Gamebooks, or: Why are you playing THAT?

April 5, 2015

A bit of reading material came out of the Lone Wolf – The Board Game Kickstarter project. Actually, I can be more precise: a lot of material came out, and I can hope that people read a word or two. Back when we did Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, I observed that we on the team wrote more words in promo than are in the book we were trying to sell.

So, yes, I have a “lessons learned” post just like that last one from The Way of the Tiger, but before that I have an extra essay. This came when I tried to find something to say about the project to an unfamiliar audience. It’s long-since been posted online. And . . . I liked it. This is the sort of essay I want on my blog.

So here you go:

I love a good game. It could be anything. Clever little custom-dice game? Awesome. Social game with no props whatsoever? Cool.

Same goes for a good book or a good story. Who cares how many style buzzwords it has? Is it any good? Then it’s a good game, book, or story, and I’m glad I had a chance to meet it.

Which is why I was glad to be raised by gamebooks. You know, those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you flip back and forth between different pages based on where you want the plot to go? “Choose Your Own Adventure” is a brand name, and maybe you’ve heard more about Fighting Fantasy if you grew up in Europe. But hopefully, if you know about gamebooks at all, you’ve heard of Lone Wolf.

The Lone Wolf gamebooks, more than anything else, taught me how fantasy was supposed to be. Thanks to them I still think “armour” should be spelled with a “u” despite a lack of recent and personal British ancestry. In those books, heroes weren’t championed by “fighters” and “magic-users” — no, they called on monks and border rangers. There was a shocking minimum of green dragons, green-skinned goblins, and trolls with green blood that regenerated for no clear reason — instead there were shapeshifters, dark knights, and ships of drowned sailors that rose in undeath.

When I was a kid, I played gamebooks on the same days that I would play videogames. Now, why play an “interactive book,” filled with mechanisms and hacks to pretend it had the complexity of a computer, when I could play a game on the computer? Oh, I don’t know: maybe I just said I played both. Maybe you just read that sentence a moment ago.

“Why are you playing that?” Because if it’s good then it doesn’t matter how flashy it is. You enjoy it on its own terms.

It’s just like the specific microcosm of videogames. Computer technology advances, and each year there are ads for “the latest in cutting edge graphics!!!” One day we passed the threshold where default technology could power 3-D games, not just sprite-based games, and it’s only gone up from there. But if that’s true, then why are there any 2-D games still in existence? Why would Bioshock come out with its stunning 3-D world in 2007, and Aquaria come out in 2-D at the end of that same year?

Oh, I don’t know: maybe drop-dead gorgeous 2-D art is still drop-dead gorgeous, and Aquaria is still a “good game” just as Bioshock is. The invention of the car has not halted the advancement of the bicycle.

So to this day I enjoy a good gamebook, because, by definition, they’re “the good ones.” That’s why I and my buddies have been doing contemporary gamebook projects. Then, a few months ago, I heard chatter coming through about something different: Lone Wolf in a board game. A wargame, in fact, played on a board.

Hey, really? I like Warhammer 40,000. Is this like that? And made from Lone Wolf?

Eventually I got to playtest their print-and-play scenario. I was amazed. Here on my tabletop was a simulation of the game world I knew. And it played faster than any game of Warhammer 40k! Once I knew the rules, I was plowing (excuse me, “ploughing”) through a battle just as I’d read a book.

It felt just like my childhood. Sure, the setup was more “traditional” for a fantasy realm, involving the grey-skinned “Giaks” of Lone Wolf, who bear certain parallels to green-skinned “goblins.” Nevertheless I loved fighting Giaks, and I’d seen the art that said one day there might come Drakkarim (dark knights) and maybe even Helghast (undead shapeshifters).

And moreso, it was all drawn in 2-D art on stand-up figures!

Oh, I see where this is going. Oldstyle art for an oldstyle game world, right? Yup, that’s something I love. But when we started sharing this project online, we realized we would bump into the age-old question: “Why are you playing that?”

Of course, gaming technology advances, and one day we passed the threshold where gamers expected games to have 3-D miniatures by default. Well, sure, I’ve played Warhammer 40,000 — maybe even on the same day that I played a gamebook or a videogame. But what’s special here was that Gary Chalk, the artist who had brought life to the pages of Lone Wolf during my childhood — and, for that matter, to Redwall, and to HeroQuest, and to many other worlds that were richer for it — had spent 30 years becoming an even better artist. Bioshock . . . meet Aquaria. (Psst: my touchscreen tablet plays Aquaria. Think it would take Bioshock?)

I love a good game. Same goes for a good book or a good story. And the same goes for a good piece of art. It does not matter that I could buy some plastic miniatures from a gaming store downtown: there is a beauty to the hand-drawn art of someone who loves what he does. If it’s good, then it doesn’t matter if it meets the expectations . . . for some other type of art. You enjoy it on its own terms.

We are now trying to fund Lone Wolf – The Board Game via Kickstarter [ed.: obviously we’re done now] on the basis of a good game design at its core, a history of good gamebooks behind it, and a good artist at its helm. Think anybody will play it?

So far, looks like there are a few takers. And you’re welcome at my table when you’re in town.

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