[NOTE: Since I write these articles fairly far in advance, this article was actually written shortly before I wrote “Acolyte!” – a free interactive gamebook style horror/comedy story].
Even though this is an article about an old genre of fiction that is often overlooked, I’m going to have to start by talking about videogames briefly. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious later.
Anyway, for a few days before I originally wrote this article, I’ve been watching a series of “let’s play” videos for a modern horror game called “Until Dawn”. This is a game that’s based on old slasher movies and the game seems to play out like a movie, but you get to make decisions at various points in the story which affect which characters survive, what happens next etc…
Although the game requires a far more modern games console than any that I own and, looking at the videos, it doesn’t have a huge amount of actual gameplay in it- it fascinated me because it’s basically a modern version of those old gamebooks that used to be popular in the 1970s-90s (eg: “Fighting Fantasy“, “Choose Your Own Adventure“, “Give Yourself Goosebumps” etc..).
In case you’ve never seen these books before, they start out like a normal novel but – after a couple of pages, you’ll be given a decision to make. If you choose one option, then the book instructs you to turn to – say- page 53. If you choose the other option, the book instructs you to turn to – say- page 75. Whichever page you turn to will also contain another set of decisions etc…. Your decisions affect how the story plays out.
In other words, there are many possible paths through the story. If you were to map out the possible paths through these books, then they would look more like a flowchart of some kind than a single straight line.
When I was younger, I amassed quite a collection of these gamebooks and even tried (and failed) to write some of my own. In fact, I also tried (and failed) to write one as recently as 2013 [It’s the fourth thing on the index in this article]. It’s possible that I may or may not have made another attempt between the time I wrote this article and the time it is posted. [Edit: As mentioned earlier, I did and it can be read here].
And, yes, I also wrote another article about this genre back in 2013 too. Seriously, it’s one of those genres that I keep forgetting about and then becoming fascinated with again.
The thing that really surprises me is how unknown and under-appreciated this genre is. Books in this genre mostly seem to be written for and marketed towards kids and teenagers and they virtually never get any real recognition. Most modern authors wouldn’t even think about writing one of these stories. This is a real shame because these stories have the advantage of being interactive in a way that “traditional” stories don’t.
So, why is this genre so overlooked and under-used?
First of all, it’s probably because of the technical difficulties involved in writing one of these stories. Not only do you have to meticulously plan out the whole story before even writing the first page, but you basically have to plan out many possible versions of the same story.
If there are too many decisions, then the novel can become unwieldy and too complex. If there aren’t enough different decisions, then the novel can become boring quickly.
Secondly, these types of novels require a radically different approach to both narration and characterisation. Since the main character is supposed to be the reader, they have to be a “blank slate”, so there isn’t a huge amount of room for characterisation. Likewise, you also have to write in a much more descriptive way than in a traditional novel.
Not only that, these types of novels are unique in that they’re about the only genre of fiction that has to be written in both the present tense and from a second-person perspective (eg: “You descend the cold slate staircase into the ink-black cellar. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, a sinking feeling fills the pit of your stomach”). Writing fiction in this style can take a bit of getting used to and it’s something that many writers don’t have much practice or experience with.
Thirdly, these types of stories were at their most popular in the 1970s-90s because story-based computer and videogames were a lot less advanced back then. Yes, there were text-based adventure games and – later- “point and click” adventure games too – but these were the preserve of geeks, academics and/or wealthy people during the 1970s-90s.
Back then, gamebooks were cheap and they could tell far more immersive interactive stories than even the most advanced computer game or videogame could. Even today, the graphical capabilities of the human imagination can still surpass the most advanced computers. But, these days, computer and video games have become a lot more popular and a lot more advanced. So, there’s less of a reason for gamebooks to exist than there was a few decades ago.
Finally, like when computer and video games were in their infancy, gamebooks are often percieved to be a “kids” genre. After all, virtually every well-known book in this genre has been aimed at younger audiences. They’re seen as something for kids. Computer and video games only really emerged as something that adults could confidently enjoy sometime during in the 1990s or early 00s, but that was only after decades of experimentation, popularity, marketing and widespread use. Gamebooks never really quite had this opportunity.
So, yes, these are a few of the reasons why this amazing genre isn’t as popular as it should be.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂