Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review of "The Thing that Crawls," by Matthew R. Webber

Today I'll be reviewing (to the extent of my abilities) Matthew R. Webber's "The Thing that Crawls."

I hate to say it, but this was one of the few entries that I did not give a complete play-through to, for the simple reason that I quite literally could not. After wading through an intriguing, but long, cumbersome, and frequently confusing set of rules and character creation options, I dove into the text itself for a practice swim before tackling character creation in earnest.

Once I got in, I realized that the game is so riddled with typos that it is quite literally impossible to play. After my very first choice, at a T-intersection in some dungeon, (I pretended my Luck was 3), I was directed to a scene where I was suddenly and quite mysteriously drinking some strange milk and experiencing euphoria from it. And to boot, the paragraph had typos (or possibly simple grammatical errors) so extreme that some of the sentences were nigh-incomprehensible.

I made an earnest effort to recover. I did. Anyone can have a mislabeled link. It happens to the best of us. So I went back, pretended my luck was 2 instead of 3 in order to take a different path, skimmed over a fight with a feisty ficus, and then tried going East. There, at my next Luck option (less than 4 now) I found myself inexplicably going to a scene in which I found myself pushing over a statue. What statue? Where from? Huh?

Since I had poked around a bit from the milk, previously, I was able to recognize this as the same statue said euphoric milk was leaking from. I had been given an option, in section 100, to push over that statue--which, to my consternation, was lacking a link number :/ It just says, "Push on the statue? Go to" and then nothing.

While I was amused that I wound up, by an altogether unforeseen and circuitous route consisting of entirely unrelated errors in linkage, back at the statue pushing scene I'd tried to get to originally, that cemented my conviction that the gamebook is, in fact, unplayable as written. Sorry M. R. Webber.

Total Score: 8/25

The rules are intriguing--I could see being really interested in them if this were a longer game. But Windhammer is about "short gamebooks." The scope of this competition is such that rules need to be tight, compact, and streamlined, which this ruleset is anything but.

Also, he opens with the rules, which in my opinion, is always a bad idea. For the sake of the new-to-gamebooks friendly who we all hope will be reading these, I strongly encourage all gamebook authors to open with some story, some narrative or history, or something to draw the reader in. And if the rules are longer than a page, try and tuck them in an appendix or something. While there are those of us who enjoy character creation, as a rule of thumb you generally want to put as few barriers between the reader and the story as possible.

The actual opening of the narrative was probably the best part, and... that's not saying much. I admit to some curiousity about the mysterious cave, and I found myself amused by the hapless dwarven miners, but I'm afraid we'll never get to know how much potential this gamebook actually had.

I want to make it clear that this low score is not a reflection of what could have been, but of what is. As I said above, this system might be fun in a longer format--if it were clearly explained and attached to a functional gamebook.

As it is, it's too long and complex, punctured by the occasional grammatical inconsistency that throws uncertainty on the intended meaning, and I couldn't apply it even if I wanted to.

But the real reason this gets such a low score is because of all the link errors making the game literally unplayable. That's what in the driving test world they call a "Critical Error." (I failed my first attempt at the driving test due to one of those--totally unfairly, I might add!)

I have to admit that I see a certain potential in the writing; I found the introduction intriguing, and there's some real creativity that's gone into the system, even if it didn't quite completely manifest into a usable form. But the writing is mostly damaged by errors and inconsistencies. Even when it's not critical, technical errors, like missing links, the writing just often has a certain impreciseness that is highly detrimental.

For example, in section 98, with the erroneous (and euphoric!) milk, the text reads, "As you scoop handful after handful (of the milk) to your mouth, a feeling of euphoria overwhelms you. All wounds are healed, your virginity is restored and all diseases are cured. If not, the healing powers of the milk are so powerful that all Damage points are restored, you even gain an extra one!"

This showcases the best and worst of Webber's writing. The line about virginity being restored is hilarious. If absent of errors and consistently peppered with that kind of humor, this book could be amazing. But... what is that "if not" doing in the second sentence? In fact, what is that second sentence even trying to say?

Sadly, the writing is full of little errors like that. And the fact that they're severe enough to impact meaning is pretty bad. This is why God invented editors.

I'm giving this a one only because, with all the errors, I couldn't get to the story. If the gamebook did not give me a story, it gets a one. Maybe it could have been better! Maybe the story was actually brilliant! We'll never know. One.

Secret Sauce
I'm actually going to give this a very slight nod here. I think, absent errors, it would have potential. That brings it up to a two. But the fact that the gamebook is literally unplayable necessitates that overall, I give it one of the lowest scores I've ever given out.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of "The Independence Job," by Marty Runyon

Alright guys, time for my next review. Sorry for the delays; I've got them all outlined, but I still need to type them up as I go along--a task which sometimes gets interrupted by life. But they'll trickle out.

Anyway, this review is of "The Independence Job" by Marty Runyon.

When I picked up "The Independence Job," I was initially quite pleased, mostly because some crime hijinx sounded like a great change of pace. I ended up enjoying it, but not as much as I expected to. I really like a lot of the mechanics that were used, especially a way of tracking relationships with points. But the fact that these points were obfuscated by calling them "red points" instead of "Dorothy approval points" or something, did nothing to help me emotionally connect with the characters. In fact, the characters felt like cardboard cutouts. I liked that their emotions toward you were modeled, but at no point did their emotions feel real, not even in the models.

As for the crime itself, it was notable mostly in that it did a pretty good job of making the "game" side of it solid. The story side, once again, came in a bit lackluster. But I talk about all that below.

All in all, I felt that The Independence job skillfully avoids either the extremes of excellence or putritude, coming in solidly middle of the line.

Total Score: 15/25

The opening to "The Independence Job" definitely piqued my interest. I like the dirty crime genre, the rules are short and sweet, the "Introduction" section is short enough to not be overly labored, yet substantial enough to give you a clear idea what to expect. I only wish the story had lived up to the promise.

I was also pleased by his, "A Word About Sex," making it clear that you are free to envision the main character as either male or female. Although, I think using the word, "gender" there may have been more appropriate, since gender refers to identity and sex refers strictly and only to biology. Strictly speaking, what he's written could be correct, but I think, "A Word About Gender," may have been more true to his meaning.

I actually think the flow here is one of the strongest parts, though not perfect. Generally, your decisions are meaningful. I like the wager system, although I felt it was only slightly flawed in that having more Fortune points doesn't actually help you in game--since wagering more /decreases/ your chance of winning. But it gets you a better result at the end, so that's fine. And he did a good job of making sure all the skills could be used.

The most interesting part was also it's weak point, which is the whole "Red, Blue, Green" points part. If you haven't played it yet--well, if you haven't played it yet and you want to, stop reading and go do it because spoilers lie ahead. Otherwise, as a reminder for the rest of us: as you go through the game, you can earn red, green or blue points. Turns out these represent how much the different characters hate you. I was amused to discover that no, there is not any way of making them like you again. That is a one way street!

This is cool because the various decisions you make and how you relate to the other characters affects how the story ends. But once you grasp what's going on, it's a pretty simple model that doesn't really support much replayability. And more importantly, I don't really feel that it's supported by the story. But it's a cool twist for your first play-through.

When I read the first line of Chapter One, "The windows are wide open, trying to catch an evening breeze off the Hudson," I thought, damn, son, that's some good writing. I'm looking forward to reading this piece!

Then I made the mistake of reading the second line, "Your apartment is an oven, and you are the turkey."


That doesn't even earn the trophy for wierdest line of the season (that dubious distinction might go to next week's review, "Gunlaw") but it's certainly in the running. And sadly, the juxtaposition of those two lines is exemplary of this piece. There's really sharp, crisp, fantastic writing abruptly adjacent to cliche drivel, and it's hard to tell what to expect from one paragraph to the next.

I was also dismayed to find a couple of typos. Not that big a deal, but another round of editing may have been desirable. And if that editor were looking not just for typos, but for cliches, that would have been even better.

The story is the weakest part of "The Independence Job." While I like the crime genre, this incarnation of it doesn't do anything to take it above and beyond the cliche. I love that relationships with the other characters are built into the game mechanics, but it falls a little flat because the characters are all so bland. It doesn't really feel like you're offending another person. You just occasionally get told to take a point. The relationship is modeled, but you don't really feel it, as the reader.

That blandness extends beyond the characters to the rest of the world as well. The heist tastes like flat beer, without the vivid details that would make it come to life, without the tension that would put the reader on the edge of the seat. It just feels like the whole thing is drawn in two dimensional greyscale.

I've been reading McKee lately, and he says that cliche comes about when an author does not fully realize their own world. When an author does not create, explore and enliven their own vision enough, then when they come upon some part of the world they haven't created anew for themselves, they'll reach into their memory and grab it from somewhere else. I think "Independence Job" may be suffering from that fate.

That said, I'm not giving it a one, mostly because it does do some clever things with the ending, and I like how well the story and game mechanics are twined together, supporting one another.

Secret Sauce
For me, this comes in middle of the road. It stands out as exceptional in some areas, with a solid narrative framework, reasonably good choice structure and great mechanics--especially the whole relationship points thing. But in other ways it really falls flat, with some hit or miss writing and a flat, lackluster story that fails to get the reader's emotional investment.  I like it, but it wouldn't be at the top of my list for this season.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review of "The Experiment" by Kieran Coghlan

I've been following Kieran's work with interest for years now, and it's interesting seeing how it's changed over that time. I remember in... 2009 or something, speculating with my girlfriend at the time that he must be a psychology student, given the nature of his fantastic entry, "Waiting for the Light." Now, four years later, I'm reading the vivid descriptions of the carpeted corridors and potted plants of a psychologists office, and can't help but wonder if this is a reflection of the changes in his own life. Has he moved out of the lecture hall into the office? Are these carpeted corridors and potted plants borrowed from his own life?

Speculation aside, "The Experiment" is a brief, but intriguing little piece. I suspect (and he even acknowledges) that he didn't have a lot of time to do a full entry this year. Indeed, "The Experiment" is almost, well, literally an experiment, rather than an actual, full gamebook, with only 24 sections, at an average of less than 100 words each. It's short. Really short. But it's doing something with what it is, and if it is an experiment, I'd say it's successful.

Total Score: 11/25


The opening is nice and brief, but that's about the best thing that can be said for it. It doesn't, all said, give you much reason for investing. It doesn't hook you, you might say. Instead, it relies on the natural curiousity of the reader to propel said reader forward.

On the plus side, it doesn't promise much to let you down on, later!


The choices are weak, and don't really bring about many consequences, other than mildly affecting the dialogue you end up getting. And there's no "game" mechanics at all. While I don't consider mechanics necessary (or rather, I consider player choice to BE the primary game mechanic) he just doesn't do a whole lot with the choices. Still, it's not one, because what little choice is there is actually the meat of the gamebook :)


Coghlan is a talented writer, and the places where he stretches his legs are worth it. The few places. All in all, this suffers from obviously not having had a lot of time invested in it. Many of the paragraph sections are barely a line or two long. There's just not much to sink your teeth in to.


I'm giving this as much as a 3 because it has the little twist at the end, which does raise some interesting questions. The whole thing seems to be a delivery method for the one essential question... much the way that fries are a delivery method for salt.

There's no story to speak of otherwise, but the twist and the essential question at the end (which I won't spoil here) are enough to bring it up to at least a 3.

Secret Sauce

Nope. Nope nope nope. Sorry. Look, it's a neat gimmick, but that's all that this is. I can't give it a high score in earnest when it's competing against other entries that bring so much more to the table.

And to be fair, this is nothing against Coghlan. I know he can do better--he even demonstrates his ability in flickers in "The Experiment"--but he just didn't have time to do a proper entry, and that's fine.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Review of "Merchants of Spice Islands" by Chan Sing Goh

Merchants of the Spice Islands is an interesting gamebook, one which I would describe as a near miss. It starts out strong, with a very compelling premise and effective, thorough rules--if slightly on the long side for such a short gamebook--but once you get into the meat of the story, it quickly becomes lackluster.

I think Spice Islands fails in exactly the same place where Tipping Point succeeded: the structure. Whereas Tipping Point made use of a beautifully effective blend between sandbox and story-driven modes, Spice Islands had the perfect opportunity to do bring in a touch of sandbox style, but failed to do so. Instead, you are railroaded from one port to another (or from one set of options to another) without a whole lot of a feeling of agency. Furthermore, while Tipping Point was masterful at creating choices that have consequence, Spice Islands did not reach that same level of excellent choice-crafting. Sure, things do have consequences from time to time. Take the rotten trader, for example: if you buy his cheap goods, you find out later they're bad and that has consequences. But it's not as effective as the consequences that come out of Moonowl's "rob the treasury" choice, because there's no real choice for the player. We're here to trade; why should we suspect this trader is any more likely to cheat us than any other? Like many of the encounters in Spice Islands, it feels a little random and arbitrary.

I would like to see a re-write of Merchants of the Spice Islands. The premise is so rich, and it comes so close to being excellent, I can't help but hope that we'll see the author do another draft with improved structure. When I first picked it up and read the introduction, my very first note was "This is the kind of gamebook that reminds me why I like gamebooks." I just wish it had lived up to its promise.

Opening: 4

The opening was very strong, probably the best part of the book. It really effectively tells you what you're getting into, and despite not having a whole lot of flavor text, for me at least it really whetted my appetite for digging into this historical scenario. The scenario itself is just compelling. My only complaint is that all the pre-game material (descriptions, choices, rules, etc.) is a little long. It comes across as a bit top-heavy for such a short gamebook.

Flow: 2

Though I think this is essentially where the book failed, I'm giving it at least a two because there were some strong points. I found the system effective and engaging, with the party-based combat, and the ship to ship combat. That said, even on the pure system side, I did think the balance was often a little off. Some of the encounters were too hard to survive, such as running from the French Frigate--I got killed even with no cargo--and some of the fights with the natives.

As for the structure of the interactivity, as described above, it was too weak for this gamebook to really excel, despite it's potential. The player needs to be given more choices, and given more information on which to base those choices. I never felt that I got a "big picture" perspective. Instead, I was just kind of thrust in without any real sense of what was coming up in the future or what the overall arc of my adventure would look like. I would like to see a map, for one thing. I think just the simple addition of a map would work wonders. And if it were accompanied by a slightly more open choice structure, that would be a lot stronger. Last but of course not least, more developing of consequences for your choices.

One more note: I think randomness was a bit overused. It can be good for replayability, but there were several times where it was really apparent which of two randomly determined options would be the "best." That just begs the reader to cheat (as I ended up doing, several times, just to get through the game. Why not, when the alternative is to just stop reading the whole thing then and there?) If you're trying to improve replayability, then randomness is good, but if the player's in control of the dice, don't make it a random selection between one good or one bad option. In fact, you probably usually shouldn't randomly send the player to either something good or something bad. I think it's stronger to use randomness (or choice!) to direct the player between two different routes, each of which has advantages and disadvantages.

Writing: 3

The writing was competent, and probably would have been a four, except that it needed an editor. There were almost no capitalization, punctuation or spelling errors, but way too many sentence structure errors. For example, there were at least two times where the word "are" was dropped, and I think once where "is" was dropped. That makes for some very strange sentences.

It's wierd though, that in other ways it was grammatically impeccable. Everything was perfect, except that the sentences just didn't always sentence properly. I think it's just the oversights that any author could make; this is why we need editors!

Story: 3

I loved the premise, and I think a lot of the ideas that went into the story were great. Taken individually, a lot of the encounters were interesting and suitable for both the gamebook format and the historical scenario as we were given it. It's just how all the encounters were strung together that I take issue with.

The only other problem, and if it weren't for this, I would have given story a little stronger of a rating, there just wasn't much of an actual throughline for the piece. There's no real ambition for our hero, except to make as much money as he can. In fact, there's not much "character" to any of the characters. It's just pretty straightforward. If it were me, I would try to find something to work in to make it personal--a lost companion, a rival, a missing treasure--and use that to provide a throughline that can hook the reader and keep them engaged as they meander their way through the various mini-quests and encounters, making money.

Secret Sauce: 2

I have to give it a little on the low side here, just because, as mentioned above, it got a little bland once I got deeper into the story. I loved the premise and had high hopes for the whole story, but it just got grey as it got rolling. Shrug. Again, some of the individual encounters were exciting, and the premise was beautiful. But that connective tissue that brings it all together isn't developed enough to carry it.

(P.S. I'm officially changing my schedule to update on Wednesdays and Saturdays, since Saturday seems to be when I do the weekend post anyway. Just an FYI.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review of "Tipping Point" by Andy Moonowl

Today I'll be reviewing Tipping Point by Andy Moonowl. As discussed previously, this year I'm going to be going through my reviews in alphabetical order, by author's first name. And hopefully, the idea is that I'll be putting them up two a week, on Wednesday and Friday. (As a reminder, you can check my rubric here.)

As to Andy's story... wow! This was a great piece of work. You know what I think makes it? It's the aspect I'm calling "Flow." The story structure is impeccable. It's a neat idea, and the writing is pretty good, but neither of those are magnificent. What really makes it shine is the way the structure creates the feel of a real, breathing world. Or, phrased another way, your actions have consequences.

For example, early on you can choose to steal from the King's treasury. At first, I was a bit put off by this, because it's so easy. There's no risk; you just definitely succeed. Then I discovered that it has consequences later. A LOT of consequences. In Ham Duranen, the guards at the gate recognize your picture on the wanted poster. In the neighboring town, if you are visibly carrying the king's loot, the guards there try to grab you, and chase you out of town. In an especially cool twist, if you then run around among the peasants talking rebellion, well, due to your theft, there's a spy among them, and he attacks you. These are all brilliant uses of consequences, of making your choices meaningful.

It goes deeper than that too, from the direction you choose to go on the overmap, to which faction you side with (if either), to the decision at the very end, Tipping Point is rich with meaningful decisions.

Opening: 2

I have to say, the opening was my least favorite part. When I first pulled out this story, I almost didn't even give it a chance. In fact, the main reason this wasn't one of the stories I voted for was because I didn't realize how rich it actually is until I came back and played it again for purposes of writing the full review.

The main problem I ran into was that I couldn't immediately see the relevance of the strange vision. I mean, the vision is obviously supposed to evoke a modern world, but what on earth does that have to do with this extremely generic-seeming, cliche fantasy world that we then find ourselves in? Beyond which, the vision itself kind of rubbed me the wrong way, just because I don't agree--apartments are not cages. Cubicles at work are not cages. His descriptions make an almost political statement, and it's not one I agree with. Our world is full of wonders; just because we're used to them doesn't make them any less wondrous.

Of course, later it became apparent what the relevance was, and then I was quite pleased with how it all tied together. I wonder if there would have been a better way to forecast that, though, so the opening might not have seemed so awkward?

Flow: 5

As I said in the opening words, this is where the story really shone. I think the presence of a combat system was effective and additive. It wasn't unique in any way, but it worked--and even better, it had a mass combat system that worked! I love mass combat, so it was REALLY cool to see that here, and even better that it wasn't inherently broken (though I personally did find a way to break it lol)

But game systems aside, what really made this amazing is the structure of the story, with a very effective balance between sandbox-style exploration and choice-driven narrative. The crown in the jewel is the effectiveness of the choice structure; just that so many of the player's choices are meaningful and have real, often dramatically important consequences later on.

Writing: 3

The writing wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad. It has a bit of an amateurish quality to it, but there's also something charming about the innocence of the vision. Occasionally there was word repetition or awkward
sentences, but it wasn't too disruptive.

At the end of the day, the writing wasn't what carried the piece, but it didn't get in the way. It worked.

Story: 4

Although at first I was a little put off by the apparently generic fantasy world, by the time we got a little way in, I found myself kinda charmed by the old-school fantasy vibe. I mean, where else could you make a wrong turn and wind up in a random encounter with an iron elemental?

I remember a DnD game I played years ago, when we literally did have a random encounter with an elemental. I was so annoyed at the apparent lack of all rhyme or reason behind this elemental wandering around in the wilderness (the DM had just flipped through the Monstrous Manual to pick it out). In this story, it would have fit right in, though!

I liked that even the random encounters were actually tied to the main plot. And the whole concept of this being a "tipping point" in the fate of the world, going toward advancement or staying innocent, is really cool. All in all, quite solid.

Secret Sauce: 5

I'm going to go all out here and give this two thumbs up. It's not without its weaknesses, but at the end of the day, this is one of the most impressive entries of the year. Largely because it captures that all important element so effectively: meaningful choice.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Review of "Redundant," by Alessandro Voila

Whoops! Forgot to put this up yesterday >.<  Scheduling them in advance might not be a bad idea.

This will be the first of my reviews of the 2013 Windhammer entries. I wasn't able to get to it right away, but hopefully they're not too late to be useful. I'll be going through the stories in alphabetical order, by the author's first name, so we'll be starting with Redundant, by Alessandro Voila. You can reference the rubric I'm using here, if you're so inclined.

"Redundant" is a decent gamebook, but not exceptional. It's got some neat ideas, and I find the satire of the work-a-day office to be amusing (especially in the context of having had my own share of unpleasant jobs). It's a fairly typical dystopia, but that "Office Space" type of irony that comes across in the strict schedule of meetings and the portrayal of the management has a unique flair to it. It gives an eerily familiar portrayal of how it feels to be a peon in a large organization, entirely at the mercy of Those On High. Right down to the day they sack your sorry ass.

Of course, in this world, "sack" takes on a whole new meaning...

I wonder if the author of "Redundant" might not be a native English speaker, because the language struggles from time to time. It's not often overtly wrong, it just seems a little awkward in places, which could simply be a lack of familiarity

Opening: 3
Opening with the memory of a happy childhood on the beach is a nice touch, but it's a little clumsy in execution. I wasn't really sure what was going on, or why I should care, until far too late into the opening section. That said, once I did figure it out, I realized it's not a bad opening, it just needs to be reworked a bit. I think if the nuts and bolts were more clear, it would tighten the emotional punch of the scene.

Flow: 4
I like the game aspect of this story. The use of Rage and Frustration is innovative and evocative. I also like the time mechanic and what it makes you do and think about, as the player. It makes the world feel alive, that things are happening at certain times, and if you go to a room at the wrong time, it may just be empty. A lot of games, even big studio titles, don't bring that level of verisimilitude to their worlds.

Writing: 2
The writing is in some ways the weakest link in this story. It is fluent, and there are many points where it almost even verges on poetic, but... and maybe this is just me, but it just doesn't speak to me. Too often, the writer gets lost in convoluted sentences, or just expresses ideas in something of an odd way.

Story: 4
The story is a distopia, and though that's hardly a unique vision, he does bring a unique take to it. Unfortunately, with several attempts, I was never able to survive and make it to the end, so I'm not sure how it would end, but it's a neat vision nonetheless.

Secret Sauce: 3
I'm going to bring this in right in the middle of the road here. I think the story has a lot going for it, but it's also got some weaknesses, and at the end of the day it balances out. Not the best, but also not the worst.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

Hello loyal followers and friends. If you're still with me after all this time, it'd be a miracle. But hey, miracles have happened before! 2013 has been a slow year for the blog, and I'm hoping to get it back up to speed in 2014, starting with getting my Windhammer reviews up (at last!)

The good news in my life is that I'm in grad school. The bad news in my life is that I'm in grad school. Hyuk hyuk. No, it really is both good and bad. I'm glad for my life, but it is a huge drain on time and energy, alongside trying to keep up with my various projects (which will be coming out soon now, I swear!). I really expect to have at least two major projects come out this year. One will be my first formally published, real, full length interactive novel (!), more on that later, and the other will be Dwarf King, the android game I'm writing for, which is being developed by Micabyte Systems and is based on "Peledgathol, the Last Fortress," my Windhammer Merit Award winner from 2012. They are both going to be freaking awesome. You should be excited :)

In the new year, I'm also considering expanding the scope of this blog past just being about gamebooks, but I haven't made any firm decisions yet. I'm considering expanding it to topics of writing and game design as well, even outside of interactive fiction in particular. What do you all think? What would you like to see here in 2014?

For now, I'm pleased to say that I've got my Windhammer reviews ready for you at last! This is just a brief intro post, but you can expect to start seeing them coming up at a rate of two a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, starting day after tomorrow. Stay tuned!