Friday, November 7, 2014

Hadean Lands Impressions

Cross-posted from a gaming forum that isn't very big on IF, so apologies if a lot of this is redundant.

4 years ago Andrew Plotkin ran a Kickstarter campaign to create a big, puzzley, text adventure. He released it just a week ago and it's amazing.

Plotkin is one of the grand-masters of IF. Like real auteur level, and the author of some of the best the genre has to offer. This game, Hadean Lands, is perhaps his most intricate.
The set-up is that you're a cadet on His Majesty's Crawler [I]The Unanswerable Retort[/I], an alchemical spaceship. Just [I]what[/I] an alchemical spaceship is unclear at the start of the game, but it's clearly pretty far removed from the metal-corridors and rocket engines space travel usually implies.

Something's happened to the ship, the crews missing and there's large crystalline fractures woven throughout the ship. You've got to figure out what happened and how to fix it. You do this by manipulating alchemy.

As an ensign, you start knowing very little. Basically a few fundamental procedures to make a tarnish removing token. But the game teaches you as you go, constantly giving you new tools and knowledge to perform more advanced rituals. Alchemy is a very complex system, which involves (among other things) where you perform a ritual, the order you do the steps, the items involved, the physical material of the items involved, the spiritual qualities of the items involve, the odor of the items involved, the sounds produced by the items involved, a wide selection of magic words and concepts and so on.

It's pretty heady.

But the game starts with simple, easy to follow recipes. You're not given more than you can handle for the first hour or so, after which the game opens up and you get lots of ingredients and information to play around with. This creates an experience of mastery. You go from knowing very little, to holding in your head a lot, but still feeling in control of it. And through a very considered application of gates, you feel competent in your application of the system. It's very gratifying to successfully complete a formula or create a new item. And after you've become competent with the system you start to riff on it, changing formulas or inventing your own based on your knowledge of how things work.

But that's just the first level of play. In terms of solving the game, it quickly becomes clear that the larger puzzle is figuring out the order of creating items to get the items you need to preform a ritual to open a door, or whatever. Some items are limited in quality and you might need them in more than one ritual. So the metagame (is that the right term?) is about using your knowledge to determine the right order to set up conditions to realize a goal.

Thanks to time-travel shenanigans you can reset the game to it's starting conditions at any time. This puts all the items back in their original locations, re-locks all the doors, etc. The only thing that changes is the knowledge you've acquired (thankfully, the game automatically updates any recipes/rituals/special knowledge/everything you need to know about alchemy in a database that's accessible at any time). This gives you the freedom to experiment and play around in the game world without fear of fucking things up or constantly reloading a save file.

And here's the most amazing thing. After you've performed a ritual once you don't have to go through all the little steps again. It's fun creating an item once, but if you had to type in four or five commands every time you wanted to make a particular key the game would become unbearably tedious. What's more, the game will automate any steps leading up the action you want to take. Say, for example, you had just reset the game, placing yourself in the starting location and all items in theirs. You know for your next goal you need a gold bar which is locked in a chest, with several locked doors between it and you. Moreso, those locked doors are opened by rituals that require items that are behind locked doors of their own. Having to replay the entire game up to this point would be awfully unfun, but, from the very starting position of the game, you could type "get gold bar" and the game would in one step move you about the map, collecting everything you needed to perform the required rituals and open the locked doors in order to fulfill your request. You're just given a list of what you collected and what actions were taken and BAM there you are, gold bar in hand. It's mind-blowing and I can't imagine the code involved. It completely makes the base concept of the game viable, and is a high-point for player-friendliness.

Hadean Lands is light on story and is nearly a pure puzzle experience, but if the idea of Magical Chemistry: The Game sounds appealing I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Archipelago of Omens

Richard Penwarden's Archipelago of Omens is stupid ambitious. It crams pages and pages of rules before you get any sort of setting, character, or purpose. The character sheet is a jigsaw puzzle of stats and attributes. Specialized terms, each marked with unique punctuation, abound and confound the eye. It would be too much for a full-length book. It really shouldn't work.

But it does. It's damn fun too.

Archipelago is the type of adventure I tend to think of as a "simulation." These type of games craft their rules to simulate real-world experiences.Weight tables, damage charts, etc. They tend to focus on the implementation of these rules than exploring a narrative. In Archipelago you play as one of three characters who are traveling through a grouping of mysterious, mist shrouded islands. You've got to manage health and armor levels, item and time limits, three different essential stats and weapon usage related to them. But while it's a lot to take in at first, each piece is simple on its own and easy to grasp (with maybe the exception of armor, which is a tad over-worked and unclear). All the small pieces come together to create a rich and fun tapestry. What's more, the three different characters not only have their own specialized rules and limitations, but they are from three wildly different historical eras, giving each one their own unique experience. That Penwarden was able to fit all this into Windhammer's limitations is an achievement, that he was able to make it all work so well might be a winning move.

The core mechanic revolves around three attributes: Arms, Eyes, and Lungs. You test against each one for appropriate actions: Arms when climbing a cliff, Lungs when attacking with a blowgun, and so on. The rank you have in an attribute determines how many coin flips (or other 50/50 equivalent random generator: dice, cards, whatever) you get to make during a test. If you get the required number of successes you pass. You also have a "Spirit" stat than you can spend to turn a flip from a failure to a success. Or you can save up Spirit to spend on permanently increasing you rank in an Attribute. It's a simple and elegant system that utilizes both chance and choice in an engaging way.

I especially liked the system because it gave me an excuse to use's oft-ignored coin flipping function. I chose the East Caribbean dollar for thematic consistency.

There's a lot more going on here, so I'm going to summarize what else I liked and disliked in a quick list.

* Item and weapon use was very well designed. I always felt that I was ahead of the game when it came to weapon and item choice (find the Well of Worlds early helped). Likewise, choosing what to give up when limits were reached was always an interesting dilemma.
*Combat, despite the complexity of weapon ranges, was always fun. Mostly because it still used the core flipping mechanic.
*The three character's special rules were all fun, but I got the most enjoyment out of the Perl Diver's ability to scavenge and craft. It really brought the setting alive for me, and I loved that you could find different items on the different types of island.
*Really, the three character thing works really well. Especially considering the constraints. The core story remains the same across the three characters, but there's enough difference to make three different experiences. Lots of replay in these hundred sections.
*I usually dislike time limits in gamebooks, but here it's a variable. You can both lose and gain time, which makes for a satisfying reward when succeeding.
*The endgame resolves around a high requirement test which can be made easier by collecting "Omens" throughout the game. This is a hard test and would turn what is an otherwise open-ended game into a Truth Path challenge, if not for the Spirit mechanic. In each of my playthroughs I was always able to use Spirit to get enough successes to pass, but only just barely. This made for a dynamic and dramatic climax. If Spirit wasn't as plentiful it wouldn't have worked, but I feel Penwarden got it right.

-The game's a bit of a mess. With so much rule-oriented detail things can get bogged down in specifics. I'm not sure that can be helped. However, I'm not sure using punctuation to differentiate aspects of rules did anything but make things messier.
-The organization and explanation of the rules could certainly be cleaned up.With so many they need to be as clear and concise as possible. Using Appendixes was a good idea, but I feel they could have been implemented better.
-While the encounters on islands generally consisted of meaningful choices, traveling between them was always an arbitrary decision. In all three of my playthroughs I never felt like I was doing anything than randomly picking my way through the islands. There's enough of them, with the content spaced out between them, that your path through them isn't extremely important. Still, navigating takes up a large chunk of the play and it really shouldn't have been so arbitrary.
-Encounters are written well, but the story bits at the beginning and the end were full of clunky sentences and could have used more polish. This isn't a game about story though, so this element doesn't weigh as heavily as it would in a more narrative focused game.

As a whole, Archipelago is big success. While rule-heavy, it will appeal to the type of table-top player I imagine gravitates towards gamebooks (and will be voting in this contest). I'll be shocked if it doesn't place in the top three.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

IFComp 2014 - The Contortionist

The Contortionist by Nicholas Stillman is... wait. Nicholas Stillman? That's got to be a coincidence, right? That's a common enough name. On the other hand, there's some aspects of The Contortionist's setting that would fit right in with Gunlaw's bizarre pre-apocolapse future. I may be wrong but I suspect it's the game guy. After I had just finished flushing the garbage from Why Don't They Leave the House out of my head, the last thing I wanted was to play another Stillman game. Thankfully, while The Contortionist does have some gross-out moments, there's nothing outrageously offensive on display.

Some 60 odd years in the future society has invented an odd system where 2% of the population are selected at random to work in production camps creating the products that the rest of the world grows fat on. You've been selected as one of these workers, but thanks to a genetic anomaly that lets you constrict your bones far beyond the normal limit you have an unique opportunity to escape.

The Contortionist is a choice based game made with Twine. However, instead of the normal changing options at the end of each section, The Contortionist gives you the same thirteen actions regardless of the context. It's reminiscent of LucasArt's SCUMM system. The breadth of action is so wide that it nearly feels on the same level as a parser game. One thing the game lacks that a parser would provide is a save option. After several failed attempts it was annoying to have to repeat the same actions just to get back to where I was.

Escaping the prison is a satisfying puzzle. Emphasis is on conducting the right actions more than calculating what to do. One aspect I enjoyed was the time limit you have to explore and impliment your plants. You have to be in your cell when the guards make their checks, or it's game over. The time limit is a generous one and unless you're really pushing things it's unlikely you'll be caught, but what it does is create a tense atmosphere that fits both with the setting and the character's mental state. I don't know how many turns I wasted checking my watch even when I knew there was plenty of time before the next round of checks.

The writing isn't as flashy or as strong as in Gunlaw but there is a very pleasant economy of words. And there are those same sort of moments of quiet revelation that make you stop and consider the implications of the setting. There were a couple moments of word choice or awkward phrasing that I felt could have used some revision. A borderline use of "retarded" being first among them.

Likewise, I encountered a few bugs. Looking in the mirror would remove the menu of choices. (Unless that was intended to be an ending, but then, why?) And once or twice I would select an action only for no text to appear. For the most part things ran smoothly, but it seems one more pass on both writing and code would have polished the game to a shine.

The Contortionist was compelling enough to throw myself at it the half-dozen attempts it took to solve. The setting's interesting and not over worked. The contortion ability and the time limit are fun gimmicks. Overall, a very pleasant experience, especially when I was fearing another Why Don't They Leave.

If this was written by a different Nicholas Stillman, I apologize for unfairly comparing the game to another author's just because of shared a name, but I really don't think I'm off the mark here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Why Don't They Leave the House?

Why Don't They Leave the House? by Nicholas Stillman is a nasty piece of work. It warns on the title page that it contains strong horror themes that might be disturbing. This disclaimer is not nearly strong enough. Stillman describes some absolutely brutal scenarios that vault far over the boundaries of good taste. Most of the stuff in here is so over the top disgusting that I found it almost comical. Grotesque buffoonery on a grand scale. But then a image or idea would bring me up short, lodge itself in my brain, and rob me of sleep. Why Don't They Leave is gross and unpleasant and seems designed only to offend. That's not to say Stillman isn't doing some interesting things, but you've got to have a strong constitution to get through this one.

You play one of eight bus passengers who have banded together after their driver abandons them in a blizzard. You take refuge in an old farmhouse where the passengers start mysteriously dying, one an hour on the hour. Why Don't They Leave isn't particularity scary. There's nothing that threatens the player, physically at least. There's no clear antagonist, and beyond the drive to solve the mystery, not much conflict either. Despite the heavy use of figurative language, the game isn't very atmospheric either. There's a lot of description of the snow and the emancipated look of the group, but it doesn't amount to much. The farmhouse never solidifies into a distinct setting with a character and presence of its own. Instead the book almost entirely relies on it's extremeness for support.

In your attempts to solve the mystery you get entangled in more and more morally compromising positions, starting with riffling in the pockets of a corpse and skyrocketing from there. The book makes it clear that you are supposed to imagine yourself in this scenario and that you aren't playing a character. At it's core, it seems to be a comment on the YOU in the famous Fighting Fantasy slogan "in which YOU are the hero!" Why Don't They Leave asks you to imagine yourself in more and more extreme situations. It would almost feel like a test of morality except that 1. you're encouraged to jump in and get your hands dirty. By embracing the vile things the book asks you're rewarded with Clues towards the book's hidden good ending. And 2. most times you end up in an ever worse or more extreme situation if you balk at or try to avoid the nastiness. The book encourages you to compromise your morality and punishes you if you don't. Perhaps I'm off the mark here, but maybe the only way to escape unscathed is to simple stop reading. But that feels like a lame meta cop-out to me. (Not that I would disparage anyone who did stop, because yeesh.)

Note that this isn't always the case. On my initial playthrough I gleefully searched for drugs and hacked at a pantry in the dark, but I found myself drawing the line at torturing what I perceived as an innocent. While I did miss out on a Clue, I was denied a worse fate, and for that I'm grateful. Still, such mercies are rare, and there's no real right way to turn. You're going to be up to your neck in it, no matter what you choose.

On a game level, there's some nice mechanics here. The "you play as you" condition serves as a skill system of sorts. Based on your real-life experiences you'll notice or have insight into certain things that will provide hints on how to find Clues. It's a novel idea and works wonderfully, though the hints aren't always helpful. Also, the real ending is skilfully hidden, being neither obvious or beyond the realm of discovery. However, some of my friends who also played this had trouble differentiating the hints from the Clues, thus obscuring the ending perhaps beyond Stillman's intention. I found the ending satisfying to solve, but found the content of it disappointing. The solution to the mystery wasn't worth the hassle. Perhaps that's intentional.

As mentioned, Stillman writes with a lot of figurative language. Metaphorical invention abounds, but the book lacks the verve of Gunlaw. Far more often than not the language feels overwritten and phrases like "Marsha screams obscenities and throws her shoes like boomerangs" or "Family pictures, scores of them like Atari pixels, fall and smash with the thundering blows" are wildly out of place. According to Stillman, he wrote Why Don't They Leave for last year's competition but was worried it was inappropriate, and so entered Gunlaw instead. Why Don't They Leave lacks Gunlaw's delightful language and truly unique vision. In many ways it feels like an earlier work.

I can't in good conscience recommend Why Don't They Leave. None of its mechanics are clever enough to justify it's extreme vileness. When comparing notes with friends it was interesting to see that some bits that slid off my back utterly revolted them and vice versa.  Stillman has crafted such a diverse set of horrors there's sure to be something here to utterly wreck you. I'm still not sure what the point of the book is. If Stillman intended it as an examination of morality, and limits of player agency in gamebooks... well, it took me a long time to look past the theatrics and my own revulsion to get to the themes. And I'm not sure that they're successful. It's one thing to ask a player how far they'll go, but when you only have the choices the author has given you (implicit in the gamebook format) and they're all bad ones, it feels less like an honest examination and more like a sadistic puppeteer pulling on the strings. And if Stillman's intention was just to shock and offend? Mission accomplished, I guess.

Stillman writes in the afterword that every work should be a catharsis. I hope in writing Why Don't They Leave he found what he needed. I hope that this review will be a catharsis for me, so that I can finally get this book out of my head and move on to more pleasant entries.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

IFComp 2014 - Sigmund's Quest

Not much of a quest, I'm afraid. Sigmund's Quest by Gregor Holtz is short adventure made with the Dedalus CYOA-creation tool. It's based on the Volsunga Saga, and tries to replicate the look of early graphical adventures. Thing is, the pixel art isn't particularly appealing, looking more like childish drawings in Paint than the games it's trying to emulate, and the game ends abruptly with a note to watch for the next chapter on Holtz's website. There's little saga here.

Obviously a lot of work went into it's creation. I'm not familiar with Dedalus, but it appears the interface is custom made. It's quite fancy, sitting somewhere in-between a CYOA and a text adventure. You don't have the typical CYOA choices, instead you click on highlighted words to get a menu of contextual actions. While you don't have the range of options you would in a parser-based IF, a fully implemented game would be something worth exploring. Beyond the lack of content, there are some design issues. At points, interactive words would just stop working for me and I wouldn't be able to continue. That might be an issue with my browser though, and can be overlooked. The game presents a full window illustration with a diary that slides into view when clicked. This seems an odd choice to me. As the diary is where the game happens, and having to toggle it after every illustration change is invasive, especially on replays. 

Interface nit-picking aside, Sigmund's Quest just doesn't have the content to be a contending entry. That's unfortunate. There's a lot of potential here. But IFComp just isn't the place for a tech demo, no matter how much affection went into it's creation.

Interactive Fiction Competition 2014

Twenty years! I'm delighted that IFComp, and Interactive Fiction is still going strong after all this time. And I'm proud to have been a part of it for so long, if only in a limited judging capacity. I considered entering a gamebook, seeing as one made it in last year, but it feels against the spirit of the competition. One of these days I learn Twine or Inkle or something.

Forty Two entries this year, the most since 2006. The majority of them look very promising. I'm hoping the 20th anniversary brings out the best in everyone. I'm excited! Let's all get excited for Text Adventures!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Windhammer 2014- The Tomb of Aziris by Sam Beaven

Things aren't going well for you in Varra, a thriving city on the edge of a dry seabed. You're out of money, in debt, spent the night in the gutter, and now your creditor's goons have come calling. Luckily, a chance for fiscal freedom emerges. If you can recover a treasure from the recently uncovered Tomb of Aziris your debt will be wiped clean.

Tomb is a pleasant and very well designed book. You're given a small amount of funds to provision yourself and then it's off into the desert. Both Varra and the desert are well realized and feel bigger than they are.What could have been a throw-away detail, that the desert was once an ocean, instead informs a lot of the encounters and gives the book a unique flavor. Beaven paints a rich picture with lots of details that stimulate the imagination. This setting could easily support a larger game, or other stories, and leaves you wanting to know more.

Also appreciated is that all the characters, including minor ones like shopkeepers or random bruisers, are written with unique voices and perspectives. Tomb is fleshed out and feels populated in a way that both Problem? and Castle of Spirits failed to.

The book's map, that is to say how the sections lead to each other, is very well designed. The book is divided into three clear acts, with the first, the initial trek through the desert, offering three distinct paths. Success in any of the paths allows you to circumvent one of three challenges in the third act. You can also obtain items or information that will help you through the second act. It's all very neat. At the outset you're given a chance to purchase some provisions. However, you won't be able to buy everything you want, and no matter how you outfit yourself, you're always going to be wanting something. I'm reminded of Etrian Odyssey, and how the director said there was only five character spots so you always felt like you were missing a key part of a full team. It makes for engaging play both that game and here.

I do have one nit-pic. Depending on your choices at the beginning, you're tasked with bringing back one of two treasures from the tomb. If you bring back the wrong one, it's a game over. However, the choice that leads to which treasure you get isn't clear. It's not at all obvious when you're making this choice that you're actually deciding on the treasures. To It is clued, but very subtitle, and to me falls just on the far side of being unfair.

Aside from this misstep, Tomb was a simple (but by no means unchallenging), engaging, and fun adventure. I can see it contending for a prize. Beaven says it is his first gamebook. I hope he writes more. Tomb shows he has a real understanding for the genre, and I'd love to see what else he can can come up with.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Castle of Spirits by Tammy Badowski

I just wrote that the satire in Problem? doesn't feel as fresh as it should as the sort of gamebooks it mocks are old hat. Well here comes along Castle of Spirits to show that Problem? is fresher than I had assumed. Everything that Problem? ridicules is present in Castle: a narrow true path, arbitrary choices, T-intersections, a list of required items (including numbered keys of all things), and game-over passages out of the blue. A bit of fun that even Problem? didn't burden the player with are roll-or-die events. There's several points where if you don't succeed on a random roll you lose (or make the game unwinable), one of them necessary to see the end. An arbitrary choice often feels like you're making a random decision, but literally pinning success on a dice roll is a bit on the nose.

Castle plays like old-school game and has an old-school story to back it up. You're a random adventurer wandering about to find a quest. You stumble upon a dozy in the town of Everlasting where the local lord has turned all nasty, kidnapping townsfolk and turning them into zombies and such. “He is after the blood, the blood which covers our eyes, fills our cups and drizzles down our throats.” "“He took my daughter, I will never see her again, for her blood will no doubt seep into the river too like all the others before her. You don’t know how much her mother sobs…” say a pair of villagers while casually playing cards. Indeed, I have to wonder why the townsfolk stay when they're being menaced so. Sword in hand, you set off to the lord's castle to stop the bad vibes.

"The odour struck you at first when you entered the village. It was the stench of death, but there were no corpses to identify the smell. But as you approach the castle you soon discover what was causing all the fuss, you have thought too soon, for you see humans erected on poles, sticking out of the ground, unmoving, not breathing. The ground is littered with human heads, hands, feet and eyeballs. Ravens pick gruellingly at the rotting meats and flutter away as your step closer. Someone has made a banquet out of this terror before you, for you spy a clothed table adorned with silver chalices still full with blood and tears. A mean person has sat here dining upon torsos, singing lullabies and warning those who were forced to watch to be careful how and where they tread. You assume it was the lord of this wretched place and deem now to put a stop to his schemes. How dare he bully such people, he has no right."

Castle is a serious attempt at horror, but the imagery is so over the top and the sentences so poorly constructed that it undermines itself at every opportunity. Rooms are coated with blood or piled high with corpses to little effect. You're menaced by zombies, spooks, and even a lion (?), but there's no flair to the encounters. Rarely, there will be a spark of a neat idea, like the hollow skin that daces around in the castle's catacombs. But again, the prose is so purple that even the best encounters are rendered absurd, and the rest of the castle is a bland trek through a cheap amusement park ride.


Gameplay systems are serviceable. There's detailed rules for ranged combat and armor, but only one reference in the whole book provides access to such equipment. You are given a three Magick points to cast spells, but you can only cast spells when instructed and because there's only three such points the stat is superfluous. A Sanity score is occasionally reduced when you're exposed horrific sights, but it's only in service of a gate point. In one section you're asked to check how much you have left. If you don't, it's game over. Navigation down the OTP discourages exploration, as you can't lose more than three points. But then you do have to find a handful of required items, creating a tedious experience.

Combat is the one aspect of Castle is nicely handled. As you damage enemies they become easier to beat. Aside from an early encounter with a skeleton, battles aren't difficult. But in every playthrough that skeleton reduced my Health low enough that other enemies became threats. I liked the balance and this was the one part of the game that worked for me.

If you're in the mood for an 80's experience and can stomach the prose, Castle of Spirits gets the job done, but aside from that narrow achievement it's hard to recommend.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Windhammer: Problem? by Andy Moonowl

I'm not sure how to approach Problem? (A Troll Adventure). Does the book succeed at what it attempts? Absolutely. You might say it does it with aplomb. But its primary goal is to create an unfair player experience. Your tolerance for a kind of humor that delights at your misfortune will entirely direct how you respond to the game.

Problem? is a broad satire of role-playing conventions, with characters aware they're in a game and nothing is taken seriously. "Do be a good little player-character and go fetch it for me, won't you?" asks Queen Mary Sue of her magic orb. As a generic adventurer of the type that's always up and about in classic IF you're summoned by the Queen to recover her treasures from a troll of the obnoxious internety sort. This meta-humor is light but does lend itself to some fun moments such as the town of Start which you set out from. "The smell of untreated sewage and animal excrement is clear," we're told of Start. "This being a passable imitation of the high Middle Ages, you have never learnt to find such smells offensive."

The setting is likewise painted in broad strokes. Locations such as "Forest of Fear" and the "Crypt of Monsters" only exists to give the player places to putt about in, but here and there some flavor pops up. I particularity liked the Ovids of the Plain of Grass. The product of ancient farmyard loneliness, these sheeptaurs are a lot of fun and I wish there had been more like them.

 Such a fun concept I just had to sketch one.

The meta-humor and light tone make the book palatable, because this a cruel, cruel entry and a serious approach would have sunk it. The main thrust is to skewer the unfair gamebooks of the early to mid Fighting Fantasy sort. It's no accident that Ian Livingstone makes a cameo. The game takes the piss out of those classics through excessive unreasonableness. It uses tricks both subtle and overt to screw you over. While the true-path isn't extremely narrow, there is a list of items you must acquire and you won't know what they are until the very end. In what is perhaps the game's nastiest trick, unless you do exactly the right thing in section 1 you'll miss out on one of these items forever. It took me a dozen tries to reach the end of the game and then I had to start over from scratch because I hadn't brought that particular thing.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Arbitrary choices abound and there's a fair number of T-intersections that punish you for guessing wrong. Any action could be absolutely necessary or lead to an instant game over, with no way to know without previous experience. Aside from the aforementioned Section 1, its easy to get into an unwinable state, whether from going to the wrong location or for possessing the wrong item.At one point the game teaches you through a series of escalating consequences that a particular action is dangerous. But then, immediately after the point where doing so would result in death, you need to take that action in order to find a required item. Trial and error is the name of the game, and you'll need a lot of fortitude to get through. I rolled thirteen characters before I saw the end.

That said, there is a certain kind of delight at seeing how far the game goes in its mission to mess with the player. For example, the best weapon in the game can only be found on a 2.7% roll in a section of the game that can only be reached by putting it in an unwinable state. That's kind of brilliant. Other high points are a set of stats on a rock monster (and the reward for beating it), and a gauntlet of swinging blades which offers a clear risk/reward that I found engaging.

That said, because of the arbitrary nature so many of the choices meant I never felt in control of the game. Even when I knew the best path through I didn't feel empowered, just relieved. The ending makes a interesting point about the kind of player that would put themselves through all this, but the satire doesn't feel as sharp as it could be. The type of gamebook Problem? is mocking has long been out of vogue and the joke isn't quite funny enough to make up for the frustration.

I mentioned during my impressions of the game that Moonowl included hints to help frustrated players and that was a brilliant move. I stand by that, but I didn't look at the hints until after I had finished the game and I wonder if they're expansive enough. I'm interested to hear from players who turned to them for help and learn how useful they are.

In my impressions I also voiced concern that the battle system would be too complex. I'm happy to say that it is simple and very well designed. The player compares their attack value to the enemy's. The resulting attack value gives a bonus to the stronger character that not only increases the damage they do but also reduces the damage received. It's quite elegant in practice and getting an increase in your attack value is satisfying. The most enjoyment I got from the game was strengthening my characters rather than navigating the maze of insta-deaths.

It's hard to recommend Problem? Yes is succeeds, but it succeeds at elements of gamebookery that belong in the past. The question is does purposefulness justify an arbitrary experience? Problem? is well-crafted in its deviousness and the light-humor is worth a chuckle or two, but I wonder how much enjoyment is to be had.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Windhammer Prize 2014 First Impressions

 Hooray for Windhammer! This competition gets me all giddy. The quality and innovation that come from it every year, heck, that people even write gamebooks anymore fill me with glee. It's a small small small niche, but I love it. I knew from when I first discovered the competition that I would have to be part of it. I was overjoyed just to participate last year. And to win? GOSH. I can't even express what a surprise and delight it was. There were some truly excellent books entered and to be counted among their equals is an honor.

Of course I had to enter again this year.

My habit is to first look over all the entries, their rules and introductions, and get a feel for what the competition looks like as a whole. This year there's mostly returning authors (including some of the best from last year) with a handful newcomers. All of the books look interesting and worth exploring, I think we've got a bumper crop. I figure I'd post my impressions of them before diving in.

Archipelago of Omens by Richard Penwarden

Penwarden last entered in 2012 with A Familiar Story, a pleasant adventure where you play a wizard's summoning. Its main stumbling point was a somewhat complicated system for the story that was told. Well it appears Penwarden has gone full hog, because the system for Archipelago is a doozy. There's seven pages of rules and two appendixes as well. Just look at this character sheet!

Weapons, items, wealth, health, time, omens, lungs, it's got it all. I'm not against complicated rules, in fact I'm fascinated by the methods people use to create expansive books within Windhammer's imitations. The 2011 winner, Andrew Wright's Sea of Madness, was an non-linear simulation that felt much larger than its 100 sections.

That said, I'm not really sure what Archipelago is even about. Aside from a vague introduction it's all rules, and there's so many of them the eye slides off. This isn't a book you can just jump in, but one you're going to have to commit to.

But a nice meaty experience can be a delight. If Penwarden can pull it off, I'm on board.

Castle of Spirits by Tammy Badowski

Badowski has written some amateur Fighting Fantasy adventures, but this is her first time entering Windhammer. Castle of Spirits appears to be an adventure in the classical vein. You're a wandering adventurer, there's a nasty lord menacing a village from his spook castle who needs a good swording, and off you go! The rules seem simple and straightforward. I like how combat becomes easier the more you damage an opponent; elegant and in the player's advantage. One bit that did stand out: "to use a ranged weapon, roll 2 dice. Keep track of the amount rolled. Now roll again and compare to what you rolled earlier. If the amount was lower than the result, the weapon misses..." I've never encountered this mechanic before and I'm not sure what the intent is. Makes things nice and random, I guess.

The Empire's Edge by Chan Sing Goh

I quite enjoyed Goh's entry last year, Merchants of the Spice Islands. It was unique in it's historical setting and aim, and it was clear that Goh has a real passion for the subject. Empire deals with the same setting and themes: commerce politics and the melding of cultures about the China-India trade route in the 19th century. It's heartening to see gamebooks tackle a subject so far removed from the typical role-playing adventures. The rules are interesting as dice rolls plus skill modifiers determine to which references you turn. That will have required some careful management during writing. And the character building aspect is very intriguing, what with selections for race (none of them Caucasian), language, and motivation. Very cool. Merchants suffered from simulation rules that were a bit too complex. Things look nicely spared down here and I'm eager to jump in.

Path of Heresy by Ivalio Daskalov

I haven't played Daskalov's previous game, Dating a Witch, but I've read there's some language problems. I'm of two minds about this. Yes, non-native language entries do tend to have unpolished prose and come across as lacking. But writing a book in another language is a hell of an achievement, one which I feel should be recognized. And in last year's Redundant!, the errors in construction added to the book's atmosphere. So on my end, I try to look past the clunky sentences and focus on the intent.

So yeah, the introduction is a bit creaky but the content does look interesting. This is a spiritual fantasy adventure presumably with a focus on two character's relationship. The book doesn't waste time getting into the meat of things, so there's not a lot to comment on yet. We'll see how things shake out.

Problem? (A Troll Adventure) by Andy Moonowl

Moonowl's last game, Tipping Point, didn't grab me. It was too conventional of an adventure (though with some nice twists regarding the elemental foes), and I ran into some sticking points early on that turned me off. Problem? has several similarities to that book, an open world approach (with map!) and complicated combat (thankfully you don't need six different flavors of dice this time). Unlike Tipping Point's ponderous tone, Problem? is tongue-in-cheek parody. The intro had me chuckling and I'm already more invested than I ever was with Tipping Point.

I was worried when a note warned of the books difficulty (flashbacks to Swordplayer), but my concerns were immediately remedied by the inclusion of hints to help players find the correct path. This is a wonderful idea, especially for a competition entry. This is one of those concepts that make you wonder why no one's done it before. I'm all about giving the player the advantage, and this lets those who need it get past the trouble spots without explicitly cheating. Just great.

I'm still a little concerned over those combat roles but otherwise I'm really looking forward to this one. Gooooooood stuff.

The Puttbuster Initiative: Spacetime Golfcrush by Philip Armstrong

This looks like a stupid game full of stupid people doing stupid things. I wrote it.

The Sacrifice by Paul Struth

Out of Time was one of the best entries last year. It was sharply written, invocative, a pleasure to play, and the gamebook format tied directly into the scenario. Aside from what I felt was an unsatisfying ending, it was just about perfect. So The Sacrifice is much anticipated. You play as Peter Joyce, a young man in the early 20th century who wasn't able to fight in World War I due to a club foot. His friend Robert Cantlow has returned from the fighting a changed person and taken up with a mysterious woman. His family has entreated you to intervene and away we go.

As before, the prose is polished and invocative, the setting unique, and there's something more going on than meets the eye...

Tales of a Captain: The Recruit a Demon by Sefano Rochi

This one took me by surprise. It starts with a strong introduction featuring a defined voice and a bit of humor, but then immediately jumps into some confusing lists of powers without explaining the rules or defining concepts. It's a bit dizzying. Eventually things get straightened out during the first few references. I always like to see rules incorporated into the play, but here that might not have been the best approach. Still, humor and character go a long way with me, organizational issues be damned.

The Tomb of Aziris by Sam Beaven

Beaven is one of the few newcomers this year. His game is a fantasy adventure set in a city by a desert that used to be an ocean, which has potential to be an interesting setting. Rules seem fairly straightforward and there's some flavor to them which is always a plus. This could to go either way and might have trouble distinguishing itself.

Why Don't They Leave the House? by Nicholas Stillman

Stillman's Gunlaw was my favorite entry last year. It was weird and disgusting and funny and inventive and totally totally its own thing. A completely original creation. I have to say, I was more than a little disappointed it came in 6th. I expected it to do much better. So I can't wait to see what Stillman's got this year.

He only gives us a tiny bit to go on before commencing the story. One is a warning that this book has some disturbing themes. Normally I'd be rolling my eyes at the necessity of such a statement, but then I remember Gunlaw's commercial nightmare, particularly the school. The other is the instructions, written as a poem.

A game of clues, and like others
You play you, born of your mother.
Find section one hundred and one—
Not mentioned, but where you must run.
Reach this end, and try not to scream.
Take a pen, and hope that you dream.
Write down clues, the spoils of your hunts.
Just one only play once.
Neat! That bit about only playing once has stopped me from peaking any further. Of course you can't stop players from doing what they want, but that's never been a concern of mine, and I'm intrigued about the implications. And wouldn't 101 sections be against the rules? Mysteries abound! Suffice to say, Why Don't They is the entry I'm most anticipating.

A good selection! There's not one entry in here that I'm worried about. Really, the main issue I have with this year's selection is the absence of so many authors. I know that people have lives and that gamebooks are ultimately a small thing, but where's Zachary Carango, Andrew Wright, Kieran Coghlan, Ashton Saylor, Marty Runyon, and especially Stewart Lloyd? The competition feels empty without them. I'd also like to see more by Andrew Drage, Paul Gresty, and S.J. Bell, who all wrote innovative and great games in 2012 and haven't entered since. I hope next year we'll see a return of some of the best voices in gamebooks.

Ah well, I suppose I should be focused on the here and now. I'll be playing the entries randomly, starting with... [rolls die] Problem?! Excellent! Review forthcoming.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Delicious Feast of Boiled Lobster

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Island of the Lizard King at the local used bookstore. This might by a common occurrence in the UK, but in my neck of the woods it's a rare thing. The sight of the dubiously rendered American covers was like spying a glint of gold and I snapped both books up at just over a dollar each. Despite their legacy I've never adventured in these two books--and having a few moments to myself today--I sampled what Ian Livingstone's island had to offer. I can't think of a better way to launch this blog than by nit-picking of a twenty year old title.

The background doesn't provide any details as to who we are, just that we're traveling south from Fang to the secluded fishing village of Oyster Bay. I wonder if the implication here is that we're the same adventurer from the previous book in the series Deathtrap Dungeon? If that's the case then a vacation to a remote and quiet village where there's no possibility of danger makes oodles of sense.

I rolled up a 12 for skill (huzzah!), a 16 for stamina, and an 8 for luck. This suggests to me that our character is the glass cannon sort. Maybe a tricky rogue? Prone to nasty maneuvers that quickly incapacitate the enemy while leaving his squishy frame intact. We are told that an old adventuring friend of ours named Mungo lives in Oyster Bay. I feel like "old adventuring friend" for this character means "served under him in the military."

So here's our character: Lord Charles de Charlemont. A minor noble who served a token military stint where Mungo operated as his Lieutenant and muscle. Charles is a self-serving sort who will easily employ underhanded tactics to get what he wants (and to prevent bodily harm). And while he does have an inclination towards avarice, he's not entirely selfish.While visiting Mungo on his way back from attending the Trail of Champions ceremonies he learned that the children of Oyster Bay had been kidnapped by Lizard Men from the infamous Fire Island. Surprising his old comrade, he volunteered to join Mungo on a rescue mission. Let's see how he does.

Monday, March 24, 2014

An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain

"'I lay claim in this novel,' I have heard him say, 'to the essential features of all games: symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium.'"

I hope that Mr. Borges doesn't object to my use of his imagined book of branching paths for the title of this blog, or else I have some interesting hauntings to look forward to.

"I do not know if I should mention that once April March was published, Quain regretted the ternary order and predicted that whoever would imitate him would choose a binary arrangement [...] And that demiurges and gods would choose an infinite scheme: infinite stories, infinitely divided."