Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gamebook Theory: The importance of Meaningful Choices and how to create them

In the last post, we covered the basic structure of a game: input - test of performance - feedback.

Choices are the only possible active gamebook mechanic. The other ones, such as flipping pages to find the next section, throwing dice to add some randomization, or adding numbers for a skillcheck, are technically a passive form of input, because they don't allow the gamer to actively influence the outcome of the adventure.

The choices, being the only active input mechanic, become the most important thing in a gamebook adventure. You can have a great story to tell, but without the proper choices presented to the player in a meaningful form that influences the outcome one way or another, your adventure is not a game, it is just a story. Of course, the exact opposite, bunch of choices without any story, is just as bad as narrative is a great way to provide feedback for rewarding or punishing the reader (we already covered that topic in the previous post).

It is easy to provide many choices to the reader. I remember reading an article that was mentioning the urge to give the player too many choices as one of the major problems of new writers. I've always had the opposite problem: It's always been difficult to me to put enough choices in each section of the game, because I want every single one of them to have a meaning and consequences that affect the adventure in some way.

See, having a choice that is changing the immediate narrative path for the reader without having any consequences down the road, is not necessarily a gamebook mechanic. What I am trying to say is that a gamebook that has no good or bad choices is no longer a game, because it simply becomes an interactive novel. In order to have a game, we must have a final goal that the player is trying to achieve through overcoming bunch of other obstacles. If there is no way to fail, there is no game in the story.

Speaking of good and bad choices, we must stress out that the outcome, positive or negative, should be the result of strong logic, calculated risk, educated decisions and the reader has to be given enough information to draw that logical conclusion on his own. This is the tricky part. Providing too much information to the gamer makes the choice too obvious (cake or death choice), but not presenting enough information forces the outcome to be a matter of luck, not a logical consequence of good or bad performance (which door choice) and therefore making this piece a story with multiple alternative endings, not a game.

This is where the "fog of war" (terminology by Ashton Saylor) comes in place. The writer must hide the possible consequences, but should also leave enough clues in the narrative, so the reader can guess the outcome if he was paying close attention and was drawing the correct conclusions.

My favorite example of a Logical Conclusion Choice is one, which I found more than 20 years ago in the fantasy style epic hero gamebook "The Master of Darkness" published in Bulgaria by George M George (a nickname of George Mindizov). I was playing a fantasy style hero and while on the correct path to accomplish my quest, I was put in the middle of a wide open field during a thunderstorm. I believe that there were two options available: 1. Hide from the rain under a tree or 2. Run for the tall cliff with visible caves in the distance. My thinking was that I didn't want to get soaking wet while fleeing to the caves and I decided to go under the tree. Needless to say, I learned a very valuable lesson: lightnings hit the tallest object around and unfortunate for my protagonist, that was the tree I was hiding under at that moment. I was upset about that instant death, but I also felt that it was fair and justified. The "fog of war" hint was in the word "thunder" before the word "storm". The immediate danger of a lightning was not even mentioned, but it was completely logical under the circumstances of the situation.

Now, keep in mind that this is a very simple example of a "logical conclusion choice" and I believe that presented just like that, it no longer has a place in the modern gamebook adventures because the outcome is one of two extremes: life or death. Please remember that an instant death is the worst thing you can do to the reader and should almost never happen. Instead, you can punish him in a different way such as losing health points, losing an item and so on. Death in a gamebook must be the result of multiple gravely mistakes (when your health runs down to zero) or the outcome of the last battle skillcheck in the adventure. If you ever decide to break this rule, please have the instant death in the very beginning of the story before the reader has invested much time and effort, so starting over wouldn't hurt as much.

However, regardless of being a bad example of a choice in a gamebook adventure, this is the perfect example for the purpose of explaining the basic principles of the "fog of war" technique, but more on that I will discuss in my next post.

Before I close for today, I have to mention that while the "Logical Conclusion Choice" is arguably the best one of all narrative choices, it is not the only one and it should be used in combination with the rest. Also, when implementing this kind of choice in an adventure, it is a good idea to inform the player if he's made the right choice or not. That could be done by writing a short explanation of the author's reasoning for the punishment or the reward in the beginning of the next section.

If you remember anything from this post, that is the rule that a writer should never take away from the player the satisfaction of the feeling that his achievements are a direct result of his good performance!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

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