Interactive fiction – we’re with the cool kids now

Destiny QuestWe’re delighted to welcome Michael J. Ward back to the Gollancz Blog! Today we’ve got a special blog post to celebrate the publication of Destiny Quest: The Eye of Winter’s Fury

Sometimes, a gamebook can be a hard sell to people. I know – I’ve stood in front of countless groups of surly teenagers at various book signings, trying to ignore their frowns and body language that says ‘oh em gee – hashtag nearest exit, please?’ as I try and convince them that gamebooks are really cool again. Even the word ‘gamebook’ can be enough to induce nervous convulsions, as if uttered aloud it may hold some nefarious power to drag you back to the eighties, slap some leg-warmers on you, and make you gyrate to Irene Carla’s ‘What a feeling’. (Yes, that is how I spend my weekends.)

Joking aside, I think gamebooks have a bit of an image problem. I guess the game mechanics and dice-rolling antics are always going to marginalise them from the wider public, who prefer a book to be a book and a game, well – to be something that doesn’t involve page-turning, rolling odd-shaped die and occasional emotional screams of ‘eat my crit, you foul orcish brute!’.

When I wrote DestinyQuest, it felt – at the time – like a one-man crusade to bring gamebooks and interactive fiction kicking and screaming into the modern era. But it actually turned out that DestinyQuest was just one small part of a very big wave of new ideas and innovations, set to make interactive fiction something a bit cool again.

The proliferation of tablets, e-Readers and mobile devices has meant that designers have a new platform with which to present ‘gamebooks’. While many of these offerings are still heavily tied to their print-based roots (rolling dice on screen, pages that ‘flip’ etc.) there are some really innovative projects emerging. A few of my personal favourites are highlighted here, starting with Inkle Studios Sorcery! based on the superb Steve Jackson gamebook series, first published in 1983.

Inkle Studios has taken a refreshing and innovative approach to the medium. Gone are the dice and the endless ‘flicking’ pages. Instead, this feels more like a true interactive experience. A beautiful hand-drawn map lets you explore a rich and detailed world, its 3D effect putting it on par with something you might see in an A-list console game. By clicking on the map, your character gets to visit various locations, which can then be explored – your choices deciding the outcome of each event. When combat occurs, instead of rolling dice you are presented with an exciting turn-based mini-game, where you must make choices based on what you think your opponent might do. It is an interesting spin on the old ‘paper, scissors, stone’ game, only this time you have clucking big swords.

 Swords become axes in the stunningly-beautiful game series by Stoic, The Banner Saga. Like Inkle Studios, the Stoic team have created something clever and inventive, but which also draws heavily on the traditions of the gamebook. Set in a brutal Viking-themed world, The Banner Saga puts you in charge of the fate of a tribe of people – now displaced from their homeland and forced to journey across a bleak frozen waste. During the course of this epic adventure, you – as chieftain – are forced to make increasingly difficult and desperate decisions, each one having consequences for yourself and the lives of others. From solving disputes to meting out punishments, The Banner Saga makes every choice a weighty one. For me, the combination of storytelling and choice-driven narrative made this feel like a gamebook brought to life, dusted with some of that Ralph Bakshi magic that inspired the game’s unique cell-shaded style.

And then we come to one of my favourite games of recent times. One that left me so emotionally drained after its conclusion that I remember just sitting in front of my computer slack-jawed and shaking; there may even have been a few ‘man-tears’ thrown in there as well. That game is The Walking Dead, and right now – for me – it’s the pinnacle of interactive storytelling.

Telltale Games are the award-winning studio behind The Walking Dead game series, now on its Second Season. The story is delivered in a series of episodes, each one providing a rich choice-driven narrative where you get to choose what the central character does next. Most of your decisions are based around dialogue choices, your responses and opinions impacting on the relationships (and fates) of those around you.

There are no obvious ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers; instead choices drag at your own personal morality, and often prompt you to question the judgements you have made of others. Again, the format feels more gamebook than a traditional action adventure; while there are a few ‘quick response’ arcade sequences, for the most part you are interacting with characters via your dialogue choices.

The Walking Dead is really something of an old-style ‘choose your own adventure’ dressed up in the blood-spattered trappings of a survival horror comic. Truly amazing emotional stuff.

So, next time I am faced with those frowning teenagers in the book store, perhaps I’ll start with ‘Hey, have you played The Walking Dead?’. When they nod profusely and grin, I’ll know their defences are down. Leg warmers and Irene Carla at the ready – cos gamebooks are back!

‘oh what a feeeeeling….dun dun dundun derrr..’



Destiny Quest: The Eye of Winter’s Fury is out now where all books are sold. You can find out more about Michael J. Ward and the Destiny Quest series by on the Destiny Quest Website.