Friday, April 18, 2014

April A to Z - P is for Philip Armstrong, Windhammer 2013 winner

Good day to you, gamebookers!  I may have mentioned the Windhammer competition before (the 2014 guidelines are out, so take a look), and today, we have the winner of the 2013 Windhammer competition, Philip Armstrong talk about his entry, "Normal Club", and to give some pointers to those of us who are thinking about entering Windhammer 2014.  Philip has also recently started a blog of his own, so take a look.
Anna and Jim Morrison

"Where did you get your idea for "Normal Club"

Here and there, in the typical places. I knew I wanted to write a fun, cartoony game in the vein of the classic LucasArts adventures. One day I sketched some mystery solving teens with their pet lizard and everything blossomed from there.

"What's the best thing about entering Windhammer?"

Being able to participate in this little gamebook community. Writing my entry was one of the most rewarding creative things I've ever done. Just finishing a complete, playable game was immensely satisfying, but being able to share it with gamebook fans and pit it against other talented authors was the cheery on top.

"What do you think made "Normal Club" stand out as the winner?"

Hard to say! The feedback I got was definitely mixed. Most people seemed to enjoy the humor and the straightforwardness of the rules. Others were turned off by the setting and family-friendly tone. The first half of the game is spent gathering clues to determine the identity of a mystery location. Depending on how you do you either find a good clue that points to the location or a bad clue that points to a red herring. It seems that players who came to the intuitive leap that you could use the bad clues to determine which locations weren't correct enjoyed the game much more than players who assumed that because they got bad clues they'd just have to guess the answer.

I'm not sure what put 'Normal Club ahead, as there were some very strong contenders. I think that ultimately it was a combination of the humor, the simplicity of the rules, and the uniqueness of the scenario. I'm honored that it was picked amongst excellent entries like Gunlaw, Out of Time, and The Independence Job. And I'm so thankful to everyone who chose to vote for it.

"Are you planning on entering Windhammer this year?"

I am! I can barely wait. I've been flooded with ideas since the day the competition ended. I think I've settled on which direction to go in. Now it's a matter of hammering this idea into some sort of usable shape (at the moment it's more appropriate for a 600 paragraph book, let alone Windhammer's 100). I'm even more excited to read all the other entries and to see how people will push the medium forward. I'm amazed that there's this community of people who are so passionate about gamebooks that they continue to write new ones; that they strive innovate and challenge what the format can do.

"What makes a gamebook stand out for you?"

Good writing certainly helps, but I think it's consideration for the reader. By this I mean that the book is free of bugs that point to the wrong paragraph, but also "T-Intersection" choices (Ashton Saylor calls them "Which Door" choices). When a book features a lot of passages that read "You come to an intersection. If you go left, turn to X. If right, turn to Y" it just doesn't seem very... considered. There's nothing about this kind of writing that engages the reader, unless it's to force them to draw a map I suppose.

Most of all consideration means the author works to create a story with the reader. Their job is to craft a fun experience (and difficulty plays into this), but also to guide the reader through that experience. An author doesn't win when the reader loses. A gamebook is not a competition. As you can imagine, I'm not terribly enamored with the works of Ian Livingstone.

"What spoils a gamebook for you?"

Even when books are endless corridors with malicious death paragraphs around every turn they're still a lot of fun. There's just something about the format that speaks to me. So I guess what spoils one is when it's outright unplayable. There was an entry in last year's competition called The Thing That Crawls. The writing was appealing and the rules intriguing but the book was riddled with incorrect or missing paragraph references. I tried to get around them but they were so prevalent that the book was simply impossible. It was disappointing really, because I wanted to play the book the author had intended to write.

"What is the most exciting thing about writing a gamebook?"

Seeing all the disparate pieces come together in a cohesive whole. By their nature gamebooks are written piecemeal. When'Normal Club was finished and not only told a complete story but also had a working system with all the gears in place, well, that was a mighty fine feeling.

"What is the hardest thing about writing a gamebook?"

Finding the proper balence. I wanted the readers to experience a full story: beginning, middle, and end. But there also needed to be a threat of failure or else there would be no game at all. I'm still not sure I got it right. There's only one place in'Normal Club where a blind choice leads to a game over. It's right at the climax and I felt like it gave the final encounter the necessary gravitas. But the last thing I want is for a reader to get 95% of the way through and then feel cheated because they picked choice B instead of C.

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

Be prepared. Writing a gamebook is different than writing a straightforward story. I had a strict system in place to ensure all my paragraphs would line up when it came to actually write them (that I got from you, Stuart). But I also had tons of notes working out the rule system and exploring all its variations. That way when it was time to write I could focus on the words and not have to worry about the game bits.

"What advice can you offer to anyone thinking of entering Windhammer?"

Collaborate. I got as many people as I could to playtest 'Normal Club. Not only did they make sure there were no bugs, they also came up with great solutions to some real knotty spots. I also had one very good friend, Tyler Koltak, who worked with me the whole way editing the text, and just providing a phenonmenal amount of support. My entry wouldn't have been a quarter of the book it was without his help.
"What future projects do you have that you can talk about?"

Just my Windhammer 2014 entry unfortunately. That's going to take up most of my mindspace for the next six months. But afterwards, who knows? I definitely want to do more gamebook work in the "off-season" as it were.

"What is your wish for gamebooks?"

Despite seeing a resurgence in the past couple of years gamebooks are still very much a niche genre. I'd love to see them regain the popularity they had in the 80s, and for there to be a space for them in the wider publishing world.

Philip's entry, "Normal Club" can be read online, and his blog is here.

1 comment: