Open Worlds by Computer and by Book
Go where you want. Do what you want.
That's why you love open-world videogames: you explore a vibrant world where every little piece is its own believable microcosm. You choose the people in your party, or the quests you complete, or which minigames you play before the in-game day ends. The recent millionaire success of Shenmue 3 on Kickstarter shows how much gamers appreciate the open-world game style that began with the original Shenmue in 1999.
Except that 1999 was not the beginning.
Today on Kickstarter, authors Dave Morris, Jamie Thomson and Paul Gresty are funding Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain, the latest in a series of gamebooks first published in 1995. Gamebooks, also known as solo role-playing, or Choose Your Own Adventure, where you turn between different pages as you choose where you want the story to go. Fabled Lands books were open-world games . . . on paper.
Let's hear what the authors have to say about the history of open-world gaming.
The players gather around the table. Even as the Coke cans fizz and the bag of tortilla chips is torn open, somebody looks at the map and says, 'I hear there's an abandoned fortress out on the tidal flats.'
The referee consults the rulebooks. 'Many claim it's the stronghold of the legendary hero Hrugga – though that's surely just a myth.'
Plans are made. Ships bought and outfitted. One of the player-characters has the sea captain skill, and he plots a course. Another considers the supplies the party will need. Soon they're ready to set out on a new expedition. And all because one of the players happened to spot the symbol for ruins in a corner of the map.
This is the power of a face-to-face role-playing game such as Empire of the Petal Throne. Most gamebooks spring from a different tradition of gaming in which an old man runs into a tavern and the players are spoon-fed the evening's adventure. That was never for us. Jamie and I wanted to create a gamebook series that reflected our own role-playing games, where a player could arrive in a town and choose from dozens of adventures, or sometimes be flung into one by accident. Where the players could pick their own goals, go wherever they wanted, and be whatever type of adventurer they chose. Fabled Lands is the nearest thing to Jamie's and my style of role-playing short of us coming to your house and running a game for you.
When you create a character in the Fabled Lands, you're setting out on a saga that will be unique to you. Maybe you'll face brutal foes on distant savage shores. Maybe you'll become an initiate of a temple. You could become a student of magic and travel the world in search of secrets and power. You could be caught at sea by slavers and escape to lead a rebellion. You might become embroiled in civil war – on either side – or merely turn a profit by trading goods while the war rages on. It's a whole life story that you're creating there. And by the way, this was ten years before Fable!
And I worked on Fable 3, writing storylines and dialogue etc. But even then, just a few years ago, you could see that Fable wasn't really a sandbox game. Sure, there were loads of sidequests and stuff, but the main storyline was the thing. And there weren't places to go that didn't take you on the main plot.
Not like the Fabled Lands books. I like to call them 'a computer RPG game without a computer'. Except they're more sandboxy than most computer games. The Fabled Lands books are much more Fallout 3 or Skyrim than they are Dragon Age or Sleeping Dogs for instance - in fact, even more so! There is no over-arching mega plot for the Fabled Lands. Sure, some big quests involve the overthrow of kingdoms and so on, but all these are entirely optional.
You just 'live' in the world.
You can do that in Skyrim or Elite: Dangerous or Fallout 3, but it's pretty hard to avoid the main storyline in those games (well, except Elite, that's the nearest to a true sandbox but suffers from having to do the same old stuff over and over).
Fabled Lands though - it's the only place you can 'live' in that's a book and not a multi-million-pound computer game. What you see and feel, how you visualize the people and places - it's your imagination that puts that together, not someone else's.
I think I get as much of a kick out of reading Dave and Jamie's comments on the origins of Fabled Lands as any other fan of the series. I guess I can talk about gamebooks from the reader's side of the page. If I have one outstanding achievement in my life, it's that I've read and reread a metric shedload of gamebooks.
I'm not keen on the term 'open-world gaming', for reasons I'll come to shortly. For now, let's take this term to describe games in which the players can wander wherever they wish. Gamebooks such as Michael J. Ward's DestinyQuest series (or, for that matter, the third act of my own gamebook Arcana Agency: the Thief of Memories) almost fall under this heading, but not quite; while they propose a vast number of areas for the player to explore at any one time, a linear, plot-driven through-flow is always present. The players are rarely able to return to areas they have already visited, for example.
No, true open-world gamebooks are a rarity and to find solid examples we have to look to fairly obscure publications. The short-lived and much-missed Fatemaster series included maps of each area that allowed real freedom of movement, as well as a flexible magic system. True, the orcs pictured in the two books seemed cheeky rather than scary, but that was a small point to overlook.
I'll confess I haven't been able to get my hands on many of the Tunnels and Trolls solo adventures, but Michael Stackpole's City of Terrors presented a free-roaming, quest-free approach to gaming back when it was first published in 1978. But here we see one of the inherent difficulties in such a structure - City of Terrors makes little or no provision for what has already taken place during the adventure. Consequently, the less-than-scrupulous player is free to exploit loops at will. 'The gods transport you to safety and double your lowest statistic'. Great news. Play through that loop a dozen times and - voilà! - you've quadrupled all your stats.
Maybe the most well-known open-world gamebook is one of the earlier Fighting Fantasy titles, Scorpion Swamp, by Steve Jackson (no, not that one - the American one). It's a unique entry in the Fighting Fantasy roster. You, the player, are free to travel where you wish in the eponymous quagmire - indeed, backtracking across your own trail is pretty much a necessity. And while it's impossible to imagine Fighting Fantasy without some sort of overriding quest, here you at least have a choice of three possible objectives. It's probably the most open-ended FF book of them all.
Yet here's my issue with the term 'open-world gaming', and applying it to a book like Scorpion Swamp. Simply put, the book doesn't describe an open world. It describes a swamp. A highly detailed swamp, to be sure - one that fills up a good 400 game paragraphs. But the player's movement is nonetheless curtailed by the limits of the adventure, 'the edges of the book'.
Not so with Fabled Lands. Should we succeed in one day completing all twelve Fabled Lands books, the player will have a whole, open world to explore. It's an ambitious project - too ambitious to be completed in the 1990s, evidently. But, I hope, achievable - in part thanks to the backers of this newest addition to the series, The Serpent King's Domain.
So, what can I say about the history of open-world gaming, at least in how it pertains to gamebooks? There's Fabled Lands. That's it.
Now we are in modern day, where each new videogame trumpets the phrase 'open world!' with the same pride that they once did 'stereo sound!'
Open-world gaming is a concept built into the art, a tool to be used well or poorly. It says something about how you approach games that you are excited by the freedom: you want to play. You want to forget the rules, the boundaries, and play. Fortunate are we that the technology has caught up to the desire; yes indeed, fortunate are we for imagination and paper.
Pictured above, from left to right:
(NOTE: user received 75 Shmuckers for this excellent article. Support the Fabled Lands Kickstarter while there's still time! -Rob)