Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Seven Things I Wouldn't Much Like to Do

Suffering a spot of gamebook burnout right now, so I'm taking a short break from the playthroughs and hoping to be back in the right frame of mind for more by next week.

In the mean time, here's a quick rundown of types of gamebook I won't be attempting on this blog. Being on this list isn't necessarily an indication that I think the series mentioned are bad per se, but for one reason or another, I don't think they'd make for good posts here.

1) The Plotless
That title is a bit misleading, as the principal example in this category - Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands - does have plots in it. But they're all optional: the series is essentially about exploring the world in which it's set, and choosing what (if anything) to get involved with. Because of this, there aren't really any 'win' endings. You can resolve some of the plot threads, but then you have to move on to something else, and just keep travelling and getting embroiled in situations until you die.
Another complication is that each Fabled Lands book concentrates on one region of the world in which the series is set. This makes covering the series book-by-book tricky: a playthrough of my first go at the first book would essentially go:

  1. Meet old man.
  2. Get directed to standing stones.
  3. Pass through magical portal into another book.
  4. Er, that's it.
Book 3 is especially problematic in this regard, as it's about sea travel, and can become little more than bridging material between other books.

2) The Two-Player Eliminator
I've played some two-player gamebooks here, but the likes of Joe Dever's Combat Heroes and Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's Duel Master aren't really suitable for the blog, as the whole point of them is to defeat the person playing the companion volume. Which requires a second person to play the other book (okay, some of the books do have solo play options as well, but they have problems of their own).
Beyond that, the two-player side of Combat Heroes essentially boils down to 'look for opponent, find or get found by opponent, fight, repeat until someone wins'. Well, that's it for the first pair of books. The second pair is more 'try to point your gun at your opponent without allowing him to point his gun at you, shoot or get shot at (or both simultaneously), repeat until someone wins or flees'.
There is more going on apart from the central conflict in Duel Master, but that has its own drawbacks. I may be in the thick of some side quest when my opponent enters the region, at which point whatever I was doing just comes to a stop so the player characters can hit each other or throw things at each other. Or interaction with the side quest ends equally abruptly because the other player character just died and I won by default. 

3) The Picture Book
Some gamebooks use illustrations more than they do words. Combat Heroes falls into this category, too, and 2000 A.D. spin-off Dice Man is a more plot-heavy example. With the illustrations being such a major part of the experience (and at least some of the adventures hinging on spotting the right detail in one of the pictures), writing about them here would be missing out on too much to make it worth doing. It's a variant on the 'dancing about architecture' thing.

4) The Puzzle Book
My primary example of this, the Be An Interplanetary Spy series, has considerable overlap with the previous category. But it gets an entry of its own because I need seven categories to go with the quotation I've used for the title of this post, and because they (and the few more text-based gamebooks that also fit in here) have their own specific problem: a 'true path' narrower even than anything created by Ian Livingstone at his most linear. The reader follows the plot, and is confronted with a puzzle - sometimes, but not always, arising reasonably naturally from the situation. Get it right, and move on. Get it wrong, and it's game over. Or occasionally the puzzle makes no difference, and you move on to the next plot beat just as you would have if you'd got it right. But there's hardly ever any free choice, and what little there is largely boils down to the order in which you go through unavoidable sequences of events. As for the puzzle-based decisions, interjections along the lines of 'I work out that pattern C is the one that doesn't match the rest' are liable to lose their appeal rapidly.

5) The Unlosable
There are gamebooks out there which it is literally impossible to fail. There are no bad endings. When I was a teenager, the bad endings were one of the best parts of gamebooks. Nowadays I'm not so obsessed with the variety of ways my character can come to a sticky end, but without the possibility of going wrong, gamebooks do lose something. Chief offender here is the Decide Your Destiny series of Doctor Who gamebooks. Even if the characters from the TV series have to survive out of some sense of canon (which wasn't the case in earlier series of Doctor Who-based gamebooks), there's no reason why the viewpoint character should automatically have plot immunity. Unless you're trying to please the sort of person who objects to the very existence of what the DVD sleeves call 'mild peril' in media targeted at children, which is not a worthy goal for writers of gamebooks, Doctor Who books, or children's books.
To be fair, some of the authors manage to create reasonably thrilling stories even with the 'no unhappy endings' limitation. But by no means all. Some of the times I read books in this series, I wound up getting an 'adventure' even less exciting than the outline I wrote back in category 1.

6) Schroedinger's Gamebooks
Some of the Decide Your Destiny gamebooks mentioned above also fall into this category, as do a lot of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These are the books in which nothing is fixed - reality itself changes arbitrarily in acausal response to your decisions. Open the door, and the creepy house is actually being used as a hideout by forgers using a plan straight out of Scooby-Doo to scare off the inquisitive. Listen at it, and you're in the home of a mad scientist whose experiments are to blame for the apparent haunting. Creep past, and the house really is haunted. Basically, every time you come back to the book, forget whatever you learned on previous attempts, as there's no guarantee that any of it will apply this time round.
That's not to say that inconsistency is always a bad thing in gamebooks. Steve Jackson used a form of it in Appointment With F.E.A.R. so that the 'solution' for a character with one power was not the same as for a hero with a different power. And he's not the only gamebook writer to have done something worthwhile with malleable reality. But a lot of the writers who use it overuse it, and wind up producing an incoherent jumble of fragmentary plots.

7) The Overly Dice-Dependent
Some of the books I've played, or will one day play, for this blog at least come close to this category, but there's a line that they don't quite cross. The sort of gamebook I mean here has just that bit too much determined by the fall of the dice. In some of the Make Your Own Adventure with Doctor Who books (released as part of the Find Your Fate series in America), practically every other section requires you to roll the right number to avoid failure. 
Similarly, it hardly matters how good a detective you are when playing certain Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries: unless you roll high enough to spot the relevant clues, you get nothing on which to base any deductions. About the only thing I can remember about Milt Creighton's The Royal Flush is that I kept hitting the 'you didn't find out enough to be able to even learn what went on, let alone try to figure out who did it or why' wall.

So there it is. Not an exhaustive list of what I shall not be playing here, and there may be the occasional gamebook that, despite fitting into one of the above categories, somehow manages to merit coverage here anyway. But I've had the idea for this entry rattling around in my head for some time, and writing it up means that the blog still gets an update even if I am taking a short break from actually playing gamebooks.


  1. Fabled Lands wouldn't make for a good game write-up? Ed, have you never come across Pace's Journal? It's the best account of a gamebook adventure ever:


    Duel Master, though, I'll give you that.

    1. I'm not saying that an entertaining write-up of a Fabled Lands game can't be done, just that it wouldn't work well with my particular approach. Maybe one day I'll try something different here, and have a go at FL then, but I have enough other unplayed gamebooks to last well over a year, so for now I'll be sticking with the plan I have.

  2. Sure thing. I didn't mean it as criticism of your approach - love those write-ups of yours, Ed. And I already know the FL books inside out, so I'm in no hurry to read write-ups of them anyway! But I do really recommend Pace's Journal for its bone-dry humour. Unfortunately, I don't know who wrote it or I'd give him (or her) a name-check here.

  3. I agree with Schroedinger's gamebooks. They mean that you can never improve your chances on each subsequent play through and, in some cases, do the completely implausible. In the CYOA book the Race Forever, you might find a deposit of gold in the desert. If you do not abandon the race there and then to get it all, then you never find it again, even when you return a short time later with equipment. I prefer 'Schroedinger choices' when there's less emphasis on winning and losing as that means I'm just enjoying the story I want to read.