Gamebook store

Friday, 24 October 2014

Arcana Agency: the app version

Remember Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories? It was a gamebook by Paul Gresty, published a couple of years ago by by Megara Entertainment using funds raised on Kickstarter. Well, now it's returning as an app, which is currently in review at Apple and should be on sale within a week for iOS, with an Android version not far behind. I'll run a guest post by Paul Gresty when the app actually launches, but to warm things up here's my foreword from the 2013 print edition. 

(Where I got it wrong: gamebooks on Kickstarter are mostly not innovating; they look more '80s than the '80s! But in the digital space there is real innovation in the form of projects like 80 Days from Inkle/Meg Jayanth and Frankenstein by - modest cough - me. So quality gamebooks like The Thief of Memories do have a future, only it'll be as apps rather than expensive KS hardbacks.)

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It's generally thought that the boom time for gamebooks was the 1980s. Back then, every publisher wanted at least one gamebook series and it was hard for the small pool of authors willing to wrangle with flowcharts and rules systems to keep up with demand. But who could have imagined that, thirty years on, a first-time gamebook writer would raise the staggering sum of $130,000 – and not as advance against royalties, as publishers pay for new work, but in the form of pure patronage? For that is Kickstarter, today’s answer to François I.

The genius of Mikael Louys, founder of Megara Entertainment, has been in seeing that crowdfunding could point the way to an entirely new funding paradigm for specialist interest publications. Role-playing games and gamebooks, which would have struggled to find a market on the shelves of a bookstore, at one stroke become a very viable proposition when backed by a devoted core of aficionados.

Of course, there is rarely a new thing even in the third millennium, and Kickstarter book ventures in fact represent a return to the 18th century model of publishing whereby a subscription would be raised to pay for the writing and printing of a new work. So gamebooks may have left their ‘80s heyday behind, but reports of their extinction have been wildly exaggerated. Instead they could, alongside other hobby and genre interests, spearhead a whole new evolution in publishing.

It’s not just the financial side of gamebook publishing that’s changing. We are starting to see innovations in content too. Back in the 1980s, it was hard to convince publishers to try anything new because the standard Dungeons-and-Dragons-influenced fantasy gamebooks were selling so well. Now, that whole genre of gaming has been claimed by videogames, which will win hands down when it comes to dungeon crawls and monster bashing. Gamebooks have to get smarter. They have to evolve into new genres and styles. They must thrive by identifying the things they can do better than videogames. More complex characterization. A greater variety of situations. Deeper exploration of themes. That level of moral and emotional richness that prose can do better than any other medium.

Arcana Agency is just one such work and it can only do so much. But I’m interested in the mold-breaking aspects that Paul Gresty is trying out here. The usual second-person, present tense that has been the standard register of gamebooks since Steve Jackson’s Death Test has gone, throwing us into a medium that feels grown-up, intriguing, and full of properly differentiated characters. I’m not even sure that I’d use the label ‘gamebook’ anymore. That seems to imply something to read on the bus home from school, something to fit in after homework. Mr Gresty is writing interactive literature here, making full use of the medium at his disposal to provoke, stimulate and challenge the reader in interesting ways, and I’m sure we’ll look back on Arcana Agency as a pioneer of a whole new phase in the ongoing evolution of the interactive novel.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Learning by playing games

Reading a text book is a terrible way to learn about a subject. You’re looking at a linear block of facts and trying to reconstruct in your own mind the complex set of connections that, in the case of the original author, comprises real understanding.

Nobody learns only from textbooks, okay, but traditional teaching methods are not a big improvement. At college I went to lectures, made notes, was asked to write essays on magnetism and neutrinos and discuss them. I learnt very little from that part of the course, which as far as I could see was really English, not Physics.

Solving problems, that was how I learned. “What is the field gradient above an infinite charged plain?” Do all the calculus and then kick yourself when you realize the field is constant (the clue is in “infinite”) but, having found that out for yourself, you won’t forget it.

Leo Hartas and I took this idea to Dorling Kindersley ten years back with a proposal we called the Inspiration Engine. These would be a series of books tied in with games. Take a staple subject for popular kids’ nonfiction: the solar system. We outlined a tactics and management game in which the player was setting up colonies on other planets. In building habitats and craft you’d be finding out about the gravity, atmospheric density, composition, etc, of different planets. The accompanying book would act as a manual for the hands-on experience of the game. A goal (winning the game) drives the human mind like nothing else. This wasn’t just reading about the solar system, it was getting out there and (virtually) exploring it.

Dorling Kindersley turned it down. We got in front of the board and said we’d start by showing them some games on the Playstation. “I’m not watching you all play games,” snorted the DK chairman. “You can just call me when you’re ready to talk about books.” Naturally his board members all just shrank in their seats at that. Afterwards, one came up and said, “I think you can see that half of us are with you on this project. If you want to continue championing it, we’ll back you up.” I was very glad to get offered a job by Demis Hassabis a month later so I didn’t have to keep banging my head against the brick wall of nonfiction publishing.

You can’t keep a good concept down. This week comes news that Ian Livingstone has applied to start a school using interactivity and problem-solving as its primary teaching methods. It’s not just a gimmick. Students taught in that way will learn differently and more deeply than they would by traditional methods. As Thoreau said, "Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory."

Let me give you an example. I’ve never had much of a flair for electronics, but my practical partner at college was one of those fellows who were playing with crystal radio sets before they could talk. We’d be building a circuit and he’d say, “Looks like we need a 2 ohm resistor there.” I’d work it all out using the equations, and a couple of minutes later I’d find the theoretical value was 2.12 ohms. But my partner had got there right away. When it came to electrical circuits, I had only knowledge; he had real understanding.

Computer simulations give us the means now to allow students to develop hands-on understanding of subjects. The biggest threat will be if the old ways of assessing progress are applied to this new way of learning. It’s like asking a karateka to perform a kata when the real test is: can he break a brick or lay the other guy out flat? I’m reminded of Peter Ustinov, asked by his schoolmaster to name a great composer. “Beethoven,” said the young Ustinov. “No,” replied the master, “the correct answer is Mozart.”

And by the way it doesn't have to be a computer simulation. Boardgames are pretty effective teaching simulations too. Playing a game of the Cuban revolution in Command magazine - or maybe it was Strategy & Tactics - I had the problem of government forces facing a guerrilla war. Since I didn't know where the next bomb would go off, I had to massively increase military patrols. But since in nine cases out of ten my troops had nothing to do but inconvenience locals by asking for their papers, that only had the effect of driving the populace over to Castro's side. If I pulled the troops back to barracks, on the other hand, that gave me no chance of interdicting the rebels when they struck. A book could state that fact, but it wouldn't give you a fee for how it actually plays out in reality, just as any ancient history professor can tell you that iron weapons are superior to bronze, but it takes a simulations wargamer to say by how much.

I’m sure plenty of education’s old guard will have their knives out for Mr Livingstone’s proposals, in just the same way as that DK chairman was disgruntled at the very idea of including games in a discussion about learning. But it’s a new world coming, and the men and women who go out there to explore the solar system for real won’t have got their expertise out of a picture book. They’ll have acquired it by playing games

Image of Pandora shepherding Saturn's rings courtesy of NASA.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Step into myth

If a picture speaks a thousand words, a video must go at least an order of magnitude beyond that. So instead of my customary long screed, this time I'm just going to leave this trailer from Cubus Games and this sample image by Xavier Mula to tell their own story.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Way of the Tiger continues

1987. It was the climax of the sixth book in the Way of the Tiger series. Having risen from orphan to pretender to king, the hero of the series, Avenger, travels to the Rift, a great chasm into the heart of the Earth, to rescue her (or his) comrade Glaivas the ranger. Plummeting down the precipices, Avenger lands on something soft. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's a web, in which she (or he) is stuck fast, and a colossal spider (and/or god) is coming closer, closer...

Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith got to there, section 424 in the book, and wrote, "The end." Other books in the series had an implied "to be continued", but this one bore a stamp of finality. There's a good reason; Mark and Jamie didn't expect to be writing another one. Knight Books, publishers of Way of the Tiger, had dragged their feet over whether to renew the contract. It's the eternal worry of the freelancer - a publisher or network executive twiddles their thumbs, unhurried as only a regular salary can make a person, while the writer or artist frets about where she (or he) will find the next mortgage payment.

Not knowing whether to commit to more Way of the Tiger, Mark and Jamie had pitched another series, Duel Master, and got an offer from Armada. So by the time the alarm clock went off at Knight Books and somebody remembered to phone up for a discussion about a chat about some thoughts regarding a possible book 7, Jamie was already deep into designing the rules and complex structure for Duel Master. Mark finished off Inferno, dumped Avenger into that web, and typed two three-letter words that stuck a generation of schoolkids on tenterhooks for twenty-seven years. He left the tiniest of get-out clauses, a faintly glimmering "unless" in the final sentence, but the truth is Mark and Jamie never expected to be coming back.

Never say never. All these years later, Fabled Lands Publishing got hold of the Way of the Tiger rights and enlisted the editing team at Megara Entertainment, headed up by Richard S Hetley, to fix some of the logic problems in Inferno, refurbish the text, and now we have an all-new edition to please the most demanding fan. (Not only that, author David Walters has permission from Mark and Jamie to continue the series and looks set to do that brilliantly, starting with book seven, Redeemer.)

The new edition of Inferno is on sale now. The cover took some thinking about, and in the end we didn't use any of the designs above. Initially we were going with the giant spider painting by Mylène Villeneuve, the artist for the other five WOTT covers. It's nice and sinister, but the problem comes when you see it in thumbnail, as it would appear on most online bookstores, whereupon the tiny figure of Avenger is lost and all the customer would see is a picture of a spider. And, as you can see, to use that painting we'd have needed to add a blank strip at the bottom, otherwise the text of the title would have obscured Avenger anyway.

So we turned to the rising star of Megara's art stable, Sébastien Brunet, who did the cover art for the new edition of the Blood Sword gamebooks as well as the interior illustrations in Inferno. But the first stab at using his picture (above right) didn't work. The conventional direction of movement implied the dragon/serpent trying to get somewhere and the swordswoman Cassandra trying to stop it. That may be the scenario in the story, but the cover becomes more dramatic when it's flipped the other way round. On top of which, it always looks odd when artists insist on having warriors fight left-handed. (Unless the author has specified that. I bet a hundred WOTT fans will now tell me Cassandra's a southpaw.) So finally we come to the cover above left, which is the one you'll get if you part with your hard-won oban. But don't empty the piggy-bank completely, as the coming weeks will see the re-release of Falcon 1: The Renegade Lord, a beautiful (and multi-platform) app version of Necklace of Skulls, and The Keep of the Lich Lord (formerly Fighting Fantasy Gamebook #43) as a Fabled Lands adventure. Christmas is indeed coming early.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

I want to live like common people

Think of the central characters in the two great high fantasy novels of the twentieth century. Steerpike and Frodo, both working class guys. Oh, okay, Frodo is as bourgeois as they come, but compared to the likes of Aragorn and Boromir he's a mud-caked serf. The point is, it’s only in also-ran fantasy works that dispossessed lords or brave rebel princesses get to be the heroes. Which perhaps is the inspiration behind J M Perkins’ Kickstarter campaign to fund a “how to play a commoner” RPG book.

For a rewarding role-playing game you need a deep, consistent world and the possibility of conflict, among other things. Social class helps provide both. Of course, it’s not enough just to have low-class characters. That only makes sense if there are higher classes to interact with, whether other players or NPCs.

A low-class character can be more imaginative and flexible than their social betters, because they have less to gain from sticking to society’s rules. That was my thinking when I created working-class hero Jack Ember for Mirabilis: Year of Wonders. The postwar fiction of the "Angry Young Men" was full of clever commoners like Arthur Seaton and Jim Dixon - or, even earlier, look at the examples of Kipling's "Tommy" and Twain's Huck Finn.

For an aristocratic character, strait-jacketed by social rules, it can be handy to have a commoner to take care of the grubby side of problems. Maybe the cardinal’s high-born daughter can’t countenance plain murder, however ruthless she is, but a word to her guttersnipe servant – “I hope I never see that man again” – may be enough to put her enemy in the Tiber with a wide red smile. The master-and-servant relationship is such a staple of drama that Keith Johnstone devoted more than half of his book Impro to it. Think of Blackadder and Baldrick. Wooster and Jeeves. Fogg and Passepartout. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Especially mature readers might even remember Mr Stabs and Luko:

Of course, servant-and-master is only going to work in an RPG if players stick to their social roles. You can’t chummily forget about status differences when it suits you. I was lucky enough to play in a campaign where Jamie was an aristocratic army officer and Patrick Brady was his sergeant. The relationship between them was pitch perfect even when (especially when) Patrick’s character was bending the letter of his orders as far as he could.

Fun though these examples from fiction and gaming are, they're all essentially romps. Yet in real life there's a heavy burden to being at the bottom of society's heap, a burden that many are overwhelmed by. Dig a bit deeper and the challenges and conflicts of being a commoner prove a lot harsher than the entertaining high jinks of Passepartout or Panza. Take a look at Mulk Raj Anand's classic novel Untouchable, an angry, desperate, tragic and ennobling account of those who are spurned as the dregs of society. Or consider the struggle of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, who suffers the double misfortune of being poor and a woman in nineteenth century England. Those are great stories to visit, but you wouldn't want to live them for real.

If you only read YA fiction you'd think that all these put-upon peasants needed was an uprising, but that's rarely an option in reality. The truth is always more interesting. Social class is hard to pull off but, like any attempt to take roleplaying seriously rather than as a make-believe send-up, it pays dividends in terms of the places it will take you.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Wrong Side of the Galaxy

I still call him Gazza Greene, because that's what he was called in the early drafts, but now publishers feel it's safe to have another Harry as hero of a bestselling kids' series. So here comes Harry Greene, Starship Captain, kidnapped by aliens on his birthday, and then those aliens get attacked by another lot of (much nastier) aliens, and Harry ends up on the far side of the galaxy - in fact, a little way out beyond the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is really way too far from home when your tea's getting cold.

Alone but for a super-devious Cugelian alien, two cloned royal princesses who finish each other's sentences, and a senile ship's computer, Harry has to try to get home while dodging super-nasty aliens who are after the Galactical Imperial Crown Jewels. Before the first book is over, Harry will have acquired at least two arch-enemies and he'll have become a mum. (You'll have to read the book. Trust me, it all makes sense.)

This is proper SF, this, and not just another fantasy story masquerading as sci-fi. There are no mysterious prophecies, no magic monsters that can't see you if you hold your nose, no dangers that can be dealt with by believing in sugar plums, no hand-waving bamboozling ways out of a predicament. It's for kids, not idiots. It's by Jamie (of course) and I have to say that it's not just a side-splitting comedy that's the funniest thing since Douglas Adams, it's also a rollercoaster SF page-turner with some really wonderful alien worlds and creatures to enjoy along the way.

The Wrong Side of the Galaxy, the first in the Starship Captain trilogy, is out now in UK paperback. (Oh, I just realized we should have called the character Gordon Greene. Then we could have had, "Gordon's alive!" Darn. Talk about l'esprit de l'escalier...)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Cubus Games announce Necklace of Skulls app

More about this later in the month, but here's the first official announcement by Cubus Games of the forthcoming Necklace of Skulls app. If you're not already familiar with Cubus's great work on interactive story apps The Sinister Fairground and Heavy Metal Thunder, check them out and you'll see why we're thrilled to have them working on several of Fabled Lands Publishing's gamebooks. The vibrant artwork by Xavier Mula is a breath of fresh air after decades of a hobby dominated by clunky mail-clad dwarves and dank dungeons.

So this is quite a time for Critical IF, what with Inkle's adaptation of Down Among the Dead Men still riding high on the gamebook charts, Heart of Ice prepping for development, and of course the paperbacks all still available if digital isn't your thing. And before anyone asks, Necklace of Skulls should be out for Android as well as iOS.

And if you think all that is exciting news, wait till you hear about Jamie's new novel. If I had to Hollywoodize the pitch, I'd say it's Percy Jackson meets Galaxy Quest. Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you all about it.