Deathtraps & dungeons – the fatal end in gamebooks

Posted by M J Ward on 16 February 2014

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As gamebook readers, we’ve all been there, bravely leading our aspiring hero through perilous trials, navigating hundreds of paragraphs to draw ever closer to that nail-biting finale. We’ve been diligent, we’ve even made maps, and our backpack is bursting at the seams with an equipment list that reads like a supermarket inventory. Then we hit that choice – the one that sneaks out from no-where.

You always miss it, charging gung-ho in the knowledge that you are now invincible and victory is but a hairs-breadth away. You flick to the paragraph, hungry for the next challenge. Then your heart skips a beat when you see there are no more choices, just a short box of text that describes in gruesome detail how you just died. Yes, died. Perhaps it was a mistimed footfall, choosing the wrong door or missing that one vital object (out of the 7003 scattered throughout the adventure) that would have saved the day. So, it’s back to the beginning. Game over.  Or you cheat and choose again.

...the fatal end can simply be put there to give an adventure a fake level of difficulty."

Gamebook writing has come a long way since the early days, but I still find the occasional modern gamebook joyfully featuring these ‘fatal end’ moments. When these ends are well sign-posted and there is a good chance for a reader to overcome or avoid the challenge, then they become more tolerable – but often the fatal end can simply be put there to give an adventure a fake level of difficulty, forcing players to re-tread old ground again and again until they work out the perfect path. From a writing perspective, there are more practical reasons for the ‘fatal end’ paragraph. It cuts short a possible story thread, so where a player might have thought they had the illusion of choice (and the story branching in unseen and exciting ways) the truth is that it is fairly linear and many possible paths are simply cut short with the ‘fatal end’. It makes a writer’s job easier you see, because then they don’t need to write another 100 pages to explore further outcomes and end up with a book the size of War and Peace. Or DestinyQuest for that matter.

When The Legion of Shadow was first unleashed on the public, there were a few astonished gasps and grumbles from veteran gamebookers. 'What, you can't die? That's madness!' Indeed, if your hero lost a combat, they were essentially resurrected, good as new and ready to get stuck in again. Beyond that, there were no ‘fatal end’ paragraphs – no chances that you might flick to a page where your adventure ended, forcing you to backtrack to the beginning and start all over again. For some, it removed the fear factor – the sense that, at any moment, they could take that wrong step, or realise they forgot to pick up the seven hundredth part of that magical McGuffin. There was a lot of shaking of heads and furrowed brows.

Would anyone want to start Skyrim over after getting insta-gibbed by a dragon?"

Perhaps it was my 'computer-gaming' sensibilities taking over, but I truly dislike (with a passion) ‘fatal end’ paragraphs and scenarios where you are forced to restart an entire adventure. I know quite a few players like these – and find enjoyment in that challenge, but I suspect a greater majority cheat or end up ‘rage-quitting’ in frustration. There is a save system in modern computer games for a reason (other than for time). Would anyone want to start Skyrim over after getting insta-gibbed by a dragon? Or worse, slipping off a cliff and accidentally falling to your death? No, I don’t think so.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised that The Legion of Shadow does have its own version of the fatal end. Throughout your adventure you are building your hero, piecing them together from hundreds of items that you discover over the course of your adventures. Their destiny is in your hands. The game pitches you against harder and harder opponents – to a point where, if you have not been carefully managing your character, you could find yourself at an impasse, a point where you cannot progress because your hero can no longer overcome the opponents matched against them. That is a fatal end of sorts. You won’t see it coming, but instead of missing that one vital object or simply making a wrong decision (because you weren’t second-guessing the writer’s intentions), you have reached that fatal end through a myriad of your own choices that were free to make as you progressed through the story. A more elegant 'fatal end’ in my opinion, than failing a challenge roll and falling into a pit of spikes.

Fatal ends aside, I did realise that those grumbles and furrowed brows did have a point. If you can try and retry a combat ad infinitum, then there really is no fear of losing. Frustration maybe, but no fear. So that is why I have relented and Book Three of the DestinyQuest series is bringing in a new ‘Death Penalty’ system. Rather than forcing you to start over, the new system – as it name suggests – inflicts penalties on your hero. Things you really don’t want. But none of them will end your adventure in a single paragraph and force you back to the start.

In my next post I’ll be exploring the new ‘Death Penalty’ system in more detail and what it means for your aspiring champion.

Prepare to fear…


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