Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 21 June 2021. Tagged: Game, Theme.


Term used to describe printed works of fiction in which different paths can be followed through the story, leading to multiple endings, and in which some outcomes are considered superior to others, allowing for the possibility of "winning" or "losing" the book. The word itself was apparently coined by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982) (see Fighting Fantasy), but has become a generic term for all such works. Two main variants exist, referred to in this entry as qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative form terminates each section of text (other than an ending) with a simple set of choices; depending on which option is taken, the reader will be directed to one of a number of possible succeeding parts. In the quantitative form, the decision-making process is more complex, involving a set of rules for simulating reality resembling those of a simple Role Playing Game. While choices are still made at the ends of sections, the results of most decisions must be established using the rules, and the determination of the next segment to be read typically depends on the outcome generated by the system. A degree of uncertainty is often introduced into the equations by the use of dice, coins or some similar mechanism. Qualitative works are commonly divided into fewer parts than quantitative ones; the qualitative form typically concentrates on the development of character and narrative, while the quantitative one attempts to give the player as many choices as possible.

Branching narrative structures are used in various works of fiction published before the appearance of the Gamebook. Notable examples include "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" ["The Garden of Forking Paths"] (in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, coll 1942) by Jorge Luis Borges, which describes a fictional novel whose form may be the unattainable ideal to which all actual multilinear stories aspire (see Interactive Narrative), and "Un conte à votre façon" ["A Story As You Like It"] (July 1967 Le nouvel observateur), by Raymond Queneau, an actual example of a multilinear narrative which is one of the early products of the Oulipo group. Within sf, New Worlds magazine published such related experimental fiction as John Sladek's "Alien Territory" (November 1969 New Worlds), a story composed of 36 paragraphs arranged in a grid and connected by arrows which define a wide variety of possible paths through the narrative (98,841 in total if routes which loop back to an already visited paragraph are excluded). Sladek had earlier produced a colourful graphic "choose your own path" booklet, full of surreal Humour, as a gift for his wife-to-be: a text transcription eventually appeared as The Lost Nose: A Programmed Book (2001 chap), published as a promotional teaser for Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (coll 2002), in which it was included. His friend Charles Platt was also inspired to create such programmed Comics as "Norman vs. America" (in QUARK/4, anth 1971, ed Samuel R Delany and Marilyn Hacker).

Several other contemporary works employed branching narratives, including Lucky Les (1967), a children's book by E W Hildick in which readers can determine the fate of the eponymous cat, and Dennis Guerrier and Joan Richards' State of Emergency (1969). This latter book, which deals with the problems of a newly independent African nation, is notable largely for how closely it resembles a conventional literary novel. While multilinear branches are present, they almost invariably fold back into the main storyline after a short divergence (see Interactive Narrative). State of Emergency is also highly didactic; readers are often presented with choices which, if made, lead only to an explanation of why such a decision would be mistaken, and an instruction to try again. This feature may be related to the book's genesis in the "programmed learning" movement, an instructional technique proposed by the behaviourist B F Skinner in the 1950s which presents information in a series of structured steps; Guerrier and Richards' book is described by the authors as a "programmed entertainment". (Towards the end of the 1950s Skinner's approach was further refined by Norman A Crowder, a computer expert who introduced "intrinsic programming", which included branching responses. Thus instructional texts – such as his own The Arithmetic of Computers [1958] – were intended to present the reader with either the reward of a new idea or the reinforcement of a previously misunderstood concept, depending on whether their answer to a question indicated that they had fully mastered the material.) Many of these works, however, cast the reader in the role of an author who can make choices about the direction of the story, rather than that of a participatory protagonist, as seems more suitable for a game. This is perhaps the fundamental innovation made by the Gamebook, exemplified by the form's characteristic use of the second person and present tense rather than the third person and past tense employed in "Un conte à votre façon" and its direct descendants, computer-based Hypertext fictions such as Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (1992 ebook) or Shelley Jackson's science-fictional Patchwork Girl (1995 ebook).

Early Gamebooks such as the Tracker series, published by Corgi in the UK beginning with John Allen and Kenneth James' science fiction story Mission To Planet L (1972), cast the reader in the role of protagonist but often differed in other ways from the conventions established by later works. The Tracker books, for example, are written in the first person and the past tense. They are, however, characteristic in being created for younger readers and concentrating on genre themes. The Tracker series includes sf, sports fiction and thrillers, but science fiction and fantasy later came to dominate the form. Gamebooks achieved mass popularity with the introduction of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in the US, beginning with the sf-like The Cave of Time (1979), by Edward Packard. Both the Tracker books and Choose Your Own Adventure, however, are examples of the qualitative variant. Quantitative Gamebooks have a separate origin, as a development from early Role Playing Games.

Buffalo Castle (1976 Flying Buffalo [FB]) designed by Rick Loomis, intended for use with the fantasy game Tunnels and Trolls (1975 FB) designed by Ken St Andre, was the first solitaire RPG module, with a predesigned plot which could be used by one person to play the RPG without the assistance of a Gamemaster. This idea – based on a suggestion made by Steve McAllister – proved popular, and a number of other solitaire adventures were produced for Tunnels and Trolls and for other systems such as The Fantasy Trip (1977-1980 Metagaming Concepts) designed by Steve Jackson; later examples allow for more sophisticated choices than the somewhat limited options available in Buffalo Castle. Inspired by these scenarios and the popularity of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in the US, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone then created the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks for the UK publisher Puffin, beginning with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982. These books contain a simple role playing system, allowing the player to create a character and then proceed through the story by using the rules to determine the results of their actions as well as by making choices.

Fighting Fantasy proved to be very influential, leading to the launch of many similar series, of which the Lone Wolf sequence, beginning with Flight from the Dark (1984) by Joe Dever, and Sorcery!, beginning with The Shamutanti Hills (1983) by Steve Jackson, were perhaps the most commercially successful. Both of these series follow a single character from one book to the next in a coherent Sword and Sorcery setting, unlike Fighting Fantasy and Choose Your Own Adventure, in which each volume is typically playable without reference to the others. Dever was also the author of the similarly structured Post-Holocaust sf Freeway Warrior series, beginning with Highway Holocaust (1988; vt Freeway Warrior 1989). The Blood Sword sequence, consisting of 5 volumes by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson beginning with The Battlepits of Krarth (1987), is perhaps the most accomplished of the many quantitative series of the 1980s. Set in the fantasticated medieval world of Legend – a milieu the books share with the Dragon Warriors Role Playing Game – the series allows one or more players to participate in a story leading from a kingdom of dreams through a magical analogue of Jerusalem to the depths of Hell. A further evolution of the form can be seen in the Fabled Lands sequence, of which the first volume is The War Torn Kingdom (1995), by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson. While most Gamebooks are essentially multilinear (see Interactive Narrative), the Fabled Lands series is primarily modular in construction. Each volume takes place in a particular region of its mildly original Sword and Sorcery world, and individual sections detail the possible events in particular places, with choices that can lead from one location to another, or into an area described in another book. Unfortunately, only the first six of a projected twelve volumes were published.

Of the many Gamebook series created by various publishers, two which may be of particular interest to sf readers are Crossroads and Combat Command. Both of these sequences consist of Ties to works by well-known sf and fantasy authors, with rules systems contributed by Bill Fawcett. The Combat Command books, which have mechanics resembling those of a board and counter Wargame, are typically derived from sequences of science-fictional novels which they extend into the realms of large-scale warfare. The series comprises Dana Kramer-Rolls's Cut by Emerald (1987) (which is related to Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant), Mark Acres' Shines the Name (1987) (a spinoff from Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers [October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959]), Troy Denning's The Omega Rebellion (1987) (based on Keith Laumer's Star Colony [fixup 1982]), Todd Johnson's Slammers Down! (1988), a derivative of David A Drake's Hammer's Slammers sequence by a pseudonymous Todd McCaffrey, Andrew Keith's The Legion At War (1988) (a late entry in Jack Williamson's Legion of Space series), Neil Randall's The Black Road War (1988) (which is linked to Roger Zelazny's Amber novels), Mark Acres' Lord of Lances (1988) (part of Jerry Pournelle's Janissaries sequence), Troy Denning's Dorsai's Command (1989) (related to Gordon R Dickson's Dorsai series) and Bill Fawcett's Cold Cash Warrior (1989) (a spinoff from Robert Lynn Asprin's The Cold Cash War [1977]). The Crossroads series, which used a simple set of RPG rules to focus on character interaction, are more closely associated with works of fantasy. Examples include Matthew J Costello's Revolt on Majipoor (1987) (linked to Robert Silverberg's Majipoor series), Tom Wham's Prospero's Isle (1987) (a late entry in L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's Incomplete Enchanter sequence), Neil Randall's Seven No-Trump (1988) (related to Roger Zelazny's Amber books) and Jody Lynn Nye's Dragonharper (1987) and Dragonfire (1988) (both set in Anne McCaffrey's world of Pern). Also worth noting is Harry Harrison's You Can Be the Stainless Steel Rat (1985), part of the author's own Stainless Steel Rat sequence, a rare example of a Gamebook written by a major sf author and based on his own characters. Intriguingly, the player of this book cannot, in fact, be the Stainless Steel Rat, but instead adopts the role of a character following his orders. Finally, Edward Gorey amusingly Parodied the format in The Raging Tide; Or, The Black Doll's Imbroglio (graph 1987), featuring such absurdist choices as "If you loathe prunes more than you do turnips, turn to 22."

As Gamebooks rose in popularity, solitaire modules for RPGs fell. It is possible that the rapid growth experienced by RPGs during the 1980s made it easier for players to find Gamemasters, making single-player adventures unnecessary. One notable late example is the Adventures On Tékumel, Part Two series created by M A R Barker for the RPG Gardàsiyal: Deeds of Glory (1994) designed by M A R Barker, Neil Cauley, set in Barker's own Secondary World of Tékumel. These books are considerably more sophisticated and adult in tone than most Gamebooks and single-player adventures, allowing players to explore the early lives of their characters in an exotic fantasy setting influenced by Indian and Mesoamerican cultures. The full sequence comprises Coming of Age in Tékumel (1992), Beyond the Borders of Tsolyánu (1993) and Beneath the Lands of Tsolyánu (1994).

By the early 1990s, however, Gamebooks themselves had lost much of their popularity. It seems likely that the increasing availability of cheap Videogame hardware was the chief cause of the form's commercial decline; there is little that players can do in a Gamebook that cannot be done more easily and with more impressive visuals in an Adventure or Computer Role Playing Game. Series such as Fabled Lands attempted to make the format more open and flexible, but this required greater effort on the part of the player, who had to manually record information which could be handled automatically by a computer. Few new Gamebooks have been published since the mid 1990s, though there is a niche market for reprints and new entries in the two most famous series, Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy. One interesting exception is Kim Newman's Life's Lottery (1999), a work of Speculative Fiction which uses the limitations generally imposed by the form on a player's freedom of action to represent the arbitrariness of the choices which determine the course of the protagonist's life. Many modern Videogames, however, employ narrative structures influenced by those developed for the form. Perhaps the clearest examples are the menu-driven text Adventures included in such games as Space Rangers (2002), in which the player is presented with screens of (frequently illustrated) text and asked to choose an action from a list. Games designed in this way are popular in Japan, where bijuaru noberu or "Visual Novels" (typically written in the first person and dealing with romantic themes) make up a high proportion of Videogames released for personal computers. [NT/DRL]

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies