Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April A to Z - Z is also for Zines with Alexander Ballingall, editor of Fighting Fantazine

Hi all.  We finish off this year's April A to Z with Alexander Ballingall, editor at the wonderful Fighting Fantazine, a free online zine containing interviews with prominent gamebook personalities, a mini gamebook (around 200 paragraphs) and many many other articles on gamebooks.  Did I mention that all this is free?  And if you love it loads, you can buy print copies of issues 10-12 (and probably more issues soon).

Also, issue 13 has just been released today!  Go and download it!

So after this interview, get on down to the website and have a read of all the zines.  It also has a forum for you to join.  On with the interview...

How did Fighting Fantazine come into existence?

Through the discovery of the existence of the old 80s Warlock magazine in 2007 when I found online FF fandom. My first response to that was to have fun formatting the mini adventures into 5 compilations (see illustrations). This lead me to thinking that a fan magazine along the lines of Warlock might be possible. Dave Holt (former admin of the official FF website from 2002~2011) had attempted in 2003 to launch something similar (mini a mini FF or AFF adventure) with The Salamonis Gazette, but my feeling is that as the entire contents of the one and only issue were made solely by him (or taken from FF sources), trying to do multiple issues was probably too much. Instead, I used the Titan Rebuilding Yahoo! group to canvas for ideas, potential contributors and support for launching the magazine. Once I had enough people on board willing to write/draw for the magazine I took it from there.

What is your aim with Fighting Fantazine?

To provide a place where gamebooks of any shade or ilk can be celebrated. Yes, it started off as a FF-only magazine due to that being familiar ground for me, but I’ve been trying to slowly broaden the scope of the magazine since. Issue #14 due out later this year will feature our first Lone Wolf mini adventure (Dreams of Darkness by S.P. Osborne) and we hope to present interviews with non-FF writers/artists in the future. Also to this end I try to encourage submissions looking at gamebooks from all angles, from the silly to the serious.

How have gamebooks changed since the first issue of Fighting Fantazine back in 2009?

Firstly, I think people are becoming more aware of just how many gamebooks are being written/published. Our news section has grown from two pages to begin with to ten now and is starting to struggle to contain it to even that. Secondly I see the rise of the app format as hugely liberating for the concept and is encouraging new ideas.

What is the best thing about editing Fighting Fantazine?

We all have our own narrow viewpoints on the world, so editing the magazine allows me to see how other people view gamebooks through what they submit as material to the magazine. Plus, digging for previously unseen art or book submissions is fun when conducting interviews. We’ve some in our next issue, issue #13.

How do you see Fighting Fantazine evolving?

I’m hoping that with the broadened scope of the magazine, fans of other gamebook ranges (Lone Wolf, Tunnels & Trolls, Gamebook Adventures, Choose Your Own Adventure, Destiny Quest, etc.) will feel comfortable submitting material and the magazine can grow from there (probably not in the size of issues, 104 pages is enough I think, but in terms of frequency). We’ve also evolved into a print version as well, with issues #10 through #12 available on our new site store for purchase.

How can people support Fighting Fantazine?

The big thing is contributions. I really need more people submitting written material to the magazine, whether it be fiction, articles, etc. I’m also keen to see material that approaches gamebooks from side on like the Nathan Penlington interview in issue #12.

What spoils a gamebook for you?

Uninformed choices. Long series of references that end with “Do you want to go west or east?” with nothing to give the reader a clue (or red herring) as to which direction they might take.

What makes a gamebook stand out for you?

An interesting tale/plot spiced up with intriguing choices that play out in a variety of ways. I like multiple endings from death through to failure to middling to okay to completely successful. I like books where the reader has to pay attention to what is going on rather than skipping to the bottom of the paragraph and making the next choice. Some of that is an age thing, because as a kid I was always in a rich to reach the next decision. So probably a balance between choices and plot is best.

What is the hardest thing about writing a gamebook?

That balance between story and mechanics. Not some much dice rolling, figuring out stuff that the plot suffers, but not so much linear plotting that the reader feels no agency or control over what is happening.

What is the most exciting thing about writing a gamebook?

Trying to anticipate what readers would like to do given the choice as opposed to the choices I’d like them to make.

So what are you waiting for?  Get on down to Fighting Fantazine's website to download the zines and also join its forum.  Go on, you will love it!

April A to Z - Z is for Zach Weinersmith

Hello all!  We have come to the end of this year's challenge.  I hope you've enjoyed it.  We will finish off with Zach Weinersmith, author of the awesome Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic and writer of two spoof science fiction gamebooks, Trial of the Clone  (which is also an app from Tin Man Games) and Trial of the Clone 2:  Wrath of the Pacifist.  Here we have Zach's interview....

Why did you decide to write a gamebook?

My publisher suggested it, and it was something I'd enjoyed doing as a kid.

Where did you get your inspiration for your gamebooks?

The old Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever.

What is your favourite gamebook?

The same.

What makes a gamebook stand out for you?

I think they're more fun than regular CYOA books because they're interactive.

What was the hardest thing about writing your gamebooks?

Making sure nothing is broken.

What was the most exciting thing about writing your gamebooks?

Trying to come up with cute new mechanisms.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to write a gamebook?

Use Twine. I tried drawing the whole thing out on paper for my first book, which was a big mistake.

Will you be writing any more gamebooks?

Not at the moment.

what other projects do you have in the pipeline?

I'm working on some non-CYOA fiction projects.

What is your wish for gamebooks?

I wish they were easier to write!

So there we go.  I hope that you have had a great April!  I'll post a reflections post next week, but it's been a blast and I hope to see you next year.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

April A to Z - Y is also for yet another gamebook blogger - an interview with Ed Jolley

Today, we have Ed Jolley, writer over at the Adventure Gameblog who, over the last two years, has written many many playthroughs of all kinds of gamebooks and solo adventures.  Here is Ed to talk about himself...

Tell us about yourself.

An avid reader and writer for about as long as I can remember. Started reading and writing gamebooks in 1983. A bit of a pedant, with a good memory for trivia (not so great at remembering stuff like names and phone numbers, alas), a mildly bizarre sense of humour, and an imagination that goes to some very strange places at times. Currently not in paid employment, and doing a fair bit of voluntary work for my church.

What inspired you to start your blog?

It started with the Fighting Dantasy blog. I enjoyed reading it (and a couple of other playthrough blogs that subsequently started up), but a couple of things struck me. Firstly, they tended to focus just on FF. Secondly, the bloggers weren't all that familiar with most of the books they were playing. Neither of which is a bad thing in itself, but as there's a lot more to my gamebook collection than just FF, and I know a significant number of the books ridiculously well, that meant that I could bring something new to the gamebook blogging scene.

At the now-lost FF forum I created a thread for playing through the FF books in order and posting the results, and a chap with the username Wilf started putting playthroughs in there, so I decided to do likewise. My particular mix of trivia, silliness and snark seemed to go down well with other readers, so when I got to the end of the series, I decided to act on the 'maybe I should do my own gamebook blog' idea that had been rattling around in my head for a while.

What was your favourite gamebook to write about?

So far, I think it's Robin Waterfield and Wilfred Davies' The Money Spider, from the Webs of Intrigue series. It was one of many that I'd barely given any attention since originally acquiring it, but when I sat down to play it properly, I got really drawn into it. I stayed up until stupid o'clock to finish it, and was mildly gutted to get so close to the end and wind up without quite enough evidence to bring the criminals to justice.

What spoils a gamebook for you?

All sorts of things. Illogical decisions. Meaningless choices. Boring sequences. Bad design. Excessive difficulty. Unfairness. Indications that the author would much rather be writing a novel than a gamebook, or has contempt for the readers. Long chains of sections with no decisions.

What makes a gamebook stand out for you?

Atmosphere and humour enhance a gamebook - though the humour has to actually be funny. Engaging characters make a huge difference. I'm often impressed by subtlety - little hints at a bigger picture, revelations that, if you think about them, put a startling new perspective on what's happened before, that sort of thing. Convincing personal stakes - something that makes you care about the outcome at a deeper level than just not wanting to lose.

What is the hardest thing about writing a gamebook?

Working out what needs saying and what doesn't. Things should happen for a reason, but the readers don't need to know all the details. The tricky part is judging where to draw the line. The heftiest bit of rewriting I had to do in response to playtester feedback on Return to the Icefinger Mountains was to clarify one character's motivation, because while I knew exactly why they'd done what they did, I had failed to communicate enough of that to make their action seem logical. It took a few more drafts to make it suitably informative without being overlong..

What is the most exciting thing about writing a gamebook?

Concept becoming reality. Planning a gamebook isn't the same as planning a standard work of fiction, and I find there are often unexpected developments as I try to turn the terse flowchart summary into full sections. In a similar vein, seeing the illustrations, where someone else has taken some of the scenes I came up with and given them form.

What advice would you offer to someone who thinks that they want to write their own gamebook?

Aim high. Be prepared for a lot of work. Planning is essential. But be willing to deviate from that plan if it'll make the gamebook better. And then plan out the changes, think through the effect they could have on later stages of the adventure. Understand your characters. Playtest thoroughly when the gamebook's done - even the sequences off the optimal paths.

What plans do you have for the future?

Continue with the blog. Recently I've been spending a lot less time on it because of stuff going on in the rest of my life, but I hope to get back to more frequent updates and cover the 150+ gamebooks still on the list, then replay some of the books I didn't do justice the first time round. I also want to get back to my unfinished gamebooks, The Sanguine Wave and The Great Blacksand Robbery, and complete them. And I have an idea for another shorter one that could go in Fighting Fantazine, with the working title The Hoard of the Deep-Witch.

Do you have any non-gamebook projects?

A fair bit of unfinished non-interactive fiction. And I'd like to do something with the stories I have finished. Give the novels a polish and try to get published. See if the leader of the community choir I'm in is interested in developing any of the songs I wrote a while ago.

What is your wish for gamebooks?

More, and better. It's good to see new stuff coming out, and some of it's great, but several of the more recently published gamebooks I've read have been disappointing. That's 'disappointing' in the sense of 'evoking a strong desire to hurl the book across the room, then jump up and down on it'. Satisfying as it can be to have a real rant on the blog, I'd much rather post about having fun playing a gamebook.

To see Ed's playthroughs, go to his blog...

April A to Z - Y is for whY not try Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd edition?

Hello gamebookers.  Gamebooks translate over to into RPGs today with Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd edition where Graham Bottley of Arion Games cured all the problems of 1st edition and managed to add lots more to the system.  Graham has been kind enough to drop in in 2013 , so today he visits us again to upadate us about his year.
How has Advanced Fighting Fantasy progressed since April 2013?

We have now released Blacksand, the Sorcery Spell Book and the very recent Beyond the Pit.  The forums are busier all the time, and i hear more and more that the game is being played and is popular.  You can't ask for more than that!

You have been very successful when using crowdfunding.  What tips do you have for people who are planning on using crowdfunding?
Be honest, and communicate well.  The more successful the campaign, the more delays there are likely to be through stretch goals and so on.  But if you keep the backers informed, these delays are less of a problem.  One issue i have run into is P&P.  If you add a load of stretch goals, the postage costs will go up, quite possibly a lot.  But there is no mechanism to add postage with stretch goals!

What advice do you offer to anyone creating content for AFF2, or writing gamebooks?
Play through whatever you create, get friends to play through it, and even recruit playtesters.  When you create something, your brain fills in gaps and smooths over bumps which are obvious to others.  On top of which, when the playtesters come back to you and say how great it is, it gives you a huge boost!

What spoils a gamebook for you?

It is probably heresy to say so, but some of the FF gamebooks (especially those written by Ian!) have either sudden death traps or combats that are almost impossible.  It can be very frustrating to spend an hour negotiating a gamebook only to open the wrong door and die without recourse to SKILL or LUCK.

What makes a gamebook stand out for you?

It is a very intangible feel that makes a gamebook.  It is not the setting, genre, extra rules, artwork or writing style.  It is the...feel.  So Forest of Doom stands out because it has that archetypal "Evil Forest (tm)" feel to it.  You have lonely cottages with bodybuilders in.  Caves.  Goblins and Centaurs.  Likewise the Shamutanti hills.  It feels local and epic at the same time.  

What is your wish for AFF2?

It would be nice for it to be better known, especially outside the UK, France, NZ and Australia.  You will still see it mentioned on forums or in blogs followed by exclamations of surprise that there is a new version or even ignorance as to its very existence.  It is a difficult thing in this era of many games large and small, but i think it is such a playable game that greater recognition would be great.

How can people contribute to Advanced Fighting Fantasy or Arion Game's other works?

Send me an email.  Beyond the Pit arose from a suggestion by the author, as will the Warlock of Firetop Mountain adventure.  If a fan has a great ides for either a published book or free download, i am more than happy to discuss.

What are your future plans?

We have the Warlock... adaptation and Salamonis sourcebook planned for this year, and are hoping to get at least one or two more books out by the end of the year.  We are mostly done with rules, and so can concentrate on expanding the setting information and both new and classic adventures.   The plan is not to create supplements that MUST be bought, rather create ones that people want to buy because they are great.

Where can we buy your products?
My first suggestion would of course be my own Webstore (  I get a slightly higher return and it feels more personal sending the books direct to customers.  Most of the books are available from local games stores, direct from C7, from Amazon and from various other places.  These are all good of course, although new books are generally only available direct from me for a month or two until they get into distribution.  Of course, if you are in the UK you can also come and see us at one of the conventions we attend around the country!

Monday, April 28, 2014

April A to Z - Z is for XYZZY - an interview with Inky Path editor, Devi Acharya

Hello all!  One of my resolutions for  this blog is to feature interactive fiction more, as gamebooks are a type of interactive fiction.  So, I am glad to present to you Devi Acharya, editor of Inky Path magazine, a literary magazine for interactive fiction.  Issue 1.1 is already out, so why don't you give it a read?  It's free!

By the way, XYZZY is a reference to the Colossal Cave Adventure , an interactive fiction game from 1976.  If you typed XYZZY in a building near the beginning of the game, you were teleported to a room in the cave.  You could also teleport back.

On with the interview...

Tell us about yourself.

The name's Devi Acharya, and I'm an editor and author of interactive fiction as well as standard fiction, plays, and whatever else I've got on my mind. When I'm not pouring my time into writing-related endeavors I'm probably dabbling in illustration or fiber arts.

Tell us about your magazine, Inky Path.

Inky Path is a literary magazine for interactive fiction, stories where the readers make choices.
Growing up, I came from a background of interactive fiction development and awareness of the literary magazine side of things. It was interesting to witness how those two worlds functioned so independently of one another--the interactive fiction world, for instance, has many avid followers but few from outside of that insular circle know much about interactive fiction or consider it of literary merit. In creating Inky Path I sought to bridge that gap. I want to introduce new readers, particularly those of the literary world to interactive fiction and provide a place for those in the IF community to showcase their work.
Inky is currently accepting year-round, and we accept previously published pieces as well as excerpts from IF stories. Those interested in submitting can check out the guidelines for more information on that--we'd love to see your work!

How often will Inky Path be out?
Inky Path is released on a quarterly basis, with volumes released at the end of February, May, August, and November.
Volume 1.2 will be released May 31, so keep your eyes open for that!

What kind of submissions are you accepting at the moment?
We are looking for interactive fiction of every type, size, and flavor. We're talking anything from the standard parser cave-crawling adventure to a hypertext multimedia production on the choices of a jellyfish. I've always enjoyed interactive fiction that forces the reader to make hard decisions, that raises a mirror to "you" and causes you to really question your decisions.
Since "interactive fiction" is the standard term I've been using it, but this doesn't exclude other kinds of interactive works. Poetry, scripts, or epics in interactive mediums are also welcome. And if you have something that you're not sure will work with the site pass it along and we'll take a look and let you know.

What do you like about interactive fiction?
Interactive fiction is unlike any other medium of expression in that the reader herself is carrying out the actions in the story, forced to carry the burden of choice instead of lurk as the silent observer as is standard for most fiction. This of course lends itself to great scenarios involving morality, psychology, and other questions of the human condition. For instance, reading about someone shooting another person is one thing. Having to type
is another thing altogether. Making the author the agent of her own actions really forces her to think hard about her choices and the effects of those choices.

What do you think makes good interactive fiction?
Great interactive fiction manages to find the balance between plot and puzzle. The works that I've really enjoyed allow the reader to discover the world around him without dumping any walls of text, and the puzzles/choices make sense with the story. Video games have some problems in the past (as this Hitbox Team article discusses) with merging game narrative and gameplay. While this is less prevalent in IF, the strongest works I've seen make seamless the relationship between story and game.

What spoils interactive fiction for you?
Too often it feels like authors approach their stories with the mindset of creating a linear story. Choices are based on a pass/fail scale, where the player either succeeds and can proceed or fails and meets some ending. Interactive fiction is only really interactive when choices mean something, when they affect the world in some way. Even just changing dialogue options or descriptions depending on the player's choice goes a long way towards making the world feel immersive and making the player feel in control.

What's the hardest thing about writing interactive fiction?
As I mentioned in the last question the strongest interactive fiction allows the reader to make impactful choices, choices that affect some aspect of the story or gameplay along the line. This of course is not easy to implement from an authorial perspective. It either means creating lots of branching paths where each choice leads to a different alternative or lots of variable tracking. Both of these things take time and effort to implement and honestly the author might not think that the player will try to >REMOVE CLOTHES and walk around naked for the rest of the game without any NPC reaction. This is why it's good to start small with a strong concept for both how you want the story to go and how you want that story to grow and change based on choice. A great beta-testing crew also helps quite a bit.

What's the most exciting thing about writing interactive fiction?
Interactive fiction stories are organic. One person's play of a story could be entirely different from another person's experience. To me it's exciting to think about how every reader will be impacted by the story and how that experience could change even for the same reader going through an IF piece again.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to write interactive fiction for the first time?
I would say go for it. As I was trying to figure out the ropes of interactive fiction I found it daunting to have to find different programs that all had their own programming and syntax and wikis. I know that I could easily get caught up in how to implement simulating a liquid in a container that was also scenery, or sorting through layers of <<if>> statements.
What really matters is having a story to tell and telling it. Even if you don't know the ins and outs of programming or syntax, start with what you do know and test it out. Then try creating another room or another choice. Create small swatches of stories to test out code and experiment. And don't be afraid to ask around on various IF communities for support and assistance--we're always happy to help.

Do you think there is a difference between gamebooks and interactive fiction?
Gamebooks are a subset of interactive fiction that accounts for choice-based (CYOA) games. Parser-based works would be the other side of the IF coin.

What plans do you have for the magazine in the future?
Aside from continuing to get the word out about Inky Path, I hope to get more community-based events, getting members of the IF community together. While it's still very up-in-the-air, I think that running contests or reviews (similar to the old Interactive Fiction Review Conspiracy) would make things more fun and allow people to share their work with the world without a lot of the harsh critiques they might get on a site like IFDB. Lit mag traditions like submission rushes and would also be great to implement!

What other projects do you have planned?
I've recently been poking around in the visual novel program Ren'Py. I haven't made a visual novel before but I'm excited to see the kinds of ways it differs from and is similar to other IF programs.
I'm also hoping to attend VuPop this year and hear some great thoughts on interactive fiction.

What is your wish for interactive fiction?

I hope to see a bit more unity as far as all the different IF communities are concerned. Right now it seems like many people tend to stay in their own little areas of the web--the folks at only posting their games to Textadventures, or Twine people just hanging out on the Twine forum. Again, this has begun to change recently, especially with the emergence of CYOA programs in competitions. Part of my hope in the creation of Inky Path was to bring together these disparate communities by reaching out to and showcasing all sorts. Hopefully the IF community will be moving this direction in the future. 

April A to Z - X is for the eXcellent Paul Gresty

Hello gamebook fans!  Last year, we had a very entertaining and funny entry with Paul Gresty, so it was only inevitable that I would want him to return.  In case you don't know him yet, Paul has written a very funny Windhammer entry, Ookle of the Broken Finger and the excellent Arcana Agency - The Thief of Memories gamebook.  Since then, he has written The ORPHEUS Ruse and he is working on his sequel to Arcana Agency.  Here is more from Paul...

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Paul Gresty. My notable writing credits are the Kickstarter-funded gamebook Arcana Agency: the Thief of Memories, and The ORPHEUS Ruse, a gamebook-style application. I've lived in Paris, France for much of my adult life. My middle name is William. My favourite fruit is kiwi.

The first gamebook I ever read was a Choose Your Own Adventure book for younger readers, The Flying Carpet. It made a profound impression on me.

I have a blog, which I really should update more often. It's here:

What is The ORPHEUS Ruse all about?

The ORPHEUS Ruse is an app I wrote for Choice of Games. The premise is that you play a psychic infiltrator, capable of inhabiting host bodies. You don't just take over the host's physical form; you truly merge your mind with the host's - and so you pick up their skills, their knowledge, even to some degree their memories and feelings.

The genesis of this idea really came about because I consciously wanted to write a story about everyday, twenty-first century people who were fully fleshed out. And that's tricky in a gamebook - you can't easily flash back to a character's eighth birthday party, or have a character reminisce about the business trip where they cheated on their wife. And so this merging of minds is a contrivance to allow this character exploration. Depending on the character's sensitivity, the player discovers the background and views of each of their host bodies, all at once.

What future projects do you have that you can talk about?

I'm currently writing another app for Choice of Games. And it's not a secret. But I get jittery discussing things that I'm happy or excited about while the possibility remains that they can be cruelly snatched away. So yes, it's another app for Choice of Games. It's not a sequel to The ORPHEUS Ruse, though it does take place in the same world setting, and there's some crossover between the two. That's all.

What plans do you have for the Arcana Agency sequel, The Deathless Wanderer?
I planned the story for The Deathless Wanderer back before I wrote the first Arcana Agency book, the Thief of Memories - though at that time I believed I'd be writing an app, rather than a book. So yes, I have the book's conclusion in mind as well as long-term arcs for the three main characters, Humphrey, Strelli and Shanigan - arcs that depend, of course, on the choices the player makes for each character.

That original plan may mutate a little. Megara Entertainment, the book's publisher, is lucky enough to work with some excellent artists, and I have a file on my desktop containing some really outstanding artwork by those guys and girls. Where possible, I'll weave The Deathless Wanderer around that art (because it's significantly cheaper than commissioning new pieces). Plus, notably, some of the higher-level backers from the Thief of Memories Kickstarter will feature in The Deathless Wanderer. But my overall vision for the story will remain unchanged.

Much of the artwork from the first Arcana Agency book, the Thief of Memories, also preceded the text. It's a curious, and oddly effective, framework for stimulating creativity - 'write a story around these pictures'.

When will The Deathless Wanderer be available? Megara is currently pretty busy reprinting and expanding The Way of the Tiger, and I'm kind of booked up on my end as well. So, maybe late 2014?

What makes a gamebook stand out for you?

The story and quality of writing are always paramount. Other conventions applicable to gamebooks are important - the player's freedom of choice and of movement within the book, say; game mechanics that are coherent and pertinent. But if a book has a great story and setting, and characters I love, then I'll forgive almost anything.

The Grey Star (World of Lone Wolf) books by Ian Page are a good illustration of this. The game mechanics are so ambiguous that you have to decide your own 'house rules' before setting out. But Grey Star is a fascinating character, and you get to wander about Magnamund with a bunch of interesting, idiosyncratic pals. So I still rate the series as excellent.

Personally, I like books that provide you with a strong backstory, and that ties this backstory in with the overall story arc. You're probably a named character in these books; certainly, you know where your character grew up, and maybe who your family members are.

I also like books that allow a great degree of flexibility in your character build. These are the books I'll come back and play again and again, with a markedly different character each time.

Sadly though, you usually won't find both a strong backstory as well as character flexibility in a gamebook. A solid backstory requires the writer to impose a bunch of traits, motivations and abilities on the book's protagonist. Conversely, a high level of character flexibility prevents the writer from making any assumptions at all about the type of character at the core of the story.

Also, I love playing wizards. If I can play a wizard in a gamebook, I'm all over that shit.

What spoils a gamebook for you?

I don't like gamebooks that are two-dimensional, or that talk down to the reader. Characters, places and events must always be credible. The player's character should want to risk his life for more than a big pile of gold. The villain needs a motive that stretches beyond 'because he's evil'. These days, when the average gamebook reader is probably aged thirty-plus, shallow writing is inexcusable.

Considering more mechanical aspects, I'm not keen on gamebooks with one very specific route to victory - stories where you have to 'beat the book'. Once you've found that route, why bother ever rereading it? Just go and read a novel instead. Nor am I keen on books that require obscenely lucky dice rolls. When I was younger, I had no compunctions about cheating on rolls. These days, I'm annoyingly scrupulous.

What advice would you offer to someone who is writing gamebooks?

Can I talk about gamebook-style apps as well? Because I've only written one actual gamebook, and I find that gamebooks and original apps aren't quite the same form. At best, they're cousins - and maybe fairly distant cousins, at that.

Most advice about writing gamebooks probably applies to writing fiction in general - or at least, most genre fiction. There's a common perception that genre fiction - fantasy / horror / sci-fi / comic book / gamebook - is a lesser art form than 'pure' literary fiction. This view is, I feel, horseshit. Good genre fiction requires you to master all the storytelling skills of literary fiction - plot, pacing, characterisation etc. - and then to add a whole extra layer of genre conventions on top of that.

Why does Game of Thrones appeal to so many people who aren't typically fans of high fantasy? Is it because of the TV show's gory killings and bare titties? Well yes, that's probably a part of it. But more important is the show's strong storytelling. I just recently saw the end of Season 3 of the TV show, when characters that I'd come to know and care about over the past three years were unexpectedly, brutally killed. And that hit me like a punch in the gut. Evoking a strong emotive response like that is a mark of excellent fiction.

So, a good gamebook or app imposes the same storytelling requirements as literary fiction. Plus you have a whole cluster of extra elements to worry about - most notably, making sure that the player has a wide range of choices that matter, and balancing this against having to respect the constraint of bringing every possible thread together to a relatively small number of satisfying conclusions, within the word count limitation imposed on you.

What is the hardest thing about writing a gamebook?

As I've hinted at in the previous paragraph, my own great difficulty is reining myself in. Yes, you can have ideas for ten incredible things that your player can do at any one point in the story - but then you've got to dedicate enough space to these ten ideas to do them justice. In a dead-tree gamebook, that simply may not be possible. If, for instance, your average Fighting Fantasy book is about 60,000 words, then on a typical playthrough your reader will see fewer than 25,000 words. So you're essentially trying to write a compelling novella - one where the later sections of the story can make no assumptions about what has taken place in the earlier sections.

That's the reason the first Arcana Agency book ends on a cliffhanger, incidentally. If I'd stayed faithful to my plan and written right through to the end, the final book would have been prohibitively bulky and expensive.

If you're writing an original app, you'll likely have to impose the same practical limitations on yourself. You can write a 250,000-word story if you want to - you'll just have to dedicate years of your life to finishing it.

So yeah, conciseness. That's a skill I sometimes lack.

Have a look at Paul's blog.  If you buy only one gamebook this year, buy Arcana Agency - The Thief of Memories (there is my review in issue 12 of Fighting Fantazine)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Posts that I will revisit and update

Hello all.  Today we revisit 10 posts (or series of posts) that I will revisit and update in the future based on
my new experience.

How to write a gamebook.  This is the biggie.  Now that I have written more gamebooks, I need to review what I write a while ago and rewrite the posts to be more succinct and up to date.

Dice in gamebooks.  I need to update this to make sure I include all instances of dice in gamebooks, including using more than 2 dice, calculating probabilities and random elements in apps.

Good choices and bad choices, but no dead choices.  I need to analyse some choices offered in gamebooks and work out whether they are good (from the perspective of design rather than for the reader) for the book.

Future projects.  I still haven't done everything on the list.  I need to cover these things.

What microadventures taught me (updated with what macroadventures taught me).  Awakening of Asuria has more paragraphs than I have ever written.  I will write about what it has taught me.

My system as far as I can take it. I know it is a recent post, but I will revisit my system when I have written a gamebook with it.

Paradigm shifts (here and here).  Change is the only constant, and I will talk about how my paradigms have shifted.

Gamebook terminology.  I haven't made any progress with this.  Maybe, when the time is right, it is something we can work on.

GameBOOKS vs GAMEbooks (part 1 and part 2).  A topic that can cover way more than just 2 posts.

Gamebooks for dummies.  I need to revisit this in an attempt to get more people to read and write gamebooks.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

April A to Z - W is also for Michael J. Ward

Good day to you all!  Today we have Michael J. Ward, whose third book in the Destiny Quest series, Eye of Winter's Fury came out of the 17th April (so if you haven't already bought it, read the review and then buy it.  Or just buy it).

Today, we have an interview with him where he talks about his writing.  Enjoy!

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a former magazine editor, now a freelance writer, specialising in producing tailored resources for the classroom. When I get the chance, I also write books.

The Heart of Fire left a sequel hook in the ending.  The Eye of Winter's Fury may do that too.  Is the series building up to something huge?  If so, how many books will the saga last?

Yes, The Eye of Winter’s Fury provides a similar cliff-hanger ending. I think it is good to tease readers with hints of what the next book might bring – keeps things exciting and the reader guessing. I suppose the books are building up to something pretty spectacular; I kind of see each book in itself being a stand-alone adventure with plenty of epic battles and a satisfying conclusion – but yes, when taken together they provide different snapshots of a much greater conflict.

I have plans for three more books. At the moment, I don’t honestly know if they will ever see the light of day. At the very least, I hope my publisher allows me to write DQ4 as it will tie-up some of the loose threads and character arcs from The Legion of Shadow and The Heart of Fire.

All three of your current gamebooks contain both epic stories and a very involved game system.  Did you know from the beginning that everything was going to be epic?

I suppose I wanted each book to feel like its own instalment of a ‘computer role-playing game’, like Dragon Age or Elder Scrolls. When you’re dealing with heroic fantasy, you really have to ramp everything up to 10. While I like to have the quieter character moments, explore some of the offbeat game world, the main focus ultimately needs to be the big battles and world-changing events. I don’t think all fantasy gamebooks should follow that model, but it works for DestinyQuest because the concept is based around combat – and I want the reader to feel like they are having an impact on the world.

Was The Legion of shadow the first book you wrote?  Do you have other gamebooks elsewhere?

The Legion of Shadow was the first gamebook I ever wrote – but no, I have been writing since as long as I can remember. I have a handful of unpublished novels and screenplays, some written for adults and others for children. Looking back, I can see how each one helped me to become a better writer. The best thing you can do is to keep writing – some projects will be successful, others won’t, but you’re always learning something.

Did you start with the stories, the world building or the system when writing Destiny Quest?

I started with the game system because, as you know, I was keen to see if I could come up with a way of creating a Diablo/World of Warcraft style adventure in a print format. As I was developing the system, I started to think about story – and from that, I began to plan out the world. By the end, I guess all three are working hand in hand with each other.

How has Destiny Quest evolved since you started it?  Where do you see it going?

When I wrote The Legion of Shadow, I wasn’t necessarily intending to write a ‘traditional’ gamebook with lots of options and pathways. I was more concerned with creating something that felt more like an action-orientated computer game, such as Diablo. The combat and the strategy were more important to me. However, I didn’t take into account the expectations people would have coming to LoS as ‘gamebookers’. They wanted choices and lots of them – and when the book didn’t quite deliver on that, I got heavy criticism from some quarters. So, with The Heart of Fire and The Eye of Winter’s Fury, I put decision-making at the top of my list. I still think I could push that further – but these are big books, and you can’t keep throwing choice after choice into every quest, otherwise you end up with branching pathways going off in all kinds of crazy directions.

In The Eye of Winter’s Fury I hope I have provided a more fulfilling experience in terms of player choice. There are significant consequences for some of the decisions that you make – and there are also open-world areas (such as Ryker’s Island), where you have more freedom to explore and revisit locations, often multiple times in order to complete different objectives. It feels a bit more sandbox at times.

I suppose the thing that concerns me the most is combat. Obviously, that is the core of the game, but I think dice rolling and stat-keeping can kill the book for a lot of people, who simply just don’t have time to do the combats. That is a real shame, but I acknowledge the problem. If I was ever to plan a new gamebook (in print) I would probably remove combat entirely, and focus purely on the character and the story, and offering compelling choices.

What spoils a gamebook for you?

There are two things that are sure to have any gamebook hurtling into my bin. The first is a proliferation of ‘dead ends’ and ‘instant deaths’. You know the type – you take the wrong turn or open the wrong door, and ‘boom!’ you are dead. It is incredibly lazy writing on the author’s part and there is absolutely no need for it. I recently wrote a blog post on my website about this. DestinyQuest has no ‘fatal ends’ – but the new book does provide added challenge with the new death penalty system.

My second annoyance with gamebooks is sort of linked to the above. It frustrates me when an adventure requires you to collect a supermarket’s worth of items, most of which will be completely useless… however the one item you didn’t pick up turns out to be the one you need to complete a quest or kill the bad guy. On occasion, item-hunting can work – but it is much better for the items not to have such pivotal roles in the narrative. All too often however, you find item-hunting becoming a sort of layer of difficulty that can force you to replay an adventure again and again to find the ‘perfect path’. You have to be a very confident author to believe that your reader will have the patience to re-read your book multiple times!

What makes a gamebook stand out for you?

Good writing. It doesn’t matter how clever or robust your game system is, you need to be able to tell a good story. Even though it is a gamebook and will provide multiple pathways, a good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end – and needs to asks questions, taking the main character on a journey of self-discovery. Think of your gamebook as a movie. There needs to be an over-arching plan to the narrative and that needs to be told well. I know there are exceptions to this rule (such as gamebooks that aim for more of a sandbox approach), but I always tend to find it is the ones with a compelling story that leave a more memorable impression. Dave Morris’s The Heart of Ice is a great example of a gamebook where the story and characters are expertly crafted.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a gamebook?

I’m not sure, as I actually enjoy all of it! I suppose for DestinyQuest it is the balancing of the combats and the itemisation. That takes the most time – and can be very frustrating when you think that you have cracked it, then suddenly you create a build that breaks it again. It is a fine line between creating something challenging and a game that is too easy. With The Eye of Winter’s Fury this was particularly difficult as I only had two Acts (instead of the usual three), which created a lot of problems in ensuring heroes were gearing up fast enough.

What’s the most exciting thing about writing a gamebook?

I love writing characters – both the main character who you play, and the people that they meet. It is those interactions where I feel the stories really come alive. There is also something really nice about having a cast of characters that have become established in reader’s minds, so that you can reintroduce them, play with the reader’s expectations, explore their background and motivations more deeply. That is really fun for a writer.

What advice would you give to someone who thinks that they want to write their own gamebook?

Join up with a good app studio and write for them, as I think the market for print-based gamebooks is shrinking daily. The future of gamebooks is really on the tablet and computer. In some ways, I think the future is already here – if you look at what Telltale Games are producing (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us), that is pretty much the pinnacle of interactive fiction right there. So if you want to be writing in this genre, I’d say play those games – study them and learn from them. They are stunning and show what can be achieved.

What plans do you have for the future?

I would really love to write a fourth DestinyQuest book. Whether I get that chance is still up in the air right now. I know it will never get me into the bestseller lists or make me an overnight success, but I feel I owe it to the fans who have stuck by the books.

If that doesn’t happen, then I have some novel ideas that I want to pursue. One is fantasy, and the others are more mainstream. I’m not decided on which one I want to focus on, but once I know what the situation is with the future of DestinyQuest, I can start to channel my energies into the next project.

What is your wish for gamebooks?

To be taken more seriously by genre publishers and the mainstream. There is enormous potential with interactive fiction to not only create great entertainment titles for all ages, but also to produce educational tools, training materials, collaborative projects, you name it. I think we’re still taking our first baby steps… there is a long journey ahead, but an exciting one!

You can buy The Eye of Winter's Fury as a paperback for £12:07 or as a Kindle book for £6.64.