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Friday, 5 February 2016

Students talk to Reason

A while back I did an interview for Exeposé, the student newspaper of Exeter University. As it deals with a couple of my main interests (comics and interactive fiction) I thought I'd reproduce it here. The picture is me dressed as Reason at my wife-to-be's "Come as a God" party a good few years ago. Why the pistol? Because you can't argue with Reason.

We notice that you studied Physics at university. How did you go from that to what you are doing now?

I’d have done an English degree too if I’d had the time. I’ve always been on that cusp between art and science, could never quite make up my mind to go for one or the other. That probably explains why I’ve ended up gravitating towards the games industry, where I can indulge my passions for storytelling, visual design, logic, physics and maths all at once.

What attracted you to graphic novels? What do they give writers and readers that traditional books don’t?

If you look at it from a practical point of view, some stories are easier to tell visually. Like if you are creating a completely new world without any real-world references – Avatar, say. If you did that as a novel you’d have to bombard the reader with great chunks of descriptive prose – ugh. At the same time, you might not want to do it as a movie because your story needs more space and depth than you can fit into two hours. Or, of course, you might not have a quarter of a billion dollars to spend.

In fact, though, I never think it through in that kind of detail. You just start working on a story and you either feel it’s right for prose or you start blocking it out in comic panels in your head. Your muse decides for you whether it’s going to be a graphic novel.

As for what graphic novels have that traditional books don’t – well, what does painting have that music doesn’t? They’re different, both equally to be cherished as modes of expression.

Do you have a favourite graphic novel? If so, why?

Wow – I wouldn’t know where to start, I read so many. I like the works of Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Alison Bechdel, Posy Simmonds, Matt Kindt, Alan Moore… A bunch of diverse comics creators who don’t have anything much in common, except that they rarely disappoint.

If I’m going to pick my desert island read it’d be Neil Gaiman’s tour-de-force run on The Sandman. That’s an opus of around 1500 pages, so if you want to dip in, start with the collections Dream Country and Fables and Reflections.

Do you think graphic novels are taken seriously enough as a form of literature?

Not in the UK, that’s for sure. Here, a graphic novel has to be freighted with literary significance for critics to get past their aversion to the medium. Like, I was looking at the Guardian yesterday and they had a full-page review of Chris Ware’s latest graphic novel. Now, I’m not disrespecting Ware’s work – he’s very talented, and I like that comics are a rich, broad tapestry with room for all kinds of story. But as Wiki says, “His works explore themes of social isolation, emotional torment and depression.” And that’s why the Guardian will review him and wouldn’t touch 300, say. UK critics don’t know how to read comics; they don’t have a cultural lineage to fit them into. So they view them with the classic cocktail of fear, loathing and fascination. And so the only graphic novels they review seriously are the ones that fit really in an illustrated literary tradition rather than being unashamedly comics.

I don’t want to get too parochial about this because all writers work internationally these days, but Britain punches way above its weight in comics. You’ve got Gaiman, Moore, Ellis, Millar, Ennis, Quitely – too many to list, and many of them among the most successful in the profession. But they’re all working mostly outside the UK because comics here are barely a cottage industry. And the problem with that is it makes it difficult to get a British voice and sensibility across in comics. Those writers and artists have all had to adapt their style to the American market to some extent.

It’s very different in France, where four out of every ten books sold are graphic novels. You can go to a bande dessinée convention and you’ve got whole families there – kids, teens, parents, all reading graphic novels. And because of that there’s a nicely diverse range of genres: thrillers, rom-com, whodunits, science fiction. It’s not all superheroes and zombies.

You often work in collaboration with other writers and artists, what do you enjoy about these collaborations and what do you find more challenging? Has there been a collaboration that has been particularly interesting for you?

Actually, the truth is that my name may be alongside somebody else’s on the cover, but I rarely collaborate that closely. I’ve worked on a lot of series where I’ve split the writing chores with partners, but we usually have a quick consultation and then get stuck into our own individual books.

Comics like Mirabilis are the exception. Those are interesting precisely because the creative collaboration is so challenging. For example, I grew up on movies and Marvel comics, so all my layouts for Mirabilis are informed by that. But the penciller, Leo Hartas, is more influenced by illustrated books and European stuff like Tintin and The Beano. So sometimes it feels like we’re coming from opposite ends of the spectrum. I go for sexy, dark, dramatic with close ups, upshots and wide angles; he goes for funny, sweet, diagrammatic with medium shots, flat/diorama staging, and so on. But that cycle of thesis, antithesis, synthesis can throw up some nice creative surprises, I think.

A lot of your work makes literature an active experience, and puts the reader in charge. What do you hope to achieve by giving the reader a central part?

Only what any writer wants – a connection. An emotional reaction. That’s why the interactivity in Frankenstein isn’t about solving the plot, it’s about the relationship you develop with Victor and his creature. The choices you make affect their degree of empathy, alienation and – most importantly – the extent to which they trust you. That affects how much of himself Victor will reveal to you, for instance. Whether it works or not is up to readers to judge, but I think there’s never been a book anything like it before – and it’s nice when an author gets to say that.

It’s true that I’m interested in ways to make story worlds that people can interact with to discover or create their own narratives. But I think videogames are a better place to do that than interactive literature. I’m just using books (book apps, that is) as a test-bed to try out some ideas first.

Do you think it is difficult to adapt such a well-established story? Has it been well received?

Very well received, especially among younger readers (I mean teen and up) who probably wouldn’t crack open a 200-year-old novel if they’re not doing an Eng Lit course. Frankenstein is one of the modern world’s defining myths, a story that everyone thinks they know but one that is rarely read in the original. I hope my version will encourage more people to take a look at it.

Now the but: it was well received for a book that was only released on iPad and iPhone. I’m working on epub3 and Kindle versions but it was a big mistake not to bring those out at the same time. Lots of people were seeing the reviews ( had a nice one, incidentally, saying “it may be the best interactive fiction yet” – though admittedly the competition is not fierce) but couldn’t read it because they had Android tablets. But, you know, I don’t get to direct the publishing strategy. Unfortunately.

The adaptation wasn’t hard because, seminal work though Frankenstein is, it’s pretty much the worst classic novel ever written. I should qualify that. Mary Shelley was eighteen years old when she wrote it, and I certainly don’t want anyone seeing my teenage scribblings. On the other hand, she revised it in her thirties and only made it stodgier – and didn’t fix some glaring plot holes. So I felt completely free to take liberties with the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with Austen or the Brontës, say.

The end result is that my version is much more modern. There’s a lot of Mary Shelley’s prose still in there, but I fleshed out the characterization and the relationships as we’d expect in a novel these days, and I went for a pastiche style which feels 19th century in spirit but might flow a little easier to today’s readers. A large part of that is because I cut all Shelley’s travelogue stuff. Boy, she really padded that thing with chunks of a Grand Tour guide book.

Oh, and I set the action in Paris during the Revolution. That’s because Mary Shelley had Victor creating the monster in 1792, but for some reason had him at university in Ingolstadt – which seemed a bit of a waste of a rather wonderfully serendipitous dramatic setting.

Do you see interactive creations such as Frankenstein as the future of the publishing industry?

Not in the slightest! Take Amis writing Time’s Arrow. He didn’t think, “Now all novels will be written backwards.” My version of Frankenstein is an experiment, that’s all. Literature has always been experimenting and always will. But God help us if publishers suddenly start churning out “classics interactive”.

With the growth of the digital publishing industry, how do you think the issue of piracy will be handled?

Publishing is going to have to learn to get along with digital piracy, unless they have a trick up their sleeve that the music industry didn’t. But it’s not all bad news. We need to look at ways to extend the usual revenue model – slipcase editions with extras, for example, and pre-subscribed serials. Digital can be seen as part of the wide mouth of the funnel that draws paying customers in, whether or not they pay for the digital experience itself.

Do you have any exciting plans for the future?

Fabled Lands LLP, my company with Jamie Thomson, Frank Johnson and Tim Gummer, owns the Dark Lord series, co-created by the two of us and written by Jamie, which won the Roald Dahl Prize and has appeared as a comic strip by Dan Boultwood in The Phoenix. And we have a couple of new series that are about ready to go in book form. We tend to use print as a springboard for properties that we want to go on to develop in other media, which is either cynically manipulative or far-sighted depending on how much of a fiction purist you are.

Add to that my ongoing work on Mirabilis – which was conceived as a 260-page graphic novel saga but is growing to more like a target of 800 pages. And I have a long-cherished videogame project for kids that would be built around forging a real relationship with the characters. So I have more exciting projects than I have time to work on them, that’s for sure.

What would be your dream mash-up novel?

I love mash-ups in music. Have you heard the Arcade Fire v Blondie one? Or that sublime moment in The Sopranos where you realize that, yes, they really are crashing the Peter Gunn theme into “Every Breath You Take”. Oh, and as a role-player I have to give an honourable mention to “Roll a D6” even though strictly speaking it’s a cover spoof, not a mash-up.

So I love that stuff, and I think mash-ups like that are a great modern art form. But (sorry) I have to say that mash-up novels aren’t books, they’re just marketing gimmicks. That “this meets that” thing was always just a formula to get the attention of the dumbest guy in the room. Why, if mash-ups work so well in music and art, do they come across so lame in storytelling? (And, yes, I do mean you, Cowboys and Aliens. Or anything "vs" anything, come to that.) You’d think it would be the easiest medium to do a mash-up in. Maybe that’s the problem. It always feels like creativity by numbers.

But I don’t want to end on a negative note, so let’s take a look at some great mash-up movie trailers. Must Love Jaws and 10 Things I Hate About Commandments are over eight years old but they still haven’t been bettered. Sheer genius.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Fabled Lands launching on Kindle

We've been planning for some time to get the Fabled Lands books out in digital form, so it was great when the Amazon Kindle team reached out to us late last year to make that a reality. Turns out there are some big gamebook fans over there at their offices in the Evergreen State. They've been thinking for some time that the FL books would be perfect for the Kindle and offered to do the work with us to convert them.

Fast forward a couple of months and here we are about to release The War-Torn Kingdom as an interactive ebook. If this one is as well received as we and Amazon are hoping, you can expect to see the rest of the series rolling out over the next few months. And of course you don't actually need to own a Kindle to play these books - they'll run on the Kindle App for any device.

The text has been revised for this edition. There are no major new quests or anything, but the prose is tighter as befits a 21st century reincarnation of the books. If you want to check it out for yourself, the book goes on sale tomorrow but you should pre-order right now as it may not stay at that special introductory price forever.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Eternal Escape

If gamebooks have a future, works like Metahuman Inc and 80 Days point to that future being in digital format. With all the advantages you can see why. It's easier to give readers a free sample. The device keeps track of any stats and variables so you can stay immersed in the story. The text can adapt to the choices you make in a way that a print gamebook, contrained by the physical limit on the number of paragraphs, cannot do.

This week we got wind of a new digital gamebook called Eternal Escape that's being funded on Indiegogo. You can read more about it here and play the demo here.

Evgeny Nesterov and his development team promise a 2000+ section adventure with a strong story hook. You wake up in a dank cell. Your memory has gone; you don't know who you are or how you got here. There's a 400-year-old statue with your face. And among the characters wh might help, hinder or eat you is a seven-foot ant called Tal. Who are you going to trust? It sounds like "Alice Cooper in Wonderland"! The campaign runs just one month, so jump over there and see for yourself.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

A gamebook giveaway

As a follow-up to the launch of the large-format Fabled Lands books, Jamie and I have two copies of The War-Torn Kingdom to give away.

All you have to do to win one of these large format books is go here and watch Marco Arnaudo's review of the Critical IF books - which is no hardship because his reviews are brilliantly entertaining and it's worth watching them all.

Every entrant has a chance of winning one of the new books; a 3 on 3d6 should about do it. So a critical, to you GURPS players out there.

But wait - that's not all. The Kindle edition of War-Torn Kingdom is coming out next Friday (Feb 5) and you can pre-order that right here.

And you thought Christmas was over...

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Big issue

Here's something I didn't anticipate when I outlined Fabled Lands Publishing's plans for 2016: a new large format (8" x 10") edition of the existing FL books.

How it came about is that later in the year we're hoping to publish a paperback version of the new book, The Serpent King's Domain. And then Jamie and I realized we couldn't only do a 6" by 8" edition. What about all the FL readers who bought the original large format books back in the '90s - you're going to want book 7 to match those, am I right?

So as a kind of experiment, seeing as we have the text files already edited, we're releasing new 8" by 10" versions of the original books, starting with The War-Torn Kingdom and Cities of Gold and Glory. Now hang on, though. Don't rush out and buy these if you're already happy with the editions you've got. There's no new content here. And we haven't been able to duplicate the fold-out covers of the original Pan Macmillan editions; even though print on demand has come a long way, it isn't there yet. But if you had an incomplete collection of 8" x 10" books and prefer that format, now's your chance. Oh, and these new editions feature Russ's regional maps in full glorious colour, so there is that.

Take your pick. The new large format edition...

...or the 2010 standard paperback:

Friday, 15 January 2016

Duty calls

GURPS 4e is the rule set of choice in my gaming group. I don’t like everything about it (fights take up way too much time without actually feeling terribly exciting) but there’s lots of interesting debate to be had when you shine a light into the obscure nooks and crannies of the system.

Just one example. Characters can take a Duty. This is a disadvantage of variable points value; by taking it you get points to spend on attributes or skills. The more likely a Duty is to apply during a game, the more it’s worth. You get extra points if it’s extremely hazardous (ie you are at constant risk of death) and also if it’s involuntary. An involuntary Duty is one where the character has no choice in the matter. Their actions are coerced by threats to loved ones, mind control, or a curse.

One of the players in our Victorian campaign took a character who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He argued that the Duty should count as involuntary and extremely hazardous:
"Since the penalty for abrogation of this duty is court-martial, punishable possibly by death (and the utter shame and ruin of his entire family and tarnishing of the reputation by association of his circle of friends) I think his duty is pretty much involuntary. 'Enforced by threats to you or your loved ones...' – GURPS 4e page134."
My counter to that was that the whole point about involuntary Duty is it's enforced – the cartel have a gun to your wife's head, the terrorists have strapped a bomb to you, that kind of deal. If you ask a British RN officer in the 1890s why he is carrying out his duties, he's not going to say, "I don't want to, but the British government are holding my life and family honour to ransom." So it's voluntary. The GURPS Compendium explains it pretty well:
Duty (Involuntary; an extra -5 points) Some duties are enforced by threats, threats to loved ones, or by exotic methods of mind control. Such a forced duty can result in difficult decisions or surprising insights for the affected character. An involuntary Duty would not include military service by draft (although service by impressment, as practiced by the British navy of the 18th century, would qualify), nor any other "normal" service. Only cases where life or sanity are directly at stake qualify.
The player disagreed. (When do they not, when character points are at stake?)
"It is involuntary! What you're talking about is Sense of Duty, which makes him feel he wants to do it. But he has no choice, and if he should be given an order with which he disagrees, or is too afraid to carry out, the true nature of the duty is clear. It's not just imprisonment or a broken relationship with his patron he has to deal with afterwards. Plenty of the fellows who sign up for the armed forces will attest to the level of choice they have. If it were WW1 and he were in the army, I don't think you'd try and sustain your case. The overwhelming horror of enforced duty tearing against the survival instinct is pretty well documented."
Sense of Duty is indeed another, quite different character trait in the GURPS rules. It’s mental, not social, and bears on whether you feel you ought to carry out the duty. This is where it gets interesting. Because all duties must have some degree of either voluntary or involuntary internal compulsion. That’s what the extra -5 points for an involuntary Duty is all about. But does the GURPS rulebook insist that all voluntary Duties are accompanied by a Sense of Duty? No. It is perfectly possible to take a voluntary Duty without having a Sense of Duty.

And quite right too. I know people who were in the British armed forces, ordinary squaddies who joined straight from school. If they had failed to do their duty they could in theory have been court-martialled and imprisoned, but I don’t think that was any kind of motivating factor. They did their duty voluntarily and effectively without any overwhelming sense of duty (a typically British mentality!). They were conscientious, but when they got a better offer they quit the services and did that instead.

The acid test for an involuntary Duty would be "can you resign?" In almost all modern armed forces you can. Being press-ganged on a pirate ship or British navy vessel of the mid-18th century are notable exceptions. A Royal Navy lieutenant of the 1890s is not, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the same boat.

It begs another question: why are involuntary Duties worth -5 pts more anyhow? A person who is coerced into doing his duty is less effective than somebody who does it voluntarily. Also, involuntary Duty could be lifted by removing the coercion. "We have your wife and kids safe, sir. You can put down that gun." So you'd think involuntary Duty would be less of a disadvantage, points-wise.

The player had also claimed his Duty as a naval officer to be “extremely hazardous”, which the GURPS 4e rules define thus:
Extremely Hazardous: You are always at risk of death or serious injury when your Duty comes up. There are significant penalties if you refuse to take these risks: dismissal in disgrace, imprisonment, perhaps even death. The GM has the final say as to whether a given Duty is “extremely hazardous” in his campaign.
You can see why that would be worth extra points, at least. And certainly if the lieutenant failed to do his duty he would face the possibility of disgrace, imprisonment or death. (In point of fact, the standard penalty for failure to do one’s duty in the Royal Navy is up to two years’ imprisonment, but that only if the court finds you deliberately at fault.)

But that’s mere plot detail. What interests me about this is the whole question of volition when carrying out a duty. Reading Sassoon on his moral objections to the Great War, or Max Hastings on his various relatives' reactions to fighting at the front shows there's a stew of motivations and conflicts going on there. Did the Twin Towers attackers act voluntarily? If you asked them, they'd probably have said yes, this way lies paradise. But the truth was, how could they back out? To do so would mean not just facing retribution from their al-Qaeda commanders - that's nothing, it probably never crossed their minds - but the much scarier prospect of sweeping away a whole bunch of simplistic beliefs on which their entire identities were built. So I'd say they probably had both involuntary (sic) Duty and Sense of Duty. Humans are wonderfully screwed up pieces of work, aren’t they?

There are a lot of interesting and complex aspects to dutiful behaviour, and we can hardly expect a set of game rules to get to grips with them. But it’s fascinating to come across these questions, discovering all kinds of philosophical and moral matters lurking amid the numbers and mechanics, and the fact that I am continually able to do so is one of the things I love most about role-playing.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Harry Potter vs Huckleberry Finn

There's an article by Colleen Gillard over on The Atlantic that raises some interesting points. Ms Gillard's contention is that British kids' literature is more fantastical than American, and that the innate pragmatism and Puritanism in the American soul means that fantasy fiction produced there is less magical, more practical. It's the difference, I suppose, between a wizard and a "magic-user".
'...the difference between the countries may be that Americans “lack the kind of ironic humor needed for questioning the reliability of reality”...
Well, maybe. Although if you read Steinbeck's story "The Affair at 7 Rue de M — "or "Miriam" by Truman Capote, or anything at all by Ray Bradbury, you may feel that there's no one-size-fits-all here. And after all, wasn't the colonization of fantasy by logic and taxonomy begun by Tolkien, as British a writer as they come?
“American stories are rooted in realism; even our fantasies are rooted in realism." 
The debate will rage on, but Colleen Gillard has hit on a kernel of truth here, I suspect. At any rate, it's well worth taking a look at the piece and, if you have any thoughts on the subject, jump in and join the discussion below.