Monday, November 9, 2009

Completing the history of game books

The true claimant to the title of first "video game" or "computer game" keeps getting revised every few years: people thinking of games they've actually played in the arcades (the sun source of all video gaming, right?) will name Pong ('72), not realising Nolan Bushnell (Mr. Atari) released Computer Space a year earlier ('71) (two months behind Galaxy Game, the first coin-op) nor realising that it was itself a conversion of MIT's Spacewar! created a decade earlier ('61) over in a university mainframe / minicomputer setting (the sun source of all computer gaming, right?)

Then someone points out Higinbotham's pre-Pong Oscilloscope Tennis for Two ('58), which is challenged by the tic-tac-toe-playing OXO ('52), which is in turn dethroned by NIM (May '51, six months prior to Dietrich Prinz's first chess-playing implementation.)

It's looking like the book is finally being closed with Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann's 1947 "Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device", as anyone else who knows any different is probably long since dead and forgotten.


The history of gamebooks is similarly twisty.  (One might arrive at a more universal truth by omitting some extraneous words and just asserting that "history... is... twisty.")  Joe Devers' first Lone Wolf book was printed in 1984, while Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone collaborated on the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, the Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in 1982... but by this time gamebooks (and their pen-and-paper RPG analogues, the so-called "solitaire adventures" Flying Buffalo promoted for Tunnels & Trolls) were already big business, following the model set by the Choose Your Own Adventure series since its launch in 1979.  And yet CYOA was not sui generis -- gamebook 62, Sugarcane Island, rather than being the sixty-somethingth such book written in the vicinity of its print date in 1986, actually had been sitting in a drawer awaiting republication since its earlier printing a decade earlier in The Adventures of You series, though it was written seven years still prior back in '69!  Even Sweden had enjoyed its Den mystiska påsen in 1970, while Dennis Guerrier had published no fewer than four gamebooks in '69.  The illustrated Lucky Les first had his adventures printed in 1967, the same year in which Oulipo author Raymond Queneau shared his Un conte à votre façon (A Story As You Like It), generally accepted to be The First Work Of Hyperfiction... but only to those unaware of Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch, written in Spanish in '63 and translated into English in '66.

We'll lightly tiptoe past Vladimir Nabokov's work on Pale Fire in 1962 (Wikipedia reports "In 1969, the information-technology researcher Ted Nelson obtained permission from the novel's publishers to use it for a hypertext demonstration at Brown University") and ignore the eerily similar educational materials cranked out by TutorText since 1958, but that's a point we won't hammer on since the time machine remains pointed firmly back as we continue to regress all the way to 1941 when Jorge Luis Borges didn't only describe hyperfiction in his Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain (1941, translated by Anthony Kerrigan to English in 1962 as An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain) but demonstrated it in El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths).

If there are any earlier claimants to the legacy, they're keeping mum, perhaps not wanting to be sucked down into our mire.  Who knows -- perhaps some academic will find an interactive option in the margin of the Bayeux Tapestry or will decipher Linear A or Mayan glyphs to be references to paragraph numbers.  Do we know where we're going?  Heck no, but perhaps at least we enjoy a slightly better idea of where we've been, a wild, bumpy and altogether improbable ride from the bold and exciting literary avant-garde to dry and mundane pedagogical tools to a medium considered only suitable for children's escapist power fantasies (and on to hyperfiction, an uncanny synthesis of two earlier steps: dry and mundane avant-garde literature.  Go figure!)

Hello, world!

I'm a(n anonymous) child of the '80s ('79 to be precise) and like many of my cohort whiled away many a bemused hour in my childhood with whole hands of fingers jammed into Bantam's "Choose Your Own Adventure" interactive novellas as impromptu bookmarks so as to better keep track of plot forks and branches to return to sometime later.  As I grew and "matured" (nominally) I took up where my babysitter left off and plunged into the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series (after mistaking City of Thieves for the recommended-by-a-friend Thieves' World collection).  The advanced game mechanics were appreciated if typically ignored.

During this period, I was hopelessly devoted to a series of gutless home (micro)computers, though I was always thrilled to scope out the Tower of Babel computing profusion of the mid'80s and investigate how my friend's mom's Mac Classic sized up against my TRS-80 CoCo and the Commodore 64s in the school computer lab - all different machines doing what amounted to the same job in different (and mutually unintelligible) ways.  And as with the books I sandwiched my fingers in, selecting options from menus was a perfectly acceptable convention in this entertaining context also, a streamlining convenience keeping one from having to painstakingly peruse BASIC code listings or memorize byzantine directory structures in order to figure out how to run this week's hot new game.  As a normalized interface convention, it was also perfectly kosher as a game interface mechanism, and during the shareware revolution many programming-poor but narrative-rich would-be auteurs took advantage of various commercial and homebrew systems to share their stories with the world, or at least the sneakernet and their local BBS file areas.

The GUI revolution (let's face it, they were revolting times) made simple menus the order of the day, but along the way eschewed confusing words in favor of simplified icons.  The advent of the internet, a new and exciting medium, heralded the advent of the literary genre for the new millennium: hyperfiction! ... but those of us with paper cut callouses knew better, and watched with dismay as it collapsed at launch into a flaming wreck of academic obscurity.  (In Japan the visual novel arrived as a medium held in similar esteem for entirely different reasons.) Now that hypertext was the order of the day, something used by people who had never waited for a program to load off of cassette tape or stuck their fingers into any kind of publication, we must have assumed that the counterpoint to the rapidly dwindling gamebook publishing industry would be an explosion of the material casually strewn throughout the information superhighway.

But instead we got banner ads.  While gamebook-style interactive reads weren't unknown in this strange new world, amateur hour meant the death of the system that had professional writers and illustrators working beneath trained editors to publish tested material... all of which presupposes a certain profit motive largely absent in this Wild West bordertown.  Instead, people who arranged paragraphs for the love of the game and got their dog-walker to look over it once released their cocktail-napkin gamebooks in whatever medium they had available -- often Microsoft Word DOCs -- and watched them sink out of sight.

Sometimes this was a loss that no one, not even the dog-walker, would mourn, while othertimes -- who knows? -- hitherto unknown and underappreciated gems of the fin-de-siecle never reached their audience because the free webhost went under, or the work was saved in a file format Google didn't at that time index, or the author didn't bother to (or know how to) actually embed links and targets within their document to make it convenient to navigate... or the technological tides shifted and epic works gathered dust in Hypercard vaults or bitrotting on 5¼-inch floppy diskettes nobody had the equipment or knowhow to liberate them from.  Maybe they were languishing in a proprietary data file no one had thought or known to hexedit.  And maybe the publisher went under, leaving the books forevermore out-of-print, consigning the works (often interrupted mid-series) to a kind of limbo existing only in the memories of their onetime players and occasional used bookstore inventory-takers.

I aim to use this blog to give a few of these dusty no hope cases a few more hours in the sun after all these years, presenting the full text (with original illustrations, where possible) of these forgotten interactive stories in a hypertext-navigable Web-browser-playable form in many cases for the first time, ever, with a spot of context besides!  They may not all be winners, but the web is big enough to sustain a bit more nostalgia-bloat, and if people are playing the Atari 2600 E.T. game through emulation today it certainly has nothing in terms of compelling plot and gameplay that even the weakest of these lack.