Thursday, November 29, 2012

Swordplayer by Nicholas Stillman

I'm sorry to say that Swordplayer didn't really do it for me. I could see it really appealing to a certain type of player, but that type of player is not me. It's a dungeon crawl, basically, and... I'm tempted to say that dungeon crawls are just not for me, but the truth is more just that I'm exceptionally picky about what I like in dungeon crawls.

It's not that I don't like combat, or that I don't like dungeon crawls, or that I don't like stats and numbers. I do. I can spend hours poring over game numbers. I make spreadsheets. I spent longer designing my party and my character progression for NWN2: Storm of Zehir than I actually spent playing the game!

But gamebooks are not the best platform for that. Let's just be honest: you don't have the assistance of a computerized system. The player has to read and comprehend and remember the ENTIRE ruleset. You're limited by keeping numbers small and dice used comprehensible, and in this day and age, no one wants to sit around calculating all their own results, not when we have computers so readily available.

So gamebooks have to bring something new to the table. It's good if a gamebook can provide a good game. It's very good. But there's simply limits to what can be achieved. With any game, it's important to understand the core gameplay in order to maximize player enjoyment. With a first person shooter, the core gameplay is shooting dudes in the face. Or maybe sometimes blowing them up. That's basically it, you jump around, you shoot and you don't get shot. It's straightforward--but if you start imposing other factors... say a fancy graphic for displaying whatever your character is holding, but that fancy graphic slows frame rate on some computers to delay the all-important shooting and dodging reaction time--that's going to diminish player enjoyment of the game, because it diminishes the players ability to engage in the core mechanic.

My point is this: The core mechanic of gamebooks is not hack and slash. No system of dice rolling for combat, no matter how good, is going to make hack and slash become the core mechanic of gamebooks.

The core mechanic of gamebooks is making choices that affect the outcome of a story. For this to work, you need two things: 1) A story. 2) Choices.

Like the holy grail of the first person shooter core mechanic--i.e. shooting dudes in the face--you don't want to do anything in a gamebook that interferes with that core mechanic of what a gamebook is and what players enjoy about it.

Swordplayer does have a story. It's a somewhat cheesy, overblown tale of a swordsman who wants to prove himself to be the best, and is willing to put himself in grave danger to do so--because he thinks he can. You have a character motivation, you have passion, you have high stakes. It's not "realistic" exactly, and it's certainly cliche, but it does present many of the aspects of a good story.

Sadly, it all seems to be just a device to get the protagonist into the dungeon. And once you're in the dungeon, the game devolves to a bunch of Which Door choices (not really choices) and a bunch of fights. The fights are innovative, certainly--I've already addressed under "Ravages of Fate" the potential that I think can be brought to the table when multiple sections are devoted to one fight. The problem is that the dynamism is overly simplistic. You're given one choice: Attack or Defend. If you choose the wrong one, your stats don't matter at all--you either both lose fitness or both don't take damage. But there's absolutely no clue or hint as to which is the correct choice and which isn't. It's effectively a a "Which Door" choice all over again. You might as well be rolling dice.

I eventually quit playing because of this mechanic. When what I do as a player doesn't have the slightest effect on the outcome of the game, there's no incentive for me to keep playing. In all the (admittedly short) time I spent playing this game, I don't think I encountered a single real choice. It was just "which direction do you go" (which admittedly is slightly more acceptable in an explicit dungeon crawl than under other circumstances, but still not ideal) and "do you attack or dodge." To which my answer, after seeing what attacking and dodge meant, was simply, "no."

The author clearly put a lot of thought into this, and it shows. There's a lot of potential in the mechanics. The writing is good, when it has a chance to show itself, and it's probably an excellent dungeon crawl. I just have very little patience these days for choices that aren't choices. If the combat system were revised to give the player actual choices, I would try again.


  1. Hi Ashton. Thanks for the review. You're right in that Swordplayer caters to a certain crowd, namely fans of puzzles. My goal was to throw some new mechanics into cyberspace, not please the masses. Swordplayer is basically Shadowgate in gamebook form. It would definitely work better on an app or the like.

    But it's also a gift to fellow experimenters. Suppose you wanted to make a perfectly free-roaming gamebook where you collect items in rooms and use them in previously visited rooms *without* having to record information--no checkpoints, IF/THEN statements, forced map making or documenting which rooms you've entered or changed (like in Scorpion Swamp). Swordplayer is how it could be done.

    It doesn't work as fluidly as possible here because of the item numbers which make the player do some arithmetic. These could be eliminated and replaced with a traditional list of items to use; however, it is rather expensive for a 100 sections and reveals items to be found later. But, you could get some interesting paragraphs where item use backfires.

    For choices, there are rooms where a new torch is lit, illuminating what lies in adjacent rooms. This *could* be applied to all rooms with little rewards/penalties applied for entering with/without the right item, giving players better choices...but at the cost of more text. This game is harder than beating up both your drunk parents at once, so too much text with all that replay required is bad...for here.

    The whole thing could run seamlessly in a larger book, without the player even noticing the mechanics or recording anything except good ol' items.

    I should point out that the combat system does involve some strategy and has more choices and outcomes than you mentioned. Players should make the majority of their moves either Attack or Defend depending on who has the higher WAR score. They can also predict patterns better after each battle and thus become better sword fighters psychologically. Also, you can win most fights in one blow by Fighting Dirty at a cost. You can have enough EGO to Fight Dirty most of the game. The system requires no memorization of rules.

    To just play for the puzzle solving, you can skip all battles (except one) by making an ACT 10 character.

    I'm kind of a yesman, so I went with innovation over player appeasement. The premise is basic so things don't get overcomplicated. Though it probably is anyway.

    Be warned if you go back, though, that Swordplayer really is the most challenging gamebook ever made, even with the ACT 10 exploit.

    1. Hi Nicholas, thanks for the detailed response. I'll have to go look over it again; I may not have fully appreciated some of the possibilities and implications in the system you built into Swordplayer.

      One thing I definitely support is innovation. This may not have come across in my first response, but innovation is always worth it in my book. Even if the experiment doesn't work, then you know, and if it does work, you have something awesome to pass on to future gamebookers (or future projects of your own.) So kudos to you for having the balls and creativity to come up with a lot of original ideas!

      More later, once I get a chance to go review Swordplayer again. Cheers!

  2. It can't really get away from the lack of true choices you mentioned. Shadowgate only had a handful of simple options, and it's emulated here. You probably won't get much enjoyment out of it, but it's there for research, I suppose. The goal is to have the player do less work by removing checkpoints and such, but the item numbers ended up adding mathy work.

    In retrospect, the true choices could be added in standard linear parts after using items, as once an item is used, it's gone. Other than that, sandboxing runs the inherent risk of annoying repetition and directional choices that mostly appeal to those who like mazes.

    It also has those death paragraphs I know you don't like. But one issue there is, do you disallow death altogether (perhaps making the player feel like there's too much hand-holding) or only have death by point loss (which is less colorful and dramatic than a death section)? I find death sections add character and danger to the environment, but I'd be interested in hearing your solutions.