Corporate Treachery Meets Otherworldly Forces in MetaHuman, Inc

December 21, 2015

(Originally posted on Lloyd of Gamebooks)

Damn. I promised myself I wouldn’t do this.

It’s been a while since I posted anything on Lloyd of Gamebooks. The last few posts I wrote were back in the 2015 Summer of Gamebook Kickstarters (remember those heady days?), and each one of them was to promote various interactive fiction books or apps. Oh, they were all in earnest – I really was excited about those projects. But they all came down to selling something, nonetheless.

And yet, what has always most appealed to me about this excellent blog that Stuart Lloyd has created is its, and his, honest adoration of gamebooks – the geeky fanboy element, if you will, a category under which I would also class myself. When Stuart first asked if I’d be interested in contributing to this blog, I wanted to respect that honesty – I intended my posts on Lloyd of Gamebooks to be first and foremost about discussing the gamebooks that I loved, old and new, and not merely a means of hawking my own wares. And yet, by the end of Summer 2015, I’d used this blog to do a lot of promo. It was about time I returned to my starry-eyed fanboy roots, and got back to talking about apps and gamebooks that I loved on their own merits, rather than because I had a dog in that particular race.

With that proviso in mind, I’m about to tell you how amazing my newest gamebook app is, and then I’m going to tell you where you can buy it.

It helps that I can be sincerely effusive – that I am enormously invested in this app I’ve been working on for about two years, which is probably the best thing I’ve ever written. Is it distasteful, even vulgar, for a writer to so brazenly market his or her own work? It shouldn’t be. Particularly in this growing climate of ebookery and self-publishing. Particularly too in the interactive fiction sphere, which is still a niche domain, peopled by indie publishers and even indie-er writers. Oh, you can find a few giants who are still republishing Fighting Fantasy books, if you step outside the English language. But even they show no interest in breaking new ground. If we, as emerging writers, aren’t prepared to market our own work, who will?

Dave Morris addressed this point in detail in an article he wrote for The Bookseller in February. Take a look. For gamebook writers especially, there are far worse people to consult for advice.

Bref, as the French say when they want to change the subject. Let’s talk about MetaHuman, Inc.

MetaHuman, Inc. is an interactive fiction story in which you play as CEO of a nebulous corporation that specialises in creating Enhancements – superhuman abilities, for sale to the highest bidder. You must navigate the tribulations of the business world – recruiting and managing staff, say; prioritising Enhancement projects and building the resources necessary to handle them – while striving to raise your company’s share price as high as possible. Because, should it fall too low by the end of the year, MetaHuman’s shareholders won’t be pleased. And they aren’t the kind of preternatural beings that you want to have displeased with you.

Yes, MetaHuman, Inc. is a tale of corporate dealings and treachery. But it is also a tale of sorcerous powers and bleeding-edge technologies – and the consequences and responsibilities of integrating such modern-day miracles into your own body. As you govern the fortunes of MetaHuman Incorporated, you’ll face mercenary psychics, and fiery creatures out of Arabian myth. Worst of all, when the extraterrestrial parasites known as the Surgeons attempt to gain dominion over the planet Earth, you must decide what role MetaHuman will play in repelling this incursion – or whether you wish to help the aliens, in the hope of gaining immense power.

In terms of game mechanics, Choice of Games, this app’s publisher, has a track record of steering away from the clean-cut ‘skills’ that you would find in RPGs – ‘You’re good at this skill, you aren’t so good at this…’ – and preferring variables that reflect a degree of nuance on the player’s part. And so, here you can play as a CEO displaying Ruthlessness or Compassion, one who shows a great deal of Candor or Guile. Publicly misbehave, and your company’s Image will suffer, unless you can put a good spin on things. You can try to keep morale high amongst your staff – or you can bully and intimidate them into good behaviour. As mentioned, your company’s Share Price is paramount, and it’s a good idea to build up the Resources necessary to develop the really high-level Enhancements.

Ah yes, the Enhancements, the bread and butter of MetaHuman Incorporated. These are, essentially, superpowers-for-sale, and the key to building up a good company profile. You can direct your company towards focusing on magical or hi-tech research, Witchery or Superscience; most Enhancements fall within one domain or the other, though a few walk the line between the two extremes. In writing this game, I wanted to shy away from including ‘classic’ superpowers – and so you won’t find super-strength, or the ability to fly listed amongst MetaHuman’s potential projects. Instead, you may be able to develop Heightened Legerity, Hex of the Arc Savant, Technopathy, Psi-activator, Probability Filter, and a bunch of others. And, yes, if your company develops these abilities, you, as CEO, get first taste of the finished product.

And the game is big. It’s about 260,000 words long, in total. Word count in apps can be a bit misleading – maybe 15% of that word count is coding rather than content. Plus, when comparing an app and a dead-tree book, in an app it’s far easier to copy and paste a chunk of text, editing for continuity; do that, and that’s a big brick of words that you have to count twice. Still, you’ve got maybe the equivalent of three Fighting Fantasy books crammed into this app. When you buy MetaHuman, Inc. you get your money’s worth, any way you look at it.

It’s an added bonus that I love, love, love the game’s cover art, by Paul Guinan. My one-line brief for that was along the lines of, ‘I think the app’s cover should be MetaHuman’s company logo – something suitably sinister.’ The final cover, up at the top of this page, is really fantastic. Thanks for that, CoG, and Paul Guinan in particular.

So, I’m really proud of this game, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you take a look at it. You can play the first three chapters of the game for free right now, on the Choice of Games website. If you want to buy the game now, it’s currently on sale until 4th January 2016. You’ll get 40% off the regular price.

I hope you enjoy it. And, once again, please excuse me for using this space to sell my stuff.

(Post by Paul Gresty)

Weaponising Frankenstein’s Monster

June 7, 2015

The military gets to play with all the best technology before it filters down to the general public. The ironing board in your cupboard is made from heat-resistant materials originally developed for the engines of the Mirage 2000C jet fighter. Your toaster only knows when to pop up because its timer is based on the guidance system of Reagan-era Hawk anti-tank missiles. Or maybe not. I haven’t done a lot of fact-checking on this. 

In the forthcoming gamebook app The Frankenstein Wars, Victor Frankenstein’s resurrection technology emerges in France, in the early nineteenth century. And it is immediately seized upon for its military potential. It makes sense – what fighting force is more durable than soldiers who can be blown apart, then reassembled and resurrected, and thrown back into combat once more? The options are better yet for a general willing to mix and match the living raw materials under his command. A soldier with four arms, and two brains, will likely slaughter twice as many enemies as a regular soldier. A soldier with enlarged lungs, and three hearts, will be able to run far faster than a normal human, and shrug off injuries that might cripple or kill a lesser man. These resurrected soldiers – these lazarans – are living weapons.

There is one potential drawback: the lazarans are not mindless zombies. They are living, feeling people. Imagine yourself in the place of such a lazaran for a moment, dear reader. Perhaps you love your job, or perhaps you don’t. Regardless, one morning you wake to learn that your boss has grafted an extra head to your shoulders, and given you one extra arm. He’s severed your own scrawny legs, and replaced them with the brawny limbs of a champion sprinter. Not just one champion sprinter, mind – they are quite clearly mismatched in colour. All because he feels it will make you more effective in your work. How would you fight the wave of madness that such a change would surely engender? Could your husband or wife understand this transformation? How could you explain it to your parents, or your children?

The Frankenstein Wars is a tale of revolutionaries who believe that the ends justify the means – and of those who suffer for such fanaticism. In this world of murky morals, you can play as exploiter and exploited. The revolutionary Zeroistes use Frankenstein’s technology to wage war against the French government and its British allies. The conflict threatens to tear apart the heart of Europe. And yet the damage to humanity’s soul may be far greater still.

Sound epic? Check out The Frankenstein Wars Kickstarter project page. At the time of writing, we’ve just passed the 33% mark – a strong start, but still with some distance to go.

(Post by Paul Gresty)

Crypt of the Vampire is now available in English. And so is Marion Cotillard.

June 1, 2015

The Dark Knight Rises has been out for three years now. And yet I only saw it for the first time a few days ago. That’s a fairly lackadaisical attitude for an ostensible superhero fan. Worse, though I’m usually good with faces, every time the character of Miranda came on screen I’d feel a niggling screwdriver poke somewhere in the back of my brain as I tried to work out where I’d seen her before. It was only in the last few minutes of the film I cried out, “Edith Piaf! That’s bloody Edith Piaf!”

Maybe it was because I’ve only seen her speaking French before (I haven’t seen Inception yet, either). She played Piaf in ‘La Môme‘, y’see. Anyway, Marion Cotillard is not the only one looking beyond French audiences to reach the English-speaking world. There’s also Jean Dujardin. And Melanie Laurent. And Eva Green. And Sophie Marceau. And Jean Reno.

And, best of all, there’s also the classic Golden Dragon gamebook Crypt of the Vampire, written by Dave Morris and illustrated by Leo Hartas. Megara Entertainment are currently running a project on KickstarterFrance. And though the original plan was that this would be a French-only republication, Dave has recently given the thumbs-up to an English republication as well.

Megara do good work with their releases. This republication will be a hardcover, high-quality book in full colour – that is, Leo Hartas will add colour to his original illustrations, as well as providing an all-new cover. Head over to the Crypt of the Vampire project page to take alook.

And click on the option to have the book in English, if that’s the one you want. Ou, sinon, en français. C’est comme tu veux.

(Post by Paul Gresty)

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.
– 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.
– 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!


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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)


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