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?
Lucas Tesshu, the sword-toting modern day samurai whose greatest weakness was a compulsion to help everyone he met is now fully visualized with an origin story in the upcoming PATHOGENS. To all the teachers out there, I ask: What would you do if the zombie apocalypse hit while class was in session? Stay put with your students? Try to get them to their parents? Just leave the snotty brats and make a run for it?
Your answer might change if you were a master swordsman teaching a kendo class. Or not. Either way, get ready to live his journey for yourself!
Up next? Our final character: The cold, hard, badass leader: Cooper!
Thanks for reading! Excited? Confused? Bemused?
Leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!
Tyberius, the street-smart athletic force of nature from INFECTED is now completed! Some might recall he reacted rather harshly at Deleon’s reveal in the high school. In the upcoming PATHOGENS, you can find out why as you live his story for yourself.
Up next? Kendo master Lucas Tesshu!
Thanks for reading! Excited? Confused? Bemused?
Leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!
This post was originally published on author J.P. Choquette’s blog after she contacted me and asked if I’d go a bit into the process of writing interactive fiction. I liked the essay so much, I wanted to make sure my subscribers got to check it out, so you’ll find the full piece below. You should also check out J.P.’s website, she brings a great many different voices together and it’s worth a perusal.
Reigning in Parallel Worlds
by James Schannep
The main characters in INFECTED choose to wait out the zombie apocalypse inside their home, boarded up and barricaded, with enough supplies to wait out doomsday. They also leave the city in search of fellow survivors and greener pastures. Oh, and they also become zombies themselves.
No, my characters are not schizophrenic (and neither am I!), they just exist in parallel worlds.
What do I mean? Click Your Poison books are gamebooks—wherein you, the reader, choose how the story progresses. Each CYP title has three unique storylines and over fifty possible endings. Because of this “many possibilities” quality to interactive fiction, different readers will experience different outcomes and have a rather different reading experience from one another. It’s my job, as the author, to keep all these parallel worlds straight.
The problem is, every decision expands the storylines; sometimes familiar to one another, but other times they become drastically altered. Their worlds grow too large to exist solely within the confines of my head! I literally can’t keep them all straight; not by memory alone. So how do I do it? Just like in the real world—I use maps. Almost on a daily basis I’m forced to pause, stop writing, and think, “Wait, is this person dead here? And does this other character currently hate you or love you?” That’s when I check the maps.
Level one is my world map: the outline. In any novel, you need a beginning, middle, and end, with a logical pathway through the three. At the most basic level, the outline keeps the overarching plot on track towards the eventual destination(s).
Level two, interstates and roadside attractions: the chronology. Here I’ll keep a chart in Excel. Important plot points form the x-axis (time) and major storylines/characters form the y-axis (events). This helps me know which events happen at what time.
Level three, city streets, dark alleys, slums and shortcuts: the flowchart. This is my bread and butter. Without the flowchart, none of the other maps matter. The flowchart tells me, if you make decision A (attempt to play dead to avoid zombies), it will lead to outcome B (get eaten!). Often times the path will change slightly and I’ll have to go back, edit the story, and change outcomes. Without the flowchart, that would be impossible. Below, you can see a rough scrap from my latest CYP book as an example.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” If my process sounds excruciatingly difficult, good. My job (in addition to keeping the parallel worlds straight), is to make it look effortless inside the story. Your experience making decisions as reader should be smooth and clean, despite the complexity and ambiguity of the actual decisions themselves.
The real test of all this behind-the-scenes planning is your experience. So go ahead, dive into INFECTED and see if you have what it takes to survive the zombie apocalypse!