Monday, November 7, 2016

Gamebook Practice Lesson 4: A journey to the world's end and back

It has been a few months since I posted on this Gamebook Adventure Blog, but meanwhile I wrote two articles for and I am very proud that Stuart invited me to be an author there. You can check out my articles at: You want to make games? Just do it! No programming skills required and Augmented Reality Gamebook Adventures.

Spoiler alert: Before reading this post any further, you should download and play the new version of the Short Gamebook Adventure Hidden Passage here as your gameplay experience would be ruined by all the spoilers below if you read the rest of this post beforehand.

Anyhow, today I am going to talk about one of the most significant problems in the genre of Gamebook Adventures that doesn't exist anywhere else and how a game designer can work on overcoming it (at least to a certain extent).

What I mean is that most of the computer games have a very linear storyline (if any at all) and the gamer gets to experience most of the adventure just like watching a movie from start to finish. The situation is the same in the traditional fiction literature where the reader goes through the story in a linear manner from the first, all the way to the last page of the book and he/she has to read every single word the writer has put down on paper. There is absolutely no waste of the author's work time, because the reader or the gamer gets to experience everything that the game designer/writer created. Unfortunately, the genre of Gamebook Adventures doesn't have such luxury at its disposal. Due to the very limited game mechanics (I discussed those in the earlier posts), most of the time, the reader advances through the game by making choices that lead to exploring different story paths without having the opportunity to experience every single adventure or outcome laid down in the book. And since the traditional gamebook question has on average 3 possible choices, it is natural that the player would get to explore only 1/3 of the book in a single game approach. I distinctively remember that a few years ago, I read an article by a very successful and famous gamebook writer, who claimed that he considered it a success, if the player gets to experience a third of all the encounters he had created.

It is an indisputable fact that the designers of Gamebook Adventures have to put many additional hours of work to write countless possible outcomes for all the choices their fans can make and most of those never even get read due to the fact that we can't explore everything in a single game approach. Unfortunately, that shortens the gameplay time significantly and makes all that additional hard work of the gamemaker go to waste. The founders of the genre didn't see this as a real problem as they had countless instant death encounters built into their adventures and the gamer was forced to replay the story multiple times and explore the available options one by one until they found the one and only correct path to victory. Well, as I have stated multiple times before, we now live in the 21st century and our beloved interactive fiction games have come a very long way since the 80s. There is an unanimous agreement between modern gamebook writers that an instant death paragraph is one of the worst things you can make your readers go through, especially when it is not called for by the bad performance of the player.

The problem of the gamer not being able to explore more than a third of the book can be fixed in just one very simple step. A good designer of Modern Gamebook Adventures can easily overcome the aforementioned problem by inserting at least one secret passage into their game. As far as I know, this mechanic was used for the first time in the gamebook "Creature of Havoc" where you have to find a Magic Pendant which has the ability discover and open secret doors and then, when you read the same sections of text as before, every time you see the phrase "You cannot see a thing...", you add or deduct a previously specified number to the paragraph you are currently on and then you turn to that new paragraph number. I've seen the same technique used over and over in the works of Stuart Lloyd and it makes his adventures some of the best ones I've ever read. In practice, a gamebook writer, who has finished his entire adventure, can create one more evil or villain and think up a reason to bring the player all the way back to the beginning of the adventure and have them start over with the same stats and items from the first read, but with the instructions to add or deduct a specific number to a paragraph number, if they get to discover specific text in the story and then turn to the corresponding paragraph.

As an example, in the new version of the Short Gamebook Adventure, I've done that by telling the reader that after defeating the Evil Wizard, he goes back to his home, where the Village Elder tells him that a new problem exists. Before the evil villain was killed, he had opened a portal to the world of the dead and now hell creatures are taking over the hero's lands. He has to go back on the road and once he discovers an ancient Mausoleum in the text (he could even remember where it is located from the first read, but had no instructions how to access it back then), he has to do the math with the current paragraph number and move to the new paragraph. That is where the hidden passage is located and it leads to the location of the Gate to Hell, guarded by the Vampire Lord.

This twist of the story will force the player to read the exact same adventure once again, while at the same time, it allows him to explore other parts of the branching storyline he didn't have the opportunity to visit during his first approach and therefore, more encounters and artifacts would be available for the gamer to find in a single gameplay.

Be aware, though! When applying this Gamebook Mechanic, you must be very careful to not ruin the story by making the following three mistakes:

Mistake 1 is allowing the player to get stuck in an infinite loop and restart the story multiple times while, at the same time, he is able to keep his stats from the previous read and therefore could create a protagonist way too powerful. The writer must absolutely stop the game at once and punish the reader with instant death if he goes through the Secret Passage without recognizing it. Such punishment is acceptable this one time as missing such important detail is a huge mistake. In the Short Gamebook Adventure, immediately after the Mausoleum, I've told the player to turn to a new section if he's already defeated the Evil Wizard and that is an instant death paragraph (if he got this far again, that means he didn't follow the instructions for the secret passage when he found the mausoleum). Ideally, that should be done a little bit later in the adventure, so the location of the secret passage is not too obvious.

Mistake 2 is present when the Secret Passage is not accessible from some of the paths in your adventure and therefore the reader doesn't even stand a chance to find it, except in situations when a specific path is clearly a bad choice (supported by Logical Conclusion Choice hints given to the reader earlier in the story). This mistake could easily be avoided by integrating the secret passage just a few paragraphs before the first boss encounter as every player will have to get there eventually before completing their first task or quest. In my Short Gamebook Adventure, I've done this by mentioning the Mausoleum right at the end of the Wicked Graveyard as all the branching paths of the adventure merge into one single story line immediately before going into the Evil Wizard's tower.

Mistake number 3 is creating the new boss (hidden passage encounter) way too easy or too difficult to defeat. This new evil creature must be exactly twice as hard as the first one, because the player would be presented a chance to explore the adventureland two times and possibly collecting twice as many artifacts or increasing his/her stats twice as much in the two consecutive reads. Please also note that it is always a good idea to provide more than one way to overcome an obstacle. In other words, it is considered bad game designing if you punish the player with instant death just because they didn't collect the one specific artifact you had in mind. Give them an alternative to win a battle using a different set of items or have them do a skillcheck instead (even pure test of luck by rolling a specified number on the dice is a good option here). Basically, the simple rule is that having in your possession an artifact should let you automatically win a battle without any dice battles, skillchecks or lucky rolls, but not having that specific item must never be the cause of an instant death punishment.

That's all for today, folks. I hope that this post will be helpful to you when creating your next great game and I am absolutely certain that the secret passage technique will improve the genre as a whole, if more writers implement this technique. Soon I will be posting an article on the last Gamebook Mechanic that "keeps the player in the driver seat": the Logic Puzzle.

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"