Thursday, July 9, 2020

GAMEBOOK ACADEMY _____ Meet JERRY BELICH, creative technologist and inventor of the Choosatron interactive fiction arcade machine, he says the journey, not the destination, is what's most important

NOTE: This is part of a series that explains how to create your own simple gamebooks. More articles here

Please introduce yourself!
I'm Jerry! I'm best known for my design and development of alt ctrl, or alternative controller, games and experiences. I've been a creative technologist as long as I can remember and have a deep love for narrative and world building. My current professional work includes narrative design, technical producing, alt ctrl prototyping, and my current contract is doing escape room design and implementation.

Do tell us about your Choosatron.
The Choosatron journey started nearly eight years ago. I was working at an agency leading a mobile development team and doing research and development on a few of the special projects that came through our doors. One was a huge installation for the Cosmo Casino in Las Vegas where we (the agency I worked at) designed and implemented the software managing the install (syncing simulations across 384 hi-def monitors). One day during a call with the content team (a separate agency), I asked them how they go about prototyping their physical + electronic installations. They told me about Arduino, the hobbyist microcontroller, which I had heard of but never got around to trying. A week later a package arrived from them, a brand new Arduino as a gift!

I'm a fairly methodical person when I start something new, so I went online to Adafruit and Sparkfun and read through their respective catalogues of parts, one by one. I made notes of parts that I thought were interesting to revisit, but it was the thermal printer that really grabbed me. When I ran across the coin acceptor it all clicked. I stopped and said aloud to noone, "I want to make an interactive fiction arcade machine!". A month later, I had! It was built into the cardboard box from some Amazon order and stopped working every time I moved it, but it worked. I was invited to bring it to a local literary event so I built a second one that was more likely to survive. This continued until more and more folks were nudging me to do a kickstarter for it. Fast forward a few years and I had raised $75,080 USD, manufactured about 600 units, and shipped them all over the world. I won't lie, it was an extremely stressful experience and not entirely successful. I never managed to finish and ship the interactive fiction book that was part of the kickstarter, and the authoring software never got to where it was supposed to me. I had a lot of help, but ultimately it was a one person team and that is not how to run a kickstarter or a company.

I delivered as best I could, burnt myself out, and moved on to designing many more alternative controller games and I found a new career direction for myself. I needed space from the Choosatron project but I continued selling units over the years to museums and other customers. About a year ago I finished doing an MFA and teaching at a university and so for the first time in years started revisiting the Choosatron. Microcontroller designs have made some huge leaps in just a few years, not to mention lowered in cost. That combined with everything I've learned in the meantime gives me a lot of confidence that I could accomplish what I had hoped to back in 2013. So I'm working on new designs and tools in the direction of Choosatron but I'm also not going to rush myself.

What's the most interesting response you've had from kids?
They love touching the Choosatron; pressing buttons, handling the growing length of paper, the tactile nature of it all. I think the most interesting was how kids would take their completed stories and compare the lengths, implicitly valuing longer stories over shorter ones. I think that is fascinating and wonderful because what they are saying is, the journey, not the destination, is what's most important.

Why did you decide to work with interactive fiction?
I loved interactive fiction as a kid and read dozens of those kinds of books over and over. Plenty were the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure brand but there were many others. Though even as a kid, I felt like the writing was subpar. I was reading the likes of Tolkein and Douglas Adams at quite a young age so the quality of sci-fi, adventure, and fantasy I was hungry for was high. As an adult I realized I didn't really know of much interactive fiction written for adults, or at least, written with deep care for the narrative and choices being made. I wanted to see if I could change that.

What does it take to write a cool piece of interactive fiction? In under 30 words.
ADHD? I kid, but I think it is one reason I'm able to write it rather quickly. Ok real answer: Recognize the agency of your reader; don't abuse the reader or play tricks on them without a payoff. Craft the story with them, for them, not just at them. Write.

How will interactive fiction authoring skills be useful for kids in the future?
I think it's useful for anyone that gets into a field involving design; that is, creation of an experience for other people. It's great practice in the ability to craft an experience that is inclusive of the user / player / reader, paying attention to their role in what is unfolding. Thinking about the audience as a vital component to design I believe also helps creators develop more empathy toward their audience. I think we need more of that in the world, everywhere, and always.

What's next for you?
As a way to dip my toes back into the Choosatron waters, I've been finishing up a Choosatron story player for the Playdate, a strange and wonderful new handheld game system by Panic. I was lucky enough to get a device early so I could develop for it and it has been a joy. My plan for it is two phases really... First, finish a parser for Choosatron stories as they currently exist (a custom binary format I designed so IF (interactive fiction) stories can be played on very restricted memory systems) which I have already completed. Second, reevaluate the current state of IF writing tools and design a new format that properly bridges the gap between authoring tools and interesting platforms to play the resulting games, such as a new Choosatron or the Playdate. The screen on the Playdate is incredibly sharp and easy to read (it is in fact a SHARP Memory Display, a screen type I've enjoyed prototyping previous to the Playdate). I'm hoping to collaborate with Panic even further to create a strong presence for IF on their platform!


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Don Bosco's Gamebook Academy
Read all posts here

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


I recently created a video talk for the Singapore Writers Festival, and it went live earlier this week. Maybe you watched that and decided to come by. In which case, a very warm welcome to my website! But if you haven't seen the video, here it is:

VIDEO: Where Ideas Come From with Don Bosco
Calling all budding writers! Get inspired with unusual ways to write original stories with author Don Bosco! Join him as he shares the writing process using examples from his published books. Download fun writing activities after watching the video and let your creative juices flow to write your own stories.

Remember to download the free handout that comes with this. It contains story writing tips and a few easy exercises for creating your own stories. This is the same technique that I use when writing my books. Let me know if it works for you too. Get the handout here.

The handout also includes a free story, Murtabak's Mystery Club, about a young detective named Murtabak Lee. It was illustrated by my younger son. Hope it makes you laugh!

Recently I've been busy making gamebooks. A gamebook is a story where you get to choose what happens along the way, so it's like you're playing a game. 

This is my The Secret of the Chatter Blocks gamebook, part of the Toy Mystery series, for readers 7 to 9 years old. More info here.

And this is my Welcome to the Scramble gamebook, part of the Last Kid Running series, for readers 10 to 12 years old. Book launch event photos here.

I've also started a Gamebook Academy to teach you how to make your own gamebooks! Check out the free lessons here, and have a go. It's a lot of fun!

To find out more about me and my books, start here, and then explore the different sections in the sidebar on the right.

Last year I celebrated 8 years of Super Cool Books by featuring 52 fellow kidlit creators. They were really awesome. Read their interviews here.

All this should keep you busy for a while! Thanks for dropping by, and I look forward to meeting you at one of my events.

Take care, and happy writing!

— Don

Saturday, June 13, 2020

GAMEBOOK ACADEMY _____ Meet RANA TAHIR, she wrote a CYOA gamebook about a woman who went undercover during World War II to spy on the Nazis

NOTE: This is part of a series that explains how to create your own simple gamebooks. More articles here

An introduction, please.
My name is Rana Tahir, I'm a poet, educator, and writer. A little bit about me: I'm originally from Pakistan but grew up in Kuwait. I'm a Kundiman Poetry Fellow and author of two books. My most recent book is a gamebook titled Choose Your Own Adventure Spies: Noor Inayat Khan.

Tell us about your gamebook Choose Your Own Adventure Spies: Noor Inayat Khan.
Choose Your Own Adventure Spies: Noor Inayat Khan puts readers in the shoes of Noor Inayat Khan an SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative during World War II who went undercover to spy on the Nazis. Noor was a real person and readers get a chance to explore all the ways her life could have gone while also learning about World War II and the movement for Indian Independence. 

What were the main challenges you faced in writing this gamebook?
In writing this book the biggest challenge was just knowing when to stop. I think, if I didn't have a deadline, I could have continued writing more and more choices and endings for Noor's story. There was also the sense of responsibility I had with presenting an honest interpretation of Noor as a historical figure, and person, and to represent World War II and the movement for Indian Independence with depth. I think anyone who writes about World War II and doesn't mention or, in my case, at least allude to the Holocaust is doing a disservice; similarly, the story of European imperialism is a complex topic and while I couldn't do everything I wanted to with Noor's India storyline, I did try to at least mention some of the figures of the time and give a sense to the duplicity of the British role during that time as liberators of Europe and tyrants in India. Ultimately, because of the page limit for the book, I had to opt for a more subtle approach than what I initially drafted.

Summarise your gamebook writing process in under 30 words.
I start with an idea and then I brainstorm and outline all the choices. Next, I map them out. Afterward, I go section by section and write out the story.

How did you first get interested in gamebooks?
There are a lot of things that led to my interest in gamebooks. For one, I loved point-and-click adventure games as a kid. While the games (like the Monkey Island series from LucasArts) did not have multiple alternate endings, I did enjoy piecing together clues. Secondly, I've always enjoyed fanfiction and fandoms in general: they are a communal debate and sharing of alternate choices and endings for characters we love. In relation to that, I loved comic books. Comic book characters are always brought back and reinterpreted in a multitude of ways over the decades, in addition to the multiple timelines that exist in and outside of the canon. It was always fun to debate different ideas for how stories could go. I also frequently watch behind-the-scenes footage and documentaries about movies, especially deleted scenes and alternate endings. I think I just always wondered about other possibilities in all the things I read and watched. I had never really thought of writing a gamebook until the opportunity came, as I mentioned earlier, but I always enjoyed them.

How will gamebook authoring skills be useful for kids in the future?
Of course, writing often is important to develop strong work, and I think writing gamebooks is a fun way to practice. I think the biggest benefit of reading and writing gamebooks is the ability to think creatively and see situations from multiple viewpoints. Thinking creatively is a life skill and a great professional skill too. It allows you to think of all the possibilities that others might overlook.

Links for fans: 

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Don Bosco's Gamebook Academy

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

GAMEBOOK ACADEMY _____ How to create an amazing gameworld for your adventure

NOTE: This is part of a series that explains how to create your own simple gamebooks. More articles here

Welcome back to the Gamebook Academy! I hope you’ve been trying out the gamebook writing tips in our earlier lessons. In this post, we’ll look at some ways you can create an amazing imaginary world for your gamebook. These ideas can make your gamebook so memorable, your readers will be dying to read your next work, so that they can visit and enjoy your gameworld all over again. Ready? Here we go.

LESSON 4: How to create an amazing gameworld for your adventure

The best way to start when designing your gameworld is to decide on the main mood of the place.

Will it be dark and creepy? Or sunny and cheerful?

Shadowy and mysterious? Or glittery and enchanting?

This mood will become the main emotional flavour of your gamebook. It will determine all the other elements, as we’ll see below. For each of the following points, make a list of three or more ideas you’d want to include in your gamebook. And check that they all fit your main mood.

Once you’ve decided on your main mood for this gamebook, you can make a list of locations for your readers to explore. These locations should reflect the main mood, with small variations to make things more interesting.

Eg, if you want your gameworld to feel dangerous, you could have castles filled with scary paintings, lakes filled with black bubbling water, deserted villages with a nasty smell, and so on. Your readers will definitely feel a shiver run down their spines as they go about their adventures.   

These are the residents of your gameworld. In a movie, these would be the background characters that live in the gameworld. You’d want to create an interesting crowd for your character to interact with, and they should also reflect the mood of your gameworld. 

Think about the locations you’ve picked for your gameworld. What sort of people would you find in these places? Eg, if you have a bazaar, then you can fill it with merchants, traders from other lands, perhaps thieves trying to sell their stolen goods, and even pickpockets looking for unsuspecting victims. 

The more people you include in your scenes, the more lively and immersive your gamebook will feel to your readers.  

A curio is an object that’s unusual or fascinating. Curios make us curious about their origins and their makers. They often seem like items from another world. Some might even look magical. And sometimes they are worth a lot of money.

One way to get readers excited about your gameworld is to have them encounter such curios during their adventures. Examples: swords, precious stones, lovely old books, lockets, tools, weird toys, small animal bones, and so on. 

So make a list of unique curios for your gameworld, and even sketch them out in a notebook, so you know how to describe them. And remember to choose curios that strongly reflect the mood of your gameworld.

Every adventure will contain dangers that could prevent your character from completing the mission successfully. Your character would need to avoid these elements.

If there’s a castle in your gameworld, you could add giant man-eating rats in the dungeons below. That would make it a really dangerous place indeed. Ugh! Shudders. 

Or if there’s an academy for spies in your gameworld, you could have a fierce Spy Master who goes around and assigns detention to the spy cadets who aren’t paying attention. If this means the absolute end of the adventure for your character, then the Discipline Master would be dangerous indeed. 

Other ideas: trap doors, bullies, fierce vultures, zombies, vampires, haunted buildings, and so on.

Every gameworld needs a bunch of delightful treats to make your readers smile and feel happy. 

If there’s a dungeon, a real delight would be to encounter swarms of lovely flickering flies that give off a pretty glow.

If there’s a toy factory in your gameworld, perhaps the workers there are busy making small edible toys that taste like ice cream, or chocolate balls, or fizzy cola. How absolutely delightful, eh? Thumbs up. 

Other ideas: clowns, unicorns, cute little ponies, birthday parties, cool books, giant dancing robots, magical playgrounds, etc.

So have fun coming up with ideas for these categories: Mood, Locations, People, Curios, Dangers and Delights. And once you have these points figured out, just add some of the information in each section of your gamebook. This will bring the scene to life and make it feel like it’s buzzing with real activity.

You now know how to make a fascinating gameworld for your readers to enjoy exploring. Have fun and create a new gamebook this week, if you can, even if it's short and simple. It'll be good practice. See you soon.

NEXT LESSON: How to shuffle the sections in your gamebook

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