Interactive Fiction and Gamebooks are becoming increasingly popular every day. The artform peaked and declined in the 80s and 90s, but now more and more authors are emerging who use this as a preferred storytelling medium, rather than as a gimmick. I’d argue we’re at the cusp of a new golden age for branching path narratives.
One such emerging author is Greg Hickey, who recently reached out to me as part of an article he was writing with a central question: Why do interactive fiction writers do what we do? What makes juggling multiple storylines worth the extra effort? He interviewed several such authors, including some bestsellers, and I was happy to add my $0.02. Here’s what I had to say:
Click Your Poison books are, at their core, a form of collaborative storytelling. By letting the reader choose brazen action or reserved caution, for example, you get to create your own story world unlike any traditional novel. My books are meant to be re-read over and over again, with clues gained from earlier reads informing future decisions. This peel-back-the-layers approach of interactive storytelling allows for a unique experience only available to gamebooks. The immediacy of playing the role of protagonist changes the dynamic from shouting at a character, “Don’t go in the house!” to wondering, “Should I go in the house? Are the rewards worth the risk?”
-Author James Schannep
Greg has completed his article and compiled a list, which includes answers from the other authors he interviewed. I’m pleased to be able to share their wisdom with you here:
That’s right, it’s almost time… one week from today, in fact. It is time, however, right at this very moment even, for another sporadic blog update!
The SPIED subpage now exists on my website. SPIED–Click Your Poison #6–releases next week! As always, this is a standalone interactive story. If you’re unfamiliar with Click Your Poison gamebooks, now is the perfect spot to dive right in.
The book exists, and will be available for sale on 2/2/2021 (the Kindle edition is currently on pre-order). The book trailer will launch as a live premier at 12pm PST/8pm GMT. Join in the fun at this YouTube link:
There will of course be other launch events, promos, and prizes. Make sure you join up on Facebook and/or Twitter as well.
Exciting times! Do YOU have what it takes to be a spy?
So, how many people called you about Bandersnatch?
Deb: More than sent me those weird New Year’s Facebook messenger memes!
James: With the cats?
Deb: Yeah, the creepy cats. People were messaging and even emailing saying, “Black Mirror have done a You Say Which Way! You’ll love it.”
James: Same. With a bit of, “You should get them to do your Click Your Poison series on Netflix!” Aha! Good point, friend. I’m just going to flip the Netflix switch on my books from “disabled” to “ready.”
Deb: And when I searched #Bandersnatch it turned out it wasn’t just geeky interactive fiction writers talking about it. Bandersnatch had millions of viewers talking about endings and story and replay. Which is quite exciting. I’m always a little bit worried people will forget how cool interactive is.
James: Hashtags! #whydidntithinkofthat
Okay, so what did we think about the episode?
Deb: Well, I was worried by the first couple of choices. The random choice of breakfast cereal and then a slightly more preference based choice of music. Sure, it’s good to test viewer can actually choose and to reinforce that choosing is how this story will be experienced – but let’s have some REAL choices soon, please.
James: That was my first instinct as well. But, I’ve since heard that it does make a difference. I’ll have to go back and see if this is true. Replay value! The hallmark of a good gamebook. Already I want to go back and watch it again.
Deb: It got better though. The next choice gave me the true pleasure of interactive fiction. I got to consider two options. And the writers fooled me, I picked “wrong” and got straight to a frustrating ending. I enjoyed that.
James: See, I didn’t like that. I felt like I was being pushed towards a single path, while I wanted to diverge and explore. I wanted to see the format tested to its limits.
Deb: But then there’s clever use of recap to get to the first meaningful choice again. That’s the next big make or break test for a good interactive story – how easy is it to re-enter the adventure and get back to a pivot in the storyline? Here’s where, as an interactive fiction writer, I give Black Mirror’s writers a gold star. Getting back into the story for a different choice is really easy and, you don’t have to go all the way back.
James: Okay, fair enough. That was extremely well done.
Deb: So next time round – about one minute in screen time later – I make another choice and then the deeper layers of the story start to unfold. As a participant I’ve had a bit of subtle training now, so I trust the experience and get into enjoying choices. Okay so “enjoy” might not be the best description. I was often frustrated by two choices that weren’t too different and, sometimes, a bit appalled at the choices. At these times I was reminded that this was Black Mirror. It’s black, it’s dark. It’s not You Say Which Way. Maybe to give us some respite there’s a bit of campy Kill Bill-esque sequence to find.
James: I’ll admit—this bit made me extremely happy. Click Your Poison isn’t meant for the young or faint of heart. There are other series (like yours!) which have covered that ground so well, that many people often default to: interactive fiction is for kids, right? Not necessarily. If you want darker, black choices, head over here to the dark side. We have cookies.
Deb: Mmph mmph, these cookies are good! Yeah, you’re right, this is interactive for grown-ups and true to what we’d expect from Black Mirror scriptwriters. The stories don’t divert much at all but there’s just enough variety, shades of noir, sledgehammer to the fourth wall, and surrealism, to keep me exploring.
James: Baby-steps. This is our first mainstream interactive TV show. There weren’t that many choices, and it didn’t seem to change the story drastically, but part of me thinks that might have been the point (in this instance). The whole thing was meant to question the concept of free will.
Let’s talk about that whole breaking the fourth wall thing – what did you think?
James: If there’s a spoiler to avoid, it’s this one. Please, if you haven’t fully explored Bandersnatch, stop now, go watch the show, then go read Deb and my books. Err, I mean, return to this interview.
Deb: But we have to talk about it!
James: Of course! I enjoyed it. [SPOILERS] Bringing Netflix in as a character was brilliant. Icing on the cake? This choice isn’t available during the first play-through. How cool is that?
Deb: There was this sort of voyeur-found-out moment that I really loved. The programmer is onto us. Then his hand is shaking as he tries to resist our choice. Nice work, Black Mirror. There’s also the potential to add more story later – additional “episodes” within Bandersnatch. If I made Black Mirror I’d do that. You could dole out more choices for people to come back to. Netflix is such an ideal medium for interactive storytelling.
James: It’s this type of innovation that will bring interactive fiction its audience. We can do things with story that a traditional show, novel, whatever, can’t do. We have replay value. We have events changing context over time and with repetition.
Deb: “The interactive special” could become a regular feature for popular shows, especially since more people are consuming TV from the web these days. It could be up there with the ubiquitous musical episode and the Christmas special.
Deb: You know, there’s a story in that New Year creepy cat meme going around…
James: Once you see the cat meme, you only have seven days to live. Or two months to do your taxes. Whatever’s scariest?
Time for a behind the scenes look at gamebook mechanics. I’m going to reveal some of the methods to my madness and perhaps answer a question or two. Follow me, if you will, under the hood.
Q: I found a decision loop! A: Good for you. Also, that’s not a question. But seriously? I give you the power to explore the multiverse, to leap across parallel universes during the zombie apocalypse, and you use it to replay two decisions back-to-back on an endless loop? Real cool…
The above is taken from the INFECTED FAQs and represents a complaint I hear each time I release a new Click Your Poison book. Someone thinks they found an “error” because you can walk into the same room and have the same exact conversation multiple times.
Problem is…this isn’t a problem. It’s a necessary evil. At least if you enjoy a certain level of autonomy in your gamebooks.
Game designers have run into this since the very beginning. When Mario goes down a pipe, the room inside looks the same whether it’s his first or fiftieth journey. Those of us who grew up with SNES RPGs just accepted this as a limitation of the system, and really it’s no different in an interactive book.
It can seem odd, for sure, but it’s the only way to not have my page counts approach infinity while still giving you freedom of movement.
I would rather give you the option to, say, explore a hotel in whatever order you choose, knowing that in these separate rooms you might learn something new, but not something that would change the outcome of the conversation you’ll have the next room over. Once you’ve finished your conversations, you’re free to move on.
It ends up looking something like this in my flowcharts:
All roads lead to Rome, especially when you’re reading interactive fiction about Roman conquests. The point here, is that these books are still stories, and though they have 50-100 ways of ending, you have to get there somehow.
That’s where funnels come in.
Funnels are where disparate storylines rejoin, giving you multiple ways to get from point A to point B. This was especially important in PATHOGENS, where the characters needed to end up just like you meet them in INFECTED. Sims has to meet Cooper. How that happens can occur multiple ways, but the outcome must be the same.
Here’s what it looks like in my flowcharts:
I get that this can seem like you don’t have much choice in the story. So I try to make things unique where I can. A certain character needs to die? Fine. But let’s make the ways in which it can happen fun and interesting.
All roads might lead to Rome, but those roads can be yellow-brick, a winding maze, or fraught with thieving brigands. You pick which path to take.
Thanks for reading! What do YOU think? Fun to see under the hood? Let down after seeing the man behind the curtain? Or just disgusted by my constant use of mixed metaphors?
Leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!
If you’re subscribed to my new release mailing list, then you got word this morning. SUPERPOWERED is now available on pre-order! And it’s only $0.99 until release day, when it’ll fly back up to $3.99. Go to Amazon now and Get SUPERPOWERED!
For those who participated in my online Oscar pool, everyone who submitted with a working email address has been sent a results message. Didn’t get your message? Something was wrong with your contact info. Send me a new message and we’ll get it sorted out.
Now then, some of you may have noticed we’ve got a new logo for Click Your Poison books! It’s already live on the homepage, and being updated on my Amazon sales pages. So if you’ve already got a paperback edition of either title, congrats! It’s now a collector’s edition.
A logo for the series is something I’ve been considering for a while now, as a way to show that these are interactive, branching path novels. What do you think? Did I succeed? Think the new CYP traffic sign will direct readers towards the books?
Add your opinion in the comments below. And don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe!