When most people are reviewing a gamebook, I find that they often comment on its linearity, and quite often gamebooks that are considered linear are given negative reviews. But so far I haven’t seen anyone really give an in depth analysis as to how linearity works and what the different levels are.
I myself enjoy a gamebook that is as non-linear as possible; I want my decisions to have impacts on the plot; if I wanted a linear plot, I would have read a regular book. So I have come up with a classification system to help define the different levels of linearity and non-linearity. Included are images of plot trees showing roughly how each classification of gamebook would look if it were mapped out. The circles with the numbers represent pages/sections, and the arrows show decisions and the direction of the arrow shows which direction they lead.
Linear gamebooks are essentially regular books that may have added in die rolls and combat, maybe giving you the option of one or two choices along the way that do not affect the plot whatsoever. One might also consider books that allow the reader the choice between two endings on the very last chapter to also be linear.
Examples: Of all the gamebooks I have played I have to say Quest for the Dragons Eye was by far the most linear. Honestly I think there were maybe three choices available to the player the whole way and each converged back to the main plot after only one page. At the beginning of the book there is a map of the dungeon. It’s essentially a straight line. Enough said.
Gamebooks that are Convergent are the kind that may give the player a variety of options and a small area to explore, before bottlenecking the different paths the player may have taken so as to force the player to follow a specific path in the end. This level of linearity isn’t really that bad seeing as it usually required to structure a gamebook with a good plot; it may not be a good thing to let the reader run too far away from their main mission.
Examples: Most gamebooks, such as Fighting Fantasy, Virtual Reality, Lonewolf and Spellcaster are structured this way. Take for example the beginning Citadel of Chaos; there are many routes you can take when crossing the courtyard, but no matter what you will always end up at the gate on the far side with the rhino man asking you for the password.
A Divergent gamebook is one in which few, or none, of the plot strands you may choose to follow ever meet up with any of the other plot strands. If you are given the choices A and B, then few or none of the pages you can reach after reading A will be the same as any of the pages you can reach after reading B. This forces the book to contain many unique outcomes and ending all revolving roughly around the same plot. One thing about Divergent gamebooks is that internal consistency is never an issue; in one plot strand a character may be completely different than in another plot strand, this allows for a lot more replayability.
Examples: Choose Your Own Adventure, Give Yourself Goosebumps, Pretty Little Mistakes and most other gamebooks that only feature choices without other game mechanics are structured this way. A good example is the first gamebook I owned The Deadly Experiments of Dr. Eek, in which depending on the series of choices you make you might find that Dr. Eek is doing experiments on monkey, or on dogs, or that you’re in the wrong building and that it’s Dr. Ek you’ve encountered, not Dr. Eek.
One of my favorite forms of gamebooks, but sadly one of the rarest is Free Roaming. In Free Roaming gamebooks the player is allowed to do what they please and is usually given a plethora option to choose from, as well as a number of locations they can explore at their leisure. This level of non-linearity really gives the reader the wonderful feeling of being able to explore the authors world and truly “living” in it. The only drawback is it can be difficult to add in plot to a book when the player is given such a large amount of freedom, however most of the great gamebook authors I know have managed to add good plot elements while keeping such a high degree non-linearity.
Examples: Fabled Lands, Tunnels and Trolls,
and À Vous De Jouer! Are examples Free Roaming adventures. Fabled Lands is one of the best known examples; in the six interconnected books you can go on quests that will take you across the lands, interfere with the politics of the regions, and fight monsters for treasure. Or you can simply buy yourself a nice home, stay as a guest at a castle and go sailing around the coast. Whatever you would want to do in a fantasy land, you can do in Fabled Lands. Scorpion Swamp
This rating system is not perfect, especially because many books will be a somewhat blend of two of the levels. For example The Legion of Shadow can be considered Free Roaming because the player is given their choice of where to go on the map and what they do in the cities. However it can also be considered Linear or Convergent when the player goes on a quest because most of the choices quickly lead to the same plot of each quest. I would also say that Lonewolf is also slightly more on the Linear side of Convergent, while Virtual Reality is more on the Free Roaming side of Convergent.
Lastly the mathematician in me has a few comments to make and ideas to share: it might be possible to create a formula to give gamebooks a quantitative rating of non-linearity, as opposed to the qualitative rating system I have given above. This could be done my counting the number of paths it is possible to take through a gamebook from start to each of the endings (this would probably have to be done by a computer due to the number of ways some gamebooks allow you to mix and match different subquests) Then use this number to classify how linear the book is; it would give a index of how paths there are through the book. We could call it a Gamebook Path Index (GPI). A Free Roaming gamebook would be instantly recognizable because it would a GPI of infinity. A regular non-interactive book would have a GPI of 1. I may try to use this method to classify the short adventures I have written so far seeing as they are short enough that applying this method of classification should be manageable. Note that GPI would be affected greatly by the length of the gamebook, and for some gamebooks may not give an accurate idea of how linear the gamebook is: I am working on a formula based upon GPI to be more accurate.
I would love to hear what YOU have to say about this classification system, what YOU would do to change it and/or improve on it. Do YOU prefer gamebooks that are Linear, Convergent, Divergent, or Free Roaming? So please leave comments!