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The Future of Gamebooks?


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?

350px-FFmain

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.

Imagine 22 cover

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. Imagine #22 featured 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.

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  1. Graham Bottley
    May 14, 2015 at 11:05 am

    When i sell the latest run of FF gamebooks at conventions, i sell more to children than i do to adults. However, you are correct in that these are due to “inherited nostalgia” rather than brand new.
    It doesn’t help that you cannot find the books in bookshops any more. I spent quite a lot of effort trying to get a major bookshop chain to carry the FF books again, but the publishers didn’t seem to put much effort in, so it all fizzled out.
    I think that there is huge scope to be made from the educational aspect of gamebooks. They encourage reading and problem solving, and because they are more popular with boys than girls, and that boys need more encouragement to read, there could be a place there.

    It needs, i think, a huge drive by the publishers though, and if they don’t see a huge market, they won’t try.

  2. May 14, 2015 at 11:17 am

    My “Click Your Poison” series is a novel-length interactive fiction series written for grown-ups. Suffice it to say, I strongly believe a gamebook resurgence is possible, especially for an adult market.

    If you’re so inclined, you can see the three books I have out on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/James-Schannep/e/B0094AZ9QM

  3. May 14, 2015 at 11:19 am

    I think the boy-vs-girl thing may even out in this generation. Back in the 80s fantasy was definitely a boy thing, and the few products aimed at girls (such as TSR’s Heartquest) felt condescending. Plus they were produced by publishers who didn’t really know how to market to girls and I think they didn’t get the best distribution. These days, though, girl-oriented and gender-neutral marketing seems to be better, and girls are more of an audience for fantasy and games than they were a generation ago.

    • May 14, 2015 at 11:31 am

      Agreed. I do my utmost to make my protagonists gender-neutral.

  4. May 14, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Yes, books are going out of fashion. My publisher (McFarland, one of the largest independents, 400+ books a year) says they publish more books but sell less of each. I think that will continue. Online audiovisual classes (I make ones about game design) will make you more $$$, as a creator, than books will.

    Finally, the very format is changing. I recall reading some years ago about an experiment, offering kids the chance to read something in a book, or on an electronic device. The older kids went for the book, the younger ones for the device. Those young kids will be much older now . . . My wife, old enough to be a kid’s grandmother, reads more on electronic devices than in actual books. But I’m not sure an ebook would be as easy as a real book for the kind of books you’re talking about. (I missed out on the whole craze, myself, and not only because it was mainly a British craze.)

  5. May 14, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Reblogged this on Lloyd of Gamebooks.

  6. May 15, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    At a used book sale, I picked up about 10 D&D “choose your own adventure” type books. I grew up with the “choose your own” craze, and the books hold up relatively well. My 12 year old has really gotten into them, as they’re great for a quick read in the car or the school bus.

    Among the lot I bought were two oddities. One was a Fighting Fantasy book (the 3rd I believe). That one, I played, and it was really fun to have the added dice and loot mechanics, in addition to the normal “choose your own” options. I can see why they were so popular in the UK, shame they never really got popular in the states.

    The other oddity was a fantasy “choose your own” that is geared towards girls. I’ve not read through it yet, but there seems to be a “romance” angle to the book. Will be interesting to see if it just panders to what they thought girls liked, or whether it holds up to the others!

  7. May 18, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Here’s an article from the BBC which reiterates the retro/nostalgic nature of the gamebook hobby. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28865399

  8. June 9, 2015 at 8:13 am

    Jonathan Green’s You Are The Hero (my review here: http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/solo-history.html) remains the definitive history on the subject of the Fighting Fantasy series, but I still contend that there remains to be written a good history of the phenomenon that would detail other series and titles. I can certainly remember my first foray into the genre, Mission to Planet L (part of the Tracker series), when I was ten or eleven. So the format for children goes back a lot longer than people think.

    • June 11, 2015 at 8:47 am

      The Colin Greenland article referred to in the main post includes a checklist and overview of all the gamebook series available in the UK up to the time of writing.

      If memory serves, the earliest title cited is from 1969.

  9. December 25, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    I just uploaded a scan of the Imagine magazine article mentioned in this post. It’s a snapshot of how the gamebook industry stood in early 1985. You can find the link on my Freebies page at https://graemedavis.wordpress.com/freebies/ – scroll down to the “Systemless” section.

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