Wednesday 8 August 2012

The Format of Gamebooks

These days gamebooks are available in many different formats: we have our classic prints, with softcover and hardcover, and our newer electronic format, with text file and game. Some gamebooks are very short, like the ones I have posted so far, while others are large mammoth books. Some had a plethora of illustrations, while others are text only. Some come with extra materials required for game play, such as special cards, dice, etc. While others can be played without needing any other materials at all. In this post I’m going to discuss different aspects of gamebook formats.

Print or PDF?
I’m going to start off with the big question that’s being asked in today’s digital era. Print or PDF? Gamebooks were originally published in print, with a few select titles being turned into electronic format; for example the first few Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were made available for ZX spectrum. There were also text adventures, which were very similar to gamebooks, such as Zork, which actually had a gamebook spinoff series. Today many of our old favorite 80s series are now out-of-print, but there now seems to be a rise in electronic formatted publications. So what are the advantages of each?

Print: There’s nothing quite like the feel of a good book in your hands; being able to flip through pages allows us certain things a digital copy might not afford us, like being able to appreciate all the artwork as you skim through, hidden ending like those of UFO 54-40, and a more general idea of how the book is laid out. Although a book can get scuffed up, dirty and damaged, it is a medium that will never go obsolete; in the future programs required to read today’s digital gamebooks will be extinct and it will be impossible to play those old favorites, however we’ll still be able to read our old print gamebooks no matter how much technology changes.

PDF (or other electronic format): This adds a lot to the simplicity of play; hyperlinks and automatic die rolls make things much easier for the player. Also certain mechanics can be hidden from the player when needed (for example in citadel of chaos when you are asked for the password you are given a list of options to guess the password, when realistically a guard wouldn’t give you a list to guess from). Also this format makes gamebooks more portable; you can carry a library full of gamebooks in your pocket in ebook format. Also all the automatic die rolling make it so you can play on the go easily; you can be sure to lose a die when playing a gamebook on the subway.

I can see the appeal for both, however I myself however prefer print; it’s easier to add to my collection, if ever my phone or computer stops working I won’t lose my precious gamebooks. I also like to be able to fudge some of the die rolls if they are too unfair (e.g. roll a two on 2d6 or you die). And I like to browse through them and see what paths I missed after reading them.

Large or Small?
Does size matter? When gamebooks first came out there were usually quite short and without many options. Some series have continued this way, such as choose your own adventure, which can be less than 100 pages long with a significant about of linear sections of pages. Since then it seems authors have been determined to expand in size, today we have our recent Legion of Shadow at almost 700 pages. There exists a wide variety in the lengths of gamebooks; there are some gamebooks that are around 1000 sections long, and over 500 pages, while others (usually fan written) can be around 10 sections and only a single page. So let’s take a look at the different advantages and disadvantages of large and small gamebooks:

Large: while large gamebooks do have more room for interesting narrative, sections and choices, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the authors will fill it up with that. There are some full length novels that will simply give the reader a choice of two ending at the very end, just barely qualifying to be called a “gamebook”. I also find that the largest gamebooks usually contain a variety of different plots within them (example: Life’s Lottery, Pretty Little Mistakes, and all the subquests of Legion of Shadow and Fabled Lands). For those who want one strict story line to follow and finish your gamebook with no stone overturned, this is not the type for you. However, that being said, for those who like to explore and love long text with detail, then reading a short gamebook just doesn’t cut it when compared to some of the larger gamebooks out there. Having a larger gamebook with more sections allows the player much more freedom and a lot more options, plus a good deal of replay value.

Short: It can be fun to pick up a small gamebook in your spare time and finish it all in one go, exploring everything it has to offer. And being short doesn’t necessarily mean the player doesn’t have many options: some of said page-long adventures will include many sections on that single page leading the player all around to different locations with a myriad of choices on each section, though there probably won’t be many locations to visit aside from the ones listed on each section.  However these are only really good as quick stories or games; you aren’t going to get a big role-playing adventure across the land with complex in-depth plots in a short gamebook.

In my opinion, while I do enjoy the occasional short gamebook, because they can be fun and quick adventures. This is the style I have gone for in all the adventures I have written thus far. However most often I like a nice big gamebook because I enjoy having a wider variety of options, more complex plots, and a larger area to explore.

I’m just going to mention this one quickly because I believe that we can universally agree that the more illustrations the better; they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and they might just be right. Illustrations can help the player really see what the author was trying to create with their writing, while still using their imagination to elaborate on the illustrator’s drawing. I find this helps in bringing the gamebook to life. Illustrations can also act as puzzle for the player, such as in The Forgotten Spell, and give clues to the player as well (like in Siege of Sardath section 332 where the text describes Sorrel as having a scar over his right eye, but in the picture it is over his left, meaning it is a trick!). Vivez l’Aventure had lovely two page illustrations, for each section, proving that it’s impossible to have too many illustrations.

Extra Materials
For extra materials I am including play aids, tables, adventure sheets, cards, dice, etc. Everything other than the text itself you need in order to play. There are a variety of different types; there are common household game items, like dice and pencils, there are tables to refer to in the book or print out, also some old gamebooks even had plastic “filters” to reveal certain hidden sections of text. The question is do they have a positive or negative effect?

Extra Materials: On one hand, play aids can be used to add a lot of depth and interesting mechanics to gameplay; in fact most of these play aids provide most of the “game” in today’s gamebooks. In order to add elements of chance to the story and game authors most often use dice to give the player random outcomes, which helps keep things interesting and unpredictable. Authors also use the adventure sheet keep record of what a player has done so as to cause a player’s past action to affect them later in the story i.e. to add consequence.

No Extra Materials: On the other hand, sometimes game items can be difficult to use when on the go. As I said above; it’s kinda difficult to roll your dice and write on your adventure sheet when you’re on a crowded bus. Also there’s nothing wrong with reading a plain old CYOA without the fancy dice and character creation. Many of the best gamebooks are written like that; Life’s Lottery, a Million Little Mistakes, and Endless Quest are all playable with nothing else but the book in your hands.

So now in my opinion,  while it is nice to have easily usable gamebooks out there that can be read and enjoyed in almost any situation, I enjoy taking advantage of all the interesting mechanics play aids have to offer. I encourage gamebook authors to take advantage of all the different extra materials they can incorporate into their works, but to also write a simple CYOA-type every now and then.

While I like gamebooks in just about every format they come in, whether print or PDF, large or small, illustrated or not, requiring extra materials or being stand-alone, there are certain formats that do seem to be preferable to others. I would say the ideal gamebook format would be a print hardcover, that was extremely long, filled with illustrations and using a variety of extra materials to add spice to its mechanics. That isn’t to say authors shouldn't experiment with the format of gamebooks and try a bit of everything.

Now I want to hear what YOU think! What is YOUR favorite format for a gamebook? Which series do YOU think presented the best format of gamebook? What do YOU think of my opinions?


  1. Wait... there are gamebooks on a single page? That's something I have GOT to check out.

    1. Yes there are a few, usually posted online randomly. here are a few links to some I can think of right now.

  2. Very interesting, Jake. I'm torn between print and digital, myself. I really like print, in concept, but I find that I realistically do most of my reading on kindle these days. My ideal would probably be something like what Tin Man Games does, but for Kindle.

  3. print: as you said, nothing can replace the feeling of a printed book. i hate reading books on my pc. the farthest i'll go is my kindle(which i do at the moment with the terrific LONE WOLF series! ).
    large: i loved sorcery 4: crown of kings back then...a large book with a lot of section brings a sense of Epicness regardless to the actual plot; you just feel something BIG is you better brace yourself! i just got my copy of DQ and it feels great to just hold such a piece...
    illustrated: so important. so damn important, in this age of CGI and amazing SFX in even simple computer games...i agree that the actual edge game books got over pc games is the fact you actually use your imagination so much(which is limitless), but still - those illustration are a must Imho. FF books is a good example for B&W imagery, while going for "the next level" will be something like what you see in D&D 3.5/4 books.
    Add-ons mechanics: i think it's also something i myself love and won't give up on. i won't go as far as using special dices like in D&D, since not everyone got those, but the possibilities one can create from a simple 1d6 and a deck of cards(which just about anyone got) are limitless, so hell yes! i'd even go as far as creating special-addition cards with spells/abilities/battle techniques on them.

    so, to sum it all, i'll go with print+large+illustrated+add ons :).

    1. If you like "print+large+illustrated+add ons" you should learn German and buy "Reiter der schwarzen Sonne",,,