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Interlude – Death and Failure in Gamebooks

death_holding_sickle

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 :

  1. Endurance going to zero.
  2. The so-called ‘insta-death’.

There are obviously sub-categories of both of the above, as follows.

  1. (a) Endurance loss by way of combat.

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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.

  1. (b) Endurance loss by way of attrition.

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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.

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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.

zombie-quiz

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.

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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.

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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…..

CASTLE DEATH!

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10 thoughts on “Interlude – Death and Failure in Gamebooks

  1. Hi Tim,

    Enjoyed reading this, particularly your analysis of differently weighted instadeaths. My experience of reading ‘turn left, you die’ always provoked me to wonder what would happen after death / capture. There seem to be two different impulses in the writer’s mind: we want our readers to succeed and enjoy the adventure and choices we’ve created, but we need to use stops like instadeath to prevent the branching of choices becoming too wide and unwriteable. Restart or reload can be frustrating for many readers, so of course there’s a covert finger-in-the-previous-passage thing going on too. Do you know of other stopping techniques that are less absolute than instadeath, or stories where the experience carries on beyond failure/death?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, The Forest of Doom had the whole “If you Test Your Luck successfully, you can go back to the start” method, although that went cock-eyed because there was no guidance as to how to handle the monsters you had ‘already’ killed. There was a RPG writer whose name escapes me who talked of the ‘three clue method’ – every obstacle should have three methods for the players to use to overcome it. Of course, an open-ended game is a different challenge to a gamebook which has limited choices. But I always preferred : “If you have the item, you can continue, and if you don’t, you need to be very lucky” rather than just a simple death penalty.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 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.

    With you all the way.

    I advise removing all breakable items from your vicinity before playing The Plague Lords of Ruel, as that ends the adventure with a particularly nasty example. 40% chance of death unless you have a certain unlikely combination of Disciplines, in which case it drops to just 10%.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a really interesting topic and I’m glad you devoted a separate post to it.

    Yeah, the unavoidable instadeaths get really bad in the Grand Master series. There are usually at least two per book, with several with fairly high chance of death with the wrong discipline combinations. Plus some of the combats get nearly impossible if you have less than max stats or items. You might regret having missed the Silver Helmet back in Kalte. 😉

    I agree that from a gaming perspective, the unavoidable deaths if you have the wrong combination of items/skills are extremely annoying. Lone Wolf was far better than Fighting Fantasy in this regard. The only really long path you can take where you are ultimately doomed no matter what you do is if you happen to get the Seal of Hammerdal stolen (or sell it!) in Fire on the Water. But the book makes it pretty clear from the beginning how important that item is, so I think it’s fair as the player knows fully well they better not lose it. Even books where you have to have, say, a magical weapon to defeat a certain “final boss” such as a Darklord would at least provide an unavoidable way to obtain said item throughout the course of the book. Granted, the player could drop it or throw it away due to inventory limitations but again the book makes it fairly clear the importance of said item.

    The larger point here I think is that books that rely on skill are good, and those that rely on luck are bad. I don’t have a problem with dying if it fits in the context of the story. No one ever said saving the world was supposed to be easy; it makes perfect sense to have to fight some tough battles along the way and make some harrowing escapes. Even some of the unavoidable instadeaths could be justified from the standpoint of realism…if it makes sense that you really would have a 10 percent chance of dying if the situation in question really occured, then while it’s annoying that you can’t do anything about it, it’s at least not irrational. But it absolutely makes for a better game to leave those out, even if it might make for a better story in some cases. If certain skills or items are required to progress, it should be clued as to how/where to acquire them.

    This speaks to the Sierra vs. Lucasarts design philosophy I mentioned in a previous comment, in terms of how they designed their games back in the day. Sierra was notorious for the random monster who pops onto the screen and kills you without warning, or any other number of senseless ways to die. Lucasarts on the other hand went out of its way to make its games fair, and in fact was kinda well known for making it impossible for the player to “die” in nearly all of their games. So much so that in the Monkey Island series there is a scene where Guybrush Threepwood appears to die before the game tells you it’s just kidding because what, did you think you were playing a Sierra game or something? (It may not have been that explicit regarding needling their rival Sierra….I’m going by memory here).

    There has been a lot written about game design in interactive fiction and adventure games and RPGs, but I’ve not seen a lot of literature on gamebooks specifically, though most of the same principles apply.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “if it makes sense that you really would have a 10 percent chance of dying if the situation in question really occured, then while it’s annoying that you can’t do anything about it, it’s at least not irrational”

      Like the falling mast in Fire and the drop from the Eagle in Shadow.

      Like

  4. Well in some cases 2(a) are tolerable: I remember in on of the Samurai gamebooks when you can mutilate a dead enemy only to discover that he had acid blood like a xenomorph… but hey, a samurai is supposed to respect enemies even in death, so you deserve punishment.
    Pity that later, if you are captured, you are faced with a simple choice: look left or look right? Obviously one choice means ista-death!

    But I think that it’s even worse when you are punished for something useful you did (like insta-death after winning a combat)!

    Before I talked about the Freeway Warrior… #4 has a part where you have to solve a mystery… the reward? A hard combat that you can skip if you fail!
    Or, even worse, “Caverns of the Snow B̶i̶t̶ … Witch”: here you can sneak past a particular enemy only if you d̲o̲n̲’̲t̲ ̲h̲a̲v̲e̲ a particular item (why? Come on, that’s no reason)!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “Avoiding death for all future attempts isn’t a matter of skill, just rather a simple feat of memory in avoiding the incorrect choice.”

    Yes, yes, you’ve summed up the fatal flaw with Insta-Death with just those few words.

    “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.”

    While that is certainly fun you can still end up with the situation that you just learn the quickest way to success and then there’s no challenge in the gamebook anymore. Think of Usurper where the city ruling is great but even the authors didn’t believe that people would maintain patience with this method (although I must admit I’d have happily played a whole book like that, but if it was just a case of 20 lefts and 14 rights in a specific order I’d probably put the book down and go do something else again).

    When there’s rolling of the dice there’s also strategy in deciding when, in THIS run through of the book, is the best time to use your healing potion (or alether potion depending). If there’s no random generator then you’re range of choices shrinks (imho).

    Liked by 1 person

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