I was born in the era of the Gameboy, Sega Genesis, SNES and Commodore 64 and IBM PC. When I turned 9, I’d completed or played to death most of the games that I owned, classic titles like Aladdin, Sonic, Pizza Tycoon, Heroes of Might and Magic and Wing Commander. For a time, I didn’t get many new computer games. My source of entertainment returned to books. And then, around the time when I started saving up money to buy new ones, I found this quaint genre called ‘gamebooks’.
Some older grognards (older than myself, even) would say that these were the “Nintendo DS” of that era, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Gamebooks had over the years lost some popularity, and it was only recently that they’d made a comeback, having been revived in various formats.
Allow me to say how glad I am for that.
You see, when the gamebook’s popularity was overtaken by other forms of mobile/portable entertainment like handheld consoles, something was lost to the next generation of youths. Gamebooks encourage play, but they also encourage positive habits and traits like reading for joy and the development of a creative and critical mind. Gamebooks are rarely boring due to differing outcomes that can arise from a situation, and due to the multiple pathways, one player may find himself having a markedly different playthrough from another. Being written by reputable authors like Steve Jackson and the late Joe Dever, gamebooks often use vocabulary that’s not difficult to pick up, but remains appropriate and relevant to both youths and adults.
Parents! If you’d like to present your child with some good sources of entertainment, there’s no better way to start than with a gamebook. Here are some good ones you can easily acquire (some are even free!).
Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series (spanning 3 volumes — Kai, Magnakai and Grand Master) is a real treat for young adults. The language is concise and to the point, and paints a good picture of each scene; descriptions are apt, giving the reader an idea of how one environment differs from the next (which you can easily see from the majority of Book 1 covering overland travel vs Book 3’s subterranean localities). There’s certainly a lot of good vocabulary to be picked up here for narrative writing.
Lone Wolf’s adventures are open-ended enough in that you have multiple paths to take to get to the endpoint; I don’t remember there being many points in the books which force you to be funnelled down a certain path. The stories have a nice sense of progression — all of them are chronologically written according to Lone Wolf’s development over the months and years — and you can carry over stats (and sometimes equipment). This gives a thread of continuity from book to book, and should keep even young readers hooked to the series.
Like tabletop role-playing games, there is combat, but it’s relatively simple. Fights are often more of a heroic nature rather than being violent, gory grimdarkness, and often can (and should) be avoided. In fact, readers will quickly discover that violence is not always the best solution to a problem. In many ways, it is a game of resource management (e.g. keeping track of your equipment and Endurance), which is why it goes above and beyond reading a simple book. Kids, especially those who are into the gaming scene, should be right at home with Lone Wolf’s gamey mechanics.
You can get the series in print from eBay or from Project Aon (free!).
These are digital-only gamebooks published by Tin Man Games. Quality-wise, the writing is fast, hard-hitting and evocative, but there are a couple of gamebooks which don’t live up to expectations, either because they’re too linear or because of textual issues. Beware though, if you’re getting this for younger audiences, know that some of the books can be quite dark. There’s no sex or expletives (at least not that I remember), but thematically, some lean towards the darker side of religion and morality.
A few of the books are written prequel-to-sequel style, but most of the others' plots are only loosely connected with one another. In that sense, the adventures are self-contained stories, and you can always try the free first entry (GA1: An Assassin in Orlandes) to get a feel for the series.
Like Lone Wolf, there is combat here too, and although not complex, you have more control because of ‘tilt-able’ dice rolls. The game gives you 3D dice to roll, to check if your character hits. When the 3D dice are flying and you have a bad feeling about their outcomes, you can give it a few more taps to further randomise the rolls.
They’re often on sale, but even as I’m typing this, most of them can be bought at discounted bundle prices. Tin Man Games also sells classic gamebooks that are out-of-print, like the Fighting Fantasy series. Check out their full catalogue here.
Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA)
These were really popular in Singapore during the 80s and 90s, and need no further introduction. Unlike the above mentions, CYOA books don’t have combat resolution mechanics, and they’re usually very funnelled adventures. As such, it’s best to treat them as novellas presenting multiple possible outcomes, rather than as games per se.
Don’t take this as a knock on CYOA books though. They’re still very entertaining to read, and can serve as a good alternative to traditional novels/novellas.
Choice Of Games
These are somewhat different from traditional gamebooks. They’re best described as a mish-mash of an old 80s video game called Alter Ego and a gamebook. In these games (at least in Choice of the Dragon and Choice of the Vampire), you pick specific roles to play, but the narratives are typically not constrained to one single plot device. Instead, each arc spans a time line comprised of events that cumulatively affect how the story ends for you. The choices are very entertaining, with a lot of morally grey areas, and you’ll have to deal with the consequences over the course of the game depending on the type of character you play. It’s superb for helping younger readers develop the skills to write good character backstories, motivations and periodic zeitgeists.
The language used is simple, but well-kept to the flavour evoked by the story and its sub-themes—good for vocabulary acquisition. For emphasis, I find it an easy read because the narrative is driven by a good mix of exposition and show-not-tell storytelling approach.
Check out the entire catalogue here. Do note that the publisher also has many more games beyond 'Choice of' ones, many of which are closer to the style of traditional gamebooks. There's something for everybody.
Using gamebooks to encourage positive reading habits
Traditionally, books are written in such a way where the consumer is a passive viewer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but gamebooks have an added appeal because of the viewer’s ability to provide input. If your child hates reading—and dyslexic learners can abhor it—give gamebooks a shot. You never know if it’ll kindle their interest.