Friday, March 29, 2019

Gamebook Theory: Grave Mistake #4 (branching alone isn't enough)

As I promised in my previous post, this month we'll talk about branching in gamebooks and here is a very bold statement about that:

Branching creates choices, but choices alone don't create a game.

To better illustrate what I am trying to say, I will give you the following two examples:

Example 1:

1. You are at a crossroads. If you want to turn left, go to 2! If you prefer to turn right, go to paragraph 3!

2. You found a Magic Sword. Continue to paragraph 4!

3. You fall into a trap. Your adventure ends here.

4. Using your newly found Sword, you defeat the bad guy and you win fame and glory. The end.

Is this example interactive? Yes, it sure is, because there is a choice to be made.

Is the outcome a direct result of the reader's performance? No, it is not. The outcome here depends on pure chance, because the reader had no way of guessing which choice leads to death and which choice leads to cake. This is rather a "Which Door Choice". Note: see the gamebook choice classification by Ashton Saylor!

Do you see what is missing? There is no test of performance. The outcome depends entirely on luck.

Example 2:

1. The local Elder tells you that according to a centuries old legend, the Magic Sword could be found in the lands to the north. You leave the village and the beautiful sunset behind your back. Soon you are standing at a crossroads. If you want to turn left, go to 2! If you prefer to turn right, go to 3!

2. You continue walking to the north. A little bit later you find a Magic Sword. Turn to 4!

3. You continue walking to the south. A little bit later you fall into a trap. Game Over.

4. Using your newly found Sword, you defeat the bad guy and you win fame and glory. The end.

Do you see the difference? Do you see how we tested the reader's general knowledge, attention span, memory and logic?

a) General Knowledge: it is a well known fact that the sun always sets to the west.

b) Attention Span: the reader had to notice the clues buried in the text: the sun is setting behind his/her back.

c) Short Term Memory: the reader had to memorize the information from the village Elder and the fact that the Magic Sword is in the lands to the north.

d) Logic: if the sunset is behind the protagonist, then he is facing east and therefore must turn left (to the north).

Of course, we don't have to test all four in every choice. We could test just the memory by mentioning in the introduction that there is a Magic Sword in the lands to the north. A hundred paragraphs later we could ask the reader if he wants to go north or south. Actually, in this example, we would also be testing the attention, not only the memory, but you get the idea.

I was very surprised to find out that many authors complain that they come up with too many choices for a given situation and they have a hard time bringing the number down to acceptable levels. Imagine that in the example above at the crossroads, we ask the reader if he wants to 1. Climb the nearby tree; 2. Dig a hole in the ground; 3. Kill the ant crawling on his arm; 4. Break the crossroads sign; 5 Stare at the clouds.

Sure, all those are valid action possibilities, but what difference does any of those choices make in the grand scheme of things? Each one of those scenarios simply redirects the reader to a separate narrative line, but it makes no difference for the final outcome of the adventure. Those choices are irrelevant to the actual game part of the gamebook and should be removed from it. This is like the Chekhov's Gun Principle: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired". Otherwise, it should have not been mentioned at all on the first place.

I have the exact opposite problem: I can't come up with many enough (at least 2 or ideally 3) meaningful options, because every single choice in a gamebook must make a difference one way or another (change of stats, finding an item, gaining valuable information and so on).

In conclusion, I am eager to remind you that unlike traditional literature, the goal of a gamebook isn't to surprise the reader unexpectedly at the end of the story. It is the exact opposite. A good gamebook author would lead the readers hand-in-hand through the MODERATE CHALLENGES of the game and HELP them achieve ultimate success at the end of the adventure.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gamebooks are back in the primelight: ChooseCo against Netflix!

A couple of months ago, Netflix advertised their first release of an interactive movie. Shortly after, news started emerging in the global media about "Choose You Own Adventure" suing Netflix over the branching format. Here is an article published by USA Today: 'Choose Your Own Adventure' publisher sues Netflix over 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch'

How does this affect our beloved gamebook genre? Lets take a look and give it a thought!

First, I will give you my personal opinion about the Netflix Original movie "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch". It tells the story of a young game designer in the 1980s, who is creating a video game based on a gamebook. It has a great potential and a very promising beginning. It starts with the young programmer being invited to work at a professional video game publisher, where he meets one of his personal idols in the industry. Naturally, one of the first choices you have to make for the protagonist is: "Do you wish to work on the game at the office" or "Do you prefer to work on your project by yourself at home"?

If the choice, presented this way, seems completely blind to you, don't worry! That is exactly how I felt when I saw it on the screen for the first time and I had very limited time to make a decision. Thinking logically, I assumed that working at the office provided advantages such as access to unlimited professional resources, cutting edge technology and help from experienced game designers. Well, with a lot of creativity, the makers of the movie were able to trash this assumption. Sadly, the nonsense didn't end with this one. Instead, it gets from bad to worse further in the story. Because of all that, a movie couldn't possibly be more similar to "Choose Your Own Adventure" than this. All the illogical choices and blind guessing, the endless "try again" sequences and the whole arcade approach, forced me to give up at some point. The story also got weirder later on, but I guess that is to be expected with any "Black Mirror" production. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed.

Because of how bad it is, the owner of "Choose Your Own Adventure" brand (ChooseCo LLC) probably has a good reason to sue Netflix over the branching narrative and horrible choices. However, poor gamebook design is not difficult to find and I would be hesitant to give reserved rights of it to just one game designer.

Joking aside, I heard a lot of chatter that ChooseCo is focusing on suing people and companies left and right for just mentioning the CYOA brand. It seems that the people, who inherited rights over the iconic series don't care to publish something new with better quality, but instead they are putting all their effort into making money by harassing new gamebook authors.

This could play out in two different ways. As most intellectual property lawsuits, this one could be considered more expensive to fight in front of a jury and Netflix could decide to settle outside of court for the small amount of a few million dollars. However, if the online streaming service has any intentions to continue publishing movies with similar format, they wouldn't care about the cost of winning this battle and would want to set a precedent in court, teaching ChooseCo a good lesson that it is not okay to pursue branching narrative game designers for mentioning "Choose Your Own Adventure" and comparing their products to it. The statement "My car is NOT a Mercedes, but looks like one" doesn't infringe the brand Daimler-Benz in any way. The folks at Hyundai know that very well.
Hyundai and Mercedes

If the big shots at Netflix decide to follow the latter approach and take the ChooseCo accusations to court, they would do the world a log of good by releasing the authors of gamebooks from the fear of being sued over the branching narrative format or comparing it to the world-famous series.

Either way, it is good for the whole genre that this scandal is being monitored by news media around the globe, reminding people about the good old gamebooks and of something that was once a worldwide phenomenon. Hopefully all this fuss is going to create a fresh new interest in our beloved genre.

I would like to end this post with the bold statement that books from the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series shouldn't be called gamebooks at all. Branching the narrative creates options, but it doesn't create meaningful choices and therefore, those books have nothing to do with real games. However, more on that next month here on in a post which will be called "Gamebook Theory: Grave mistake #4 (branching the story is not enough)".

Until then,
May The Dice Be With You!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer
Augmented Reality Adventure

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Seven No-Trump

Never tell me I that I don't follow through on what I've promised to do.

Some five years ago, I wrote a post for Lloyd of Gamebooks which served as a brief introduction to Roger Zelazny's Amber books and, more generally, the setting around those books. This was an introduction to a coming review of a gamebook set within that Amber universe, Seven No-Trump, by Neil Randall.

I've read through the whole series of Amber novels a couple of times since I wrote that post. I finished rereading them again quite recently. My passionate love for the series reignited, I hungrily began to seek out more Amber stories.

This is how, some years after I found the book, I came to read Seven No-Trump.

The premise of the Crossroads series of gamebooks is quite rare - each book takes place within an established literary fantasy universe, giving the reader the chance to play through as characters within that universe. I've played only a handful of these books; they tend to be extremely story-heavy, with the player often reading through several pages of text before arriving at a choice. The books are well out of print these days; they were first published in the 1980s and, to my knowledge, never republished since. Given that this series involves stories in a number of intellectual properties by established authors, I'd be very curious to know what sort of deals were struck in order to write these books. This is a reminder that the popularity around gamebooks in the 80s was a potent publishing force, for sure.

As mentioned, Seven No-Trump is one of two books in the Crossroads series that take place within Zelazny's Amber universe, both written by Neil Randall. In this book, the player takes the role of Random, brother to Corwin and the various other princes of Amber, shortly after he becomes King of Amber, as detailed in the fifth book of Zelazny's series, The Courts of Chaos.

Seven No-Trump conforms to the story-heavy format established by other Crossroads books - and, viewed as an Amber short story, it really gets things right. In Zelazny's third Amber book, Sign of the Unicorn, we get a chapter in Random's voice; that voice is developed to the full here. Random is flippant, yet appreciative of the gravity of his new role as king; he acts with a bravado that belies the frequent self-questioning and self-doubt of his inner monologue. He is, quite simply, written as a credible, interesting character. It's rare in a gamebook - in those gamebooks outside of the Crossroads series, at any rate - to see so much space dedicated to expressing a character's voice, and his inner thoughts. Readers of Zelazny's Amber series already know Random, and the guy is presented as a somewhat amiable delinquent in those books. And yet, even without knowing those books, the reader has enough space here to get to know, and grow to like, Random.

From the perspective of an Amber fan, and viewing this book as an entry into Amber canon - or, at least, canon-ish Amber - it is a great gulp of water after a long drought. Some of its key players are those Amberites who don't receive much direct attention in the Corwin or Merlin chronicles - Caine and Llewella, notably - and having the chance to get to know them a little better is delightful. Seeing Brand in action again is a fucking joy. Benedict is somewhat underused here; even so, seeing him on the page once more is like chancing across an old friend after a decade apart.

And, perhaps best of all, the story is engaging, and thought-provoking. We are not falling into typical fantasy tropes, here; rather, the story concerns the impact of art upon those who view it, and whether the realities we can imagine are true realities, with their own lives, their own inner existences. It is, for sure, one of the more profound gamebooks that I've read.

Yet Seven No-Trump has flaws, too. Its story is excellent, and yet as a game it is poor. Choices are infrequent, and it's rarely difficult to choose the 'best' option - I successfully completed the game first time through, by the by. The game mechanics are very Dungeons & Dragons in tone - Random essentially has the six familiar D&D stats, which fall on a range of 3 to 18 (you don't get to roll stats; Random is assigned his scores at the start of the game). And yet these mechanics don't convey particularly well the abilities that are evident in Zelazny's books. In game terms, Random's Strength and Constitution scores are unexceptional for a 'normal' human being - and yet, in the books, we've seen him lift a car that's stuck in mud, or tirelessly duel his brother Corwin for a whole day. I can see that the Crossroads books want to maintain a consistent set of game mechanics, but they just don't really work, here.

Moreover, for those who know the Amber books well, there are a number of inconsistencies where Seven No-Trump doesn't quite match up with the Zelazny novels. As far as I can see from the book's foreword and afterword, Seven No-Trump was written sometime between the publication of the sixth and seventh Amber novels. Certainly, it takes place after Random becomes king at the end of the Corwin saga. And yet many details are glossed over. In the novels, Random is married to Vialle; here, she is never mentioned. Likewise, Random's son Martin is absent, and unmentioned. More jarringly, Brand is alive, with no information concerning his return from the great Abyss that lies beyond the Courts of Chaos. When Random encounters Brand once more, his attempted murder of Martin has apparently been forgotten.

Yes, okay, Seven No-Trump has been written for readers who might not necessarily know Zelazny's books, and venturing into such areas might derail the narrative somewhat. Still, knowing the books well, you have to work to put such details out of your mind. Might Seven No-Trump take place in some sort of 'alternate Amber', where the rules of reality are not quite in sync with those established elsewhere? Or is the book's author merely cutting some narrative corners? Why even take the time to decide, really?

Let's summarise, then. As a novella, Seven No-Trump is fantastic. As a game, and a piece of interactive fiction, it just barely meets the minimum criteria. I came to the book seeking an engaging Amber tale, and I loved it.

Neil Randall wrote another Crossroads gamebook set in Zelazny's Amber universe, The Black Road War. I'll write up a review of that as soon as I'm able - sometime around the year 2024, maybe.