Saturday, November 17, 2012

Post-Mortem on The Evil Eye

(Cross-posted from Goodreads' Gamebook Fans group)

Asked why I wrote The Evil Eye, I'd have to answer: "Because I wanted to." I believe that any author, asked about a work he's proud of, would ultimately have the same answer. In more detail: "Because I wanted to write a gamebook." My interest in them goes back a fair ways; I started in elementary school, reading Choose Your Own Adventure and Time Machine, plus a few of the CYOA knockoffs that proliferated in those days. Eventually, I graduated to more complex books. I only ever played one Fighting Fantasy (something about roaming a dungeon seeking dragon statues and trying to avoid seeing the letters in DEATH), but I was a huge Lone Wolf fan, and owned some of the AD&D gamebooks as well. Like many, I moved on in the mid-90s after the market crashed, then got interested in them again some years later by following some of the early indie efforts.

The Evil Eye was actually my second attempt at a gamebook. The first was a very educational failure, which didn't even get half done. The main reason for this was overambition. It was going to be the first of a multi-volume heroic epic, have an unbelievably complex game system, with combats modeled on Queen's Blade (or Lost Worlds, for those of you with no interest in japanese skeevishness), multiple skills, a huge cast of characters, realistic inventory mechanics, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, it was way too much for a first-timer to get right. So I abandoned it.

Undaunted, I tried again. At the time, I was still interested in getting that multi-book series done someday, but I decided to aim a little lower for the time being. The Windhammer Competition was the perfect solution. The competition's restrictions gave me a structure to restrain my wild newbie impulses, and the ability to compare my work against others in the field, newbies and veterans alike, would be invaluable.

As far as coming up with a plot, I was in a bit of a quandry. The idea was assembled from bits and pieces of ideas I had. I wanted to do something in the same world as my epic, but not using any of the main characters, in case I wanted to change things sometime between now and then. So I stuck with basic fantasy. However, I didn't want to be totally generic, so I tries to brainstorm up ideas to stand out from the crowd. I thought: I don't just want to just do another dungeon-crawl or fozzle-bopping tale. Why not a detective story? I wanted the main character to stand out from the crowd, so I dropped the old implicitly young male warrior and made him an old man. And so on and so forth, until I eventually had enough ideas to put together into a story.

For design, I again didn't have a plan so much as some ideas. One thing that I was adamant about was that I wanted the book to be driven by the player's decisions, rather than by die rolls. I didn't want to just make a pure CYOA, but nor did I want to frustrate the player by making him dependent on lucky rolls. I eventually decided on three major "chapters", each with multiple paths through. I also put an interlude halfway through, to add some action. Each chapter ends with you receiving a clue, and with all three clues the case is solved and you can go to the climactic chapter to fight the bad guy. There are no dead ends; all paths eventually lead to success, provided your stamina holds out. But taking the wrong paths means you need to jump through more hoops, in the form of combats or lost endurance, to get there. On the other hand, taking the right path through a given chapter or the interlude gives you an item. The climax is a linear series of four battles, but the first three are skipped if you have the right item, and the fourth is dead easy if you have the item from the interlude.

I wrote the first bits- basically the introduction and the Struckald scene- over the course of a week in June. I used ADVELH 2000, which I cannot recommend to my fellow authors highly enough. My first attempt at gamebook creation involved a complex system, stolen from some blog or other, of generating random numbers for section numbers and keeping track of used numbers in Excel. It was horribly tedious and wasted energy that should have been spent on the writing. ADVELH in several years old and limited in certain respects, but automates a lot of the tedium that goes along with gamebooks design. Once the writing was complete, touch-up work was done in Excel.

After that first week, I had to put The Evil Eye aside for some other projects. In fact, I wound up getting wrapped up on a lot of projects, to the point that I couldn't get back to it until near the end of August. At the time, I thought I still had enough time to get it done before the September 14th deadline. Then I double-checked the website and realized the deadline was actually the 7th. I now had one week to write, edit, and test the entire book.


As you can see, I made it, but because it was a rush job, I'm not happy the outcome is the best it can be.  Designwise, it was a big step down from what I originally envisioned. The design was originally a touch more intricate, in that if you botched a given chapter, you could use an item from another chapter to bypass the nasty bit. This idea wound up getting scrapped, because it was too complex to implement in such a short timeframe and required using the items in contrived ways. I wanted the paths to be divided between "right" paths, which would require little dice work and risk, and "wrong" ones which would be much harder. However, I also wanted the game to play differently depending on where you put your stat points, so this devolved into three paths in each chapter, each involving one stat check to get the item vs. just the clue. The puzzle being to find the path that checks your strongest stat. Likewise, because I had very little time for playtesting, I erred on the side of making the game way too easy. Some thought this weakened the book. While I agree, I would much rather make it too easy and endure the grumbling than make it too hard and have players ragequitting on me.

Writing also suffered in places. I was particularly dissatisfied with Vincent's dialog, which in my ears at least rings completely false. The interlude is another area where I really fell down, both in design and writing terms. It's nowhere near the thrilling chase I wanted it to be, and is instead a bland series of stat checks and die rolls, the kind of gamebook design I personally despise. The decision to make the book easy probably saved my neck at this point, but if I have a chance to release a revised edition at some point, the interlude will definitely get an overhaul.

Overall, though, I think I did very well on the story and writing. If you hang around a lot of writers, you'll hear them talk about "pantsers" (authors who fly by the seat of their pants) and "outliners" (authors who plan out their entire plots from the beginning). Both philosophies have their advantages, and I try to use a mixture of both. Having only a week to bring The Evil Eye together, I was forced to rely heavily on the pants. This may have been a blessing in disguise. Pantsing gives you a lot more room to unleash your creativity, and I found the best bits of the story are the ones I made up on the spot. The biggest surprise for me was Georgina. I intended her as a throwaway character of no significance, but in fleshing out her scene she tugged at my inspiration enough that I soon had a whole unspoken backstory for her. I might have to give her a story of her own soon.

My favorite bit, however, was this one from section 29, which most players probably never saw because it requires failing a fairly simple Test of Skill to climb Westing's wall:
"Surprisingly, you manage to make it all the way to the window, but the window is stuck and wrenching it open while hanging on to the wall proves difficult. You put some muscle into it, and are rewarded as the window swings wide with a rusty creak.
Unfortunately, you put a little too much muscle into it. The sudden jerk of the window opening throws you off-balance. You lose your grip on the wall and wind up hanging awkwardly in midair from the now-open window. Cursing your luck, you hold on and try to maneuver toward the windowsill, but your hold gives out and you fall to the ground, landing hard on your knees and barely stifling a yelp of pain."
The image of an expert rogue hanging helplessly from the handle of a second-story window, kicking his feet and cursing in frustration, amused me greatly. I'm not totally sure why.

Going into the competition my biggest concern, bar none, was the big twist. I knew how big a gamble it was. It's the kind of thing that redefines the reader's entire view of the story. If it works, it works big, but if it fails you've wrecked all your work. Build-up is the key. The hints have to be in plain sight, but totally transparent. The reader doesn't realize that the truth's been in front of his face until the bomb drops. If the hints are too obvious, the surprise is lost. Too obscure, and the reader doesn't buy it, instead calling bullshit on the whole deal. I was confident I had found the right balance -- and most commentators agreed -- but my worry was that the way in which the clues were conveyed came off like bad writing; not mentioning things I should have, and failing to present a comprehensible picture of the scenes presented.

Despite my worries, reader response was overall favorable. I didn't win or place, but it would be arrogant to expect that from my first gamebook. I did get a lot of good press and positive comments. A lot of people had good things to say about the way clues were implemented, as numbers which are added together to produce an ever-increasing total. This is interesting because I, myself, thought it was a wasted concept. It does provide some benefit; it helps with pacing, in that the interlude always comes between the second and third chapter, and it creates a sense of slowly putting things together, but there's a whole lot more that I could have done with the idea, had I had time. I had visions of a complex story with both legitimate clues and red herrings, the player forced to figure out for himself which leads are genuine. Perhaps in the future.

Another thing that many noted, not always favorably, was the old-school Fighting Fantasy mechanics. I maintain that it was the right choice, under the circumstances. In the first draft, I had a somewhat more original system with separate stats for attack and defense, similar in execution to Ookle of the Broken Finger. But when revision time came I stepped back, took a look at it, and realized I had twenty-four hours to playtest a system that I had never used before. Judging this to be not feasible, I instead scrapped it and jerry-rigged something more familiar. We've all played enough Fighting Fantasy to have a pretty good handle on how it ticks, and are thus able to avoid grievous imbalances easily. (I still made The Evil Eye too easy, but I've discussed that already.)

Regardless of my missteps along the way, I'm satisfied with The Evil Eye. While it certainly could have been better, I was able to tell a good story in the gamebook format, and learned a few things about gamebook design in the process. If you liked it, I think you for your support. If not, rest assured that my next effort will be better. And I may yet get around to that epic series someday.