Interactive Fiction and The End

September 16, 2010

It’s not really about interactive fiction in the IF Comp sense, but having been invited to contribute by new games editor Peter Law, I wrote a a broad thing for The Literary Platform. It’s about gamebooks and why they are cool and why aren’t there more around. I think it’s the internet’s fault, we’re all full up on hyperlinks now.

The original was ridiculously long, rambly and probably ungood, but if you’re interested in seeing the full unedited thing, it’s cowering over the jump.

Gamebooks and hypertext

In 2009 I wrote a book called Enemy of Chaos. It’s a parody gamebook, which means it’s equally insulting to games, books and real gamebooks. And it’s very much intended to live in the bit-of-fun-at-Christmas category rather than the games category, or the fiction category, or – certainly – the ‘meta-fiction’ category. This last is a genre I barely knew had such an official status until I noticed its followers picking up my book. They must have been starved of this geek oxygen since the Fighting Fantasy days because despite EOC’s palpable failures, meta-fiction fans closed in around it like Grues in a dark dungeon.

So why aren’t making gamebooks anymore? People like games, and people definitely like books. And while some books are our work and some are our escape from work, gamebooks are both in one! They allows us to indulge our love of escaping with our – perhaps more private – passion for satisfying, repetitive tasks that result in quantifiable achievements.

And gamebooks are excitingly disruptive. They subvert the medium of the book, turning something profoundly well-established, entwined with our civilisation’s every achievement, into a game where you get to pretend to stab an Ork in the face. Yet at some point the integral rules of a book give way to the rules of a game, and a kind of discipline arises despite itself. Retaining its bookyness, its storytelling responsibilities and its papery page-turning possibilites, a gamebook becomes a program activated by the willingness to pretend. They are an absorptive illusion, and labrynths of twisty little passages of themselves, as anyone who’s ever drawn out a flowchart for one will tell you.

Keeping it unreal

With some notorious exceptions, gamebooks are written in the second person, and this – combined with the metaphorical/literal turning and choosing you’re instructed to do to progress – causes something odd to happen to the reader. You enjoy a story (only one story at a time, don’t cheat) – while being plunged into a literary game of dress-up. Gamebooks offer a kind of consensual pretending; consensual because you agree up-front that there will be an awful lot you don’t get to choose about what you say and do during the game. But in the case of Fighting Fantasy-like books the game vitally demands the player actively create his world, finding corridors that only appear on contact with his lamp-light, gradually illuminating and sharpening the mist-cloaked landscape that is both setting and story.

A vague awareness of a wider network is tantalising, which is why these books often contain a map, but for much of the ‘game’, the player is never quite sure where he is – both geographically and terms of plot. Top-down, there seems to be a maze of options for sure, but the impression of a network is just that: a sense, an enjoyable suspicion of vastness. So long as you’re in character as a reader/player, you’re blinkered: it’s just you and the choices you can see in front of you. It’s that moment of being confronted with a junction in the road, but knowing you can only choose one path. It’s the limit that’s exciting, because it implies so much more.

Of course, the reality is that these books know precisely where they want you to be. In many cases, the player is pushed through funnels to keep the story developing right up to an end – either any end at all (as with Choose Your Own Adventure) or the final ‘correct’ end, in the case of Fighting Fantasy, where the ending on the last page that is a ‘win’ rather than a death and represents the longest possible route through the book. I’ve talked in other places about the connections between these metafictional ‘gotos’ and internet hyperlinks – but this is where gamebooks differ from the web. All books and most games have a set direction and a goal in sight; to the extent that the internet is the name of a structure, it has no end. The early internet was all ‘back’ arrows, but a story – even a convoluted time travel one like EOC – must keep flowing one way. The endings are the whole point, they are both the goals and the threats.

Close relations

And it is all these things that make gamebooks great, and unique. While there have been plenty of things that are similar, very few have proved quite as uniquely engrossing or successful at marrying the pretending to the rules as the branching narrative. The early ‘80s turned out a lot of treasurehunts, and while Masquerade was beautiful to look at, readers weren’t enchanted by the magical escapism so much as caught up in an explosive collision of puzzle fever and expensive prizes. Picture puzzle books came in every shape and size in those days, Fighting Fantasy author Ian Livingstone even wrote one, but none of them had the same power to gleefully hijack your identity as the CYOA and FF-type gamebooks. In fact, in my view, the closest thing to a gamebook isn’t a book at all; it’s not even D&D. It’s the text adventure video game – and its modern young nephews, the Interactive Fictions and all the text-based online games that seem to co exist happily and modestly in the same niche today.

The Internet and hypertext

There are choose-your-own-adventure books that use ‘hypertext’ to subvert books, but their modern, virtual, counterparts subvert the intended use of hypertext itself (I keep thinking of The Manhole but of course The Nethernet is a better, and current example). What began as a playful experiment with words and paper (in France, where else*) lives on in the linked-page framework of the internet itself – a flawed metaphor for paper, and a playground for twisty turny adventurers.

And maybe it’s just me, but I really think the hyperlinked structure of the internet and these ‘meta-fictions’ share some irresistable quality. It’s the same thing that’s interesting about maps, because after all these are maps. Perhaps we – as human animals – are programmed to enjoy them, to find our place on them, and to want to feel our routes to the edges. And I don’t mean they’re interesting in the devalued sense of ‘appealing’, but properly interesting – full of unexpectedness, information and promise. Best of all are the ‘hacks’, the secret passages and last-minute dodges that represent human triumphs over the system.

Once one knows about hypertext and metafiction it can feel like an inevitable improvement, as though there’s nothing that wouldn’t benefit from its subversive beauty. It makes me wonder if we’re indulging some kind of primal survival response every time we play with our website navigation, or drop ourselves into a virtual world from a great height to shoot zombies on an iPad. Who doesn’t experience the godlike thrill surveying a realm from above, the adrenalin-shot of joy at glimpsing what’s round a corner before they glimpse us? Who doesn’t, if they’re honest, relish that strange pleasure of being caught – the turning of a page to see a “The End”?

* From the Wikipedia: “Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is inspired by children’s picture books in which each page is cut into horizontal strips which can be turned independently, allowing different pictures (usually of people) to be combined in many ways. Queneau applies this technique to poetry: the book contains 10 sonnets, each on a page. Each page is split into 14 strips, one for each line. The author estimates in the introductory explanation that it would take approximately 200 million years to read all possible combinations.”

One Response to “Interactive Fiction and The End”

  1. […] Had an article I wrote on gamebooks and stuff published here this morning. Nice retweeting and stuff doing the rounds about it today, especially heartening as it’s the section editor’s first commission for the site. The full unedited version is over on my non-work blog. […]

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