Alexa Opens the Magic Door
  • Alexa Opens the Magic Door


    Amazon has been developing a series of "skills" for their Echo, an audio-listening device that uses big data to respond back to users with streaming content. It was only a matter of time before choose-your-own adventures were added...but this isn't the first time an audio-only format has been applied to the adventure format.


    Gamebook Origins

    The European gamebook industry -- which American publisher Flying Buffalo lays claim to with Buffalo Castle -- was launched to the mass market through the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. As Jackson explains:

    Ian and I started Games Workshop in 1975. At the time it was an amateur operation, run from a flat in Shepherd's Bush. We published a games fanzine by the name of 'Owl & Weasel', sold obscure games by mail order and manufactured classic wooden games like Backgammon and Go - hence the name 'Games Workshop'. But then we discovered Dungeons & Dragons and very quickly everything switched over to role-playing games. We promoted the new hobby and obtained exclusive European rights to D&D and many other RPGs. We published White Dwarf magazine, established a shop and ran the Games Day convention. It was at one of these conventions in 1980 that we met Geraldine Cooke, an editor at Penguin Books. We managed to persuade her to consider publishing a book based on the role-playing hobby.

    Out of that discussion came the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, as Jackson explains:

    Originally, this book was supposed to be a 'how-to-do-it' manual. But when it came to describing how to play RPGs, we came up with the idea of describing a game in action and ultimately decided it would be best done by letting the reader make choices. The more we thought about it, the more we really liked that idea. In fact, it was much more interesting than writing the RPG manual! So we abandoned the manual idea and put together what was to become the first gamebook.

    The modular style of play lent itself to a variety of formats that Jackson would experiment with later, including an audio format called F.I.S.T.

    Raising the F.I.S.T.

    F.I.S.T. was launched in the U.K. in 1988 as a telephone service that narrated a fantasy adventure, allowing the player to interact with it by pressing numbers on their phone. Jackson explains how it worked:

    The publisher/developers Computerdial had a system which could read the clicks on rotary dial phones - at the time, tone dial phones were only available in the US. We had earmarked an Fighting Fantasy title due to be published in six month's time which would be the first phone-based Fighting Fantasy game. I was very excited about this; a whole new format for Fighting Fantasy. I set to work on converting the Fighting Fantasy manuscript to the Computerdial system. It didn't take me long to realise that this wasn't going to work. A three-page introduction was fine in a book, but not if you have to listen to it for five minutes at 17p a minute! The only solution was to come up with a different type of adventure, with mainly short passages of audio and lots of dialogue, which voice actors could go to town on. And lots of choices!

    The end result was a new interactive technology that launched several innovations later expressed in video game development:

    In a pre-cell phone era, F.I.S.T. featured custom characters, save files, a narrator and sound effects. While technology would ultimately leave the system behind, it still is impressive that when games like Dragon Quest 3 or Ultima V were only just coming out, F.I.S.T. provided a similar experience on the telephone and, for a time, succeeded. Key features that we come to expect in 2015 were already mastered on the telephone in 1988.

    F.I.S.T. had a cost that added up for users who couldn't necessarily afford to play. It would be decades before the format would surface again to the mass market, thanks to the rise of a streaming audio platform from Amazon: the Echo.

    Is There an Echo in Here?

    David Markley explained how the Echo's Alexa platform works with voice controls:

    While working with the Alexa platform over the last few months, it occurred to me that some of my favorite text games could be made more accessible to today’s game players through voice control. There has been a resurgence of text based, narrative gaming; and access by voice takes the experience to a whole new level of interaction. Successful video games have solid characters and background stories that are driven by conflict. Text based games rely even more heavily on their story. And the voice interaction enabled by Alexa provides for an extremely intimate dialogue between the gamer and the game.

    There are a variety of adventure games for the Amazon Echo. The most rudimentary of these games are confined to focused challenges, like escaping a dangerous field, exploring a cave, or even making an omelette. But just as Jackson discovered with F.I.S.T., making an audio gamebook isn't easy; some, like Mystery Castle and Adventure are not rated very highly on Amazon, chiefly due to their interface. There are also games for kids, like Lotus Apple and Tiny Tales. Caves under Thornhill even replicates early computer game Hunt the Wumpus, right down to avoiding falling into a pit or being eaten by a monster.

    Of the basic choose-your-own-path models, The Magic Door seems to be the most popular. And for players who prefer sophisticated interfaces, Dungeon Adventure includes a combat and inventory system:

    This is a complete fantasy role-playing game in which Alexa will become the dungeon master. You will create a character, purchase items in the town, travel to the dungeon, fight monsters, level up your character, find chests, get more gold to go back to town and purchase better items. First you will create a character and assign values to your character’s attributes of strength, dexterity, intelligence, constitution, perception, charisma and wisdom. The adventure will involve rolling dice to determine the outcomes of various tasks (Alexa will roll the dice for you). Your character’s attributes will affect how well your character does during the adventure giving you bonus modifiers that add or subtract from your rolls. You will start in town where you can purchase various weapons, armors, potions and spells to help you during your adventure. You will encounter various types of monsters in the dungeon that you can attack and kill which will give your character experience points that will be used to level up your character.

    Fantasy is just the tip of the iceberg. The Sherlock Holmes-themed Baker Street Experience has good company, with a tie-in game from Warner Bros. co-launched with the Batman v. Superman movie titled The Wayne Investigation in which you try to discover who murdered Batman's parents.

    It seems Jackson was on to something. With the ubiquity of the Echo's audio interface, we may see more audio gamebooks following in F.I.S.T.'s footsteps in the near future.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
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    Comments 3 Comments
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Where's this "resurgence of text based" gaming going on? I may need to do some downloading.

      Glad to hear that Alexa is as nerdy as she sounds.
    1. TarionzCousin's Avatar
      TarionzCousin -
      If you own an Alexa, tell her the first line of a well-known quote from a sci-fi or fantasy movie. Chances are good she'll say the next line in the quote.

      The programmers added those in just for fun, according to a project manager at Amazon.
    1. Jhaelen -
      I'm definitely not inclined to install a bug in my appartment, eavesdropping on everything and reporting it back to Amazon.
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