Stephen Bond

Update 30/3/2011: Over the years, a lot of people have triumphantly pointed out that the effect I describe below is due to a printing error in the books. But so what? That barely affects a word I've written. The point of this article -- and this is obvious, people -- is not Steve Jackson worship. The point of this article is to describe a remarkable moment of CYOA gameplay in Creature of Havoc.

Authorial intention is significant, but it isn't everything. That something amazing happened by accident doesn't make it any less amazing. It's worth pointing out, though, that the better a work is in the first place, the more probable a random accident will turn it into something special. The effect I describe below is not solely due to a printing error, but due to the happy interaction between the error and themes already present in the book; Steve Jackson at least had to put these interesting themes in there. A similar error in an Ian Livingstone book would most probably turn it into even worse garbage.

If it bothers you that Steve Jackson isn't responsible for something awesome about his gamebook, just think of it as "emergent gameplay" and move on. But if you really need to believe the "genius" of a work has to be embodied in some purposeful agent, rest assured, I've now given credit where it's due.

Creature of Havoc (Fighting Fantasy Gamebook #24)
by Steve Jackson, some sloppy proofreaders, and Fate herself

We've been having some discussion on RGIF recently about enumerated actions and their effect on IF gameplay, and I have been siding with the argument that the effect is not good. According to this argument, choosing from a set of M*N explicitly enumerated actions (as in a LucasArts adventure game) tends to distance the player from the game world, makes it seem like a contrivance, reduces gameplay to uninvolved hotspot-clicking. When instead you do not know the full set of actions (as in command-line IF), you must immerse yourself in the world to find out what is possible, engage with the game world on a much deeper level.

By this argument, the CYOA books so beloved of my childhood would make the worst IF of all. The Fighting Fantasy series had a maximum of 400 possible actions per book, one per reference number, with only three or four available at any one time. These actions are always explicitly offered to the player. Pretty severe limitations: Andrew Plotkin even argues that CYOA books shouldn't count as interactive fiction.

"My problem with CYOA games (or books) is that the range of action is never uncertain -- you *can* progress mechanically, by trying every menu possibility. In fact, this is what usually happens when I play a CYOA game."

And indeed, childhood nostalgia aside, the Fighting Fantasy books for the most part made dull games, and worse fiction. The exceptions, at least as far as games were concerned, were the works of Steve Jackson, who wrote a succession of increasingly intricate books, using every trick possible to raise the game above arbitrary page-flicking. His final gamebook, Creature of Havoc, is surely the crowning masterpiece of the genre. In its own modest way, it's close to being a work of genius.

I should emphasise at this point that the genius lies in the game, and not in the prose, which is functional and competent, or the story, which is uninspired genre-fantasy fare. In the story, you play a hideous dungeon monster, the creature of the title, a foul creation of sorcery; it turns out later that the aim of the game is to meet and destroy your maker. But to do that you must first escape from the dungeon, and you face an immediate problem: you are a creature of instinct, with no reason, no free will, no control over your actions. For the first few turns, you wander mindlessly around the dungeon, all of your choices dictated by dice rolls. Soon you blunder into a party of cliched RPG dungeon adventurers. They scream at you in some impenetrable code; you can't understand human speech. You attack them, kill them, eat them.

But as you're searching for more to eat, you accidentally break open one of the adventurers' possessions. A ghostly vapour seeps out, forms a face, and says something to you. You don't understand, but after the vapour speaks, you find that you have control over your actions. From this point on in the book, you can choose any of the options available to you, as in a normal CYOA. (You find out later that you broke open the Vapour of Reason, one of three magic vapours the adventurers were searching for. Soon afterwards, you find the Vapour of Language, and can decipher the coded speech. But I reach ahead.)

A while later, if you choose the right path, you can find a magic pendant that turns out to be essential for escaping the dungeon. Vital quest items like this always presented a problem for CYOA books. The standard FF hack, like Ian Livingstone, would offer you a choice like "If you have the magic pendant, go to reference 123", at which point you say "sure, I have it right here!", and go to reference 123. The more canny writer tells you to "subtract the number written on the pendant from this reference number, and go to to that new reference", which prevents cheating, but still means the game is a matter of randomly having the right item. Jackson goes one better: when you find the pendant, he tells you that when you come across a paragraph beginning "You cannot see a thing...", you can use the pendant by subtracting 20 from the number of that paragraph. And so not only is the choice hidden from players lacking a pendant, but also the reader has to pay attention and follow clues in the text. What was arbitrary page-flicking is now a game.

But still not a very good game. The player is still told all the actions that are available; and now, if you have the pendant, at the "You cannot see a thing..." paragraph you just choose from three available options instead of two. So you can still progress mechanically.

Of course, when you come to that paragraph you decide to use the pendant and subtract 20 from the reference number. You are then told the pendant's special ability (detecting secret doors), and told that when you come to a paragraph that begins "You find yourself...' you may subtract 20 from the reference number and use the pendant again.

Eventually, you come to a paragraph that begins "You find yourself at a dead end." You use the pendant again, subtracting 20 from the reference, which reveals a door to a secret room. But the secret room is useless -- in fact, it's an obvious deathtrap. You don't enter.

Soon afterwards, you come to realise that you are moving around in circles. All the ways out of the circle seem fatal -- apart from a seemingly pointless dead end. But the dead end paragraph begins "You reach a dead end" and not "You find yourself...". You can't use the pendant here... or can you?

And here lies the game's moment of genius, the moment where the CYOA game breaks out of the CYOA genre. For to escape from the dungeon, you have to decide to take an action, yourself, that has been offered to you nowhere in the text. You must put yourself in the the creature's situation, reason about where you are and what clues you have been given. And though the action you decide to take runs against everything you've been led to expect about the CYOA genre, it does not seem unfair; in fact, when it occurs to you, you know it must be right. When you deduct 20 from the reference, you expect that a secret door will be revealed -- and it is!

The remarkable thing is that your leap in understanding mirrors the creature's earlier leap in understanding. For what is a CYOA player other than a slave to the options presented to him, unable to come up with decisions for himself, never the master of his own fate? It's as if the game demands that you earn the right to escape from the dungeon along with the creature. You must stop blindly following the choices given to you, and instead rebel against them, and think for yourself. You too must acquire the "Vapour of Reason", or be trapped forever in a dark dungeon.

And that, in brief, is what makes CoH the only CYOA that is also IF.