Once upon a time, in a used bookstore in Houston, I came across a book called The Seven Serpents by Steve Jackson. The back cover proclaimed:
The fate of the land of Kakhabad is in YOUR hands!
Seven deadly and magical serpents speed ahead of you to warn the evil Archmage of your coming. Will you be able to catch them before they get there?
Two dice, a pencil and an eraser are all you need for this adventure—YOU decide which paths to take, which dangers to risk and which monsters to fight.
I was an ordinary fantasy-reading middle schooler, and I'd had the requisite run-ins with Choose Your Own Adventure books for kids, but the idea of a book that you could play like a game entranced me. Not only did you have to make decisions to try to fulfill the book's quest, it came with simple roleplaying statistics, a spellbook, and a combat system. There were even dice rolls printed on the bottoms of the pages so you could "randomly" flip through for your 2d6 (I got good at flipping to the boxcars on my combat rolls.) My sister and I almost wore the book out playing it. And then we searched for years for the others in the series, since The Seven Serpents, while it could be played as a standalone, was book three of four.
We went on to read other gamebooks. A lot of them came from the popular Fighting Fantasy series. We also discovered others, such as a book from Gary Gygax's Sagard the Barbarian series, Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands series, and sets of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gamebooks that you played against a partner, perfect for two siblings to while away a slow afternoon with. Even today I maintain a small collection, and my sister a much larger one that I peruse whenever I visit her. I'd fallen in love with science fiction and fantasy by middle school, and a lot of these gamebooks took place in SF/F settings. (There are also romance and erotica gamebooks, but I didn't run across them when I was a teenager.)
What made the experience different from just reading a regular book was being able to guide the action, like making a choice in a game. Different choices led to different consequences. In some gamebooks, a simple algorithm enabled you to run combat, and your character could die; others included puzzles that you had to solve to figure out which reference to turn to to continue the adventure. The sense of hazard—even fictional hazard—made the experience particularly engrossing. I sometimes worry for the fate of characters in regular novels, but I really worry for my fate when I'm playing one of these. I'm still determined to solve Keith P. Phillips's Siege of Sardath, which killed me every single time I played it in high school, without cheating. (Admittedly it was annoying when I learned that a typo in my copy made winning it impossible.)
Interactive fiction (IF) also often relies on this interplay between receiving text (descriptions of the setting, items you might be able to use, puzzles or hazards to negotiate, characters to interact with) and acting upon that text. When an IF gives me a description of a room, I have to actively pay attention to the text for clues as to what to do to advance the game. A well-written IF will use its prose to suggest what's important and what's not; in general, things that are implemented in great detail are probably significant, while something that you can't interact with can safely be ignored.
I made a few abortive attempts to write short gamebooks as a child. However, I didn't have a great sense of how to structure them, and I gave it up for a while. In particular, mapping out the story paths in anything longer than a few pages quickly became complicated. I attempted to map the story paths in gamebooks I owned (e.g., from Space Assassin by Andrew Chapman, from section 1, you can choose 20, 58, 77, or 39; from 20, you have to fight a robot and die if you lose, but if you win you continue to 300, etc.) and rapidly ran out of paper. In retrospect, I should have started with something less ambitious than a full-length gamebook!
Years later, my sister discovered interactive fiction and shared its delights with me. We were too young to have gotten in on the glory days of text adventures like Zork, but a small community had kept the form alive. Three IFs I remember playing early on were Emily Short's Pytho's Mask, a romance and court adventure set in a lush fantasy world; Andrew Plotkin's Shade, a surreal one-room manifesto and mystery; and Dan Schmidt's lyrical For a Change, which begins with the memorable lines, "The sun has gone. It must be brought. You have a rock."
The IF community had a lot of free resources for creating games, and were very friendly to those who wanted to get involved. I jumped in and wrote a game using a programming language called Inform 6, The Moonlit Tower. It was very much a first effort—in particular, puzzle design is not one of my strengths—but I had a lot of fun putting it together, and some people enjoyed it. There was something magical about coding a world—well, the illusion of the world—and compiling it and trying out different things, then going back in to code responses to actions the player might attempt. (The command "XYZZY" may have been one of the first things I coded!)
Gamebooks and IFs are frequently written in the second person because the player is the one making the decisions. One of the side effects of this, perhaps unintended, was that they sometimes made it easier for me to insert myself into the narrative as a player. I'm trans and identify as male, although I was not out about this for many years. The second person doesn't imply the absence of specific characterization. You might be asked to take on the role of a mystical lawyer in a world of demons and undead (Choice of the Deathless by Max Gladstone) or an interstellar freedom fighter (Rebel Planet by Robin Waterfield). In some, like Joe Dever's Lone Wolf gamebooks, the protagonist is very specific—in this case, a boy from a martial arts community who survives a massacre and goes on a quest for vengeance. In Terry Phillips's The Soulforge, you even get the chance to step into the shoes of Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series. But enough of them didn't specify the player's gender that it didn't matter, and some allowed you to pick your name and gender. Similarly, a number of them were silent on the player's other attributes, like skin color or sexuality. My sister and I could both play the same games our own way.
Some time later, Failbetter Games (you may know them for their games Fallen London and Sunless Sea) invited me to submit a proposal for a game for their StoryNexus platform. StoryNexus allowed me to use some mechanics similar to those of Fallen London. I created Winterstrike using what I'd learned from playing Fallen London to figure out a way to form a compelling narrative with the gameplay elements at hand.
Winterstrike takes place in the science-fantastical city of Iria. People go by male or female or nonbinary (they/them pronouns), as they please. So the non-player characters (NPCs) in the setting were male and female and nonbinary. But one of the simple things I did to reinforce this bit of worldbuilding was to give the player the choice of how they wanted to be addressed in the game. This has no real mechanical effect. All it does is set how you are gendered in the character status sidebar. I would have liked to have NPCs address the character by their chosen honorific in-game, but I couldn't figure out how to do this in the allotted time. (I am a terrible coder.) Nevertheless, when I looked at some players' reactions to the game, I saw that even such a minimal accommodation meant a lot to them.
Narrative games—whether gamebooks, Zork-like parser IF, web games like Fallen London, or platforms like Twine or Inkle—are about the illusion of choice. It's not possible to provide complete choice for the simple reason that the author of a finite work can't anticipate and code/write in every possible action the player might attempt. Honestly, the closest solution for people wanting that experience is probably still tabletop roleplaying games or live-action roleplaying. As Dan Fabulich of Choice of Games points out:
Traditional gamebooks tend to be pretty short. The average story in a 110-page book in the most popular 'choose a path' series is only six pages long.
It’s not hard to see why. If each page of a choose-a-path book allows the reader to choose between just two options, a seven-page story requires 128 pages of text. If you want eight pages, the author has to deliver twice as much text, 256 pages. And if you want to write a twenty-page short story, you need a book more than a million pages long.
When creating choices is so expensive for the author, it's important to focus on the ones that matter most to their vision. In a work about court intrigue, conversational options, diplomacy, and seduction might be especially important. In a traditional dungeon hack, combat may matter more. And sometimes what isn't specified is just as important as what is, because lacunae allow the player to exist in the interstices.
So the author is left deciding what kinds of choices to offer the player and what kind of agency is important to the work they have conceived. As both a player and an author, the question of agency in gameplay is especially interesting because it's something that is absent from static fiction—conventional fiction with (usually) linear narratives. The sense of identification I feel when playing a well-designed gamebook or IF is stronger because, within the limitations of the design, I'm choosing my own experience.
Sometimes the nature of that experience requires that the player imagine themselves as a home-schooled girl preparing for a spelling bee (Emily Short's Bee), as a stranded alien seeking to return home (Lynnea Glasser's Colaratura), as an artisan in thrall to an empress who reifies tyranny (Porpentine's With Those We Love Alive). Important and beautiful stories have been told using such specifics. But the joy of narrative games is that they offer the opportunity to reflect and accommodate the identities of different kinds of players all in the same space. I doubt that Steve Jackson was specifically thinking that a trans queer Korean American could step into the world of Kakhabad and fight off the Seven Serpents. But nothing in the book prevented me from doing so, either, and I'll always be grateful for that welcome.
NOTE: For those interested in experimenting with gamebooks or IF, I recommend exploring Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling, the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, sub-Q, and the Windhammer Prize for short gamebook fiction. For those interested in writing IF, some popular tools include Inform 7, TADS, inklewriter, ChoiceScript, and Twine, among others.
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