Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Day of Dissonance by David Walters

Day of Dissonance is an intriguing entry; it's going for a sort of horror, false-reality vibe, and pulls it off very well, but it's dragged down by too many choices that (to me) don't really matter, and by the fact that you don't really know what's going on. Also, (again in my opinion) by a sort of excess of horror. Something really scary should surprise you in some way--not shock you necessarily, not like a bogeyman jumping out from behind the couch going "boo!" but be in some way unexpected. After a pageant of horrors has gone on long enough, the next one ceases to startle and amaze after a while.

I thought the rules were simple and effective. My only complaint is that they were presented first. Basically, to my mind, the fluff is the hook, not the rules. Open with the fluff to tell the reader what they're getting into and give them an incentive to take the extra effort to learn the rules. Especially with this many gamebooks, each with their own descriptions of rules... I quickly ran out of patience to keep reading about rules. What I can say for Day of Dissonance is that, though the rules were presented first, at least they were constrained to under one page! Major points for that, especially compared to some of the other entrants this year.

Once the story gets going, it picks up quickly. There's danger, there's a fire, there's amnesia. The "holding your breath" gimmick caught me by surprise, and delighted me just enough that I actually tried it--although I was disappointed to find that I could just release my breath at the very next section without having been asked to make any significant decisions in the meantime, other than which exit to take out of the room. Would every other exit have also allowed me to release my breath?

What might have been an interesting alternative would have been to give the reader the option to explore or leave. You can explore, and maybe find equipment or clues, but you can only explore for as long as you can hold your breath. Once you leave, then you can release it. This creates a more meaningful decision for the player--do I suffer holding my breath to get possible, unknown, rewards, or do I leave now and get to release my breath?

[Eventually I went back and tried the other options--I ran out of the room the first time--I was disappointed to find that there's not much of substance in the other directions. At best, you break out the window only to climb in another window and pick up at basically exactly the same place in the story. Although there was a certain small, but very real, moment of panic when I was trying to hold my breath and the glass didn't break the first time I hit it. Do I hit again, or run for the other side of the room? Holding my breath right there made the sense of smoke filling the room, and the urgency of that choice, very real for a moment. *shudder*]

I also want to mention that, like many of this year's gamebooks, it  suffers from a little bit of an unclear premise. Are we post-apocalyptic? Are we just one step past modern? I appreciated the background page, but didn't feel like it answered all of my questions. Especially when the main character in the main text is not readily identifiable as the "John Watkins" of the background. The lead described in the background struck me as a child, whereas the character in the narrative was clearly an adult. Spoiler Alert: Later, of course, this makes sense. But at the time it didn't so much raise a sense of mystery, as just leave me feeling disoriented.

That said, I do have to give kudos to how it all tied together in the end. Especially once I realized why you don't show up in the mirror. Fucking coool.

The horror in this story builds with very mixed success. It's most successful early on, before you have a chance to get numbed to it. I think in the early parts of the story, the author deserves serious props for building a creepy, eerie atmosphere. For example, bloody footsteps outside the door randomly? Very creepy.

Unfortunately, this ends up falling into much the same trap that Massacre at Black Scythe does (see later) where in an attempt to create creepy, disturbing stuff all the time, the narrative quickly loses touch with a baseline of normal to compare it against. As I'll rant about again under MaBS, the essence of horror is deviation from reality. Without normal reality, you can't have horror. To phrase it another way, if I'm going along, doing my thing, and then I look over and there's a bloody handprint in the mirror, that's fucking creepy. But if every time I turn around there's some new severed body part or unsettling monster popping out at me, pretty soon that's just what I expect. Try too hard to shock, and you lose the ability to shock at all. You must have a baseline of normal to contrast your horror against, or it's not horror at all, it's just a bad day.

Because of this, the narrative does slow down again after a while. The choices start out arbitrary and unclear,  and get more so as the story goes on. I'm not given enough information about the world and why I'm doing what I'm doing to make any rational, informed decisions. Why would I want to dress as a ninja? I don't know; guess I'll just put on the costume. Follow the boy? What? Who is he? Do I recognize him? Even a little bit? Left or right down the hall? I don't give a rat's ass about left or right. Don't make me pick left or right! For the love of all that is holy and good in this beautiful world of ours, DO NOT make me pick left or right!

I know it's a tried  and true old Fighting Fantasy trope--that doesn't mean you can do it. It's successful there not because it's good, but because that was all we knew back then. Games, and gamers, are farther along than that now. We want choices. Not randomness masquerading as choice. Don't do it! Just don't. Please, I beg of you, give me information to make my decisions on!

Now, let me clarify, this applies to blind choices as a whole, not literally just navigational "left or right" choices. It's the "Which Door" style of choice I described in one of my blogs on gamebook theory. Or, put more simply, a blind choice. Asking which of half a dozen strange objects I want to investigate, when I don't have any meaningful information about any of them, is just as much of a "Which Door" choice as left or right is.

Moving on, I do have to say that I was pleased by the ending. Especially by ending 97. LOL. But yeah, though I knew something was up, I definitely would have appreciated a bit more rhyme and reason appearing before the big reveal. It would have been nice to feel like I was sinking my teeth into a mystery, rather than just along for the ride until the author decides to pull the curtains aside and modestly share the fantastic secret inner workings with me.

Regardless, of the three "false reality" entries this year, I think this was the strongest. None of them did a great job of doling out secrets instead of doing a big reveal at the end, but Day of Dissonance gave me the most to work with in the meantime. It had a lot of good horror content; if it had been paced correctly, it could have been very scary. Instead, after the first few scares, it comes across more like a monster show. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

At the end of the day, this is very, very close. The writing is good, and he successfully crafts a creepy-ass atmosphere, which is no mean accomplishment. But the story is really dragged down by the fact that almost every choice you're given is a Which Door choice ( -- sometimes literally. If that type of choice wasn't my pet peeve, I probably would have enjoyed this a lot more. The basic premise was good, but like in A Knight's Trial, I would have liked to see something more connecting the "real" reality and the "fictional" reality. Why is this the nature of the test? Why do they scare the pants off their victims?

I edited this several times, but I think it just became more extensive and disorganized each time. At the end of the day, Day of Dissonance is well conceived and well-written. It has all the right elements, they're just not quite arranged in the right configuration. A near miss--partly due to the overwhelming preponderance of Which Door choices. No, no blind choices... I'm going to be over here shuddering in a quiet corner of my room... oh god... (his eyes popped open one final time) The horror... the horror!


  1. Great review Ashton that makes an interesting (and I think important) point about horror: it needs shock / contrast to be effective. (Oh and of course on blind choices!)

  2. And NOW I'm brainstorming ways to make a left/right choice interesting. Maybe you play as a partially disabled character who can only use one leg? So (s)he tends to lean and walk in a particular direction, so you can fight that impulse for benefit X, or roll with is for benefit Y.

    Or maybe there's something environmental. The player is told over and over about a river of lava or a sheer 1000-foot drop to the west. But there are all kinds of eerie sounds to the east. The player has to push his or her luck with each fork in the road. Too far to the west, you walk over the edge of a cliff in pitch darkness. Too far to the east, you encounter scary tentacled monsters.

    Or perhaps the player was told the correct direction to take earlier in the gamebook, but only if he or she was paying attention.


    1. I think these are some great ideas, and this is a case-in-point of one of the reasons why I love the Windhammer prize: It encourages this kind of exploration and experimentation. We're playing with the genre here, finding problems and looking for solutions, and doing things no one has ever done before. It's very exciting.