Lloyd presented at the Windhammer Competition for Short Gamebook Fiction that is ultimately leading to his mobile platform game Asuria Awakens developed by the computer and marketing geniuses Neil Rennison and Ben Britten at Tin Man Games, for (not to be confused with my current project Visual Gamebook Adventures).

So, what is wrong with Gamebooks? While I was doing my research on the genre, I ran across quite a few posts that discussed the problems with Gamebooks and how we could fix them. Some were even saying that they can't be fixed and we should leave them in the past. Especially disturbing is the theory that narrative is not a game mechanic and therefore it's impossible to create a book that is also a game. Not only narrative IS a game mechanic, it actually is the best possible form of feedback! (see my next post)

This is what I have to say about it: There is absolutely nothing wrong with Gamebooks and they don't need fixing. The problem lies in the countless amateurs, who want to write a game, without willing to put enough effort into research and without willing to invest time in learning the techniques of a good adventure. That is exactly what happened in Eastern Europe in the late 90s when the whole genre there was brought to a halt, simply because there was too much junk on the market. The situation is the same with the mobile platform games of all genres right now. There is way too many mobile games available and most of them are just plain horrible, so the consumers often get lost in the huge variety and they become disappointed with the questionable quality. The bottom line is that the market suffers, because people quickly lose interest after a few failed attempts to find something worth their time, but instead they discover nothing else besides pure frustration.

There is another aspect of video games which I dislike very much nowadays. The "free to play" games with in-app purchases are the worst thing that has ever happened to the gamer, because winning the game is now based on the amount of money you spend rather than on the skills and qualities you learn and apply. These games are despicable money generating machines that focus on the economic aspect instead of rewarding the gamer for good performance. Put in other words, they could be "free to play", but they are definitely not "free to win" and I am very glad that this system can't be implemented in the genre of Gamebook Adventures.

To summarize this post, I am going to say that narrative and gameplay mix just fine, given that we have the right author to mix them correctly. Just take a good look at the amazing adventures written by Ashton Saylor and Stuart Lloyd and you'll see exactly what I mean. Both of them have excellent blogs on Gamebook Theory that I would strongly encourage you to read if you are planning on writing a short adventure or even a long gamebook. Their thoughts about how to start writing an adventure, how to approach the design process and what NOT to do to the player (such as instant death and many other bad things) are priceless, but for some reason they don't talk in detail about the mechanics of a good Gamebook Adventure. That is the exact subject of my future posts as I will be trying to build on the foundation Ashton and Stuart have already laid down for us.


  1. Hmm. Is there anything wrong with them? From what I've seen, "Gamebooks" are in the midst of a renaissance unlike anything that has gone before. The fact that you have entire companies built around gamebook or gamebook-like games (Failbetter, inkle, Tin Man, etc) shows as much, I think.

    To the extent that there is something wrong with gamebooks, I think it is that very many of the modern games built using such techniques are stuck in the past - driven to be even "purer" than the old gamebooks themselves. With a book, I could always decide to browse the pages once I got tired of banging my head against the text - not so in modern apps (often requiring that you start over). One of the things that I really like about the Inkle guys and their games, is that they have been very willing to experiment with the formula - not just creating gamebooks on a mobile device, but actually trying to make gamebooks that take advantage of the digitial medium in neat ways (e.g., the great map in 80 days, the rewind at any point system of Sorcery!).

    Monetization is just monetization, IMO - neither inherently good nor bad. That being said, many visual novel games (almost gamebooks with pictures) have "free to play" monetization, so I don't see any reason why it couldn't also be used in gamebooks.

    1. Thank you for your reply, Michael. I agree with your opinions, but I was talking purely about paper medium and how non-computerized gamebook adventures are affected by bad game design based on randomness. I believe that you will better understand my point if you read my next article:

  2. The issue of many low quality ("junk") and often free gamebooks out there is valid for absolutely avery form of written entertainment.
    The fact that access to publishing is made easier and cheaper by technology led to the fact that there is a very wide offer of amateur books (and gamebooks) that everybody can download and they are often poor quality, as there is no need for a filter from professional publisher that wants to make money of of them and therefore has to guarantee a certain quality standard.
    But this is just marginally involving gamebooks, as RPGs and standard literature see the same dynamics, so I don't think this can be highlighted too much as a specific gamebooks issue.

    1. Thank you for your reply, Yaztromo! I was referring to the junk of all genres on the mobile market, not just gamebooks. I believe the problem is much greater with the other kinds of games and the gamebook adventures are to some extent still pure.