The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Deathtrap Dungeon. Forest of Doom and City of Thieves were joined this summer by Assassins of Allansia, which I snapped up immediately.
I loved FF Gamebooks as a kid, but interactivity comes with a unique set of narrative challenges. Jason Vandenburghe was one of a team of programmers working on a game conversion of Chris Carter’s seminal TV show The X Files. The game clocked up a million in sales but was a flawed piece of work, and Vandenburghe’s assessment of its failings is interesting.
It was composed, essentially, of a series of pre-shot film clips featuring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and the rest of the cast: no expense spared. It worked like this; the player made choices and the game reassembled these filmed clips to tell the story. You essentially got to build your own episode of The X Files depending upon your responses to key events and your code-breaking and deductive skills.
Here’s the interesting thing. “Working on The X Files” says Vandenburghe, “proved to me that interactivity and drama directly oppose each other. That was a devastating realisation. Drama is all about being a helpless witness to events. The moment you give the viewer agency, the emotional spectrum shifts from tension to curiosity.”
And so it did with those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks all those years ago. Tension became curiosity.
I loved playing through Assassins of Allansia this week, but, since curiosity trumps tension in interactive fiction, I did so with all the thumb-in-the-previous-page muscle-memory of a habitual cheat.
Here's six thrillers I read this summer. Two I didn't care for, two I liked a lot and two I loved. A little more detail:
One I couldn't finish. I really wanted to and I really tried. I'm missing something, I know - the critical concensus has been super-positive.
One I flogged myself to the end. It was a relief to get there and finally set it aside, but everyone else I know who's read it has loved it.
Two were really solid genre pieces that I enjoyed tremendously.
One felt exceptional, rising above the others for its wonderful narrative voice.
One felt exceptional, largely for its creeped-out setting and damaged protag.
OK folks, over to you. Guess which is which.
It all started with The Shallows.
Me and my brother love a good shark movie and this one was epic. Afterwards, we were talking about that brutal, no-nonsense ninety-minute run-time being a significant strength; a constraint that fuels creativity rather than dissipates it.
The 99-Minute Movie Club was born. It's an aesthetic principle that makes a lot of sense. Take this experiment, conducted with American school children for a creativity competition called ‘Odyssey of the Mind’. One activity gives students the plain image of a clock face with a red second hand. The instruction is: Replace the second hand with something unique. The aim is to make the clock more interesting and unusual.
Here’s the interesting part. Not all responses were generated under the same conditions.
Twig, toothpick, spoon, oar, needle
Witch’s finger, dinosaur’s tail
Stick insect, giraffe, Angelina Jolie’s right leg
As you can see, the responses generated with constraints are - I think - significantly better those generated in complete freedom.
Constraint fuels creativity. For further proof, see Shallows, The.
That's right. It's hurrying near.
Watching celebrations of carefree youth - or nostalgia-porn if you want to put it that way - reminds us just how much time we wasted as kids. I burned hours on my bed reading stats for monsters I'd ultimately never meet; hours scouring D+D modules cover-to-cover and imagining playing them through, (here's one I was particularly obsessed with...) and hours building mods that we never got chance to play, not to mention hours carefully studying tiny lyric sheets tucked into cassette tapes.
Fast forward. Last time I checked, I'm thirty podcasts behind, three audiobooks, and a combined seven seasons of various shows off the pace. That's without mentioning a TBR the size of Dumfries and Galloway.
So back to yesterday's topic; why am I reading about gaming rather than gaming? Well, this is one reason right here. I haven't got forty hours to hack through God of War, Uncharted, or - despite it being my all-time fave fantasy world - Elder Scrolls. But I can spare thirty minutes to read some neat video-game crit.
Know what? I need shorter games.
Shorter movies too - more about which, tomorrow. "And tomorrow and tomorrow..." *sigh*
When I was a kid I loved Dungeons and Dragons. But this was small-town Yorkshire in the 80s and surprisingly there wasn't a queue of zany Stranger Things style kids at my door eager to do battle with a demigorgon. Until I found my tribe, all I had was my Dad reading out the stats for - I dunno - an Owl Bear, with a disbeliving laugh then rifling the rest of the pages in the Handbook saying, "I mean, what is all this stuff?"
So I grew up reading about Dungeons and Dragons way more than actually playing it.
Turns out this isn't a uniquely sorry tale - it happened to lots of youngsters in lots of different countries all at about the same time. Shame there wasn't some bizarre future-weird super-computer capable of connecting us all, right?
As a lad I remember dreaming of the day I'd been able to play D+D rather than just read about it. Which makes my current situation all the more unsettling. I have a PS4 in my front room. I have access to a future-weird super-computer capable of connecting me to geeks from all over the world. I'm a tram-ride away from Travelling Man, just a stone's throw thataway, uptown.
What do I find myself routinely doing? Reading about gaming rather than actually gaming. What's going on? Me and all the other Twitch-ers seem to enjoy our consumption with the emphasis firmly on the passive.
I gotta couple of ideas why. More on this tomorrow.