Sunday, August 12, 2012

Parallel dimensions in gamebooks

So I was playing Invitation to a Feast by J.P. Barnett when something strange happened and I don't mean strange in the story, I'm talking about something strange in the metagame. 

Early on in the book, I had a chance to save a bird's eggs but didn't due to a die roll.  A bit dejected, I went on along a road until I found a blue cobblestone.  I tried to pull it up but couldn't and I didn't have the blue spade needed to dig it up, so I carried on, looking for a stick. I did find one and returned to the blue cobblestone to find a box containing a gold coin and a note from the Noble Ranger (who is miles away organising a feast) praising me for my persistance.

Well that was nice, wasn;t it?

In a later play through of the book, I did save the birds eggs and got the blue spade.  When I dug up the blue cobblestone, I opened the box to find 2 gold coins and a note from the Noble Ranger (who is miles away organising a feast) praising me for helping the bird by saving her eggs. 

That's nice, but how on Earth did that happen?

How could the Noble Ranger predict the outcome of the die roll I made, know that the bird would give me a blue spade and write an appropriate note with an appropriate reward in advance?

An in story reply would be that the Noble Ranger is magical (there are a lot of parallels between him and God) or that the whole thing was orchestrated as a test and that all the animals were in on it, the eggs weren't real and the bird called ahead to someone by the blue cobblestone to write a note (after all, you don't know who wrote it) and put a certain number of gold coins in there.

On the other hand, we could just assume that J.P. Barnett wanted to give a different reward for your actions and wrote an appropriate one in.  After all, you can't both dig up the cobblestone with a blue spade and a stick so you aren't to know any different what could have been in the box.  J.P. Barnett has created a parallel dimension. 

Now this is an interesting concept.  The way I plan my gamebooks (and I think how other gamebooks are planned) is that I come up with a chain of events that happen or a site populated by various characters and creatures and then think about how the player will interact and change these events.  Some events may be outside of the player's control and happen anyway.  For example, in Fire on the Water, you will always be accompanied by an assassin on your trip and Ronan will always be dead.  Your choices do not affect those events but they will effect how much you know about Ronan's killers and whether the assassin survives the trip.

The same sort of thing happens in some Choose Your Own Adventure books.  In the Bigfoot mystery, CYOA 11, you come across a good for nothing in the woods called Bigfoot Charlie.  You have the option of climbing a tree to escape him or hiding in a hole in the tree.  If you climb a tree, you notice a mountain lion in the branches.  If you hide in the hole, Bigfoot Charlie starts to chop down the tree, which would annoy the mountain lion.  However, there is no sign of the mountain lion.  It seems that your choice on how to evade bigfoot Charlie has made a mountain lion disappear.

At first, I saw this as a logical inconsistancy that bugged me.  How can your choice affect the presence of a big cat or how many gold coisn you get?  Then I started looking at it in another way.  If you played the gamebook fairly (I know we all peek but go with me here) then there would be no way of knowing about the other consequence.  I wouldn't know about the mountain lion if I hid in the tree, so I can't blame the book for being inconsistant (OK, I can, but I'll only find out by cheating).  If I climb the tree, I'll have to deal with a mountain lion that's always been there.  If I hide in the tree, there is no mountain lion to deal with.  It's like each path in the gamebook is its own dimension and you can visit each dimension if you play again.

This idea of creating completely different consequences based on your choices seems to be more fir mechanical reasons.  I think the author does it to create more branching paths. 

Jake Care in his article on Classifying and Rating Linearity came up with four basic types of linearity - linear, convergent, divergen and free roaming. 

The method of 'There's going to be a mountain lion in this tree and the character's choices will affect what it does' is more linear than 'If the player does X, there will be a mountain lion.  If they do Y, there won't be'.  In the former case, you have to deal with the lion, whatever happens.  Once you have, you move on.  In the latter case, you may have to deal with a completely different situation.  If the Bigfoot Mystery had set encounters, then it would have been able to fit in a lot less than it did into its mere 53 paragraphs. 

Creating what I call parallel dimensions is a good way to get more divergence out of a gamebook, something a lot of gamebooks are badly in need of.  I still feel a bit irked at the lack of consistency but the question is - am I being irrational?  Am I leaving out a potentially powerful tool just because I think that if I want a mountain lion in a tree, then there should always be a mountain lion in a tree no matter what the player does.  What do you think?

EDIT:  As is brilliant and typical at the moment (and long may it continue), things have been moving fast in the gamebook world, so here are some snippets of news:

Dave Morris is rereleasing lots of his gamebooks!

Gamebook Adventures apps on Amazon!

Adventurer logo released!

Lee Williams writes about gamebooks here!

Two new Tunnels and Trolls solos have been released!

Fighting Fantasy to be removed from iOS next week!
There's a new gamebook creator program that needs your backing!  For a mere $3, you can get the program once it's released (and if it hits its target of $1000)!


  1. I suspect most people creating similar game/story things go with consistency in the majority of instances. However, there may be some interesting possibilities in allowing possibilities that are logically inconsistent. You could let the player define, through their in-game actions, not only what *happens* but also what *happened previously*. You could arrive at completely different "backstories".

    The one time I've heard of this before was in a review of Embric of Wulfhammer (which I, unfortunately, have not yet played)...

    1. I might give this one a go. It is an interesting concept.

    2. Borges wrote of a (non-existent) book in which the second, third and fourth chapters are all different (mutually exclusive) sequences of events leading up to chapter 1. Chapters 5-7 are potential preludes to 2, 8-10 each precede 3, and 11-13 do the same for 4.

  2. From the title of this post, I thought it was discussing gamebooks in which you pass from dimension to dimension, a la Spectral Stalkers. But this post is very interesting nontheless :) The original Choose Your Own Adventure books contain this, a lot. In some of them, a single choice can change the entire character of the book, shifting events and characters all over the place.

    1. I was struggling to come up with a good term for this idea. I'll have a look at more CYOA for their shifting events.

    2. Two CYOA books I know to make use of this phenomenon are House of Danger (the original, at least - can't speak for the reissue as I don't know if it's been changed) and Rock and Roll Mystery. Oh, and on two paths in Outlaws of Sherwood Forest you can meet a parallel version of yourself. The two separate accounts of the encounter have slightly differing dialogue, which is either an authorial/editorial blunder, or a subtle hint that there are even more versions out there.

      There's an interesting instance in the Golden Dragon book Castle of Lost Souls. Beyond one point, the entire layout of the castle varies depending on whether or not you open a specific door. Apart from that, the book goes with consistency, and the sorcerous abilities of the villain can be invoked as an in-world explanation for the changing interior of his realm - but the only way to be aware of the changes (other than being told about it by someone like me) is to play the adventure more than once, so there's an extent to which the follow-up attempt is already a parallel reality.

  3. So... it's Schrodinger's Mountain Cat?


    1. Classic.

      This might be a good term for the idea - Schrodinger's consequence.

  4. This is a really intresting article; Linear Realism against Non-Linear weirdness. I can't decide which is the best.