IF Comp’s coming up soon. Guess it’s time to blow the dust off the ol’ blog. Let’s see, what have I been playing lately? Mario & Luigi Dream Team: fun if samey. Writing isn’t as crisp as previous entries. NPC dialog is especially dire. SMT IV: was enjoying it a lot but lost interest when I got to Tokyo. I donno, I’ll come back to it soon. Presentation is out of this world, especially considering it’s all talking heads. The 3DS is turning into quite the little system, if you didn’t know. Great year for it. Luigi’s Mansion 2 was incredible. So full of personality and charm. It’s basically everything I ever want in a game. Dark Souls is eating up a lot of my mindspace. It also is everything I want: deep, subtle, engrossing. But I don’t play it much because it’s so intense. I literally walk away from play sessions shaking, so I tend to have month-long hiatuses between bouts of playing. I just got to Anor Londo this week and I’m having dreams of pristine empty corridors and metal giants. Maybe another hiatus is due.
Okay, enough of that. The real reason I’m resurrecting this blog is I want to talk about gamebooks. I’ve gotten into them in a big way this year. I would like to say “gotten back into them” but I never had a lot of experience with them as a youth. I played one of the Gray Star books and I’m pretty sure I had a copy of Cities of Gold and Glory (I vividly remember the cover, if none of the contents), but otherwise I didn’t know gamebooks were a thing. “Gamebooks?” you may be asking? “What are you going on about?” Well, my imaginary, ignorant friend, gamebooks are like Choose Your Own Adventure novels, but with stats and inventories and dice rolls. Lots and lots of dice rolls. They were big in the 80’s (especially in the UK and Australia), then faded away as video games became more sophisticated. But in the past couple of years they’ve seen a reemergence. Mobile OS platforms are a great fit for them, there have been several wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns for new books, and there’s even a small but passionate amateur community online.
I don’t know why I’m so attracted to gamebooks in this age of big production game experiences or deep play like in Dark Souls. The writing in them is almost uniformly terrible, and the “gameplay” aspect is riddled with problems. There’s just something about the combination of CYOA “you are in control of the action” decision making and stats-keeping pulls me in. I find even the worst gamebooks fascinating. There’s just something about them.
One reason why I’m so intrigued is that video games have solved every problem inherent in the gamebook format. Video games offer better choices, in a more natural fashion, and can do it with more substance and style. But they also have the freedom to do so. Gamebooks are constrained by their non-digital format. Everything they offer has to be on the page. (Obstinately, that is. There’s a compelling case for using digital platforms to expand what gamebooks can do. But then, at what point do they stop being gamebooks are start being video games? Is Dave Morris’s Frankenstein a gamebook, or is it IF? Certainly there’s been an increase of CYOA style games in the past few years of IF Comp, and some (like Howling Dogs) use the format to surprising effect.)
I like that restriction. Just because video games seemingly invalidate gamebook’s purpose doesn’t mean that gamebooks don’t have inherent worth. Those physical media problems are worth solving. Questions like “what place do dice and randomness have in gamebooks?” “what constitutes good gamebook writing?” and “just what is the format’s inherent value, if it exists at all?” fascinate me. Despite the format’s old age (maybe genre is the better word, I don’t know), gamebooks are still in their infancy. They primarily tend to be dungeon crawls or fantasy adventures with strings of unrelated encounters. On a whole, there’s little separating this year’s Temple of the Spider God from 1982’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (obviously, an over-exaggeration, there’s a wealth of details distinguishing the two. But they’re both fantasy quests, both centered around collecting items and fighting monsters, both focused on action and setting rather than character or story or message). That’s not intended to be a criticism, just an observation on how little has changed. But just as Interactive Fiction progressed from treasure hunts to rich works like Photopia, I see the same potential in gamebooks.
Informing this impression is the growing online gamebook community. For years now there’s been amateur adventures published on enthusiast websites or in fanzines, but what is really exciting is Arborell.com’s Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction. For the past five years this steadily growing competition has filled the same role as IF Comp: it is a space for authors to exhibit their work and an incentive to write, the competitive nature promotes innovation, and the communal aspect fosters discussion. Last year had 22 entries, and I’m sure this year will see even more. I can hardly wait for it to begin. Just like I do for IF Comp, I plan on reviewing this year’s submissions. But unlike IF Comp, I’ve actually written an entry for Windhammer.
Warning: self-indulgent navel gazing ahead.
I’m not sure how candid I should be regarding my entry, so I will follow precedent and refrain from discussing details until the competition is over. I will say that writing it was more rewarding than I had anticipated. Unlike IF which requires a modicum of programming know-how, writing a gamebook requires no special tools or knowledge beyond a willingness to adhere to format conventions. As long as one is willing to divide their fiction into non-linear sections and create some element of game (character building, inventory management, etc.) they can write a gamebook. Personally, this was a creative output I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.
When, as a child, I discovered IF and JRPGs I longed to create my own games. I would draw maps in my notebooks and invent scenarios in my head. Though I would pester my schoolchums to sit down and run through my games, I never got into tabletop roleplaying. Adhering to set rules/settings felt like restrictions on my creativity, and a lack of interested friends meant opportunities to run sessions were rare. What’s more, I didn’t want to create fleeting D&D adventures, I wanted to create the same kind of lasting fictions that existed in my favorite games.
Eventually I grew out of this phase and wrote it off as an indulgence of childhood. I realized I didn’t really want to make games, the tedium of programming and creating assets and all that. I just wanted to be creative. So I focused on film and comics. But writing this gamebook brought back the same energy and sense of freedom that I felt when I made my own paper-JRPGs and IF maps. Here, I could write anything I wanted, indulge my own sense of taste, and not conform to any set of restrictions (except the aforementioned format conventions, of which I was more than happy to engage with). I’m sure static fiction writers feel the same creative satisfaction when creating their stories. But I’ve always been interested in interactive storytelling, and writing this gamebook felt like the right fit. Like I’d finally found the creative expression that suited me best.
I want to be a gamebook writer is what I’m saying. Upon completing my Windhammer entry I immediately felt the need to start another, despite not having a platform for it. I’ve never felt that way regarding fiction before. During writing, I conceived of at least four other gamebook concepts I’d love to explore. I want Windhammer to succeed, and the community to grow so there is a space for me to publish. I want to share and innovate and explore gamebook’s potential. Is that selfish? Part of me feels like it is. Of course, I could continue to write gamebooks on my own, keep them on my hard drive, and show them only to my friends and family. But I feel an affinity for this format. I don’t want to keep it under a bushel.
That’s a long and rambley way of saying that I think gamebooks are pretty cool. I’m still going to write up IF Comp like I do every year, but regular readers (?) should expect more about gamebooks in the near future.