We gamers tend to take having a narrative choice in games for granted. It’s easy to forget that there was once a time when branching narratives or even multiple endings did not exist in video games. The origins of getting to decide how a narrative plays out were first developed within gamebooks and a little phone service called F.I.S.T.
Edward Packard/Bantam Books
If you’ve ever read the Choose Your Own Adventure series or maybe the Fighting Fantasy books, you know exactly what a gamebook is. While they existed before these titles in a minor capacity, it was Choose Your Own Adventure‘s debut in 1979 that brought the concept of the reader controlling the narrative to the mainstream. Edward Packard (who, alongside R.A. Montgomery, spearheaded the series) claims he came up with the books when he was forced to come up with a new bedtime story for his daughters. Out of exhaustion, he asked them to decide where they wanted the story to go. Packard realized the format could be a strong one, and the countless books along with copycats from other publishers prove that the rest is history.
Edward Packard/Bantam Books
The Choose Your Own Adventure books host some of the earliest examples of the now archetypal narrative choice tropes that the genre is known for. There are branching paths that hinge on one key decision, early game bad endings and deaths, narrative loops that trap readers in vicious repetition; Inside UFO 54-40 even had a Utopian, golden ending with nearly impossible conditions to reach. Games of the time couldn’t come close to this level of complexity within their narratives, and while gamebooks faded from the limelight in the 90s, you can see their influence in many classic and modern games today. I’ll delve into examples in a bit, I haven’t even gotten into F.I.S.T.
F.I.S.T. is one of those products that I never knew existed and wish I was old enough to have experienced in its prime. Started by Steve Jackson (the man behind the European gamebook series Fighting Fantasy) around 1988 in the U.K., F.I.S.T. was a telephone service that would narrate a fantasy adventure, then allow the player to interact with it by inputting numbers on their phone.
In a pre-cell phone era, F.I.S.T. featured custom characters, save files, a narrator and sound effects. While technology would ultimately leave the system behind, it still is impressive that when games like Dragon Quest 3 or Ultima V were only just coming out, F.I.S.T. provided a similar experience on the telephone and, for a time, succeeded. Key features that we come to expect in 2015 were already mastered on the telephone in 1988.
Though famous franchises such as Choose Your Own Adventure and the telephone-based F.I.S.T. have faded from the limelight, a myriad of games follow in their footsteps, and not just AAA titles either.
Gamebooks still exist, and many have gone digital. Steam has seen a recent boom in Choose Your Own Adventure-like titles such as the Choice of Games series or Sorcery, that rely solely on text while using more advanced algorithms to chart the course of the story. Other games, such as Telltale’s various works, may have more action oriented gameplay and cinematic production value, but still stay true to the gamebook mantra of letting the player choose how the story pans out.
Japanese visual novels can also be seen as another successor to gamebooks. Although some of the visual novels offer a limited narrative choice or are outright pornographic, a number of these games read like gamebooks with anime-styled visual and audio flourishes thrown in. A few, such as the modern-fantasy Fate Stay Night, the time-traveling saga Steins;Gate, and the Lovecraftian tragic-romance Song of Saya, prove to be great stories in their own right as well. While they are not as direct a successor as say, Choice of Robots, these games highlight an alternative take on what gamebooks have become.
Sadly, F.I.S.T. doesn’t have any direct descendants in the way gamebooks do, but it is worth reminding folks that a number of the traits we’ve come to expect from the narrative choices in games, such as custom characters, choosing our own way to solve problems, or simply having your own personal save file, are reflected in the telephone-based game. It may not be the original, but it proves that developers were thinking about these tasks long before many consoles could perform them, and still continue to think about them.
So the next time you want to moan about how your decisions don’t really matter, remember that, were it not for a certain book series and telephone game, you might not have a choice at all.
Have a favorite gamebook? Know another crazy storytelling system I may have missed? Feel free to share it in the comments below.
Featured Image: Edward Packard/Bantam Books