Making challenging options

Gamebooks run on giving a player choices to take and then telling them what the consequences of

Unless its this which door choice,
where it’s best to change your mind.

those choices are and  there is a fine art to getting the choices and the consequences right.  If the consequences to your choices cannot be predicted (the which door choice), then it might get frustrating, especially if one or more of the choices leads to sudden death.  However, if all of the options have consequences that are logical and easy to predict, and one of the consequences is better than the other(s) then there is no real choice, as this essay states.  However, I get annoyed if something that should be done reasonably to me is not an option as it makes me think that the author has not thought the options through.

So there is a very fine line with making options that are not too obvious yet also provide enough information for you to make the best decision with some thought.  So how can we do that?

And you’ve just lost.  THE GAME!
There does not have to be a ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ paragraph in some gamebook choices – this would be more apparent in gameBOOKs where the main aim is to create an interesting story and if the story is interesting, even if your character dies, it might feel like a satisfying end.  This kind of gamebook would have a different feel to a lot of gamebooks, however, which would appeal to some people (people who want to create stories), but not people who want to win at something, or beat a challenge.
If you see this, you can’t learn magic.
Another way to make all choices equally valid is to have them mean different things to characters who have made different past choices.  For example, in a dungeon where you know you have to fight either a gang of orcs or a dragon, the character who picks up a sword of orc slaying is going to mind fighting the orcs less than the character who picks up the spear of dragon slaying.  This approach is done very well in Slaves of Rema where the first choice you make determines which path is best for you later on in the game.
Finally, there is an approach which I have found Dave Morris is very good at.  He sometimes presents you with options which seemingly make no sense, but when you choose them, you realise that the consequences fit into the logic of the world that Dave has set out.  Dave’s method involves 2 steps – the first one is to create and communicate the ‘rules’ of the world – for example, most of his books have a very medieval approach to fey, elves, etc., so you have to know that they are tricky to deal with.  He communicates this through how the world looks as well as how these creatures act.  Sometimes, he is just explicit about his rules (like in the Knightmare books).  The next stage involves having people do things that are consistent with those rules, but framing the options so that it is not entirely explicit as to what exactly the reasoning is.  The reasoning is left up to you as the reader.  This requires a deceptively large amount of work as the world has to be consistent.  If it is not, it will just devolve into a ‘which door’ choice or a ‘guess what the author was thinking’ choice.
For example, in Blood Sword book 1, you have the task of identifying a magi in a masked ball.  You can summon a fey like creature to do so.  It will ask you if you want it to find the magi.  The options you have are ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  The correct answer is ‘no’ because you have to be more explicit with your instructions to fey as they will exploit every loophole you give them.
Another good one is in Castle of Lost Souls, you have to get a crystal ball from a fortune teller.  The options are:  Ask her to read your fortune, ask her to read her fortune or take her to the fair.  The best choice is to take her to the fair as you will then dance with her, get her drunk and then sneak back to her tent to take the crystal ball easily.
A subset of this method is something I have seen in some gamebooks, which is when you have a list of actions that you could take to overcome a problem, one of them being to try ‘something else’.  You really don’t know what this something else could be so it is a bit of a gamble as to whether it will work or not, but it always intrigues me as to what this ‘something else’ could be.  It is not quite like what Dave Morris does because there is no insight afterwards as to how the action was logical (as you never knew what it was in the first place) but I find it good for a different reason as it provides me with a thrill of a gamble.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop all of these types of options being in a single gamebook.  Their effectiveness depends on the type of gamebook you want (and there’s nothing wrong with gamebooks that kill you off in a few paragraphs or arbitrary choices if they’re entertaining and that’s what the reader expects).

3 rules I had to be reminded of when writing Asuria

1)  Don’t annoy the player.

There’s a reason why this is number 1.  It doesn’t matter how clever you’re being, or how great you’re writing is.  It’s all for nothing if it annoys the player.  I had a section in Asuria where you get sucked into a maelstrom and pulled into a giant monster.  Now, throughout the book, I wanted to give an impression of hopelessness and that winning was impossible, so in this section, I offered two choices – row or swim.  however, both choices lead to you being sucked away.  There was no functional difference between them.  The reason I did this was to make the reader think that they had chosen the ‘wrong’ choice and make them feel like it was hopeless.  However, I then thought that if they went back, chose the other choice and realised that there was not difference, then they would have got annoyed.  So I got rid of that bit.

2)  If you need an item, make sure you have a chance to get it towards the point you need.

I’m referring to point 4 on the terrific article linked above.  I wanted Asuria to be a book where you did not have to complete a set path to win and it would be quite forgiving in terms of instant deaths.  So there is only 1 section where you need an item or die.  And when I wrote it, you had the chance to find 3 different items that would save you.  However, when I went back through it, I realised that these 3 items were all at the beginning of the book and that you could go through 2/3 of it with not chance of success only for you to die at the end.  It is for this reason that I included a new location towards the end with a new item to help (the bat amulet in case you’re wondering)

3)  If you give the player to leave, don’t just let it lead to an insta kill.

This is one thing Dave Morris, author of the Fantastic Heart of Ice, does not like about gamebooks, so when I realised that I had done it in Asuria, I immediately changed it.  I had two bits where you could leave Casporur and head back to Orlandes before you finish (one by land and one by sea) and they might be justifiable too (you might have found the simulacra you were looking for and you were charged with the safety of Orlandes, not Casporur after all).  However, since I din’t want this to happen, it was an instant death paragraph.  However, after the interview, I inserted a combat to both bits where the simulacra you fight warns you that you will be followed wherever you go as a not too subtle message to stick around.  After a warning like that, I feel absolved of guilt about anyone who ignores that warning and heads home anyway.

A Bestiary of Player Agency

Excellent blog post.

These Heterogenous Tasks

bestiaryWhenever there’s a discussion about choice or agency in computer games (at least, in my little corner thereof) I feel as if everybody’s trying to wade through molasses just to express their concerns, and that this is a big part of why the subject tends to degenerate into bumper-sticker arguments operating at cross-purposes.

Agency and choice are slippery devils, and people are not always very good at pinning down and articulating their real concerns about them. Like ‘freedom’ in politics, I think that when people talk about ‘choice’ or ‘agency’ in games, they are often not talking about the same thing, or even about any single thing, and therefore don’t convey their concerns clearly enough to allow useful discussion. The following is an attempt to pick out some of the elements that go into agency in games, and hopefully to tease apart some of that tangle.

Note that I’m primarily talking about the agency of…

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Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games

Getting to know the IF community better. This is an excellent post.

These Heterogenous Tasks

When I was analysing the structures of CYOA works a few years back, I began to recognise some strong recurring design patterns. I came up with some home-brewed terminology, but didn’t ever lay it out in a nice clear way. This is a non-exhaustive look at some of the more common approaches, somewhat-updated (a lot has changed since then).

I should stress that these aren’t discrete categories: while a lot of works will fall very straightforwardly into a single pattern, many will involve elements of multiple patterns. (And yes, I’m aware that you can often simulate one using the mechanics of another. That’s mostly beside the point.) Also, the example diagrams I’m using are smaller and simpler than would be likely in actual works.

Time Cave. A heavily-branching sequence. All choices are of roughly equal significance; there is little or no re-merging, and therefore no need for state-tracking. There are many…

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The Future of Gamebooks?

Graeme Davis

Someone from a Fighting Fantasy Facebook group just asked me whether I thought there could ever be a gamebook resurgence. Is it possible to capture the same lightning in a bottle, 30 years on? Branching novels? Other applications for the numbered-paragraph format? It’s a question I come back to every so often myself.

Here’s what I told him, based on my own experience. What does anyone else think?

350px-FFmain

The question you’re considering is one I wrestled with myself back in the 80s. The gamebook phenomenon was so huge that I was sure that there were endless applications for interactive-lit-based learning, fiction, and just about everything else. I tried a few things, from short Choose-Your-Owns for my university museum through training aids for various things, but nothing ever made it past the prototype stage.

At the time, I was mystified, and convinced that I’d missed something. Looking back, I think now…

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Temple of Terror – Part 3

Fighting Fantasy Project

Doubling back from the tapestry corridor, I went down the mural corridor. Quite impressive it sounded too, twenty metres long, depicting a great battle between undead, orcs, men and dwarves. My study of its detail was suddenly broken by a voice behind me, ‘Do you like my work?‘. Spinning around, I was facing a man with paint pots in his hand and a brush behind his ear, the astute reader may determine that he is the artist. Flattery was the obvious course of action and he seemed pleased to get complimented on his painting skills, this loosened his tongue and so I learned of High Priestess Leesha. Leesha is the boss of this place, despite her terrible nature, she has a taste for finery and art. Every year she invites talented people to come and carry out their works with the lost city. The best entry is rewarded…

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