Monday, April 28, 2014

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)

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