Sunday, October 26, 2014

Codewords in gamebooks

Why use codewords?

Codewords are there to mark an event that has happened because it might have a consequence later on in the gamebook.  They can be used to mark many things such as things you've done, things you've learnt or friends you've made.

What codewords can you use?

Some codewords have something to do with why you got them.  For example, if you stole something, the codeword thief is used.  In Moonrunner, these words were used, but backwards.  When you read them in the gamebook, you can probably work out how you would have got them, so to a keen metagamer, these kind of codewords are clues.  Other gamebooks use completely irrelevant codewords, which give no information away, or, if the author is really devious, misleading.  One thing to point out is that having a codeword is not always good, so it's not a good (like rennur in Moonrunner).

Things you can do with codewords

In their Fabled Lands books, Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson made all of their codewords start with the same letter for each book (A for book 1, B for book 2 etc.) this gives you an indication of where you can get the codeword from, and it probably helped them a lot when they were planning out all the gamebooks at once.  They have also put all of the codewords at the end for you to tick off, rather than just write them down as they appear, so it is something for you to anticipate when you play the gamebook and also, you can aim for getting a certain number of codewords.

Also, the Crimson Tide has a neat little trick where if you follow the correct path, you will get a sequence of codewords that give you a clue as to what you do at the end.  Also, be aware that 400 is not the successful ending.  That's a devilish trick.

Items as codewords

There are some items that you obtain purely to mark that something has happened, such as the crystal pendant in Lone Wolf 2 (yes, they are all free online, so don't spend lots of money on book 28 for Kai's sake).  Anyway, an item could be a more physical version of a codeword, and may have other uses, for example, if someone sees the crystal star pendant, then they will know that you are friends with Banedon.  Siege of Sardath also uses items as codewords - in their case, it has rings with numbers associated with them to show that you have made friends with the elves and the dwarves.  In most cases, the item could be replaced with a codeword, but items have a difference feel to codewords.  They are less abstract.  However, if you lose the item as codeword, then things might break down.  You will have to work out which items are more important because of what they represent rather than your actual possession of them (so you could replace the option with 'If you were given a crystal star pendant, turn to x', but then I guess you could just say 'If you met Banedeon in book 1, turn to x').

codewords in apps

The thing with apps is that a lot of what is going on can be put 'under the bonnet'.  It might also provide some surprises.  So, you may not know any more that because the guy at the market stall told you about the secret entrance to the castle that when you get to the castle, you avoid the guards.  The app no longer needs to ask you any more, because it knows that you talked to the guy and it can skip the asking you bit (which means that you don't know that it was checking in the first place) and go straight for it.  Now the question is - does that encourage more replay or less?  If you know that the app is asking you something, you will know that there is an alternative at that point, but if you know that there are alternatives, but they are hidden, you might play the game more trying to find them all.  Maybe it depends on your level of persistence?


  1. I tend to prefer hiding the codewords in an app gamebook - with the proviso that you write differently if you know that they're going to be hidden. Then, if I want the player to get a hint, I can say, "If you saw the secret plans..." whereas if I don't, I just put the switch on a Boolean that the player doesn't know about.

    The tricky thing comes in adapting old print gamebooks to app format. Do we let the player see all the options that aren't available to them because of a missing codeword or skill? The answer is probably that, to be a really good digital gamebook, the work needs to be written as digital from the start.

  2. The danger with using items as codewords is that you have to be absolutely sure the reader won't drop the item. I made this mistake once with Magehunter: possessing the ring (or somesuch) kept getting me into trouble, so I was just like, OK, before I reach the city, I'll drop the damn ring. Suddenly I'm on a completely different plotline where I'm in a different body, because the ring was just a codeword for which fork I was on.

    Another system was used in the Lost Jedi series (there were only 2 of them, both of which I rate as really good gamebooks): there were a series of tickboxes for sections which were listed in the back of the book, so if you got a password, it would tell you (say) "tick 139", you'd tick this box on the action sheet, and section 139 would have a little written reminder as to why it's ticked. These books make very extensive use of codewords to track not only distinct events, choices and friendships, but also the stage of the story when visiting certain locations (c.f. Scorpion Swamp's "If you've already been here, turn to...") The abstract number gives absolutely no information unless you're feeling cheaty enough to read the whole entry, and you've no way of knowing which numbers denote absent items/choices and which are just story progression.

    There's also a relationship between codewords and skills, yes? Particularly in the sense that they provide "choices" which aren't voluntary, and that they're usually under the hood in apps and games. Some of the later Lone Wolf books in particular would make awful apps simply because so many of the section forks depend on skills instead of choices. And a lot of the gaming strategy would be lost if the reader couldn't see which skills were being checked, which they didn't have (a bit metagamey I know, but I daresay a RL Lone Wolf would also be thinking, "damn, I wish I'd learnt Nexus to deal with this situation").

    1. Re invisible dynamics in gamebooks vs games/apps: I play both gamebooks and apps, and I used to play text adventures (remember those?) back in the day, and personally, I feel the absence of clear markers that I was missing an item or codeword at this point makes the whole experience more frustrating. It's not just that it's harder, but that I've no idea why it's harder - whether that Skill 12 Guard who keeps killing me is a typical unavoidable adversary, or whether I'm missing the item which would get me past him. If you wonder what I mean, try playing some of the old ZX Spectrum or Commodore text adventures - you are often left guessing "why did I die here", and get stuck at an early stage because you don't know what other options there are (in these games, it's often compounded by an open command system which requires you to guess which actions the computer will recognise, and how exactly to phrase them). So for instance, I got stuck about three "sections" in to Blood of Bogmole because I assumed it was the right thing to give the coin to the troll. If it was a gamebook with the options "give coin" or "jump down hole", I never would have got stuck. Similar issues with Adventure B: Inca Curse. I'd just wander around with no idea which items might be used in which places, and die to random events which might denote lack of an item but I've no idea what. The Hobbit will make no sense to anyone who doens't know the book inside out. It would be interesting to see what these games might look like as gamebooks, but I daresay they'd be much less frustrating. It's very easy to get stuck in these kinds of adventures - you can reach five, or twenty, or fifty sections, but then you can't think of anything to do which would progress the story. A good game designer needs to know how to make a situation seem workable and soluble to users - so even if you can't solve it right away, you have things to keep trying. (Of course, many people will "cheat" and use walkthroughs anyway, but if most people have to do this, it's a sign the adventure is too hard).

      I guess it's "risk of lack of replayability due to ease of completion" vs "risk of lack of replayability due to game/book being thrown across the room" :P

  3. Codewords can be a handy shortcut for the gamebook writer, especially when you have a long series of stories or events. Lone Wolf 20 is a good example of how you can get yourself tied up in knots, if you're using a more longhand method of tracking past events. The first 20 game paragraphs - a good, what, 8% of the book - is devoted to establishing what items Lone Wolf owns, who he's met, and so on. Even so, as the book goes on it makes a few assumptions about who LW has met in the past - assumptions that aren't necessarily correct. Could've been simplified with codewords.

    In the Duelmaster books, codewords are used to obscure information from other players. Rather than have to say, 'Have you already got the Sceptre of Doom (because I'm about to get it if not)', the player can simply say, 'Have you got the codeword ARISTOTLE?'

    By the by, I fully agree with Andy, above - the Lost Jedi gamebooks are excellent.