A Very Brief History of Gamebooks (up to 1979)   9 comments

This was intended as part of my series on the 1979 game Kadath (aka the first Lovecraftian game ever made), but it got rather digressive, so I separated it out. I’ll tie some of these elements in on my next and last post on the game.

In a way, “interactive fiction” started before fiction was explicitly interactive. The mystery genre has always had an element of trying to predict who committed a crime before the ending is revealed. Ellery Queen (aka Frederic Dannay) appears to be the first person to explicitly cater to this tendency in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).


A “branching narrative” where the reader can choose which direction the story flows came shortly after, in 1930, through the book Consider The Consequences! by Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins.

Via Demian’s Gamebook Web Page. “Here is a brand new idea in fiction — a story which ends in any one of a dozen or more different ways, depending entirely on the taste of the individual reader.” There’s even branching diagrams showing the stories mapped out as trees.

Both these types of books — mysteries with explicit attempts to let the reader find the solution, and branching narratives — occurred intermittently through the 20th century. For the purposes of Kadath, we care more about the branching kind, so let me highlight a few more:

Treasure Hunt by Alan George (1945): “A MAZE in Volume Form – A Puzzle – A Picture-Story-Book – A Brain-Tonic – An Absorbing Pastime with Hours-and-Hours of Interest”

TutorText (1958-1972): A series teaching a wide assortment of topics interactively with titles like Trigonometry: A Practical Course, Understanding Shakespeare: Macbeth, and Understanding Stocks.

The second of the TutorText series, via tutortext.org.

Un conte à votre façon (A Story as You Like It) by Raymond Queneau (1967): part of the French “Oulipo” group; a short story where your choices affect the parameters; you can try the English translation in interactive form here.

A diagram of Un conte à votre façon that was published with a collected volume of Oulipo’s work.

Lucky Les by E. W. Hildick (1967): “…by ingenuity and even more LUCK, Les survived in Miss Tabb’s boarding school where the pupils were fed on crusts and fried bootlaces! But what happened to him when he left school? Well, you can decide this for yourself.”

Sleep, and the City Trembles by Dennis Guerrier (“engineered by John Garforth”) (1969): He published three others the same year, including one where you could play solo Tic-Tac-Toe.

Via Amazon.

The twelve Tracker books (1972-1980): starting with Mission to Planet L and ending with Codebreaker International, with illustrations across every page of text …

… and I know I’m leaving a few out, but I hope the point is made that there was quite a bit out there before Edward Packer’s Sugarcane Island (written in 1969, finally published in 1976) which eventually led to the Choose Your Own Adventure series and a much, much larger audience.

Curiously, most of the people working above seemed to have come up with the branching idea independently. This was an invention that surfaced multiple times with different inspirations.

1. Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins previously wrote “party game” books like I’ve Got Your Number! which finds the “key numbers” of party guests via personal questions. The idea of “personality traits adding up to a number” creatively evolved into a book with fictional characters where decisions go from number to number (and thus different story parts).

2. Treasure Hunt extends the general idea of puzzle books for children so that the narrative itself is a puzzle.

Let’s Play Together, The Second Eye-Cue Builder Book (1945), a combination book / jigsaw puzzle.

3. The TutorText series came from the ideas of teaching machines (Sidney L. Pressey, 1926), branching programming (Norman Crowder starting in the 1950s) and programmed learning (B.F. Skinner around the same time).

4. The French “Oulipo” group did all sorts of experiments with text where the goal was to find “new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy”. Queneau in particular was interested in textual permutations, with a book of sonnets where the lines can be rearranged, and a single story told in 99 different ways.

5. E. W. Hildick seems to have segued off the idea of cats having “multiple lives”, and his book is subtitled “The Adventures of a Cat of Five Tales”.

6. Dennis Guerrier was apparently familiar with the actual TutorText books (and thus would be the first person inspired to write branching text via already existing branching text), but he turned the non-fiction overlay into fiction.

7. I’m least sure about the Tracker books. Weirdly, the covers emphasize “you” going on an adventure, but the text is in first person (of the books I was able to check).

8. For Edward Packer’s inspiration, I’ll quote directly from a secondary source (I assume this was pulled from an interview, but I haven’t been able to find the original).

Edward Packer created the series of books out of an exchange he had with his daughters. He used to tell them stories each night about a character named Pete. One day, he ran out of adventures to send Pete on and he asked his children what they thought Pete should encounter that night.

To summarize, choice narratives were invented at separate times and derived from: adult party games, children’s puzzle books, educational learning philosophy, French experiments in text, the “multiple lives” of cats, and in-person storytelling.

All the above is in regards to stories “without state”, where the reader goes from section to section without keeping track of an “inventory” or “statistics”. (Of course, adding a whole lot of sections can essentially simulate keeping state, which is how it’s possible to make a book that plays tic-tac-toe.) With the introduction of roleplaying games in the early 1970s, it was inevitable that someone would eventually write a solo RPG. The same year that Sugarcane Island was published (1976) saw the release of Buffalo Castle by Rick Loomis for the Tunnels & Trolls system:

From one of the first pages of Buffalo Castle.

Dungeons and Dragons was/is the titan of the RPG field, and the first D&D solo adventure entitled The Solo Dungeon came out two years later in 1978 (written by Richard Bartle of MUD1 fame).

It’s worth lingering an extra moment here with a comment from the introduction:

It will offer a number of choices from which you pick out what happens … it is, in effect, a manual computer programme such as those used in certain ‘Teach Yourself’ books.

Despite all the history above (including the fact the D&D people knew about the Tunnels and Trolls people), the book references the TutorText series as a model for how the game works. In a way, by 1978 the form of gamebooks was just getting started, even though they technically dated back to 1930; they kept getting re-invented anew.

The Choose Your Own Adventure series proper launched in 1979: that’s when, finally, they got popular and people starting referencing other gamebooks in making their own.

1979 is also when Kadath was released, and where we’ll finish our story next time.

Posted June 6, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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9 responses to “A Very Brief History of Gamebooks (up to 1979)

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  1. That was genuinely fascinating — thank you for pulling it all together. So many independent reinventions!

  2. Recently, we created a thread in twitter about “precursors of interactive fiction”. It is in Spanish, but you can hit the “translate this twit”. It is not a history of gamebooks, but that, precursors of interactivity or audience interacting with the work, on the written medium.

    • I do follow this account already, but please, anyone interested in this kind of thing should try clicking through (the auto-translate is sufficient to get the gist).

      I’ve only read Tristram Shandy in small chunks, I really should get through the whole thing sometime.

  3. Hi Jason, I’m a regular reader of this blog. A few years ago I discovered another early gamebook in Maps, a compilation of short stories by John Sladek. One of the stories, called The Lost Nose: A Programmed Book, written in the late 1960s, is a choice-based story that anticipates the gamebook by a few years. It caught my imagination because its silly tone was similar to one of my own choice-based games. In 2016 I approached writer Christopher Priest, who is literary agent for John Sladek’s estate, about releasing a Twine version of the story, but he was unable to give permission. A detailed article about The Lost Nose: A Programmed Book, can be found here:


    The article even reproduces the original printed map.

    • Nice! His “Alien Territory” from two years later is one of the works I knew about but left out, but The Lost Nose isn’t listed at Demian’s.

      I checked out the intro of Maps which has a quote Charles Platt which suggests “John originated multi-threaded fiction, so far as I know” which suggests yet another re-invention.

  4. What I find fascinating is that all these independent reinventions happened in the 20th century and, apparently, never before. And yet the idea of branching narratives is an extremely simple one — I mean, it doesn’t require a computer or any advanced technology: in theory, it could have been possible almost as soon as writing was invented! I wonder what happened in the 20th century to make the idea “thinkable”, so to speak.

    • It’s indeed pretty odd. I feel like there’s something important lingering here on how new ideas and inventions are made but I can’t put my finger on it.

      “Aleatory” texts with random choice are sort of near misses, and they go back at least to the I Ching, so 1000+ years?

      Maybe there had to be some comfort with multiple co-existing realities, which required quantum physics to at least be in the air? Yet, not a single early inventor I know of references that.

      There also might be some relation to convergent evolution, which I referenced while writing about Wander.

  5. Pingback: Lazy Reading for 2019/06/16 – DragonFly BSD Digest

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