Aside : This is really just a stream of consciousness on a topic I’ve been giving some thought. Don’t expect a melodramatic conclusion.
One of the distinctions between so-called ‘gamebooks’ and ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books is that the first is, essentially, a contest between yourself and the book. Can you reach the ‘successful’ ending, or will you fail? Choose Your Own Adventure (and Pick-Your-Path, Find-Your-Fate and similiar rip-offs) are more a means of telling multiple stories with the endings being secondary to the path taken and the story told.
As we all know, the other dimension to gamebooks is the element of random chance. Success isn’t simply a matter of the right choices – they can only maximise your chance of ‘survival’.
To that end, these are two main ways of ‘failing’ in the course of a gamebook :
- Endurance going to zero.
- The so-called ‘insta-death’.
There are obviously sub-categories of both of the above, as follows.
- (a) Endurance loss by way of combat.
Obviously ‘balance’ with regard to this category is generally a matter of mathematics. The author can calculate the range of possible Combat Skill (or equivalent) at that point of the adventure, along with Endurance / Stamina, along with the chance of success / failure. Of course, part of the equation is what actual chance of success the author thinks is reasonable. We all know multiple books (Deathtrap Dungeon being a famous example) where the consecutive battles with enemies with high statistics make a successful outcome almost (but not quite) impossible for someone with low starting statistics.
For those with pure hearts that play these adventures honestly, the repetitive nature of defeats against the same enemies becomes less of a ‘contest’ and more a war of attrition, in that you repeatedly roll the dice until what is, essentially, an improbable outcome allows you to succeed.
- (b) Endurance loss by way of attrition.
Adventures obviously have Endurance (or Stamina, or what have you) loss through misadventure. Examples range from wounds through falling into pit traps all the way to indigestion from eating overripe fruit. This can lead to almost comical examples where your last points of Endurance are sapped away through the equivalent of a stubbed toe.
Again, balance can be crucial here. If the player succeeds with a minimum of effort, then there is no meaningful sense of achievement. On the other hand, if success is so prohibitively difficult that it is almost impossible, enjoyment at the adventure can be replaced with a grim determination to succeed, which become almost obsessive and completely lacking in ‘fun’.
2. (a) Instadeath through wrong choice.
Made famous among readers of this blog, this is the failure which is simply cut and dried. Choice ‘A’ and you continue on your adventure. Choice ‘B’ and you fail and / or die. While this type of trap can be tempting for the author, thought should be given to the lack of so-called ‘replayability’ which it permits.
This is taken to the extreme with such basic books as the ‘Be an Interplanetary Spy’ series. The entire book is a series of binary choices, where the reader is asked to solve a visual puzzle, with the correct answer meaning the reader can continue, while the wrong answer equals death.
While the attempt to make the choices a matter of skill, the simple ‘A or B’ nature of the choices renders the book simply a matter of quickly exhausting the possible choices. Even a reader with no inclination to meaningfully struggle with the puzzles can simply and quickly start again, progress to the point of (most recent) failure and continue.
An so-called ‘insta-death’ through simply looking through the wrong door or opening the wrong chest tends to, among honest readers, provoke an eye-roll and a speedy replay of the adventure. Avoiding death for all future attempts isn’t a matter of skill, just rather a simple feat of memory in avoiding the incorrect choice.
2. (b) Instadeath but with chance of survival.
This is more interesting. This is a situation where the protagonist is sentenced to death if, and only if, the protagonist fails some random check or lacks a skill or item. I do not include here the situation where you MUST have an item or skill to continue. I rather speak of a circumstance where the reader makes a ‘wrong’ choice, but can continue if a skill test is passed or an item is possessed.
I consider this is a vital tool of the gamebook, because of the ability to preserve interest on future paths through the book. The reader must make the choice as to whether the item in question should be sought (or the relevant skill obtained) or whether the protagonist should continue by making different choices.
It is not a separate category, but I have a particular hatred for the moment which cannot be avoided (for successful completion of the adventure) but the author has included a random chance (usually 10% or 20%) of death. That isn’t a game, that is simply gambling.
2. (c) Instadeath where item is not possessed.
Beloved of authors such as Ian Livingstone (particularly in later books), this is the situation also know as a ‘bottle-neck’. There is a point in the book which MUST be passed in order to continue. However, the reader can ONLY pass if a particular skill is possessed or (more frequently) if a particular item has been obtained earlier in the adventure.
This tactic is beloved in many books, but can become troublesome if over-used. It can be particularly frustrating if the accumulation of the relevant items is simply a matter of chance earlier in the adventure.
“Did you turn left 10 paragraphs ago? Awesome, you have the Lantern of Truth – proceed!”
It is far preferable to give the player hints and indications of the ‘correct’ path for the proper plot tokens needed to proceed. Another alternative is to allow multiple paths for success – either possess the plot token, have a particular skill or make a (difficult) random check.
The other problem with this approach is that the reader can, over time, become sadly aware that their adventure is a proverbial ‘dead man walking’. Having failed to obtain a plot token, they grimly plod through the adventure to the inevitable bottleneck before yet again ‘dying’ a gruesome death.
3. My preferences.
YES, TIM, WE KNOW YOU PREFER JULIE DELPY, GET TO THE POINT.
I make no bones about the fact that my preference is for those books which are more of a ‘puzzle’ than a battle with the dice. A challenge to find your way through a maze or decipher a riddle is far preferable to hoping that you can roll improbably high statistics in order to survive. If I wanted the latter, I’d haunt the craps table at Crown Casino.
In any event, this has been some musing on a hobby I’ve enjoyed for around 34 years. If you’ve come this far, you enjoy them too! Come back in the next day or two for…..