Branching Narratives – A Look at Gamebooks
I’m sure some of you are wondering what exactly a gamebook is. They’re a bit of a relic in this day and age. However, there was a time, a time not so long ago, where kids all around America, and various other parts of the world, knew just what they were.
A gamebook is what it sounds like. It’s a book that tells a fictional story that you get to participate in one way or another rather than just reading. It’s why you may ask the question of what verb you’re supposed to use when talking about it.
Gamebooks are something that I find very interesting for a couple of reasons. It’s mostly because two of my favorite things on this green Earth are videogames and literature, and gamebooks bridge the somewhat big gap between them.
The history of gamebooks is my favorite type of thing to learn. It sounds like it would be unrelated to many things. However, the more you look into it, the more you realize its importance in shaping some of the things we take for granted today.
That’s why I’d like to discuss a bit of the gamebook’s history and talk about a few of the ways they shaped the fiction we love. But I mostly want to discuss what makes them unique.
I am not the biggest authority on these. Their heyday was before my time; however, I did my research. Still, if something slipped through the cracks and somebody wants to correct me, please do. I’d appreciate it. Without further ado, let’s read/play, shall we?
What’s in a Narrative?
If we go by the definition of the almighty google, a narrative is this:
“A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.”
For instance, if I would tell you about my mundane evening taking a walk in the park, that would be me expressing a narrative to you. A boring one, I admit, but a narrative nonetheless. Even what I’m writing right now is a narrative.
I am attempting to convey the history of the gamebook in a narrative-like structure. I’m telling you things in a certain way to convey how I feel about the subject to you, the reader.
To keep it simple, a narrative is an idea or a story you try to convey in either how the events played out or the way you would prefer to tell it.
So with that in mind, gamebooks are actually a bit of an anomaly. The point of a narrative or a story is to express something in a fairly linear way to convey certain themes to the recipient.
They also tell a narrative to convey certain thems, but they couldn’t do it more differently. Gamebooks are one of the biggest innovations to literature in modern history.
To find out why that is, we need to dig even deeper than gamebooks themselves and talk about some of the building blocks that make them what they are.
A Branching Narrative
Gamebooks also offer the reader a narrative. There is a start, an end, and everything plays out as a narrative that the writer has created. The difference is, gamebooks offer multiple different narratives to the reader wrapped in one. They are not linear. This is called a branching narrative.
Above is a simple example of how a branching narrative may be structured. This is a diagram known as a flowchart and is often a way to help visualize this concept once it’s all laid out.
In this example, “S” is the starting point of our story. “1,” “2,” and all the other nodes are ways that the narrative can branch off. “S” is always the same regardless.
For our hypothetical story, let’s say it features a young man who has just woken up from a deep sleep. This is awful, as today was his first day working at his dream job. What a time to oversleep! This is the point where the narrative could branch off.
Let’s say there are two separate outcomes. The first is that the man rushes to his job and apologizes to his boss. The other is that he decides to lay back down, as he likely lost the job anyway. Choosing one of these outcomes is the heart of a branching narrative.
Choosing for the man to go to his boss sets the story on the “1” path. The other sets it on “2.” You have made the first decision. From here, each branching path can branch off even more, represented by “1-1,” “2-2,” and so on.
Each branch will change the story in certain ways. If you’re on path 1, you may experience the young man’s job and some events that unfold. If you choose 2, something crazy may happen to him in his house. These branching paths can go on forever, really. However, for a writer, the more you add, the more complicated it will be to keep track of.
Eventually, as shown in each “End” node above, these branching paths can even take you to separate endings of the same overall narrative. Thus, this single narrative of an irresponsible young man has become multiple while still remaining the same.
Sometimes, however, the writer may opt for the narrative to only have one ending. This can be done by feeding each branch slowly back into the same path. These are a bit more controversial as some argue there’s no point to the choices then.
Of course, just how much a branching narrative extends and how big an impact those branches have will always come down to the writer. Some may branch off like a small twig, and some may spread like a mighty oak. It depends on the type of narrative the writer wants to tell.
It’s not easy to find the first story to feature a branching narrative like this. This concept has been explored to some degree since at least the 1930s. Instead, we’ll discuss a man whose short stories may very well have influenced the branching narratives we know now.
That man is Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet, and translator. Much of fiction owes a lot to this man, particularly a subgenre known as magic realism. In simple terms, if you’ve ever seen a story that takes place in the real world but has fantasy elements seamlessly mixed in, you owe it, in part, to Borges.
This is because Borges was a master at crafting stories that rode the line between fact and fiction so tight that you couldn’t tell the difference. Real characters blended with fake ones. Actual events coincided with fictional ones.
Borges himself was often a character in his own stories, adding to his writing’s already mind-bending nature. It becomes nearly impossible to know what is and what isn’t real.
In one of Borges’s short stories first published in 1941, we see a very early example of the branching narrative concept. That story was “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain.” This may sound more like an essay than fiction, but I assure you it’s both.
Borges had a peculiar format he used in some of his stories. In this work, and a few of his others, the story is told like an essay written by Borges about a particular book. If you didn’t know better, it would seem like fact, but it is actually fiction, as Herbert Quain never existed.
In this, Borges discusses some of the writings of the fictional Herbert Quain. The one he spends the most on is a story titled “April March.” This work by “Herbert Quain,” Borges explains, is less a novel and more a game, as even its author describes.
“I lay claim in this novel, to the essential features of all games: symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium.”
This “game” is structured, as shown in Borge’s diagram above. Looks strangely familiar, doesn’t it?
Of course, Borges uses different terms to refer to each path than I did in my flowchart. Still, past what you call them, my creation holds up today, matching one made almost 80 years ago.
April March is divided into 13 chapters, each represented by one of the spots in the diagram. “z” is the first, is consistent in each narrative, and
“reports the ambiguous dialogue of certain strangers on a railway platform.”
The next three chapters, “y1,” “y2,” and “y3,” all cover various versions of the eve before “z.” “x1” all the way up to “x9” cover various different eves to the existing three eves. This means if you were to read it in chronological order, “z” would be the end, and you would instead start from one of the “x’s.”
This structure is still very much present in branching narratives today. In fact, it’s the entire foundation of it. However, modern branching narratives would generally have different endings and the same beginning, not different beginnings and the same ending.
Though this could just be another part of the “game” that is April March.
Still, this very early work set much of the foundation for branching narratives as we know them.
So just remember all you kids that watch Naruto and your Dragonball Z Chinese cartoons. You might have never played a visual novel if it wasn’t for an Argentine poet born over 100 years ago.
Jokes aside, we now have an understanding of where the standard branching narrative may have stemmed from.
A few books over the next decades followed formulas similar to that, but none of them ever reached common knowledge. None of them were ever successful enough to grab the populace’s attention until one series, that is.
This series didn’t only take the branching narrative concept; they expanded upon it. Recreated it even. If you were a kid in America during the 80s and 90s, you very well might know where I’m going with this.
Choose Your Own Adventure
That is, of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books. Edward Packard had gotten the idea for a story where you influence the outcome as he was telling his daughters’ bedtime stories.
One night, Packard couldn’t think of a direction for the story, so he asked his daughters to come up with their own ideas. They did just that, and he thought up different endings for each of their paths. This sparked something.
“What really struck me was the natural enthusiasm they had for the idea. And I thought: ‘Could I write this down?'”
Packard knew what he was talking about, that’s for sure. During the series’ initial sales from 1979 to 1998 – before it went out of print and resumed in 2005 – the books had sold 250 million copies. That’s quite a bit, but just what made them such a success?
In April March, the branching paths are separate chapters, and the reader’s input that makes it a “game” is the order they choose to experience it in. The CYOA books took this formula but expanded upon it in every way.
Rather than being written like a traditional book, these stories are broken up into different segments on each page. Reading from beginning to end would make no sense, as you are warned. For instance, a normal read through would go something like this.
You approach a cave and are given two options. If you enter the cave, turn to page 9. If you walk away, turn to page 18. You then flip through the pages, skipping ones that only make sense in certain paths, and stop on the right one to make another decision.
This is much more of a game than April March would have been. The CYOA books are written in the second person generally. This heightens the feeling of “you” actually going on the adventure. This series also features many endings, including some that result in the death of “you.”
This means that you can actually win and lose, like most proper games, in multiple different ways in this case. This all means that the Choose Your Own Adventure series was one of the first and the largest book series actually to earn the title “gamebook.”
The Choose Your Own Adventure books were, and still are, and likely will always be the most popular gamebook series. However, they were not the first. The first proper gamebook series belongs to the UK, and the direction they went was quite a bit different than their American counterparts.
An RPG in Book Form
The first series of proper gamebooks were Tracker Books, published in the UK between 1972 and 1980. These were fairly similar to the CYOA series, with the exception of them not being anywhere near as popular. They’re mostly remembered for being published early on.
While the CYOA series started what became known as the “American tradition” of gamebooks, it wasn’t until 1982 when the first book in the Fighting Fantasy series – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – released that the “British tradition” truly began.
The CYOA series was much more game than April March in Borges’ work, but many could say the British tradition of the gamebook was more of a game than both of them ever were.
In contrast to the American tradition, which generally focused more on plot, having the reader input be solely through choices, the British tradition was much more concerned with following the term “gamebook” to a T.
The original idea for Magic Quest – what would go on to be The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – was to create a book about RPGs. Or, more accurately, a book that plays like an RPG. This idea was sparked after seeing the rising success of a certain tabletop RPG known as Dungeons & Dragons.
Fighting Fantasy did exactly what it set out to do; create a single-player role-playing experience. It wasn’t a series about “you” going on any normal adventure. It was a series about “you” going on a perilous adventure that, more times than not, will lead to your death.
At the back of the book, you are told all you need to “play.” “Two dice, a pencil, and an eraser.” This series had things you had to keep track of. Instead of remembering what decisions you did or didn’t make to see all outcomes of a story, you now had to be ready for the path you choose to take.
Remembering the various paths you took was important. It wasn’t just about wasting time anymore. You had to trace your steps carefully to help guide your way through the book the next time. Because more likely than not, you won’t make it through the first try.
Upon starting a book, you roll dice to determine your stats. Skill, stamina, luck, etc. Each of these stats added to your survivability. Because on your adventure, you would sometimes encounter monsters.
The battle system, while simple, was very uncommon in gamebooks at the time. This meant that if you didn’t manage your potions and equipment well, you could die and have to start over. In fact, death was always a constant threat.
If you die, that’s it. You failed. Comb over the hundreds of sections of text again. Just like the days of old videogames without saves, the Fighting Fantasy series was just as unforgiving. But that’s why it was special. This book managed to give you the same sense of stress as a game could.
It was, like the CYOA series, yet very different, a proper gamebook.
The CYOA series and the Fighting Fantasy series being well-received in their respective countries may have caused the medium to evolve that way. Of course, British tradition gamebooks made their way to America, and American tradition gamebooks were made in the UK.
They aren’t confined to their locations, but it did influence their respective growths.
This concept can be a little difficult to grasp without actually experiencing it, I know. So if you like to try a series in the British tradition, I’d recommend checking out Project Aon.
This is a wonderful (and legal) site ran by volunteers to freely distribute the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks to the public through the internet with the permission of its creator, Joe Dever.
It’s where I first experienced a gamebook and why I got the inspiration to write this. So, go check it out. It’s a good time. They’re great books.
If these pieces of literature were so groundbreaking, why don’t we hear about them more today? Well, that’s for a multitude of different reasons. But by far, the most prominent one is that technology evolved.
Literature, as sad as I am to admit, is diminishing as a medium. It will, by no means, ever fade, but it is losing prominence. Of course, reading itself is not fading; that’s what you are doing right now. But as the internet and various mediums evolve, the traditional act of reading a physical book has begun to fade.
Now people do other things with their free time. They can read things on social media, maybe listen to an audiobook instead, or even read a post on some website. The act of reading for entertainment is as strong as ever, but the act of reading books is slowly going away.
Many people even read ebooks now. While it still counts as reading literature, it is on an electronic, and still isn’t quite the same thing.
Reading books just isn’t incredibly common. I know I personally get thrilled when I see somebody else who also enjoys reading literature. It’s not like it’s impossible to find someone, but it is becoming a rarity. It’s deeply sad to me, honestly, but it’s happening nonetheless.
Still, people do read, so the various new-age ways of reading for entertainment aren’t the only reason why gamebooks faded to obscurity. There would still be a market for them. A niche market, I admit, but a market still.
In fact, that market has been steadily growing for the past few decades. It’s becoming bigger and bigger with every passing year, starting to take over countries outside of where it originated from. The problem is that market is preoccupied with something else.
I brought this up as a joke earlier, but it’s actually relevant. I’m talking about visual novels like what’s shown above. They are, in many ways, the modern gamebook. Click here if you like to see me discuss one in more detail. They consist of mostly words you read as you follow a branching path story, making your way to one of the many endings based on the path you take.
Visual novels are basically just Japanese Choose Your Own Adventure books. However, they do it better than the books themselves do. That’s the final nail on the coffin for this interesting piece of fiction.
For as much as I love the feel of a good book in my hands, you can’t say that visual novels don’t do a far better job at what gamebooks (at least in the American tradition) set out to do.
They let you alter the story in the same way. The only difference is that they feature art that shows you what’s happening, music to set the mood, various controls that make the story easier to digest, and you don’t have to flip around hundreds of pages to get to different scenes.
It’s very much a matter of new technology rendering something that used to be great obsolete. Visual novels have the power to do everything, and more than gamebooks ever could.
And as for the British tradition trying to bring an authentic single-player RPG experience, um, videogames are a thing now. You know, the one with the RPG genre. The medium that has spawned dozens of popular single-player RPG series with fanbases that grow more every day.
You know, the medium that has taken the world by storm over the past half a century? Yeah, videogames really rain on the whole “single-player RPG” thing’s parade. Once again, they give you everything the gamebook does, and just a whole lot more.
Still, I won’t say they make it as obsolete as visual novels do to the American tradition.
I love RPG videogames. My first game was one, my favorite game is one, and I hope my last game is also one. Yet, there’s still a lot I love about gamebooks in the British tradition. They give me that tabletop RPG feel that I never got to experience much.
However, more people play Dungeons and Dragons than ever. I’ve never played it, though I desperately want to. Still, I’m sure if I bothered I could find a few local game stores or card stores, and they would have games set up on certain days.
Actually, I did just that and found a place 20 minutes away. Do you see what I mean? And I don’t even live in a big town.
It’s a ginormous fanbase, making it easier to get into than ever. Far easier than it was in the 80s. So gamebooks are hurting in that front as well.
What the British tradition set out to do was ambitious, and it worked. However, videogames becoming more impressive, and Dungeons and Dragons gaining such immense popularity, have both helped cause the downfall of the British tradition of gamebooks. Ironic since one of them was the inspiration for its existence.
Do I think we’ll ever see some resurgence of gamebooks? No, I doubt it. We may see the occasional one published here and there, but their heyday is long gone. Never again will we see them reach the heights they once had.
Unless you consider visual novels to be a form of gamebook, then they very well might one day. However, for the purpose of gamebooks themselves, the actual books, that is, no. I’m sorry to say that’s likely never to happen.
Which is a shame, really. Even though technology has evolved, making gamebooks a tad obsolete, technology could also help gamebooks evolve—namely, the internet.
Project Aon made me realize something I didn’t before. Gamebooks are far more enjoyable when they include links to the section your decision is on rather than having you flip to the page yourself.
Ebooks help a lot as well. You may not have links, but reading through an ebook where I can just stroll down as opposed to flipping pages is far more enjoyable.
Either in ebook or website form, gamebooks of both American and British tradition work far better in that style.
But that begs the question. Why make a gamebook on a website when you could just make a visual novel or some other form of interactive media? Why make an ebook for a gamebook when they often require you to print out an item page of some kind to have next to you? Ebooks are helpful for reading on the go. Why make someone print something out? Why go through the trouble?
There isn’t much reason to go through the trouble. Gamebooks are nothing but a small niche now. A look at how things used to be, and sadly, that’s likely how they’ll stay.
However, I sure am glad I learned of their existence. They are really cool. It’s such a neat concept. I can see why some people collect them. It’s such an interesting part of both literature and gaming history—two things I always want to learn more about.
But, that is what they will remain: history.
Thank you very much for reading
What are some improvements you think gamebooks could benefit from in the future? Or do you think they should continue fading into obscurity?
Yeah, you don’t really get to decide. This is called the illusion of choice. Try not to do this in your projects too much. It kind of kills the whole branching narrative thing.
Information for this came from a few sources. As you would expect, my favorite website is the first of them.
Wikipedia’s page for Gamebooks, and some of the other related topics I touched on.
A Brief History of Gamebooks on GamevsPlay is a more in-depth look at gamebooks history, rather than the way they are structured, as I mostly talked about.
And besides that, I read through a couple of gamebooks in both the American and British tradition, as well as reading through “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borge. A great read if you like trippy stories that play with your mind.