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The RPG Scrollbars: The Game Of The Gamebook


Oh, to be able to talk more about what I've been playing this week - the third part of Inkle's conversion of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! That's their exclamation mark, by the way, not mine. Unfortunately, it's not available on PC, so I can't. I can't say how ludicrously impressive it is, from the way it's converted the largely linear gamebook experience to an open world format, to the narrative masochism of then doubling-down and adding time-travel on top of that. Curse thee, thou wretched yet beautiful non-PC game, available right now on iTunes and Google Play. Ahem.

It's not however the only RPG gamebook in town. This week then, I thought I'd check out a few that are a bit closer to home. Steam, show me what you've got in your magic catalogue...

Now, these aren't going to be full reviews, only impressions. I'm also looking specifically for games with an RPG element to them rather than pure interactive fiction. To Be Or Not To Be for instance, while funny, doesn't really count. There's actually quite a few out there that do though, including several other Steve Jackson conversions. I'm also only looking on Steam, but that's not the only place to get this kind of game. They tend to be mobile games first, but there are some PC exclusive offerings too, not least Seventh Sense, built to play the original Lone Wolf books.

Got that? Splendid. Then let us dive right in with...

Appointment With F.E.A.R.

I always thought that if you played FEAR quickly enough, you should be able to catch Alma mid-way through planning her next scare. Just on a swing or something, going 'Yes, yes, I'll set the walls on fire, and then the blood will drip down, and-'

Excelsior! And other inappropriately screamed words! Appointment With FEAR, as I'm now going to type it, has nothing to do with a certain horror franchise, as you almost certainly know and/or guessed because, well, duh. Instead, it's superhero time, and hooks don't come much more fun than that. This interactive version immediately impresses by kicking off with a solid character creation system that lets you pick a power - telekinesis, gadgets, super-strength/flight or energy blasts - and colour-scheme for a couple of suit variants, though sadly not a custom name. You get a few randomly thrown together options to choose from, like "Superior Blanket" and "Unconventional Moth", but aren't allowed to spoil the mood by typing something not shit. Well, perhaps over time I shall teach criminals to fear cries of "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's.... BOUNCY BIRTHDAY CAKE!"

Needless to say, this isn't exactly Arkham Knight. When told "You have taken an oath to serve in the fight against crime in Titan City," it's immediately followed up with Bouncy Birthday Cake declaring "TIME FOR BREAKFAST!" and in this case, getting an Achievement for making porridge using a custom-made robotic laser oat cutter. You then head out to your secret-identity job as a mild-mannered reporter, and yes, the disguise consists entirely of a pair of nerd glasses over your primary coloured spandex. It's that kind of parody. Still, it's a cheerfully enjoyable one, backed up with some great punchy background music and a lot of art. I'm reminded of playing through Heroes Rise the other year, a series that definitely suffered from trying to convey a world of fast action and bright colours in nothing but black text on cream. The writing here isn't particularly sharp, but it doesn't have to be. This is a world of circus freak supervillains, crime computers and almost seamlessly going from investigating a bank robbery to punching out a giant shark that's busy attacking a beach.

(Or unleashing an electric gun, frying a kid in the process. Ooof. 8 Hero Points deservedly lost.)

TONY STARK: 'You're three days old.'
ULTRON: 'Cheers'
THOR: 'That is it? Comrades, this was a most disappointing adventure.'
CAPTAIN AMERICA: 'Not as disappointing as your second movie!'
(Credits play over the ending theme of Short Circuit 2)

What gets in the way is that success and failure always feels pretty random. The goal of the game is to track down a meeting of the titular FEAR, though in practice you spend most of the three days until then just doing Stuff and hoping to stumble across the necessary clues. Go to "Wisneyland" for instance, head for the fun-house, and you'll get three options for tracking down The Scarlet Prankster - essentially The Joker in Harley Quinn's hat. There's no real reason to pick one of the three over the others, but you only get the one shot before being thrown out with nothing particularly accomplished. You're basically the world's least committed superhero. Where Batman would see a fearsome foe escape and immediately give chase or deduce something with the Batcomputer, Bouncy Birthday Cake and friends just go "Oh well, can't win 'em all", go home and have an early night.

Turns out this is a pretty good way to have the world destroyed by a doom-satellite.

It doesn't take too long to blitz through Appointment With FEAR, and the tongue in cheek style is pretty amusing if you don't mind a lot of gags that would have been crusty when the book came out back in 1985. The art and music are solid, and it's worth a few smiles. The core game though is pretty weak, way too reliant on random luck, and I can't say I feel any need to keep pushing through the same jokes and pretty lazy pastiches to get to a better ending than everyone dying horribly to an evil cyborg. It was fun while it lasted though, and a decent conversion of an unusual book.

Appointment with FEAR on Steam

Joe Dever's Lone Wolf HD Remastered

As your liege-lord, I demand proper speech marks. None of this laquo/raquo shit.

On the one hand, the easy online availability of the books means that Lone Wolf has to offer something special to stand out. On the other, it's not as if there's ever been a good official interactive version. If you were in England during the 80s - probably some other places too, but that's the only one I can speak of personally - chances are you remember this series very fondly. It's the story of the last of the Kai, an order of monks otherwise wiped out in the first book, and his battle against the evil Darklords. The evil bit probably goes without saying, but you never know, they might just have been bad at names. Would you assume the best of aliens called the Darlings?

What made Lone Wolf an epic was that the same character continued for book after book, choices rippling through them for players brave enough not to simply stick a finger between pages when making decisions. There were 28 gamebooks in total, split into sub-series, along with spin-off words like the Magnamund Companion for those who wanted to know more about the world, and novelisations. Yes, there were novelisations... of books. That was a thing that happened.

This game version is a whole new story, and goodness, what lovely wrapping it has. It retains a general book style look and feel, though I maintain that any game that begins with a copy of a book on a table bearing its name or logo requires as many vicious cock-punches as it takes to get rid of the pretentiousness, and any that also feature angelic vocals have buried so far into their own anus that no spelunking will find their head. But that's just me. This is a thing that bugs me. So, on a possibly more general level, are text games that take several seconds to display text on page turning. Lone Wolf opts for a kind of inky-bleed effect each time that looks lovely, but quickly gets irritating. You can click again to just display everything, but there's no apparent option to just do that automatically. And you also have to precisely click to turn a page without dragging. It's one of many reminders that this came out on iOS first, where such things would have been less fiddly, and one of a few ways where the look works against it. The typography for instance is fine for description, but becomes a mess when conversations kick in, while the font is so big that by the time you've paged through some of the longer bits, you've probably forgotten what you were doing in the first place.

When I think of the market for gamebooks, I think of people who really, really want to do lots of quick reaction tests.

But! It does indeed look lovely. Little dust particles and light effects pouring over the words, animated woodcuts spliced in amongst the text, with regular jumps to 3D for actions like lock picking and combat against various monsters. Most of the actions are done with QTEs, from quick clicking to bash something down to sweeping for a sword-strike and clicking to set the accuracy of thrown knives. There's a pretty good selection of options, using your chosen weapon, magical Kai skills, throwing knives, and super attacks courtesy of the magical Sommerswerd. That said, the amount of time devoted to the combat engine does seem to have pushed the game too far in that direction. There's a lot of mandatory fighting. A lot. Explore building. Combat. Walk down street. Combat. Sneak into a building. Combat. What would otherwise have been a good inclusion quickly loses its charm through overuse. Even if you turn the difficulty to Easy purely to speed things up a bit.

Overall though, this one just didn't click. While the story may get awesome later, its opening is piss-weak (walking around a destroyed village where not much is going on), the window through which the story is told looks lovely but isn't actually that well designed for copious amounts of text, and while the decisions offered some fun uses for chosen skills and moral decisions - free a criminal to spare his life, or leave him trapped and assume the situation will work itself out - the constant QTEs and inevitability of imminent combat soon sapped my will to proceed. To be fair to it, it's got a good set of fans on Steam and reviewed well over on iOS. Your mileage may vary. It quickly lost my interest though, and largely left me cold. A pity, but hopefully there'll be a next time.

Lone Wolf on Steam

The Forest of Doom

Dibs on the first Cacodemon!

Now, this is an old-school gamebook reproduced in about as old-school a way as you can get, right down to still listing the page numbers that you would have turned to. Forest of Doom is easily one of the most famous/infamous examples of the style, and this unashamedly copies every bastardly element of it. (Though apparently on the hardest mode, the ending is different just for one final gotcha.) You roll dice to create your character, you roll dice to fight, and if you lose the fight, you have to click on a "If you are killed..." option to be told how much it sucks to be you.

I'm not going to criticise it too much for being a game built on dead-ends and fuck-you encounters, simply because that was the style at the time and Forest of Doom's retro style works well to keep that in mind. It's also got a couple of fun ways around it, including a Free Read mode that openly describes itself as "Play Forest of Doom like an old-school cheater!" In this mode you can always step back to make other decisions (unless you are actually killed, but even then, you've got to click the button, so...) as well as heal yourself whenever you want. Even more dramatically, you can unlock every option on the screen in a "Sure, I totally won the fight/collected that item/know the password" way and cheese your way through the game like it had a dedicated Gouda Mode.

Let's face it, this is how 99% of players are going to do it. If not though, this is a pretty good engine for the classic gamebooks - handling the fiddly stuff like remembering to add bonuses to combat rolls and keeping track of inventory items, and mapping out the world one node at a time to offer clearer visual understanding of the space. The core game relies heavily... almost entirely... on nostalgia to still offer a good time, but if you've got it, this is a solid way to enjoy it. Not much else to be said, really. It is what it is, but it does an excellent job of being it. Roll a 6 to avoid randomly dying.

The Forest of Doom on Steam

Starship Traveller

Wait, ANY fluorescent green metal? Science Officer, to the paint shop! We shall be rich this day!

Honestly, see previous entry. It's got a sci-fi skin, but otherwise is the same basic gist. One thing that does make it slightly more fun though is the amount of choice you get - even if that does often translate as 'chances to absolutely screw yourself over'. You're the captain of a starship lost in another universe after what can best be described as 'a bit of an ooopsie', trying to find a way home. You make choices, you roll dice, you try not to accidentally get everyone killed. On top of the adventure though is an even heavier RPG layer, thanks to being able to create and name your own ship as well as crew, allowing you to be the Captain Janeway of a group of friends, colleagues, or high-ups in the Reptilian conspiracy of which mankind is not yet ready to know. That both adds a sense of fun, and general sadness that such an excellent concept has largely been left on the table by gaming ever since. Imagine such a free-wheeling Mass Effect or roguelike in that more narrative driven mould, ideally without the likelihood of instant death. Just saying, industry...

Starship Traveller on Steam

(Just for completeness' sake, the same engine is also used for the Judge Dredd game Countdown Sector 106. Which I played up until the point where Dredd politely commandeers a sky-surfboard and "You thank the assistant for their help and assure him you will put it to good use." So, yeah. Suffice it to say, it feels about as true to the source material as the Rob Schneider comedy bits in the original Stallone movie. I guess it is at least a game where one of the stats is "AUTHORITY")

There are of course other gamebook conversions out there, not to mention a truckload of awesome interactive fiction. But I think that'll do for now. Are there any others you've found and particularly liked? Or simply classics that you'd like to see make a return trip? Have you written a theatrical version of War With The Evil Power Master? Why? Why would you do such a thing?

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