‘Gamebook’ versus ‘Interactive Novel’


I once saw Marjane Satrapi speak at a literary festival. That’s one of the perks of living in Paris – world-famous celebrity-type folk will come to your neighbourhood, and you can just wander down the road to see what they’re up to. Anyway, Marjana Satrapi is the author of ‘Persepolis’, and various other semi-autobiographical comic books. Persepolis was made into a movie, to enormous success – in France at least, it was for a while ‘the’ intelligent movie to go see at the cinema.

Satrapi is a fantastically entertaining public speaker. Which is handy, really – it’s hard to do a reading from a comic book. She mentioned, among other things, that she’s a huge fan of Batman. Who’d’ve thought it? She also said that she hates the term ‘graphic novel’. It’s a marketing term, she feels – it’s a way of selling comic books to people who won’t buy ‘comic books’.

So, let’s switch to ‘interactive novels’. Is this a marketing term, a way of selling to people who won’t buy ‘gamebooks’? Certainly, I think the gamebook / interactive novel genre has outgrown its Tolkien-esque, RPG roots. That’s in part thanks to the advent of hand-held electronic devices of various formats, which make the necessary page-flipping and record-keeping (and, if you want to be retro about it, even the dice-rolling) rather less of a chore than might previously have been the case. It’s perhaps even in part due to the quality of the writing going into these stories – no longer is an interactive story, ‘Fight Monster A in order to get Item B so you can kill Evil Wizard C’.

Frankenstein, by Dave Morris, was billed as an interactive novel. Certainly, it fulfils the ‘interactive’ requirement – and yet I can think of few other works that also satisfy the ‘novel’ side of things as satisfactorily. The prose is just lovely. There are no damn dice to roll. The game mechanics – ‘Trust’ scores, and so forth (however they’re labelled) – are kept under the hood, away from the reader’s eyes. Because why would the reader need to see them, if he or she isn’t required to keep track of them?

Choice of Games uses the term ‘interactive novel’ to describe its publications. And certainly, storytelling – ethical choices, personal investment in that second-person protagonist – is at the heart of their games. The game mechanics are right there on display, but that’s just personal preference – it’s possible to play through these games without ever touching the ‘Show Stats’ button (and I have done this).

So I want to say that ‘interactive novel’ is more than a marketing term… and yet I can’t get that ‘gamebook’ label out of my head. In truth, I don’t really want to – I’m an ‘out’ fan of gamebooks; I just love those little buggers (I love comic books too, by the by). If squares and fuddie-duddies can’t help but associate ‘gamebooks’ with goblins / wizards / dungeons / dragons… well, maybe it’s the audience who needs to change their ideas, rather than the marketing strategists.

Sigh. If only the real world were so simple.

Is there any difference between an ‘interactive novel’ and a ‘gamebook’? Is an ‘interactive novel’ just a gamebook that has a (mostly implied) sex scene or two, and that occasionally uses the word ‘shit’? Does anybody at all have any idea?


By the way, I just know this blog post is going to come back and bite me in the arse one day when I’m trying to flog an ‘interactive novel’ of my very own. So… you know… I’m anticipating that irony.

5 Responses to ‘Gamebook’ versus ‘Interactive Novel’

  1. Stuart Lloyd says:

    In my mind, there is a difference. As you say, both gamebooks and interactive novels both have stats in them, but I imagine interactive novels that have stats that relate you your relationships to other characters in the story or how you have changed the story. Gamebooks have decisions that may involve stats which will have a clear way of showing you as a winner or a loser whereas I imagine the decisions in interactive novels involve manipulating stats less (i.e. there is now ‘If I do x, I lose 1 point of stat y but if I do z, I lose 1 point of stat a) and more to do with how you want the story to go. Also, I imagine that although you can have good or bad consequences in an interactive novel, I would be reading it more to see how the story unfolds than to achieve some aim, so if a character in an interactive novel dies, I would not consider it a loss, but rather the sad end to a story.

    In summary, I imagine gamebooks to be set up so that your aim is to win and interactive novels are set up so that you can read a good story.

  2. Stuart Lloyd says:

    Very interesting article. I never realised that the term interactive could have just appeared as a marketing term. It gave me a lot to think about.

    • PW Gresty says:

      I just recently watched an episode of Star Trek: Voyager that was all about the mystery author of a ‘holonovel’ – that is, a novel that takes place on the holodeck, that you play through yourself, rather than merely reading it as an outside spectator. Maybe that’s the future of the interactive novel – much like a gamebook today, but with much better special effects.

      I don’t know how the episode finished. I sometimes suffer from fairly bad insomnia, and at such times I’ve found that watching Star Trek, with the volume turned down low, will send me right off to sleep. I don’t think I’ve finished an episode of Voyager yet.

  3. Ashton says:

    The only reason I still use the term “gamebook” instead of “interactive fiction” is because the term interactive fiction has been claimed by a certain kind of text based adventure game, as a quick google search will demonstrate. Otherwise, I would vastly prefer “interactive fiction.”

    That said, the way the terms are used today, it seems that most existing interactive novels could also be accurately described as gamebooks, but definitely not all gamebooks could be described as interactive novels.

    By the way, Arcana Agency looks amazing! I’m looking forward to it.

    • PW Gresty says:

      I may be changing my mind on this whole ‘interactive fiction’ versus ‘gamebook’ labelling. I’ve previously clung quite steadfastly to the term ‘gamebook’ – mostly out of love for the gamebooks I’ve been reading the last twenty-five years or so. But since Christmas I’ve been writing an app for Choice of Games that definitely feels more like a novel – an interactive novel, say – than a game. Hell, it’s already longer than a lot of novels I’ve read… The app is very nearly finished; I’ll give more details about that soon.

      Maybe the terminology should be judged on a more case by case basis. It ultimately won’t be, of course – publishers love to pigeonhole books into one category or another, to help people find what they might like. But it should be. Stuart Lloyd wrote a couple of posts recently about the difference between GAMEbooks and gameBOOKs (here and here); maybe that’s just another way of looking at the difference between a book that’s also a game, and fiction that’s interactive. Difference labels, same material.

      Hope you enjoy Arcana Agency.

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