I was talking to James Wallis about Powell and Pressburger and how one of my favourite movies – my “hang out” movie, as Tarantino would have it – is A Canterbury Tale. I mentioned that the Pilgrim’s Way passed near my old school and how I’d always wanted to walk it. Possibly I was thinking of cross-country runs around Newland’s Corner with the sleet in my teeth , and the operative word was walk. Anyway, it made an impression on James. The following year he got engaged to the beautiful Cat Muir, asked me to be his best man, and suggested that I and Martin McKenna make ready with him to wenden on pilgrymage.
To my everlasting regret, I wasn’t able to tread the whole route from Winchester to Canterbury. Elixir Studios had just closed down and I was too busy looking for a job to clear two weeks for the simple pleasure of wayfaring with good friends. I should have done. You can’t bunk off halfway through a pilgrimage, not even if you’re an agnostic like me.
Anyway, you'll be glad to know there is a point. James decided that a good angle for charity fundraising would be to do the whole 146 miles without a map. Instead, he brought along a written description of the landmarks we should be steering by: a track beside a field, turn left at the second farm, etc.
Remind you of anything? It’s like Fabled Lands, where you find yourself in deep countryside with something like this to guide you:
The irony there is that Jamie Thomson and I didn’t originally intend the player to navigate using the text. Our first thought was that you’d move a counter around the map, with the usual allowance for terrain type. Regions would be marked with different encounter tables and each city and town would have a number that pointed to the text in the book.
Why did we change our minds? Because navigating by map would have required a little more work on the part of the player, and gamebook readers in the ‘90s weren’t as accustomed to that kind of thing as role-players. Yet when Jamie and I were working at Eidos, and we talked to Ian Livingstone about turning FL into a computer game, we enthusiastically returned to the idea of using the map as the main armature around which you’d build your character’s story. Here’s the first part of our pitch document:
A scrolling map of the world. Key figures (players and powerful NPCs) appear on this map, but you can only tell the profession of characters if they're in the same country as you are (ie, those characters will be differentiated into Warriors, Mages, etc; those in other countries are just shown as a generic character sprite).That was 1996. Almost twenty years on, gamebook apps like Sorcery and 80 Days made the long-overdue step of having the top layer be the map – just simple common sense because, as James and Martin and I found out on the North Downs Way, trying to find your way around the Home Counties from just a text description is sheer insanity. This is so much better:
But when you switch in the map layer, is that still a gamebook? Leaving aside the question of the “game” part (there is dice-rolling but little or no actual gameplay in almost all the gamebooks I’ve seen), the distinguishing feature of gamebooks is that they are like novels. So let’s go back to basics with what a novel is. You are presented with prose that functions as a kind of blueprint or program for what is going on in the story, and when you run that program in your mind, you construct an imaginary reality. The whole shebang may seem to be in the control of the author, but in fact you are lucidly dreaming your own version of the world with just occasional nudges from the text. (It’s actually the basic mechanism of human awareness too, incidentally, but let’s not get sidetracked.)
That lucid dreaming process is very different from watching a movie or playing a videogame. There the world you’re experiencing is already rendered for you. (And when I say that, you realize I’m not only talking about the graphics, right?) This is why it is easy to interact with any visual or even aural story, but in the case of prose we have to disengage the part of the brain that’s modelling the world around us in order to decide what choice to make. How can we make that easier? Well, there’s a world of difference between parsing this:
The square is empty. To the north is a river. You do not see a key here.All this is not exactly new. Marshall McLuhan wrote about hot and cold media (he said “cool” but, y’know). A hot medium is doing the work for you. A firework display, for example, or a blockbuster action movie. A cold medium (comics, say, or novels) requires your conscious participation in the process. It’s a continuum, so the short example of text-adventure prose above is hotter than the novel-like one involving the Gargan twins.
The confounding factor here is interactivity. It’s very easy to interact with a hot medium. A ball flies at me; I swipe it away. But interactivity with a story is more of a conscious process. Do you want the princess to marry the prince or to spend her days singing MOR show tunes? Let me think… Yet as I spin the cogs to decide that, the entire world of the novel must grind to a halt, even begin to fray around the edges, as I’m not consciously sustaining it. So, the more you want the reader to interact – in fact, the more you want them to be a player – the less you must make them a reader.
Arguably the text in an app like Sorcery is crying out to be severely de-novelized, reduced from this:
or preferably replaced altogether with animated characters. It’s evolving into a game anyway, and in doing so is proving far more popular than a straight “book-like” interactive story app. So why retain features that gamebooks only had originally by reason of historical circumstance, because the only mobile devices in those days were paperbacks and because artwork was too expensive?
Or is there a valid reason for interactive stories to hang onto their gamebook roots and even to play up the novelistic elements? What do you think?