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?
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. 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.