Gamebooks: An Introduction

This has been sitting in my draft folder, with the subject line “Are Gamebooks Games”, since November 2017, and I haven’t deleted it because I don’t know why not. I’m normally pretty quick about clearing things out of my draft box that I’m not going to get to.

I know that this question came up somewhere – someone, probably on reddit, getting mad about whether or not gamebooks belonged on a game subreddit of some variety. Odds are good, I mean, someone on reddit annoyed me. The question persists, though, I think in part because to me, I feel like gamebooks are really underserved as a type of game design, and I kept wanting to come back and deliver a fullthroated defense of gamebooks.

When you find nobody’s attacking your idea, though, it gets a little harder to defend them because you look like you’re trying to feel more important than you are. I don’t want to be that sillyboots, and so the draft has languished, unchanged, as I try to wonder just who was taking pot-shots at gamebooks?

Then again, did I need an excuse to talk about gamebooks?

For those of you who aren’t familiar, gamebooks are a type of book that’s an adventure game. Of sorts. The technology core to these books is that you number entries of story, and at the end of each entry, it tells you where to go to see the next section. This lets the story go in different directions, right?

If you turn to the left, turn to 83

If you turn to the right, turn to 16

This is a really cool little bit of technology, a sort of basic engine that you see in books like Choose Your Own Adventure, a long-running series that mostly focuses on a simple story where the reader is the protagonist. The more complex Fighting Fantasy gamebook series works on a more classic adventure formula, with dice and dungeons to roll your way through, and the chance to just plain out die.

These Fighting Fantasy games were kind of the standard template that were mostly successful. Lots of people played them and they sort of set the rules for how gamebooks got made. They’re not the whole of it, but they were so much ‘the way these games worked’ that even games that wanted a different style of mechanics, like the Sonic the Hedgehog and Lemmings gamebooks,

One of the things that really surprises me about this is how the gamebook technology went relatively underexplored. There were quite a few Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that added some tools – Creature of Havoc, for example, had a neat thing you could do on entries to translate language, which meant if you learned to speak, you could go through a whole different game. One or two of the games added stats – like the Evil stat in one or two of the games to keep you from overusing magic. Night Dragon had a Dread stat that meant the longer you took to get to the Night Dragon, the stronger it was. I even wrote about the spellbook mechanic in the Sorcery! series.

Despite these innovations, they were still built around the very basic narrative of a single character progressing linearly through an adventure like a rollercoaster ride. Some manage to make some exploration, some mazelike structures, so there was something there.

Now, if you’re experienced with Twine, you know a couple of games like this. And twine games can do things like remember, store variables, do random things, and that’s true. But there are other things a physical book can do that Twine has a hard time doing.

I’m thinking on this puzzle, at the moment. I can see the idea that you can make a gamebook that’s about a story of a place; or a book that produces a diagnosis at the end; or a gamebook which is designed to create based on what you do when you play it, or a book that deliberately obscures information from you in ways you have to decipher yourself.

The other thing is, mostly, these gamebooks aren’t actually really coherent stories? They’re mostly sequences of interruptions; you open a door, you enter a room, you find the thing in that room. Sometimes you decide whether or not to open a chest of treasure. Sometimes you don’t. There are games of dice, but few games of (for example) cards.

Gamebooks are a wonderful little artifact, a niche interest, but with print on demand, and more room for more voices, I wonder what we – not just me, but you too – could do with things like light novel gamebooks.