The Sinister Fairground

June 25, 2014
 
Okay, so in this episode of Scooby-Doo, Shaggy wakes up an Incan mummy that begins to terrorise…
 
Hold on. No. That’s not right.
 
Let me restart. This is my review for The Sinister Fairground, the iOS gamebook app released in May by Barcelona-based Cubus Games.
 
Here’s my short review: The game is great. If you own an iOS device, or if you have occasional access to one, buy it.
 
Here comes my longer review.
 
In The Sinister Fairground you take the role of a young man who unwisely chooses to meet his girlfriend Sophia in the diabolical Fairground of the Extraordinary. You quickly realise that the fairground’s dastardly denizens have stolen Sophia away, and that you’ll have to search through an array of macabre attractions if you ever hope to see her again. It’s grisly, horror-themed hi-jinks – though you’ll also come across a fair amount of self-conscious, genre-savvy comedy as the game pokes good-natured fun at various horror and fantasy tropes, and even the medium of gamebooks themselves.
 
 
There’s a lot of good stuff here. The in-game map features 11 main areas to explore – such as the ‘Circus of Monsters’ or the ‘Hall of Mirrors’ – and a handful of other mini-areas besides. And there’s a ton of content in each one. You won’t see everything in a single playthrough. Some encounters and enemies are played for laughs. Others are genuinely eerie. Personally, my most chilling in-game experience so far has been sharing a car with a Portuguese serial killer – though, curiously, this Dexter-esque foe didn’t try to harm me in any way (on this particular playthrough, at least – I’m sure I could have easily attracted his ire if I’d been more careless). Each area is essentially independent of the others, though there’s some crossover in the clues and items you can pick up that can prove useful elsewhere. You also get a few Easter eggs sprinkled about the game (one of them even gives a shout out to fellow gamebook app developers Tin Man and Inkle).
 
Cubus has developed a lovely game engine. It’s pretty, and it’s easy to use. I’m not a huge fan of virtual dice rolling around the screen of your device (Grr…), and a lot of dice-rolling – or rather, dice-spinning – does take place here. But that’s not so frustrating, as the game allows you to amass ‘Hero Points’ that can be used to reroll or even automatically pass failed tests. Similarly, combat is dependent on rolling to hit your enemy (Grr…), and rolling to see if your enemy hits you (Grr…) – but there is also a tactical element, in that you have to choose which weapon to use (Chainsaw? Katana? Magnum 44?) and whether you want to use various one-off items or spells to help you, from round to round.
 
And, best of all, IF YOU GET KILLED YOU DON’T HAVE TO START AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING. I love this feature. Instead, the game boots you out of the current area, and pretends that the last few encounters never took place. Brilliant. It’s so much more fun to play when you don’t have that ever-present risk of total failure hanging over you.
 
Another great feature – you can use your Hero Points to automatically beat any really nasty enemies. Even big, plot-important foes. It’s a sort of ‘cheat-if-you-want-to-without-feeling-bad-about-it’ mechanism, and it’s inspired.
 
 
The game isn’t perfect. There are a few weak spots. They aren’t biggies, but they include: -
 
  • The story is sometimes flimsy. For instance, you never get much information about Sophia, your girlfriend. Why do you like her? How did the two of you meet? What sort of personality does she have?
  • I’m disappointed there’s no option to play as a girl, or as a gay or bisexual character. I know that coding a lot of different variables like this takes more work, but I’d have liked to see something a little more progressive.
  • In the English-language version of the game, there are occasional proofreading problems – typos, misused words, clumsy-sounding sentences. But none of this is serious. It doesn’t disrupt the flow of the game.
  • A personal bugbear: I dislike inventory management. Yes, it’s more realistic and it increases the game’s challenge. I just find it a pain in the backside. Here, you’re limited to carrying five weapons and ten objects.
So, overall verdict: I refer you back to my short review above. The game is excellent. Cubus have really done well with this one, and I absolutely recommend it. At the time of writing, their second game – Heavy Metal Thunder, by Kyle B. Stiff – is due for imminent release. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with it. Even though it might not have as many scary ghosts.
 
 
(Cross-posted at Lloyd of Gamebooks)

Proteus – the Tower of Terror, and the 80s Gamebook Dungeon Crawl

June 23, 2014
I’d originally planned this blog post to be a review of ‘Proteus – the Tower of Terror‘, the app recently released by AppEndix LLC. It’s a 200-section gamebook adventure written by David Brunskill and published in Proteus magazine in 1985, updated with some new art and SFX, and made available for iOS mobile devices. Great stuff. I ultimately decided not to do a full review of the app. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
 
 
 
Initially reading through the app’s description, I spotted the following sentence: -
 
“Features dozens of ways to die!”
 
And, man alive, that gave me pause. That right there is a sentence that’s indicative of the 80s off-target marketing notion that super-difficult gamebooks are also super-fun. Dying in gamebooks is not fun. Dying arbitrarily, without any chance to defend yourself, is even less so.
 
The app isn’t bad. It’s a dungeon crawl, in very much an early-FF style. Supposedly you have to penetrate the story’s eponymous tower, but… it’s a dungeon. There’s no two ways around that. I began playing, and soon got killed by a trio of Death Bats. I started playing again, and died again. I played again, and died again.
 
And then, on my third or fourth playthrough, something wholly unexpected happened. I found myself wanting to cheat. I wanted to fudge dice rolls, and keep my thumb on the previous page. I wanted to peek a few sections ahead, to see if a certain passage would lead where I wanted it to. I wanted to sneakily read the story a little bit in between playthroughs, to see what treasure the tougher monsters were carrying, or to plan out my route the next time around.
 
Because, in an app, none of this is possible. In a dead-tree gamebook, it is.
 
And so I grew increasingly frustrated with this app. Not just because the dungeon crawl format is dated, and doesn’t hold up against a lot of today’s interactive stories – though this is true. But also because the sort of super-hard dungeon crawls you found in the 80s REQUIRE a degree of cheating in order to be fun. To reiterate: dying again and again and again isn’t fun. Finally managing to get further than you’ve ever done before… only to be insta-killed by a pit trap because you turned right down the corridor instead of left… well, that’ll make you swear out loud. Gamebooks were young in the 80s, and the medium was far from perfect. Having a physical book in your hands, that you could manipulate and explore as you wished, free from the constraints imposed by strict adherence to the story’s rules… this was necessary in order to balance out the frustrating, unfair elements that were at times present.
 
I’ve been playing gamebooks for close to thirty years. I’ve only just come to the realisation that sometimes you’re SUPPOSED to cheat.
 
Now, ‘Proteus – The Tower of Terror’ does give you ample opportunities to cheat – it’s just that they come as in-app purchases. You can buy extra equipment, or bookmarks to save your place. You can upgrade your in-game map, so that it retains information from previous playthroughs. You have a ‘keep playing’ option, like in old arcade machines. But all of this comes with a real-world price tag, which I begrudge paying, even if the price isn’t so high. I’m downloading the game from mainland Europe, where it cost me 1.79 euros – and that’s a pretty good price, I feel. But for that, you are only getting the basic, strictly-by-the-rules game. Great for hardcore gamers, less so for miserly cheat fiends like me.
 
Here, a diligent, thorough reviewer would persevere with the game until the end, in order to give a balanced, informed opinion. I didn’t do that. I gave up on it. I think I got pretty far – it took me seven playthroughs to fully explore the early parts of the dungeon, and to get through the door that marks the entrance to the dungeon’s ‘second level’. But that second part of the dungeon is pretty large as well, and I lost the will to play through the game another ten times just to explore it. It would have been handy to place a bookmark just after that important door, actually – if I hadn’t been too mean to buy one.
 
The game is essentially a word-for-word reprint of the version first published in 1985, so I’ll point you towards the review of that on Demian’s Gamebook Web Page, which seems pretty much spot on. And in lieu of a comprehensive review of the story, I’ll indicate what the new iOS app format adds to the mix.
 
STRONG POINTS
 
- The price. At 1.79 euros, or however much that is in your local currency, it’s pretty cheap. Though I’d have been happy if the game had been a little more expensive, and hadn’t pushed the in-app purchases so hard. Yes, I know – that’s where developers make a ton of money. Candy Crush has taught us that much. But still, one or two free bookmarks per playthrough would have been nice.
 
- The artwork. Demian’s Gamebook Web Page slams this, but I personally rather like it. It has a nice retro feel to it.
 
- The special effects, sometimes. I like seeing blood splash across the page whenever you get wounded – and that creates a few genuine winces when you turn to a new section, and see that dreaded red smear.
 
- The auto-mapping is nice too – though for the ‘magic map’ that doesn’t get erased after each playthrough, you’ll need to fork out for an in-app purchase.
 
WEAK POINTS
 
- The animation is a shade too slow. This is true in the title screen, and in the way the text fades into view on each page, and particularly during the fights. You might not notice so much the first time through the game, but by your seventh playthrough it’ll be getting on your nerves. Some sort of ‘fast animation’ or ‘fast fight’ option would be nice.
 
- You can’t reroll your stats. And you’ll be wanting high stats to have any hope of succeeding. The only way to effectively reroll is to quit the app, delete it from your device’s list of recently used apps, and then re-enter the app, to select a new game from the title screen. Given the slow animation mentioned above, it takes the better part of a minute each time you want to reroll your stats.
 
- I’ve seen this in a few gamebook apps, but I’m not keen on the parchment-style backdrop to the text. It’s pretty and all, but it makes reading the text just a little more difficult. My eyes don’t work so well; I dislike having to strain them. Some sort of ‘clean background’ option would be groovy.
 
There you go. Truthfully, I’d like to know precisely why The Tower of Terror was chosen for adaptation, when it seems it can’t be too hard to get somebody to rattle off a more up-to-date 200-section adventure. Was it a labour of nostalgic love? A noble enough motive, if so. Do AppEndix LLC plan to adapt every story from Proteus? If so,Demian’s Gamebook Web Page suggests there are stronger entries in the series. 
 
Anyway, if you’re a fan of the classic dungeon crawl vibe, check out The Tower of Terror for yourself. And if you’re hungry for other apps from AppEndix, I recommendtheir adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes gamebooks, particularly Murder at the Diogenes Club. It’s a little heavy on dice-rolling, but still great fun. Plus I luuurve the Sherlock Holmes stories. So that’s a plus.
 
(Cross-posted at Lloyd of Gamebooks)

Haiku gamebook reviews!

June 4, 2014

There are already quite a few sites offering gamebook reviews, or gamebook playthroughs, and most of them are more interesting and entertaining than anything I could offer. One of my own favourites just now is Malthus Dire’s Fighting Fantasy page.

Few gamebook review sites offer reviews in the format of centuries-old Japanese poetry, however. I intend to remedy that. And so, here are my three haiku gamebook reviews of the day.

THE WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone

Psycho treasure hunt.
North, south, east, west – frustrating.
Sit on chest and weep.

ROBOT COMMANDO, by the other Steve Jackson

Robots in disguise
Fight enemies of the state.
Wake up, sleepyheads!

NIGHT OF THE NECROMANCER, by Jonathon Green

Ghost adventurer -
Patrick Swayze with a sword.
Choose a new body.

(Cross-posted at Lloyd of Gamebooks)

 


Life of a Mobster is Coming!

June 2, 2014
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Mike Walter is probably my man-crush of the moment, in the interactive fiction sphere. Mike’s third game, Life of a Mobster, is slated for a mid-June release through Hosted Games, the shy little brother to Choice of Games.
 
Advance info on Life of a Mobster is pretty sparse – and, truth be told, I’d likely try to dodge any potential spoilers anyway. But here’s what I thought of Mike Walter’s first two games.
 
THE PARADOX FACTOR
 
Have you seen that film, ‘The Butterfly Effect’? That’s the atmosphere we’re going for, here. The player takes the role of a scientist who has developed a time-travel-within-your-own-life machine. The game starts in media res, on a rain-soaked rooftop, with a gun in your hand, presumably at the end of your life. You’re in a sticky, confusing situation. Fortunately, your time travel machine lets you jump around within your own life to date, so that you can work out what has driven you to this point – and even alter events in your own past so that you can avoid a nasty fate.
 
Or, more probably, cock things up so that your life gets even worse than it already was.
 
It’s a great game, somewhere between interactive fiction and one long puzzle. As you revisit parts of your life, you should keep your eyes open for things that might become important later (‘I spot a newspaper ad for shooting classes? Hmm…’). You fall in love, marry various different people depending on your own personal continuity, see friends die, and see friends come back to life as you play around with destiny to change their fates. And the game’s time travel conceit, the Shrodinger principle, consistently works well from a storytelling point of view – and that’s harder than it might seem (how many times has the The Doctor had to break his own self-imposed time-travel rules?).
 
My only real criticism is that things can get a bit repetitive late-game, when you have to replay through every step of your life, again and again, searching for a choice that you haven’t seen before. Still, it’s a fairly funktastic game.
 
LIFE OF A WIZARD
 
This was the first game by Mike Walter, a.k.a. Lucid’s Games. And, sweet Lord above, I love it. Okay, the setting is generic fantasy. You live in the kingdom of Daria; elves are spiritual and live in the trees, dwarves are practical and live in mountains, orcs are nasty, trolls regenerate, and so on, and so forth. The main storyline takes place over four main stages in your character’s life – childhood / at university, studying to be a wizard / life as an adventuring wizard / life as advisor to the king of Daria.
 
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So far, so familiar. And yet what makes this game exceptional is the diversity of options it presents. This is apparent above all in the degree to which you can customise your character. Do you want to play a holy goblin priest-wizard, whose familiar is a floating skull and who flies about on a hippogriff? That’s doable. A halfling alchemist lich? Yup. A troll arch-druid? Yup, although it’s a little tricky keeping your alignment around the ‘neutral’ zone.
 
In all, I’d guess there are probably around forty or fifty ‘main stats’, keeping track of things like your magical abilities, your force of personality, your tendency towards good or evil, and your basic skills, things like fighting and sneaking around and knowledge of geography or history. But you also get stats that keep track of your country’s relationship with its foreign neighbours, or how well you get on with the local thieves’ guild, or the level of skill of the people in your adventuring party. In short, there are an immense amount of variables in play, which all have an impact on how the story unfolds. The overall plot is quite linear, and you’ll be hitting the same key plot points on each playthrough – but there’s some real authorial skill in precisely how you get from point A to point B to point C, given that you’re likely playing a vastly different character in each game.
 
I’ve probably played and replayed through Life of a Wizard more often than any other gamebook or gamebook-style app in my life. And that’s because it’s fantastic. Oh, and being in an autobiographical tone, it’s written in the first person, and the past tense. It’s nice to break out of that second-person gamebook ‘you’, once in a while.
 
LIFE OF A MOBSTER
 
So, my expectations for Life of a Mobster are high. The game’s title suggests it’ll follow the same format as Life of a Wizard – written in a first person, autobiographical structure, maybe with a ton of stats. And in truth, that makes me a little anxious. I’m not yet wholly convinced that the structure will be as engaging the second time around. Nor does the gangster milieu grab me as much as fantasy and wizardry. Still, I’m really excited about its release. When I was younger, and a band I liked put out a new album, there’d be a tense period before I managed to hear it when I desperately wished and prayed that it would be as good as I was hoping. That’s kind of how I’m feeling about Life of a Mobster. Please be good. Please be as good as Life of a Wizard.
 
Pertinent links: -
 
More information on The Paradox Factor.
More information on Life of a Wizard.
The Facebook page of Lucid’s Games.
(Cross-posted at Lloyd of Gamebooks)

Including motivations as choices

April 7, 2014

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Is it acceptable for a gamebook to describe what the reader’s character thinks, and feels? I believe it can be. Certainly if these feelings are somewhat universal, applicable to all but the most hardened psychopath. In the Way of the Tiger series, for instance, when Avenger learns of his foster father’s murder at the hands of the monk Yaemon, I think it’s reasonable to assume a desire for revenge on Avenger’s part. Without that, there’s no story. True, Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson never explicitly describe Avenger’s rage, or sadness. But that initial, very human, impetus for Avenger to seek out Yaemon is present.

Writing a gamebook, I’m happy to make some very basic assumptions about my reader, and my reader’s character, that permit me the liberty of describing thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, I assume that the gamebook character is essentially a real, human person. I assume he cares about other people, even if just a little bit. I have no interest in writing a story told from the perspective of a maniaical butcher, who slaughters his way through life. That’s not a story.

I did receive a review a while back that slammed my first app, The ORPHEUS Ruse, for not allowing the player to be more callous and murderous. Not my problem, vicious reviewer man. Take your bile elsewhere. There are heaps of first-person shooters to cater for your tastes.

 

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So, yes… If a loud noise goes off next to your reader’s character, it’s okay for the writer to say that it startles him, and he jumps.

Another possibility: in the app that I’m currently writing, MetaHuman Inc., I’ll also sometimes describe the character’s feelings – but here, I do so with the reader’s permission, by allowing the reader to choose his character’s motivations as well as his actions. Take a look at the screenshot above, and specifically at the final two options in the choice list. The player is asked to carry out a mercy killing. If he chooses to do so (and he doesn’t have to, of course), he may hate himself for doing it, or he may feel a cold indifference. Here, by allowing the reader to define his motivation for this act, I, as writer, have received tacit permission to describe the feeling it provokes in the following section. Admittedly, in the example above, motivations are implied rather than stated outright. Still, I’m imposing nothing; rather, it’s a collaboration between writer and reader.

And no, I haven’t included an option allowing the reader to joyfully stave in another man’s skull. To reiterate: if that’s your bag, I highly recommend Grand Theft Auto.

 

(picture credit: http://www.zmescience.com/tag/moral-dilemma/)


So, 2013 happened…

April 4, 2014

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I’m not one of the world’s fervent bloggers. The time I can devote to blogging tends to be inversely proportional to the time I spend working, or parenting. With a little more time, I might be a more active blogger. For similar reasons, I’m currently not one of the world’s fervent shavers, or sleepers, or cleaners either.

The very fact that my roundup of 2013 is coming in April is testament to my blog inactivity. So, 2013… busy year. Megara Entertainment published my gamebook, Arcana Agency: the Thief of Memories. I wrote an app for Choice of Games, The ORPHEUS Ruse, and had that published as well.

Yeah, that’s right. I learned to code in 2013. Rock on, me.

So, 2014… Looks to be a busy year as well. At time of writing I’m about halfway through another app for CoG. I’m hoping to hand that over sometime in May or June. More news to come.

 

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And the greatest ninja of all time is… This guy!

October 30, 2013

A couple of days ago I posted about who was the all-time greatest ninja in the universe. I made a shortlist of three super-cool ninja warriors. One of them had green skin.

I have finally made my decision.

The greatest ninja ever to have lived is this guy: -

There's the ninja. There. On the right. Next to the lamp.

There is a ninja in this picture. The first person to spot him wins ten English pounds.*

That’s right, it was Secret Option number 4. By definition, you don’t know who the greatest Master of Darkness is. That’s the sad truth. Hell, you may not even know the full name of your next door neighbour. I don’t.

David Walters – author of the Samurai’s Apprentice series, and co-author of the forthcoming new Way of the Tiger gamebooks – has quite fervently insisted that the greatest ninja master of all time may be Hattori Hanzo. Who actually existed, and probably didn’t eat much pizza. Okay, I’ll allow Master Hanzo an honourable mention.

The Way of the Tiger, you say? Oh, that’s right. Megara Entertainment’s Kickstarter bid to relaunch and expand the phenomenal ninja-themed Way of the Tiger gamebooks has less than 48 hours to go! So go. Pledge. Buy yourselves an all-updated version of some of the best gamebooks ever. You’ll love yourself for doing so. And I may – just may – love you too.

This is what ninja masters looked like, before Polaroid cameras were invented.

This is what ninja masters looked like, before Polaroid cameras were invented.

Avenger!

(* = not a guarantee)


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