Gamebooks, branching narratives and adventure

Leila Johnston, Author of Enemy of Chaos

In 2009 I wrote a choose your own adventure book called Enemy of Chaos. It’s one of those books where you can choose how the story unfolds from a selection of options at the end of each chapter, but it’s a parody gamebook, which means it’s equally insulting to games, books and real gamebooks. And it’s very much intended to live in the bit-of-fun-at-Christmas category rather than the games category, or the fiction category, or – certainly – the ‘meta-fiction’ category. This last is a genre I barely knew had such an official status until I noticed its followers picking up my book. They must have been starved of this geek oxygen since the Fighting Fantasy days because despite EOC’s palpable failures, meta-fiction fans closed in around it like Grues in a dark dungeon.

The games industry is huge, and interactivity is the buzzword of the day… so why aren’t we making gamebooks anymore? People like games, and people definitely like books. And while some books are our work and some are our escape from work, gamebooks are both in one! They allows us to indulge our love of escaping with our – perhaps more private – passion for satisfying, repetitive tasks that result in quantifiable achievements.

And gamebooks are excitingly disruptive. They subvert the medium of the book, turning something profoundly well-established, entwined with our civilisation’s every achievement, into a game where you get to pretend to stab an Ork in the face. At some point the integral rules of a book give way to the rules of a game. Holding onto the book’s storytelling mechanic, and its papery page-turning possibilities, but throwing away the linear, a gamebook becomes a program activated by your willingness to pretend.

With some notorious exceptions, gamebooks are written in the second person, and this – combined with the metaphorical/literal turning and choosing you’re instructed to do to progress – causes something odd to happen to the reader. You enjoy a story (only one story at a time, don’t cheat) – while being plunged into a literary game of dress-up. Top-down, there seems to be a maze of options. for sure, but the impression of a network is just that: a sense, an enjoyable suspicion of vastness.  They are an absorptive illusion, and labyrinths of twisty little passages of themselves, as anyone who’s ever drawn out a flowchart for one will tell you.

Of course, the reality is that the author is still in control, and these books know precisely where they want you to be. In many cases, the player is pushed through funnels to keep the story developing right up to an end – either any end at all (as with Choose Your Own Adventure) or the final ‘correct’ end, in the case of Fighting Fantasy, where the ending on the last page that is a ‘win’ rather than a death and represents the longest possible route through the book. I’ve talked in other places about the connections between these metafictional ‘gotos’ and internet hyperlinks – but this is where gamebooks differ from the web. All books and most games have a set direction and a goal in sight; to the extent that the internet is the name of a structure, it has no end. A story – even a convoluted time travel one like EOC – must keep flowing one way and the endings are the whole point, they are both the goals and the threats.

And it is all these things that make gamebooks great, and unique. While there have been plenty of things that are similar, very few have proved quite as uniquely engrossing or successful at marrying the pretending to the rules as has the branching narrative. The early ‘80s turned out a lot of treasure hunts, and while Masquerade was beautiful to look at, readers weren’t enchanted by the magical escapism so much as caught up in an explosive collision of puzzle fever and expensive prizes. Picture puzzle books came in every shape and size in those days, Fighting Fantasy author Ian Livingstone even wrote one, but none of them had the same power to gleefully hijack your identity as the CYOA and FF-type gamebooks. In fact, in my view, the closest thing to a gamebook isn’t a book at all; it’s not even Dungeons&Dragons. It’s the text adventure video game – and its modern young nephews, the Interactive Fictions and all the text-based online games that seem to co exist happily and modestly in the same niche today.

What began as a playful experiment with words and paper lives on in the linked-page framework of the internet – a flawed metaphor for paper, and a playground for twisty, turny adventurers (The Nethernet for example). And maybe it’s just me, but I really think the hyperlinked structure of the internet and these ‘meta-fictions’ share some irresistible quality. It’s the same thing that’s interesting about maps, because after all these are maps. Perhaps we – as human animals – are programmed to enjoy them, to find our place on them, and to want to feel our routes to the edges. And I don’t mean they’re interesting in the devalued sense of ‘appealing’, but properly interesting – full of unexpectedness, information and promise.

This exploring, mapping urge feels so natural and inevitable that I wonder if we’re indulging some kind of primal survival response every time we drop ourselves into an unknown virtual world from a great height to shoot zombies on an iPad. Who doesn’t experience the godlike thrill surveying a realm from above, the adrenalin-shot of joy at discovering what’s round a corner? And who doesn’t, if they’re completely honest, relish that strange pleasure of being caught out in our explorations just as much – the turning of a page to see a “The End”?

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