Loss of continuity has two forms. The first form occurs when players get lost trying to navigate to another segment of text. When they start reading at the next segment, the story doesn’t look familiar and confusion sets in.
The second version appears in option sets. When players should decide something based on prior events or observations, some players may have forgotten the necessary clues. Unlike a novel, the reader needs to remember what’s going on in order to progress meaningfully.
Loss of continuity may seem like a small problem, a momentary confusion cured by a bit of backtracking. This is not always the case. The worst losses of continuity occur not with player confusion, but with player certainty. Reaching the wrong text part, a player who misses the signposts and continues confidently may skip over to a different part of the story, never knowing that a problem occurred or finding out too late to do anything about it.
Losses of continuity are ubiquitous to the solo gamebook experience. No one has been able to prevent them entirely, but there metastructural tools that solo writers can use to minimize the occurrences.
BETWEEN TEXT PARTS
“Turn to page 124.”
Anyone who’s played physical gamebooks knows to mark the old text part before turning to the next; keeping a finger in the prior page lets you go back if you have a problem. It’s not just for cheating—you’ll sometimes need to recheck the instructions to make sure you’re in the right place. For example, you get to page 124 and start reading, but the location is ambiguous and the events don’t seem to flow from the prior text part. If you didn’t mark the prior passage, you’ll have to retrace your steps through the book to get back to that decision point and check that you read the instructions correctly.
In electronic books (PDFs), the problem is similar. You get to the new text part and start reading, only to wonder if you’re in the right place. Although hyperlinks solve some issues, they present several new quandaries.
It takes very little brainpower to click a hyperlink. When flipping physical pages, the mind actively engages with the title or page number as part of the search process. Conversely, clicking a hyperlink doesn’t require the reader to process or retain the identity of the target segment. As clicking hyperlinks becomes routine, players stop thinking about what they’re clicking on, trusting the hyperlink to do the work.
Loss of continuity can occur when the player arrives at the targeted segment of text. Not having committed the identity of that segment to short-term memory, the player may be confused if multiple segments of text are visible on the screen. This is common when each page of the document hosts multiple text parts. The player is left to scan each segment in hopes of finding one that matches the story’s continuity.
The gamebook’s routing can fail dramatically when players get onto the wrong text part, thinking they’re still on track, or if the PDF creator misplaced the hyperlink’s target. It’s very difficult to navigate a PDF back to the prior text part to check you’ve clicked on the right hyperlink or to confirm which text you’re supposed to read next.
We’ve had a long time to solve this but haven’t been able to do so despite the advance of technology. Instead, we use these tools to mitigate the problem.
1. Landing Text
In the Solitaires Method, the preferred anatomy of a text part includes “landing text.” After the title, the first text the player reads should repeat or affirm the action or decision that led to that text part. Even if the case of a hyphen prompt, where there was only one option to proceed from the prior text part, the new text part should repeat the last thing the player read. This repetition may seem cumbersome, but there’s research that shows players welcome strong landings.
Landings solve most problems with finding the correct text part on the page and they remind players of what’s transpired.
The drawbacks include having to write narrative text in a way that can kill the “chapter cliffhanger” effect, that pause between text divisions that draws out a dramatic moment. Having to repeat the last thing dampens the effect of this narrative tool. Additionally, because players will come to expect landings, you can’t fail to put them in every text part lest the players think something is missing.
2. Settings Instructions
Most players use Adobe’s reader for PDFs. Using a particular page view setting makes each hyperlink’s targeted text (presumably the title of the linked text part) appear at the top of the screen. This usually prevents hunting for the right text from among multiple parts on that page, though there is still room for confusion if the page has multiple columns of text.
You can instruct players to use those settings if your adventure begins with a set of gameplay instructions. However, players might use other PDF-reading programs, might not save those settings between sessions of play, or might find the instructions too complicated. Even more likely, those “correct” settings don’t display well because of your players’ screen sizes.
3. Proper Testing
Broken hyperlinks reliably create loss of continuity the player can’t avoid. And they’re all too common. Testing in the proper way and at the proper time is essential. When you think your PDF gamebook is ready to publish, run a final “test case,” methodically checking every hyperlink to make sure it leads to the right text part. This can take hours, but it’s worth the effort.
General testing isn’t enough to find broken hyperlinks. Unless the adventure is quite linear, there will be routes through your story that none of your testers use. You can’t rely on them finding everything, thus the need to test each link yourself.
This step must come at the end because edited prose or late-added art can change the position of your text on the page or the number of pages in your product. Depending on your publication software, this can change your link targets. Therefore, your hyperlink test case must be one of the final steps of production.
DESCRIPTION / OPTION SEPARATION
The second type of lost continuity occurs when players forget important details. There’s no way to predict which ideas will stick in a player’s mind, or for how long. Moreover, players may put the adventure down to take a break, coming back to the noted text part later. You don’t know how much real-world time passes between the player reading a particular detail and the player having to make a choice based on that knowledge.
This type of lost continuity can cause problems in option sets. It exists because of the gamebook’s segmented nature. In a novel, a player can reacquire forgotten details by scanning back up the page. However, in gamebooks, the player can only scan as far back as the top of the current text part. If that begins at a point after the critical information, the player is unable to reread it and must select from the options without full knowledge of their import.
The core problem is the separation of option sets from their supporting descriptive text. This is common in the metastructure of “recurrent nodes,” where the player can return to a short text part and choose another option from a set, repeating this process at least once. This small, recurrent text part often omits the necessary exposition for decision-making there, usually on the theory that the player shouldn’t reread a lot of text each time.
Here are some examples of separation problems:
1. Two-Part Decision Hubs
While it’s good to limit the length of the descriptive text in a hub, that text should still describe the forecasted consequence for every option. For example, an option set with three directions should remind the player what’s in those directions (if the story has revealed that information already). If the player already knows that the path toward the river leads to the character’s ultimate goal (the capital city), that should be in the narrative text of the hub or part of the option itself.2. Omitting Hubs
The problem is harder to deal with if you avoid recurrent decision hubs. If you present an option set where multiple options will be chosen in a “multiplying” track, it’s easy to skip the foundational exposition further down-track.
Example: Choose one of three options (doors). After opening a “wrong” door, you find an option set that includes only the two doors you haven’t tried. But do you remember the clues about the correct door here, where you’re facing only two options?
Aside from requiring a lot of text and text parts, a multiplying track has the potential to skip the description of each option each time an option set appears. Be wary of this problem and construct winnowing tracks carefully or create a “test case” to apply prior to final editing to find such errors.
3. Hyphen Prompts
When one text part directs the player to another, with no alternative, that lonely prompt is called a “hyphen prompt.” The next text part might receive a reader coming from multiple routes (binding branches into a single route), or the separation might exist because the narrative text was simply too long for the page. As above, this can separate the description or stakes from the coming set of options.
Again, this requires checking all your option sets and making sure the relevant guiding details also appear in that text part.
Loss of continuity is often down to a failure of comprehension. The reader doesn’t understand the meaning or inference of your text. This is the writer’s fault; you can always do better with your descriptions. However, the constraints of locational mapping make this problem particularly difficult to improve.
In locational mapping, like a dungeon room, the narrative text often describes the room from a neutral, central perspective. This is because the character may have entered that space from multiple directions. Even if there’s only one “entry” and one “exit,” true locational mapping is recursive, letting the character move into and out of the space repeatedly. You can’t refer to the player’s prior direction of travel unless you write a different version of the room for each entry point.
This is less about reading comprehension; it takes a different sort of deduction to remember you went south from the last room, thus the north-leading option would be backtracking. The loss of continuity occurs not in the context of your narrative, but rather the decisions and movements previously made.
To reduce this problem, refer to the player’s past choices whenever you can safely do so. For example, a dead-end room can describe the door option as “back the way you came.”
Whenever possible, use map images of each location. This can reduce the chance for directional confusion, particularly among diligent players who are mapping as they go.
Finally, when a room has too much potential to cause confusion (or backtracking can create harsh penalties), try writing multiple versions of that room, including all text parts for interacting with its contents, so that you can explicitly mark which exit option is “backtracking.”