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Friday, 12 December 2014

An open world built of words


The Fabled Lands were created over whiskies, like a lot of the things Jamie and I worked on back in the mists of the late twentieth century. (Less whisky, maybe less misty – who knows.)

It wasn’t done with the books in mind, not to start with. Jamie had a fantasy radio serial that he needed to write for the BBC, and the first step was designing a world. Tolkien had years to noodle around with Middle-earth, of course, but the BBC operate on less leisurely principles. Hence the whisky bottle and the midnight oil.

‘What’s a good name for the unknown lands across the sea?’ said Jamie. ‘Inconnu,’ I said, and so we got the continent of Ankon-Konu. There might have even been a circumflex accent on it in those days. You know, the exotic touch. Akatsurai was named after a bottle of saki I had sitting on a shelf. And the Violet Ocean because they can’t all be “wine dark”, and honestly, would you drink that plonk anyway?

That was months before we went in to see Mary Tapissier at Pan Macmillan. We pitched the idea of a big, open-ended gamebook series, something that reflected our own role-playing tastes where the players’ goals drive the story. Mary ran the show at Macmillan Children’s and she loved it. Having the land of Harkuna (it was probably Hârku’una in the radio play) to pull off the shelf meant we could get cracking straight away.


Eric Goldberg’s boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights (reviewed here on Stargazer's World, whence comes the accompanying pic) was probably the biggest influence on the writing style. We couldn’t afford to be decompressed, wasting hundreds of words on long conversations or scene-setting. So our first pass on the books was to tear through the world giving just one or two sentences to each location. “The rolling fields of the west stretch off to the sun, and by night the only sound is of the crickets in the long grass.” That sort of thing.

And we’d lay out the random encounters without any thought yet as to what they’d be: “A cantankerous merchant. A trio of lost maidens. A piercing sound in the darkness.” I’d get Jamie’s and he’d get mine – challenges to each other to get creative. As I refereed a largely improvised role-playing game once or twice a week in those days, the Muse was always nearby ready to lend a hand.

They were a success, those six gamebooks, even though the craze was dying out. We caught the readers who had started out on the dungeon-bashing gamebooks of the 1980s and were now ready to move on. The trouble was the production costs. For not much more than the price of a regular paperback, we had these large-format books with fold-out map covers and lots of artwork. Strong sales didn’t save us. Halfway through, the series was cancelled.

It wasn’t a guillotine blow, more a wasting illness. Marion Lloyd, the editor at Macmillan, came up with a plan to repackage Fabled Lands in smaller format. Bigger margins, with those sales figures, would have let us continue. But publishing by then was all politics, and not enough support could be drummed up at the courts of Uttaku – in other words, the publisher’s Fulham offices. And I can’t blame them. Adventure games and CRPGs were stealing the gamebook thunder. After Lords of the Rising Sun, darkness fell.

Still, Fabled Lands is not unfinished in the way that a TV series like Cupid or Awake or Deadwood is unfinished, canned before its story could be told. In Fabled Lands there is no story – or rather, a hundred story threads from which the player gets to weave the narrative they choose. You bring the motivation, we’ll give you the plot seeds. If we had gone on to twelve books, readers would have got twice as many adventures. But as it is there are almost 4400 sections. That’s equivalent to eleven ordinary gamebooks. Plenty to get on with.

Videogames did sweep away the demand for gamebooks, but twenty years is long enough for an industry to turn right around. The resurgence of vinyl shows that music buyers value a physical artefact considerably more than they do the content itself. And gamebook collectors are rushing to invest in deluxe print editions offered on Kickstarter. So maybe, just maybe, crowdfunding of print books will be the key to resurrecting the Fabled Lands. However, as I've argued before, the only way to make that work is if it goes hand in hand with a digital version.

In the meantime, text-based open worlds are enjoying a resurgence - and why not? It's the only medium that at reasonable cost allows the polymorphously rich and diverse variety of storylines that interactive fiction needs. So if you've been hankering for more Fabled Lands all these years, why not dip into Meg Jayanath's marvellous Indian dream-tapestry Samsara, Gordon Levine's wild western Zero Summer, Yoon Ha Lee's icy apocalyptic SF saga Winterstrike, Alex Livingston's cyberfaerie science fantasy The Annwn Simulation 1985, or the source from which those all flow, Failbetter's massive and brilliant Fallen London? Or, if none of those tickle your fancy, how about Meg Jayanth's project with the fellows at Inkle: the steampunk reworking of Jules Verne's 80 Days. With over 4000 sections and nearly 500,000 words, 80 Days is as big as the existing Fabled Lands series with the evolutionary adventage that, being an app, it can adapt the pace and the quests to fit what you're doing. That's real interactivity, that is.

comic book

22 comments:

  1. Two of my favourite mini-paragraphs are from Books 3 and 4. In one of the locations in the deep south of Book 3, everything is just lovely with dolphins and stars and luminescent seas. In another in the far far north, it's biting cold and dark and you can't breathe, and it was madness to go there. In about 3 sentences each. That's scene setting, especially without the keyword Calcium.

    80 Days is majestic. So many stories within in...

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    1. If you've got the paragraph numbers, James, I'd be interested to take a look. It's always nice to read something one has written and be able to say it isn't bad.

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    2. There was definitely an element of poetry to a lot of those segments - such a unique method of scene-setting, which you wouldn't really get in any other form of story.

      There are too many I love to list here, but one of my favourites is from the desolate steppe in the north: "At night you dream of cities awash with people." So much in that one line.

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  2. From Book 3, paragraph 302, "Balmy nights filled with a million stars are followed by days of tranquil beauty. With a good following wind, the ship ploughs on through waves the colour of amethyst. What could disturb your mood of perfect contentment?"

    You've missed your calling as a writer of travel brochures... but before you get too cosy...

    From Book 4, paragraph 317, "For days you slog on, hungry and half-blind with the glare of low, slanting rays of sunlight that glance off the ice. You are bone weary but it is too cold to snatch more than a few minutes' sleep. Each footstep plunges you thigh-deep in snow. Avalanches are a constant threat. You should never have ventured into this merciless wasteland."

    Time for a mince pie I think... (incidentally, the story of Imref Khalid, especially the bit about the passing of the years is also as lovely as the infamous leman ship of the Gulf of Marazid...

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    1. I wrote the first of those, Jamie wrote the second. That's us in a nutshell :-)

      Imref Kharid I remember well - he was Andy Booth, one of the player-characters in my university gaming group (physicists may spot the origin of the name). I had to fight with the publishers to get that switch from past to present tense allowed. But as for the leman ship - where was that? Somewhere in DW book 6, presumably?

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  3. It was indeed. Some lovely turns of phrase in Lands of Legend... "Amid the black boles of strange silver-needled firs lurk all manner of primeval terrors.... No one ventures here".

    Our ship is on pages 179 to 180. "the infamous leman ship of the Gulf, crewed by silent slaves and carrying a hundred voluptuous harem-girls as passengers. All of these become hideous flesh-eating undead once a group of poor sailors have been enticed aboard!".

    I was reminded of the ship by your post about "adult themed" Interactive Fiction (as in the ones with the guitar sound-track), and could imagine lots of these death traps...

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  4. I've been toying with some Gamebook like IF - storynexus, and now Twine (whose 2.0 beta is quite good). One thing I've been wondering is what a good Fabled Lands app adaptation would look like. Fallen London has done some great stuff adapting the keyword system from Fabled Lands into qualities. Branches which are locked off pending some tantalizingly vague quality name are hints to other paths you might have taken. They help point the way and let you know that your choices matter.

    But there are moments in the existing Fabled Lands games (I've only managed to play them in the java app that floats about on the internet) where I wonder if hiding some of the explicit bookkeeping entirely would increase the sense of a dynamic world. How the fourth visit to Yellowport changes the city entirely, for example.

    I've been tempted to spend a few days implementing an HTML/Javascript version of the FL App, and then play with showing/hiding certain branches and smoothing out some places where the text is made to paper over jumping branches, and see how it plays. It would be entirely an exercise for me as a reader/writer, but I've never done it because it would require spoiling the parts of the books I've never played.

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    1. I'm surprised anyone would want to keep the codewords visible in a gambook app. After all, we only made them visible to readers of the print versions because there was no alternative. If the author wants to give the reader clues, those should be worked into the story, not given out-of-game by a codeword.

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    2. Dave - that's what I thought too! Till I tried it! Of course, I'm referring specifically to adapting an existing gamebook to an app form, but I think showing the codewords can be a useful tool even in digital native gamebooks.

      Showing the mechanics is a game tool. No games is fun if you don't know the rules, and if your story is structured like a game then hiding the codewords feels like the app/book/author isn't playing fair with you. In Fabled Lands, knowing that certain stories aren't winnable/completable without codewords from another book reduces frustration mightily - especially if it's a book I don't own. Necklace of Skulls is built around a win/lose condition. If the code words were utterly hidden it would be easy to see it as a role playing exercise only, and find that your in character choices don't let you win because you've in fact been playing a puzzle and world exploration game.

      Fallen London uses their exposed qualities in narratively interesting ways - for example you may find a locked branch on lots of storylets that refers to something called "The Calendar Council". A later story may give you access to the quality opening up with "You've been hearing rumors about something called the Calendar Council..."

      I think if I were to adapt Fabled Lands into a gamebook I'd show the codewords, but only about half the time that that the books themselves do. I understand that it is really presumptuous to say to an author "This is what I'd do with your work", but what I mean by the following examples is just to illustrate the kinds of contexts where I think those things could be ludumnarratively powerful, even when strictly speaking they're not required.

      * You've gained the codeword "Zaubermeister" - I'd probably generally keep this because it helps tell the player they've accomplished something.

      * If you have the codeword "Zaubermeister" turn to section 321 - I'd replace these with something that you only saw if you have the codeword in question. So going to a section without the quality, you would not be aware that the section was going to respond to your previous actions - I'd want the player to not know what parts of the world are static and what dynamic - but on returning to a section I might tell them "Because you have the codeword "Zaubermeister". Not even in text, perhaps just a visual cue.

      * If this is the third time you've visited Yellowport - I think I'd get rid of those entirely. They're used in Fabled Lands to make text dynamic, rather than as tags for puzzles, and it's much more fun to have the game do surprising things without your knowledge.

      * If you have codeword "Zaubermeister" you may instead... - I'd keep or kill these on a case by case basis. Seeing locked off branches in Fallen London helps give you a sense of how big the world is, or when you've gained a new codeword you remember "Ah ha, now I can finally find out what was up at the temple!" and keeps a player oriented in story.

      Also - Having written this in a comment to your blog feels a bit like walking into the home of an expert and interrupted pleasant cocktail conversation to deliver my own ignorant treatise. For that I apologize.

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    3. You have nothing to apologize for, Erik. Your comments are the opposite of ignorant, and anyway I'm a devout supporter of the First Amendment. This blog is for everyone to speak their mind.

      I think it's certainly true that when adapting a print book like Necklace of Skulls as an app it's necessary to retain the codewords. If I were writing an all-new gamebook app (as I was planning to do with Leo Hartas and Royston Harwood, but they didn't have time in their schedules, alas) then I'd keep all those logic flags hidden and find ways to provide in-game hints, where hints are needed. After all, when running a role-playing game I would never say to the players, "It's a shame you didn't go down the left-hand path as then you'd have found the witch's cottage." If I want to throw in a hint like that, I let them find it out from conversation with an NPC.

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  5. Wow... I blame you for introducing me to Fallen London, Mr. Morris... Well, at least this web blog did... I spent more than a year being a skinflint and I've accumulated over 200+ second chances that no longer seem to work, and my attributes are almost maxed out. But my favourite snippets are still the "Starveling Cat" bits and "descending on the rats like an Assyrian" (though that phrase kind of escapes me).

    The point is... I guess I HAVE to give 80 Days a go...

    And which brings me to one burning question: How's Blood Sword Book 5 coming along? >:-D

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    1. I started playing Fallen London just a few weeks ago. Yes, it's a fantastic game. Thank God you have to leave it alone for a few hours at a time to let your actions refresh - given that I work from home a lot, that's pretty much the only thing saving my career, right now...

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    2. I was hooked on Fallen London for a while, but the limited actions saved me. At any rate it never became the same level of obsession that UniWar did - I was only saved from that by a graphics upgrade that I found off-putting. Addictive personalities, us gamers.

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    3. Oh, and Blood Sword 5..? I'm writing a post about it ;-)

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    4. Er... Without spoiling the big news, can you advise me whether I should keep a portion of my Christmas budget to perhaps buy all 5 books before Christmas?

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    5. I can't see book 5 being released before the spring. But if you're looking for something else to buy for Christmas, there's always my Mirabilis books... ;-)

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  6. I am glad to see a boardgame was a great influence on Fabled Lands, I can highly recommend the obscure and hard to aquire game "City of Chaos", it is for me the epitome of the paragraph driven board games dripping with theme.
    Also the classic "Ambush!" deserves a mention as far as paragraph driven games go are you familiar with these titles?

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    1. I don't know those games but I'll ask James Wallis, who has the most extensive boardgame collection of anyone I know.

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  7. What's the last image in this post from?

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    1. It's from my comic Mirabilis: Year of Wonders:

      http://www.mirabilis-yearofwonders.com/Issue_1_Slideshow.html

      The scene has a kind of Jules Verne vibe, and so it seems appropriate while discussing 80 Days.

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  8. Out There is another App that is quite neat, it is a rather unfair trek through various planetary systems managing your resources (oxygen,fuel,iron for your hull integrity), whilst coming across randomly selected gamebook section like encounters. There are various endings but I've only managed to find one of them beyond running out of Oxygen, Fuel, or having my hull crack. Best approached with a rogue-like mentality.

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    1. Leo Hartas and I briefly worked on a gamebook app a bit like that. We called ours Survive In Space ( Out There is a better title) but abandoned it because the text sections didn't really fit with the survival game concept. As in Sorcery, it felt like the text was just a placeholder until proper graphics could be slotted in.

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