Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Final Payment by Zachary Carengo

I was very impressed with Final Payment. I can't say I pegged it as the winner, but I'm not surprised. After a certain point it was like, "okay, which of these awesome gamebooks is it going to be?" There were a lot of quality books here this year. It seemed to me to be anybody's game who would actually walk away with the award.

I thought that the writing was very strong. I was consistently impressed. There were several points (leaping out the glass window, or sliding down the pyramid shaped building) where I could literally see the action vividly in my mind, like watching a Jet Li move. No kidding dude, that was awesome!

I also really appreciated the level of quality in the dialogue and the characterization, even--no, especially--in the minor characters. There were characters who barely had more than a line or two of dialogue, but with just a few words, instantly Zachary gives you a vivid sense of who they are, what kind of person they are, and what you might expect from them. Bringing that level of character to a, well, character, in just two lines of dialogue is very impressive. I was never disappointed in the characters. Not even once.

The same cannot, sadly, be said for the setting. By two thirds of the way through the story, I was still learning new things about the world and trying to place just exactly what tech level we're at anyway. The lack of a strong setting established at the opening was very disorienting. For a strong contrast, see Sigil-Beasts, where you instantly know exactly what the setting is, who the main characters are going to be, and what's at stake. In 4 sentences. I kid you not, 4 sentences. Brilliant.

Zachary, you pulled the same brilliance with your characters. In just a handful of words you made each character distinct and vivid. Why didn't you give your setting the same courtesy?

The only other issue I had, and this is a bit nit-picky, but so be it (it's the winner, it can deal with being nit-picked): I didn't ever feel a strong sense of tension. Yes, there's clearly a lot at stake, but the main character doesn't even really seem to care. If the protagonist doesn't care, why should I? I would rather have seen something at stake. Maybe he has a whole secret life, with a family and a day job, now that he's retired, and he needs to cooperate with his new masters in order to make sure they don't have any reason to go digging and find out about his family. Maybe he wants vengeance for his partner's death back in '89. I mean, whatever it is, the protagonist has to want something. I mean really want it. Without that, the story lacks a bit of drive and engagement.

Last but not least I'd like to address the system a bit. There was both good and bad here. The skills are good, and I think that kind of skill system is excellent for gamebooks because it provides meaningful choices to the player without being too complex to manage. You just pick which ones you want, getting to state something about your character in doing so, and you're done. Bam. Easy and additive. I really like the money system. That's probably the most innovative (well, successfully innovative) thing in this gamebooks. The combat system... well, it gets points for being innovative, and it was more well balanced than I anticipated, so kudos to you there. My only complaint with it is that managing the numbers was a bit tedious. I got kind of sick of rolling a bunch of dice, squaring some number, subtracting it from some other double digit number, tracking all this, rolling again and multiplying it and subtracting it and recording that... my god. I'm here to play a game, not do arithmetic all day. This is one of those systems that might work in a computer game (although I'm not convinced there aren't better ways to do it) but in a pen and paper, solo rpg gamebook, it's just more numbers than I want to deal with. That said, I'm still impressed on the basis that it's original, innovative and creative. I've never seen anything like it before. It's an experiment, and I won't hold it against you if the experiment wasn't completely successfull. You get props for creating something innovative and having the guts to roll with it.

At the end of the day, Final Payment is solid and well-crafted. The story is just a tad bit cliche, but the writing really brings it to life. Beyond that, let's be honest--a lot of gamebook stories are derivative; it's one area the genre could really improve. I would absolutely recommend this to friends.


  1. Thanks for the review! As always, I really appreciate your feedback. It's funny that you mention the pyramid scene. I actually had your commentary from last year in mind when I came up with that part! I tried to liven things up in final payment and I'm glad to hear these action scenes came across well. I wont lie, writing the dialogue was a lot of fun too.

    In terms of setting, I was going for something between ghost in the shell and pulp fiction. I focused on the immediate surroundings and didn't give much thought to the larger world. I see how this vagueness could be annoying, but it doesn't bother me. I don't see the point of giving the reader a bunch of world-building if it's not relevant to the story. Just a matter of taste I guess.

    1. *blink* I'm glad to hear my feedback from last year made such an impact!

      Actually, going back and refreshing my memory of Above the Waves, I remember that the lack of vivid descriptions was one of the things which bugged me there. That you were able to make such a huge leap in quality in this area in just one year is incredible. I'm impressed, dude.

      I actually agree that no more information should be given about the setting than is necessary. If it's not relevant to the story, don't include it. My only suggestion on that front would be, whatever information you do include, make sure it's available to the reader up front. At least a few basics like when and where to help the reader get oriented. This was far from the worst entry this year in this area, but in my opinion, it's one of the few ways that Final Payment could improve.

      At the end of the day, and telling people about the different stories now, after the fact, my favorite part is your characters. That's where this story really shines. What else are you working on these days?

  2. Ha ha, pretty busy with classwork actually. There's been a ton of false starts, but I hear that's pretty typical. I have a few ideas for longer gamebooks kicking around. Hoping to complete one of those eventually. Aside from that I try to finish a short story every so often.

    1. Zachary, I don't know if you'll notice this message or not, but if you do, ping me! I'd like to talk to you about a writing project. It's paid :)

      ashton at blackhatwriting dot com

  3. I wanted to: it had a great premise. Actually a splendid premise, but the writing lost me. Free PPI Claims