Friday, December 21, 2012

Combat in Gamebooks

I've mentioned a couple times a combat-related post that I was working on. Well, without further ado, here you go:

This year in Windhammer, the authors as a whole presented some amazing innovations in combat systems, rules, and styles. It's given me a tremendous amount of food for thought, and I've tried to wrap up and present here some of the ideas all this experimentation has led me to.

The big question seems to be: How to make a gamebook combat system dynamic, within the limitations of the genre? You can't present a system that's too involved, or it simply won't be manageable. Most gamebook systems are incredibly straightforward (i.e. one or two stats, very few rolls, etc.) But those don't have enough moving parts to create any real dynamism. That said, one thing I've learned is how far you can push it. Several gamebooks, such as Brewin's Trial of the Battle God, had very full systems. It was a lot, but if you're spending a lot of time in the game, it might be worth it. 

To get down to the root of the issue, we need to think about what kind of decisions are possible within a combat situation, in a game. Let's do a quick brainstorm. In a fighting game, player speed and skill becomes very important, but you're still choosing which maneuver to do when. This has a lot to do with guessing what the other guy is going to do. You've got to try to fake the other guy out, make him think you're doing one thing, then do another. This is reminiscent of my (short-lived) fencing days. Our teacher's mantra was "make noise in the east, attack in the west."

For this to be meaningful, the different choices each participant makes have to interact with each other in interesting ways. If I block in the west, but you attack in the east, then I'm in trouble. But if I block in the east, I might be able to get a quick riposte in. This often comes down to a sort of rock paper scissors effect. If the first player does action A, and the second player does action B, then second player has the advantage. But if second player did action C, then first player has the advantage.

This sort of model also relies on a multiplicity of options. If you only have one option "attack" and you do that again and again until the battle is over, then there's not this kind of model in action. Arguably, the more options there are, and the more relationships there are between the options, the deeper the strategy in this case.

So what we're seeing come together here is a few requirements:

* The player has to have options in combat. Not just "Attack," or "Defend," but what kind of attack?
* The options each combatant makes have to interact with each other in interesting and meaningful ways.

So the question then becomes, can you include that in a gamebook?

Not only do I think you can, I think I have. I've written up a system (which isn't ready to expose to the public yet, but is in progress) which includes both of those elements, and while it is heavier than most gamebooks, the feedback I've gotten so far is that it is still manageable.

Over the next month or so, I'll be working on writing up a short, sample gamebook which demonstrates these rules. When it's ready, I would love to hear all of your feedback.

Until then, stay tuned for more blog posts on this general topic. Also a couple more reviews upcoming. Next week, I'll go over a lot of the specific mechanics which various authors introduced in Windhammer this year, with an analysis of each one.

Merry Christmas!

To those of you who celebrate it. To those of you who don't, have a cookie on me you heathens.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Review of FTL

I haven't gotten to finish my full treatment of combat systems in gamebooks yet, considering a lot of the experimentation done this year in Windhammer. So instead I'll post a review I wrote up recently.

As a gamebook author, I bridge a gap between writing and game design, often filling roles of both. To that end, my reviews will often be gamebooks, but at other times will be of straight novels or of pure games.

This review is for the indie game FTL. Please enjoy :)

FTL is a great little game. It was strongly recommended to me by a friend a little while back, but I don't play many video games, so I back-shelved the suggestion at the time. Well, this weekend, when I finally budgeted a little time to zone out with a game, I saw the 40% off sale on Steam and remembered the suggestion, so I went ahead and downloaded it to give it a try.

The game is simple, yet elegant. If you aren't familiar with it, the premise is that you are the captain of a Federation starship, carrying data vital to putting down the Rebellion. You must traverse known space in your little vessel, carrying this information to the Federation High Command without getting shot, blown up, burnt to death, or asphyxiated along the way. Yes, all of those are possible ways you can die. Meanwhile, the rebel fleet is chasing you, so you've got to stay one step ahead of them.

The place the game shines is in the direct management of your ship. You control each of your crew members individually, directing them to this or that task on the ship, or to repair damages. You control each of the weapons and sub-systems, including where you direct the reactor's power to keep different systems powered up and active. Damage to the ship can damage systems (you then direct your little guys to repair the damage) or start fires (hurts the little guys.) But you can open the doors to vent the oxygen from the rooms into space, putting out fires (assuming your automatic door-opening system hasn't been damaged.) Of course, then your little guys can't use that room until the oxygen replenishes, which, of course, requires your Oxygen system to be powered up and undamaged.

The user interface is fantastic. You're managing a lot of systems, but after 5 minutes of practice it feels as natural as breathing. The tactics are interesting, with good choices in combat (what weapon loadout you bring, which systems of your own you direct power to, which systems of theirs you try to target, or if you want to just go for the hull and try to destroy them). It's because the interface is so easy that the combat is so fun.

On the other hand, the place where it does not succeed as well is in the broader picture. The minigame of ship combat is excellent, but the rest of the game is little except a platform to take you from one fight to the next. You explore as you go, but most encounters are either a fight, or not a fight, with only slight differences in flavor text, challenge, and loot. It gets predictable pretty quickly.

There are a few things to heat it up. The pressure of the Rebel Fleet behind you adds a nice bit of tension to keep you on your toes. And there are a few quests. But there's no real story, not even in the quests.

The game could have been much more powerful if they'd brought a writer on board, not just to write flavor text and simple, one-step quests, but... well, honestly, to do the kind of writing you see in gamebooks. I would like to see another version of this game done in an open ended world, with a metaplot, but freedom to explore as you will. The ability to bring cargo aboard your ship and make money trading would be a very nice touch. But mostly, I'd like to see more story. Both in the main plot, and in the side plots. I'd like to see chained quests coming together to form whole plotlines.

FTL, sadly, delivers none of that. Don't look for much by way of story; you'll be disappointed. Otherwise, it's one of the most fun space combat simulations I've ever come across.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Back to Lone Wolf?

Hello all!

My blog has been overwhelmingly dominated by Windhammer reviews for the last month-ish, and was kind of silent before that for a while as I was trying to write my Windhammer entry and work on a couple other things. But I'm getting back into the swing of it, shooting for a solid entry every Friday (hopefully!)

So, my question to you all is, should I pick up the Lone Wolf playthrough again? Are you guys having fun with it? I enjoy it, but I tend to get distracted when something else urgent comes up. I'll try to be more reliable, but it's a constant process.

Just figured I'd check in and see where folks are at, since it's been a while, rather than just jumping right in.

If I do proceed with Lone Wolf, I'll try to keep to the schedule of posting updates on Monday and Wednesday.

What do you all think? If not, is there anything else you would prefer to see more of?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Gender and Feminism (or the lack thereof) in Legacy of the Zendari

Thank you to everyone for all the comments on all of the reviews, and especially on my own post-mortem for Legacy of the Zendari. Much appreciated! (I can't believe I've finished all the reviews!)

Anyway, while it's still fresh in my readers' minds, I'd like to bring up one response I got to Legacy of the Zendari which I did not include in my previous post about it: an accusation of sexism.

I was a bit taken aback by this. I consider myself a feminist, to the extent that I firmly believe all people are fundamentally equal. Do I think anybody should get special rights? No, on either side of that equation. That said, if there is an imbalance, effort must be exerted to correct that imbalance. It won't happen on it's own.

While this principle of equality is one that I firmly believe, and want to layer into all of my writing, my goal is not to hit the reader over the head with it every time. Nor do I even think that would be effective.

So I wrote Legacy of the Zendari like I write any piece, by coming up with some characters that seemed both natural and to fit the story and throwing them in.

It never even occurred to me that these characters might add together to create a world view that seemed sexist. Maybe that's my bad for not looking out for it?

I mean, ignorance is not an excuse, but at the same time... you take a character like the Geo-Cure girl (who I believe I named Jenny...). She's not a strong woman--but she's not a strong character. She's existed as a conscious being for like, two and a half hours, tops, by the end of the story. She was born (effectively) fully fledged, a brand new consciousness in the body of a young adult, with all the experiences and feelings that come with that body. Totally unprepared to be rescued by a dashing, heroic RADF agent of the gender she is sexually attracted to.

Is this an adolescent fantasy? Sure, to some extent. You open the case to find a beautiful, naked girl, who immediately latches on to you. But part of my message there was not just to say, "hey dude, hot times on the horizon!" It's to, hopefully, if I did my job right, raise some very valid moral questions about whether doing anything with her would be morally acceptable. Though she has the body of an adult, she's in spirit more like a child. And you're her only guardian.

Though in the story, one route is to embrace your relationship with her, and there's definitely an implication of where that relationship is going, that's not the only route, nor (do I think), there's any moral implication that that's the correct route.

From my perspective, I certainly wasn't intending that to be "degrading to women." The premise is, well, science fiction, and maybe a little bit of wish-fulfillment, but everything after that, though perhaps a bit cliche, is both realistic within the terms of the world, and consistent to the characters themselves. It seems natural to me that someone who just woke up would latch on to the nearest strong personality.

The other complaint this reader lodged was that every woman in the show was "there to be a romantic interest for a male."

Well, every character is there for a reason. For the Rick and Lisa romance, for example, it's true that Lisa is there "just" to be a romantic interest for Rick--but it's equally true that Rick is there "just" to be a romantic interest for Lisa. I don't see either statement as being relevant. (In fact, neither is there "just" for their relationship with the other, they also flesh out the roles of some of the minor characters in the base, serving functions on the base and presenting minor interactions with the main character.)

The main characters has two potential love interests, but love triangles and the difficult choices those create are a common literary theme, both in high literature and pulp fiction. Any dating game takes this to extremes--are those sexist?

There are only a couple of characters that *aren't* involved in any romance. None of them happen to be women, but that's just because I happened to choose male for the gender of those characters. There was no social statement intended by that decision. It's a military setting, and most military settings today are dominated by men. If anything, I personally am impressed by Minna for being intelligent, successful, and unintimidated by her gruff coworkers and commanding officer.

So, those are my thoughts, but maybe I missed something.

Here's the question I put to you, is this work degrading to women? Does it represent women in a degrading or insensitive light, or relegate them to an inferior position with relation to men, in any way? 

Though a feminist, it is not my goal to wave the feminist flag high and proud with every single piece I write--any more than it's my goal to wave the atheist or gay rights flag high and proud with every single piece I write, even though those are also beliefs I happen to hold. I don't think shoving your morals down the reader's throat does anybody any good. If you want to share your opinions, do it subtly; just raise the question and let the reader decide for him- or herself.

That said, I also don't want to accidentally wave a sexist flag! 

When I tried to express these thoughts to this reader (someone I do know in person), I was advised to seek a "more enlightened male" who could explain it to me. So, here I am, asking for help. What do you all think?

(Though responses from male readers are highly valued, given the subject matter, I would be especially interested to hear responses from any female readers out there!)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Legacy of the Zendari by Ashton Saylor (myself)

Ah, my own Legacy of the Zendari. I was so proud of it when I had completed it, and it did serve me well. But I think it also has some weaknesses that I didn't completely realize when I had just finished it.

It may seem strange to review my own gamebook, but I think there is some merit. Objectivity? Throw that out the window--not happening. But as the author, I can also offer a unique insight into the thinking behind it, as well as share with you the conclusions I've drawn regarding the story in the time since I completed it, watching it go through the competition, win a Merit Award, and get ripped apart in feedback by several of the other talented authors in our little community.

The thing that stands out most starkly to me about this is that it has a bit of a "young adult" vibe, especially compared to some of my other works. This was actually to a certain extent intentional--my friend's 12 year old son read a bunch of my gamebooks, and The Grimlock's Cave was among his favorites. I took this as being a sign that that kind of clear, straightforward, and lighthearted adventure had a lot of merit, and so I attempted to go back to that style to a certain extent with Legacy of the Zendari. Without consider the fact that he was, in fact, a 12 year old boy, and so it is to some extent unsurprising that he would love the most "young adult" of my works.

What this means for me, now, is that I feel to a certain extent unsatisfied. I find myself, now, looking at post-apocalyptic settings in fiction or movies and thinking, "ooh! I should do a gamebook in a post-apocalyptic setting!" and then realizing, "wait... I just did that!"

But it doesn't feel like it. What I love about the post-apocalyptic setting is the gritty gravitas that it can have. The dark, heavy despair of everything being gone. And LotZ does not really do more than hint at that. Sure, it's mentioned a few times that there was all this damage, but at the end of the day it reads more like a kid's adventure story than like an adult's post-apocalypse story.

Now, theoretically, this could be good, if my desired audience is in fact 12 year old boys. (I haven't gotten the chance to show this yet to my friend's son--I'm looking forward to finding out what he thinks.) But if I want a piece with a little more depth, this may not be it.

That's not to say it doesn't have it's kind of depth. I did go out of my way to show life surviving, to show the little pieces of the world still moving, when and how they can. To show love and fighting and living still continuing. But it was all a little bit 2 dimensional. Even the big moral dilemma at the end; I'm happy with it for what it is, but it's just a little bit 2 dimensional.

(This is making me wonder, now, about the possibility of including a small short along with the gamebook in the TMG publication of it, something to capture a more "adult" or, hopefully, 3-dimensional view of this leftover world.)

Some of the feedback I got from others was that it had several cliche elements. Like the Colonel. And of course the mecha and aliens themselves are wholly unoriginal. I blatantly mimicked some of the "giant robot" anime of the 80's, Robotech in particular.

I also got feedback that the prose seemed occasionally "weak or rushed." This may go hand in hand with the writing containing a few too many cliche's. I'm not sure, but if anybody has any specific feedback on section numbers that seemed weak, cliched or rushed, I would love to get particulars to get more insight on where I can improve.

There are also questions I have for the group: Was the time mechanic successful? My intent was to use that to ratchet up tension to build intensity toward the end. Was it rewarding, or just frustrating? Or did it simply not matter, as you finished well within the limit anyway?

Did you enjoy the moral dilamma--such as it was--at the end? Some people (SJ I'm looking at you) did not enjoy it at all, describing it as a mass of cliches and melodrama. Other people I think did like it. What made the difference, and how could it be improved?

I was disappointed to find that no one found the "perfect" ending that allows you to end with all 12 medals of achievement. At least one reviewer declared it was impossible. I'm confused, because I would swear I did it myself without cheating! Of course, it's always easier for the creator of a game to do well at it because you know all the ins and outs... this is apparently a lesson for me to, if I want to include challenges like that, perhaps make them a little bit easier?

I also got mixed reviews on the combat system. Some people liked that it was very simple, others found it simplistic to the point of being ludicrous. At least one person said he really liked being able to choose which part of your mecha takes the damage. This made him vividly imagine moving the mecha to use some body part to protect other body parts. More than one person did not like (at least one of them vehemently) the snowballing effect of taking damage to your combat stats. If you're winning, it's easier to continue winning. If you're losing, it's easier to keep losing. I can definitely see the disadvantages of that.

A good combat system in a gamebook is still something I'm searching for. It seems that being able to choose where you take damage was rewarding, but becoming less combat-effective as you lose battles was not loved at all. Choices in combat are ultimately what makes it interesting. The question is, how to give players those choices? We had a lot of experimentation with that in a lot of the Windhammer entries this year: Swordplayer, Trial of the Battle God, and Ravages of Fate all come to mind immediately. Some of that experimentation is more successful than others, but it's all worthwhile. This year's competition has definitely given me a lot of food for thought in designing my next gamebook combat system.

The other facet of Legacy of the Zendari that got very mixed reviews was the Random Encounters along the way. Most people hated them; a few people loved them. I'll *probably* skip it next time? Consensus seemed to be that it wasted valuable time that could have been spent on furthering the story line. I would be very interested in hearing more thoughts on this topic. If you haven't told me already, please feel free to comment to share what you think of the random encounters?

Of course, it's also never going to be possible to please everyone. Better to pick a style and try to do that style as well as you can. People who don't like that style won't like it, but if the people who do like that style love it, then you've done your job well.

I'm still trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Legacy of the Zendari feel a little bit... immature. Any individual piece I look at, I like, but something about the whole is bugging me. Earlier I described it as being "young adult" in nature, but even young adult books can deal with very heavy themes and issues successfully. Here, something just seems missing, and I can't put my finger on what exactly.

Regardless, I must have done a pretty good job, because it was voted up there with Zachary Carengo's vividly descriptive Final Payment, and Marty Runyon's excellent Academy of Magic, both of which I loved. I attribute this to Legacy of the Zendari being, despite flaws, a very polished piece of work, with a clear, evocative setting, passable characters and dialogue, a clear goal and hook to rope the player in, and tension that builds over the course of the story. It's not perfect, but it must be the best I've done yet to have won an award in this crowd.

Thank you guys!

For anyone who feels inspired to comment, here are some questions for you:

* What did you love most about Legacy of the Zendari?
* What would you like to see different in a revised version of it?
* Are there any mechanics you would cut, change or add?
* Did you find the random encounters rewarding?
* And last but not least, what would you like to see more of from me in future gamebooks and other written works?

Stay tuned to see Legacy of the Zendari (complete with Anthony's beautiful artwork) coming out through Tin Man Games along with the other Windhammer award winners for 2012!

And once again, despite my occasionally vitriolic responses, everyone here did a great job, and I'm proud to have competed against each and every one of you!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Emancipation by Jake Care

Emancipation was a very interesting entry with a lot of experimental elements, which I strongly approve of.

Like the other "false reality" entries this year, I felt like it suffered from not completely making sense until you get to the big reveal at the end. To be fair, I think Emancipation might have been better about this than the others, in that at least you do have a complete vision of the world and your character, it just turns out to be incorrect. In Day of Dissonance, you have some idea of your character, and some idea of the setting, but it still feels very jarring and unexpected to be suddenly escaping from a burning hospital and making wierd decisions that don't seem character relevant (put on a ninja costume? what?) and then there's these bloody footprints, and suddenly you're in a B horror movie. Your head spins. In A Knight's Trial, there is actually no sense at all of who your character is, what the world is like, or what your character motivations are. If someone read this who didn't know the Camelot myths, they would have no idea what was going on at all.

Contrasted with those, Emancipation gives you a very clear setting: You're in hell. And a very clear character goal: Get Out. Both of those are important elements which the other False Reality books failed to deliver. On the other hand, while it at least gives you those elements, I for one did not find that premise especially compelling. Like the other false reality stories, I didn't really enjoy it much until I found the twist at the end.

I also think that Emancipation in particular suffers from being so short. I know Jake Care has a particular fondness for short gamebooks--on his blog, he frequently posts experimental "one page" gamebooks--but in this format, where all the other entrants are taking full advantage of the space allotted, it's a self-limitation to make Emancipation so short, and the story suffers for it. It just doesn't have time to really take off.

One thing I did appreciate about Emancipation was the clever use of the items. This is actually the first time I've seen an item mechanic like this (although there were several others using it in this year's Windhammer lineup) and it impressed the hell out of me. For those who haven't read it yet, the mechanic is basically: use any item at any time by adding the number of the item to your current section number. Flip there to see if it does anything.

What I like about this is that it gives the world a sense of real interactivity. You are free to think and explore and experiment. You have to ask yourself, "can any of these items be used right here right now," and use your own innovation rather than completely relying on the author to spoon-feed you choices. On the flip side, the potential disadvantage is that it could open the doors to spoilers, say if you flip to a page that's not a correct use of the item and happen to see a secret revealed there.

At the end of the day, Emancipation is a clever thought experiment, and has some clever mechanics and a clever twist, but it's just not that much fun. This is true of all of the False Reality stories this year, which really raises a strong question for me: can a "false reality" tale be engaging before the big reveal? If so, what would it take?

I would really like to see this happen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Evil Eye by S. J. Bell

I have to say something about the Evil Eye, by S. J. Bell. When I was reading through the introductions to all of them to get a feel for what the field looked like, I got toward the end of the intro for Evil Eye, looked up, and realized that my heart was pumping, my breath was shallow, I was clenching my muscles ready to go find and kill those bastard who took your wife.


I've almost never read a gamebook that made me feel that much that quickly, that roped me in so completely. I was getting pretty jaded by the time I got to this point in the list, but this story made me forget that I was reading a gamebook--I was in the world.

That said, there were one or two oddities... In the introduction itself, there was one moment where the son is like, "We have to go to the king and tell him to arrest Barrington!" and the main character is like, "No! Think it through. Look son, we have to go to the king and tell him to arrest Barrington."

My head did a spin right then. I think the distinction Bell is trying to create is doing it privately vs. doing it publicly, but that was not at all clear the first time through.

The only other place I think some improvement could be made would be showing the connection between Annalisa and Caldus a little more subtly. Don't get me wrong--Caldus' passion to find his wife IS what roped me into loving this entry. But by the time he reaches her, it's kind of happy sappy fun times. I just have to think that after several decades of marriage... well, their reunion would be more complicated than that. Their happiness is just so "in your face." Sometimes, especially with the most powerful emotions, it's more evocative to hint at them rather than portray it so explicitly. With the kind of feelings they would each have upon finding each other again... words are inadequate. It can't be captured by giving each other a big hug and saying "I love you." Their happiness is very clear, but it might have been shared with the reader more effectively if it were understated somewhat--hinted at rather than put on display.

That said, this is an extremely high-level criticism for an extremely high-level work. This piece is nothing like Dating a Witch, where the dialogue was cringeworthy. In Evil Eye, the dialogue is consistently excellent, the story takes my breath away, the characters are compelling and interesting.

And something else, which I was particularly impressed by, regarding Evil Eye as a gamebook specifically, all of the items were exceptionally well done. You have the assassin's dagger, the Thunderstone, Annalisa's Bracelet and the Serpent Insignia. Each of these items not only is useful for plot purposes, but has color, history, tells you something about the world or about the character it belongs to. Each is significant. The items are like characters in their own right, part of the colorful and intricate tapestry of the world. Beautifully done.

When I had to set this aside to read more introductions, it lingered with me. I was genuinely worried that I might come back to it, go out and pound the streets, and not be able to find my wife. I mean genuinely worried.

Very well done, sir. This earned one of my two votes, along with a permanent place in my personal Gamebook Hall of Fame.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Golem Gauntlet by Simon Christopher Chapman

This was an interesting and fun gamebook. Like many others, I didn't make it all the way through due to the preponderance of blind choices. Well, I should say I didn't make it to the ultimate ending; I did die more than once.

I really like the premise, of being trapped in a golem's body and having to find your way back to your own, through series of other Golem's bodies. Very imaginative and very cool. I thought the writing was generally pretty solid, although the villain was a little bit overly maniacally evil. I prefer a stronger villain with more character motivation beyond just "I'm eeeevil, pass me that bowl of kittens so I can EAT them. Bwahahahaha!" A good villain is one that, though you may not agree with their decisions, you can at least understand and empathize with them.

The only problem with the approach of this gamebook is, well, two things: Time and again you're asked to choose whether to go right or left, up or down, which item to examine... all of these are blind choices, and they drive me nuts. Beyond that, the path seems to be extremely linear: there's one true way, and any other route will swiftly get you killed.

This comes across as frustrating because it feels a bit arbitrary. Like, because I went the wrong direction I got killed by a fomorian giant. Or archers with flaming arrows kill me on 5 chances out of six. What fun is that? I re-iterate Dave Morris' statement, "If the reader ever reaches a death paragraph, that's a failure not just for the reader, but for the author."

On the linear point, I want to mention that I was also disappointed to find that I didn't have any control over when I shifted bodies. One of the things I got kind of excited about, upon finding another golem form, was the prospect of getting to pick whether to switch or stay in the first one. That could be a great tactical element too--have to take the wood form to do this part of the adventure, but then switch back to clay for the fight against the fire monster--or something along those lines. I feel like the gamebook really failed to capitalize on it's own strengths.

All that said, it was still a fun and imaginative adventure. Too hard for my tastes, with altogether too many "Which door" choices, but... well, if this had been a smaller competition, this probably would have stood out as a very fine entry. It's good--it's just that some of the others it's up against are great.