Someone from a Fighting Fantasy Facebook group just asked me whether I thought there could ever be a gamebook resurgence. Is it possible to capture the same lightning in a bottle, 30 years on? Branching novels? Other applications for the numbered-paragraph format? It’s a question I come back to every so often myself.
Here’s what I told him, based on my own experience. What does anyone else think?
The question you’re considering is one I wrestled with myself back in the 80s. The gamebook phenomenon was so huge that I was sure that there were endless applications for interactive-lit-based learning, fiction, and just about everything else. I tried a few things, from short Choose-Your-Owns for my university museum through training aids for various things, but nothing ever made it past the prototype stage.
At the time, I was mystified, and convinced that I’d missed something. Looking back, I think now that I was focusing on too small a part of the picture. Like the American rail barons who felt safe because there were no other railways but didn’t realize that railways were just one part of the transport industry, and ended up being destroyed by the growing interstates and airlines. We’re really talking about interactive storytelling.
As far as books go, I don’t think gamebooks will ever escape their origins in the young adult section. That mark will stay with them forever, and make it hard – if not impossible – for the format to be taken seriously as a form of adult literature. It’s possible to conceive of Choose-Your-Own-Adventures for adults, but I can’t escape the worry that adult readers would feel they were playing rather than reading, and that would ultimately thin the market for an interactive adult book, no matter its other qualities. But then, books are dying, or so we’re told once a year or more. With that said, though, the trusty Choose-Your-Own format is still used in some educational books for kids: for example, Capstone Press in the States has a line of “Interactive History Adventure” books. I’ve heard nothing about whether kids prefer them to standard format books, though.
Interactive storytelling is well established in the computer games world, of course, and that’s where it’s flourishing right now. Just the other day I was doing some stuff for a game developer using a program called Twine, which is basically a whiz-bang flowchart system that makes writing interactive stories a doddle. Hypertext-stack text games are an artisan-filled niche these days, but a lot of games still rely on story trees and such.
Back in the 90s, “interactive movie” was a buzzword. As well as theatrical releases, the term was also applied to computer games with a high story content, a branching narrative structure, and ambitions to artistic recognition. We never hear of them now. In games the term was tainted by overuse and frequent association with ambitious and costly failures. In movies, no one could quite get the interface right: I heard stories about cinemas fitted with voting buttons in the seat arms, but either people voted for the wierdest option just to see what would happen (or to try and break the movie), or kids rampaged up and down the aisles pressing every button they could find. Those bugs might have shaken out once the novelty wore off the format, but there was one other problem that I still can’t see a way around, and it applies to all media: in providing options, you have to create a lot more content than any one-time user will ever see. This isn’t too expensive when it’s words in a book or on a hypercard stack, but when you start talking about TV and movies it quickly becomes ruinous. You have to count on people coming back and back to try different options on a movie they’ve already seen rather than choosing to see a new movie, and it’s a very big, very expensive risk.
As to a gamebook resurgence, I think there is one currently under way, but I’m not sure that there’s a new market for gamebooks out there. What I’ve seen has been driven largely by nostalgia (including the heartwarming sight of kids enjoying the same books their parents grew up with) enabled by the community-building ability of social media and the ease of collecting offered by Ebay and other online marketplaces. Plus, of course, the ease of publishing interactive titles on ebook platforms. For a true resurgence to take place and for the medium to evolve into its next phase, gamebooks and interactive fiction/education/whatever will have to do something that makes them truly novel and interesting all over again so they can catch the imaginations of a new generation. That’s going to be a challenge, and in all honesty I haven’t a clue how that might be achieved. I’m intrigued by location-based interactives delivered via mobile devices (imagine a tour of Roman Bath, for example, with the screen showing your current location recreated in Steam or whatever, and NPCs to question about life back then), but that may just be the archaeology graduate in me. The same idea could be applied to all kinds of ARGs, and I think those may be the true successors to gamebooks, rather than a strictly literary or cinematic experience.
If you’re just talking about books, though, I can’t say I’m optimistic. Although gamebooks did exist (just about) before the 80s, the “perfect storm” of D&D/RPG frenzy, game system, and portability is what launched the phenomenon – and also made them a kid-teen product rather than an adult one. (If you can get hold of a copy or a scan of Imagine #22, there’s an article by me and Colin Greenland analyzing the gamebook phenomenon as it stood in 1985 – it might have some pointers.) Today, there are better ways to do everything gamebooks can do, and none of them involves books. To create a true gamebook resurgence – in any market – you’d need that same combination of zeitgeist-driven content, ease of use, and novelty of presentation. Whatever that might look like, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be on paper.
The next couple of months will see me finishing a batch of projects, and I still have some availability in the second half of the year. I’ve updated my resumes (link at the top of the page) so get in touch with your needs or leads.
I am particularly interested in projects involving history, myth/folklore, and historical fantasy. As well as games, I am looking to expand my work in fiction and nonfiction. I will consider tabletop game projects, but only if they pay exceptionally well. As much as I still love tabletop games, I have found it’s a very tough way to make a living.
Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll be back with something more interesting in a little while.
My Osprey book Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide was released last week. To celebrate, I’ll be posting and tweeting a fact a day for ten days: just a few of the things I discovered while researching and writing it. I’ll also be updating this post each day with a new fact. You’ll find more information in the book itself, and you may never look at this stock horror monster in quite the same way once you’ve read it. I know I don’t.
Like its companion volumes on Zombies and Vampires, Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide collects a lot of deeply-researched information gathered from all times and places and presents it in an accessible and well-organized form for gamers and general readers alike.
For more on this book:
The first review (scroll down to the Comments section for more links as I find them).
A post about Werewolves and my most recent Osprey Myths and Legends book, Theseus and the Minotaur.
1. There are five distinct types of werewolf
As I read various ancient myths and medieval trial reports, I discovered something completely unexpected: not all werewolves are the same. I finally counted five distinct types, all of which I’ve covered in detail with histories, detailed descriptions, and case studies.
The five types are:
1. Viral Werewolves;
2. Cursed Werewolves;
3. Shamanic Werewolves;
4. Sorcerous Werewolves;
5. Obsessive Werewolves.
2. The Roman Empire helped spread lycanthropy across Europe
Until the first century, viral lycanthropy was confined to a small area of eastern Europe which became the Roman provinces of Moesia and Dacia. As Roman officials, merchants, and tax gatherers opened up the region, some of them contracted the virus and spread it throughout the Roman world.
3. St. Patrick may have rid Ireland of snakes, but he created the first documented Irish werewolves
The snakes of Patrick’s legend are a metaphor for Druidism, according to some writers. Another legend tells of certain pagans who drowned out his preaching by howling like wolves – whereupon he cursed them in the name of God, and they became the first recorded werewolves in Ireland.
4. Suleiman the Magnificent purged Constantinople of werewolves in 1542
The city was so overrun with werewolves that the Ottoman Emperor called out his Janissaries to deal with the situation. Over 150 werewolves were killed in one hunt alone.
5. Russia used werewolves to destabilize Sweden in 1790
The Swedish province of Calmar was overrun by a plague of wolves in 1790. Russia and Sweden were at war, and it was rumored that at least some of the creatures were werewolves that the Russians had created using Swedish prisoners. Sweden eventually sued for peace.
6. Buffalo Bill encountered a werewolf in 1906
According to the dime novel The Wolf Demon: Or Buffalo Bill and the Barge Mystery, the great scout and showman battled a wolf-like creature in Wyoming’s Wolf River Canyon. Cody claimed it was a werewolf, though some scholars believe it was actually a skinwalker from the local Arapahoe people.
7. The “Hounds of God” were an order of werewolf witch-hunters
At his trial in 1691, one Thiess of Kaltenbrun claimed to be a Hound of God, dedicated to protecting his community from supernatural threats. The Hounds were said to conduct raids into Hell itself on three nights of the year.
8. Britain and Germany both developed werewolf special forces in WWII
Germany’s Werwulf guerillas are fairly well-known, but Britain’s Talbot Group was founded in 1941 near Llanwelly, Wales and served throughout the rest of the war.
9. Vampires may be undead werewolves
According to a Greek tradition, a dead werewolf can rise from the grave as a vampire. However, the Greek word vrykolaka can mean both werewolf and vampire, which confuses matters somewhat.
10. Benjamin Franklin organized a werewolf militia
During the American Revolution, Patriot werewolves used their wolf forms to bring back valuable intelligence on British movements and troop strengths.
I’ve just received a hardback edition of my Osprey Myths and Legends book Thor: Viking God of Thunder, published by Rosen Publishing in New York for the American schools and libraries market. It is available by itself or as part of the Heroes and Legends set, which also includes the Osprey volumes Dragonslayers, Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts, King Arthur, and Robin Hood.
The inside of the book is the same as the Osprey edition, but Rosen’s solid hardback binding makes it more durable, and it lies flat without breaking the binding and scattering pages everywhere. And Rosen’s cover design is great. It keeps Miguel Coimbra’s fantastic art of Thor battling the frost giants, but turns the god’s name into a stony logo wreathed in lightning. I’m very, very pleased with it, and it’s strangely appropriate that my comp copy should arrive on the International Day of Happiness – another thing I knew nothing about until this morning!
I enjoyed working on this book immensely, and I’ve posted about it before. Here are some links for anyone who is interested:
Rosen Publishing (Thor)
Rosen Publishing (Heroes and Legends series)
Osprey Publishing (Thor)
Early reviews (scroll down to comments for more)
A more recent review
Four years after CEO Satoru Iwata urged develpers to ignore smartphones, Nicholas Lovell’s blog on Gamasutra covers Nintendo’s change of attitude toward smart devices and explores some of the challenges they will face. The article is a good read, and although it’s not possible yet to determine exactly how Nintendo will affect the app market over the next few years, it’s certain that their effect will be significant.
I’m especially gratified to see this move taking place, since I raised the possibility myself four years ago in one of this blog’s first posts. I wonder if Iwata-san read it? I know, it’s far more likely that he studied the developing app market and tracked the increasing pressure it’s been placing on the market for dedicated gaming devices, and came to the same conclusion that I did. But still: Iwata-san, if you’re reading this, thanks for all the games, and good luck!