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The Gamebook/the Interactive Novel: Fables of the Construction

Of late I’ve been exploring and trying to fetter out online what in 80s parlance would be called a gamebook: a novel with choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) plot branching but also with more of an RPG element as well-usually with a character with attributes and chanced to impact the story through combat and chance. Some of the best known series from that era are Fighting Fantasy (which I did not play growing up) and Lone Wolf (which I did).

Although I’m not intimately familiar with the publishing vagrancies of the genre, it had seemed like the form went into something of a decline in the 90s, but lately there have been some interesting applications of the gamebook online-which might be the natural home for such a storytelling medium after all. There are two particular examples online that I found striking-one a new, rather wild creation that pushed a lot of my “fiction buttons”, and another a “port” from a rather remarkable older series.

Age of Fable

Age of Fable by James Hutchings is quite literally the trip, a metafictional romp through all sorts of storytelling conventions. The art-usually gathered from paintings from the surreal to the macabre to the whimsical-adds to the sense of story-as-emblem (which might not get at exactly what’s going on here). It’s extremely fast and loose, but it works. There are twelve attributes to your character, and this panoply of various ability scores adds to the fierce sense of play to the work, especially when traversing the land with a randomly generated character named: Be-Steadfast Owl-Waits-For-The-Moon, an assassin.

Yes sometimes the puns don’t quite work, and the recursiveness of some of the quests becomes repetitive, but on the whole Age of Fable succeeds resoundingly as a new way to approach storytelling; it has that sense of a concocted world that one can only see small but bright glimpses of when playing.

The Fabled Lands

The Fabled Lands is a far sturdier proposition, one with more traditional high-fantasy underpinnings, but no less exciting and with even more depth of play. The interface was obviously created with a great deal of passion and care. It’s truly the greatest example of a “sandbox novel” that I’ve ever seen. One can literally traverse between the six novels-represented by different geographic areas-and in the downloadable App version, this is done seamlessly. Much like Age of Fable, there is no real overarching quest-although there are many quests to be had-but the level of what one can “do” in the novel is far deeper: there’s exploration, of course, but also trade, owning property in cities, sailing, and much more. It’s truly a lived-in experience, one in which the second person POV is given a panoply of sensations-perhaps most importantly, the sense that one really doesn’t know what’s behind any unknown corner.

If one of the purposes of a gamebook (or any work of interactive fiction, really) is to increase the player/reader’s agency, then these two projects are some of the strongest and most interesting examples around of giving authorship to the reader, in a way that is entirely different yet as utterly beguiling as the best of parser-based interactive fiction.

Sun, December 20 2009 » Fiction, Games

One Response

  1. Wayne Densley January 22 2010 @ 7:54 am

    If you like Age of Fable and Fabled Lands as examples of online gamebook fiction then I’d be interested in your thoughts on the Chronicles of Arborell. Unlike these examples the Chronicles has a defined objective path and consists of a complex weave of titles and supplementary documents, as well as fantasy languages and a growing mythology. If you are interested in having a look the series can be found at

    Wayne Densley

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