Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hwarang and Kumiho by Leidren Sweever

My first impression of Hwarang and Kumiho was excellent. Like Sigil-Beasts, this story has a lot of color. I love using the setting of Ancient Korea as the backdrop. I love the "Flower-Warriors." How cool is that? It's such a different perspective on manliness and masculinity than we have in America, or in many western societies. I just love that take on gender roles. Very thought-provoking. On top of that, the writing is overall very good. It's evocative, reasonably well paced, and clear. Only occasional odd uses of the language pull it down slightly, making me wonder (as other reviewers have suggested) if English is a second language for this author. If so, it's still used more fluently and aptly than many native writers.

There are a lot of things I like about this entry, and also a few things that could be improved. I really like the character creation system. There's a lot of flavor that adds to the sense of atmosphere for the game, and yet it remains light-weight enough to not drag down the game experience. That said, there's a lot of skills, when you only get to pick three. That's rough. I found myself wishing either that there were fewer options to choose between, or that I could pick more. I ended up feeling more incompetent than competent, for all the things I couldn't do. That said, I went with Charisma, Sword Mastery and Self-Control, and actually wound up doing quite well for myself. Maybe I just picked well, but in the event of it, I didn't really feel incompetent at all.

I really liked the narrative frame of the old man in a village square telling the story. I found that much more rewarding than, for example, any of the three false reality reveals which, in their own ways, frame their respective stories. This narrative framework is especially appropriate since, as I understand it, this story is explicitly based on a well known Korean folktale.

I really like all the choices that you're given, and the slow process of finding out the truth. I think this is one of the more successful "solve the mystery" models that I've seen. I was in particular amused to see some of the tips and tricks used by Leidren Sweever, such as entry 16, which allows you to "ask one more question." The trick is that you can get to that same entry from a variety of different encounters. For example, at the magistrates, you only get to ask one more question if you have enough self-control to force yourself to stay and keep talking to him, whereas at the village inn, you only get to ask one more question if you have the charisma to persuade the innkeeper to help you. There's probably others out there too. The point is, all of these lead to entry 16 if they are successful, where you get to pick a topic to ask your "one more question" about. The answer, of course, is given without any context of who is speaking. I didn't even notice this at first--with the context from your prior discussions already fresh in mind, it's easy enough for the brain to substitute in whoever you anticipate the speaker is: the magistrate or the innkeeper or whoever. Very cool economy of section usage.

I did find that there were a couple of points that I thought might be errors... for example, when exploring the outskirts, you can't go to the graveyard if you have the "water" tag, and you can't go to the lake if you have the "bracelet" tag, but you get water at the lake and get bracelet at the graveyard. Wouldn't it make more sense if you couldn't go back to wherever you had already gone? Or is it the intention of the author that if you've already successfully completed one zone, you can't go to the other? If so, this reader would have appreciated an explanation of why. Are you out of time? Do you get interrupted? Why can't I go there? Otherwise, it feels extremely arbitrary.

Hwarang and Kumiho also has one other effect that I found strange, but interesting, and that is that it frequently gives you the choice of which number to go to next, as a way of generating a random result without the use of dice. It just says, "pick a number to go to next," and gives you a list of numbers to choose from.

The most obvious place to see this is right in section 1, just right there, your first choice. My mind is a little blown by this, because in principle I hate blind choices, but here the intent is so explicitly to generate a random result that I almost have to accept it. Like I may have mentioned before, a blind choice is fine if it's the author's intent to generate a random result. It should just never be mistaken for an actual choice. Here the author is clearly intending it simply as an alternate method of generating a random result, which is actually kind of cool.

This method does have some interesting ramifications. On the one hand, it gives the player the option to make sure that they get a different version of the story on each play through. For the first three play through's at least, you can pick a different section to go to from section 1, and get to see the full variety of options. In a sense, this increases replayability. On the other hand, it also means that if there's a bad result, a good result and a mediocre result, once you know them, you can easily make sure to pick the good result every time, and that is definitely not fantastic. That undermines the basis of the randomization game mechanic.

On the other other hand, this is kind of true of gamebooks already; you learn which choices are the correct ones as you try and try again, until you find the path that will get you to the end. Furthermore, how likely is it that anybody is really going to be legitimately trying the same short gamebook more than three times? Maybe that's just the right amount of randomization, without being too much. Over three playthroughs, you can make  sure to try all three paths without repeating yourself, yet you haven't played so much that you know which one is "correct."

Just one more note on Hwarang and Kumiho: I found the writing generally surprisingly good, with good descriptions and a good "flow," especially impressive coming from a non-native speaker. That said, there were definitely some grammatical issues, sentence structure issues, and misuse of words periodically. That alone is probably enough for me to not want to vote for this story, just because... by the time you reach a competition like Windhammer, a certain level of professionalism is not only expected, but required. If you don't have the skills yourself to make sure that your work is free of grammatical, spelling, and language-use issues, then the thing to do is to find someone who can help you with that. Get an editor. This is true for all authors, no matter which language you're writing in. It's just basic standards. If you want your work to be taken seriously, get an editor who can make up for the skills you're lacking, and make sure that the final product is free of basic errors. There are plenty of native English speakers who could use this advice too.

All in all, Hwarang and Kumiho was a delightful short gamebook which brought me to a setting that no one has taken me to before: Ancient Korea. We went right into the heart of one of the old korean myths, getting to take on the role of the hero of that myth.

Frankly, it's a beautiful story, and it's no less beautiful for having been made interactive. Especially for me, since I didn't know the details of the myth before hand, this was a very fun way to learn it. Great job and kudos to the authors. This was a very, very strong entry.


  1. I found the narrative framework fresh and evocative as well, especially for character creation, and it made the use of third person make sense. But I kept tripping over the punctuation errors. (It's that darn English degree.)

    The mixed delight and problem for me was that I'm Korean, so while I was thrilled to see this entry -- I could identify its setting just from the title -- I could also figure out the basic storyline from the title because of my familiarity with the folklore it's based on. So I think I unfairly dinged it on originality in my head. Probably not the reaction I should be having if I want more Korean-based gamebooks!

    1. I know the feeling... Get your English degree! No paying job opportunities, but torture yourself with an exquisite awareness of all the spelling mistakes your friends ever make! Sign up now!

      You're not the only person I know who was turned off by the fact that it's based on an extant folk tale. For myself, it didn't bother me--but I don't know the folk tale. Would it have bothered me if I did know the myth already? I honestly don't know.

      I remember last year I was extremely annoyed at the Sea of Madness entry for being so explicitly based on the Odyssey, but most of what annoyed me about that was the fact that the names were changed. It seemed like the author was taking an existing story and re-painting it and trying to pretend it was his own. It just seriously rubbed me the wrong way. (Although as it turned out, only the background was the Odyssey re-skinned; once you got into the actual game, it was mostly original.) If the Odyssey were explicitly made into a gamebook, keeping all the original names, I don't think I would have minded.

      Regardless, the point is: you're not alone. It happened to not bother me, but there definitely were others who also dinged Hwarang and Kumiho on originality for the same reason.

      If you don't mind me asking are you Korean in Korea? Or of Korean heritage, but raised somewhere else? My artist for Vigilante: Dark Justice is Korean, at least, of Korean heritage.

    2. Haha, yes, we even have a titular theme song (Avenue Q's "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?").

      Interesting point about Sea of Madness! I think I disassociated myself from the Odyssey as soon as I saw that my character options didn't include anyone from the actual legend, but did get jarred by the mix of original names and familiar elements (and the codewords being actual Greek heroes' names seemed particularly odd to me). Was it mostly a matter of different expectations because of the way the title page mentioned the Odyssey? Makes me wonder how best gamebook authors should tackle adapting well-known myths.

      And I'm Korean-American -- born and currently living in the States, but I spent my childhood moving between the two countries. Let's just say that filling gaps in your Fighting Fantasy collection is much easier in one place than the other...

  2. Dear Ashton,

    Thank you very much for the review. regretfully I'm not a native speaker and it shows. I was pressed by the deadline and could not get an editor to help me out. Yet reading this review it seems I've outdone myself. About section one - there is no bad and mediocre choice. The bad and mediocre depend on the choice of skills. The lake and the graveyard - one is automatically locked after you visit the other to enhance replayability. If something else is left unclear due to my lack of language skills - please let me know.
    Karalynn - I am a Koreanist. It means a lot to me that my story has left impression on a true Korean native speaker. Probably means more than all other reviews.

    Leidrin Sweever(Svetoslav Georgiev from Bulgaria)

    1. It's such a pleasure to hear from you :) (Should I address you as Leidrin or Svetoslav? Which is your preference?)

      I did indeed think the writing is fantastic, especially impressive considering that English is not your first language.

      I've heard that there's an active gamebook community in Bulgaria and eastern europe. It's such a pleasure to see you and others from your community getting involved in the Windhammer competition. Great to see how it's bringing people together :)

      The only thing I would say about the lake and the graveyard is just to include something about why the limitation exists. From a game design perspective, it makes sense, but without an in-game description, it feels arbitrary. Maybe just a line or two about how you're out of time and the day is ending?

      Best wishes, and I hope to see more from you!

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  4. There is a 100 - section story about Pak Yon Wol and how he manages to resque the hwarang from prison.