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.

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