Archive for the ‘ Gamebooks ’ Category

Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be (Book Review)

To Be Or Not To Be cover

Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be

To Be Or Not To Be is one of the strangest projects I’ve seen lately: A choose-your-own-adventure version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s an interesting but also ridiculous idea, and the author plays up this idea with plenty of absurd humor.

Just a year ago, I gave the original Hamlet a weak recommendation, saying that the language and title character were fascinating, but the plot and other characters were poor. This puts me in an interesting position with To Be Or Not To Be, since it’s entirely re-written with new prose. Author Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics fame is a very intelligent man, but he’s known more for writing dialog like “I am tripping all the balls” than philosophical soliloquies. Admittedly, North is good at that style. He’s arguably even the Shakespeare of faux-dumb AWESOMESPEAK, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his style is a natural replacement for Shakespeare.

While this new book loses a lot of the original’s language, it adds a lot of humor. Weird situations, modern humor, literary humor, and random factoids all show up throughout the book. There’s even a choose-your-own-adventure Chess game stuck in the middle. (Not to mention that the play-within-a-play of the original has been replaced by a gamebook-within-a-gamebook. And it fleshes out some parts of the story, like why Polonius would want to hide behind a curtain.) I bought this expecting a lot of laughter and not much literary value, even given my interest in gamebooks as an untapped art source, so I can’t say that that surprised me.

I was surprised, though, by the interesting points that North makes throughout its retelling of the original story. This offers a lot of choice, even letting you play as other characters or setting off to become a pirate, but it also marks the “canonical” choices with cute little skull icons in case you want to play through the Shakespeare version of the story. Usually I feel like the only person willing to point out that Hamlet is filled with flat characters and stupid decisions, so it’s a relief to see North poke fun at the same things. The book actually makes fun of you for doing ridiculous things, and gives you plenty of chances to kill the King easily instead of moping around for weeks and acting crazy. It even berates you for sticking to the original’s misogynistic treatment of Ophelia. Though this version’s depiction of Ophelia (an ass-kicking, liberated woman scientist) is not supported by the real text at all, its point is well-made. In fact, although I wasn’t expecting much from this as a story, I found the canonical walk-through to be very satisfying. It guides the reader along a predictable path, but also gives them enough agency that they feel responsible for their decisions. It examines the story by making the reader an active part of the experience, and that calls attention to things we’d otherwise ignore.

However, there are many other plot branches through the book. I have to say that most of them undermine the point that the main path makes about the ridiculousness of Shakespeare’s writing. This book can let you play Hamlet’s dead father and give up vengeance for marine biology, or lead an army of ghosts against an alien invasion in the future. With options like that, it’s difficult to complain about the holes in Shakespeare’s version.

I should also mention the Kickstarter campaign that funded this book. For the most part, I try to rate this separate from a campaign that you can no longer choose to join, but it’s pretty difficult to separate my appreciation for this from the Kickstarter in general. This was the campaign that made me realize how valuable it can be just to join a community with the creator being backed, and I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth out of the project updates even before the book arrived. I also ended up with a multipronged bookmark designed to hold different places in a branching story and a small “prequel” adventure called Poor Yorick. (The bookmark is cool but impractical to use, and the book has as simple a structure as it’s possible to find in a choose-your-own-adventure, but it certainly is funny.) But some of the bonuses from the Kickstarter did make it into this book. It is huge, with over 700 pages, and color illustrations at each ending provided by a Who’s-Who of webcomic artists. Yes, the two-page spread at each ending (one picture plus a “THE END” page) does eat up many of those 700 pages, but it’s still a lot of story. Usually, I feel compelled to read through every path of a book like this. In this case, I got my fill long before I’d finished it all, and I look forward to coming back from time to time so I can page through to new surprises.

So is To Be Or Not To Be worth it? Well, first of all, it provides a great reason to read Hamlet in this modern age. You’ll understand a lot more of the jokes that way, and gain an appreciation for why people say you should read the classics in order to get modern references. Beyond that, though, I also recommend this book. Yes, it’s a flawed treatment of a flawed story, and so it only gets halfway to the brilliant deconstruction it teases us with. But it’s a humor book in the “court jester” style, able to speak truths that the intelligentsia often ignore because they’re couched in dumb jokes, and it also provides as much funny Shakespeare gamebook content as you’ll ever want. This is a good deal.

Grade: B


Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (iPhone Gamebook Review)

Sorcery 1Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is an attempt by Inkle Studios to update classic RPG gamebooks to the iPhone. It’s actually a new version of an old Fighting Fantasy volume. Never having played that, I can’t comment on how much this edition changes, but it obviously does adapt quite a bit. Many choices that you have are dependent on other events, and where the book would have to say “if this has happened, you may turn to this page”, the app simply doesn’t show you the choices.

The design does a lot of things right: Your story is shown on a virtual parchment, and after you make a choice, that list of options disappears. That means that the results show up as another paragraph right after the earlier one, creating an appearance of one cohesive story rather than a scattered collection of pages. The writing from one paragraph to the next flows smoothly, with good reasons given for why you made your choice and some variations in the text based on things that happened earlier. The app seems to support many small choices that would feel awkward in book form, but are fun when you’re simply tapping buttons. (And even things like “do you take the right or left path?”, which normally annoy me in these games, are tolerable when making and undoing decisions is so easy.) After every small scene, your next choice is shown as a series of locations on a map. This gives you a visualization of your hero’s cross-country journey, and also provides an easy way for you to tap the old locations to rewind the story. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in reading your whole “story”, you can’t see the previous locations’ text again without rewinding and playing through that point. I didn’t really mind this, because while the text is well-written enough to enjoy in the moment, it wouldn’t really be worth re-reading without the fun of having choices.

The combat system is also very clever. Virtual dice are not as interesting as physical ones, so instead there is a mini-game in which you and your opponent simultaneously choose how much energy to put into each attack. The higher attack always damages the other, but if you “defend” with a very low attack value, you’ll be able to deflect much of the damage while recovering your own strength. Battle has been turned from a passive luck-based experience into one in which you make a lot of important decisions. Even if you don’t have too much information about what your opponent may do, this is still a big improvement.

Sorcery 2The app does a great job of updating an old game system that had been heavily dependent on a specific technology. I was a little more frustrated with the plot they chose, though. You play a promising young hero sent off on a mission of great import to your people, but it’s possible to play through the whole thing without getting a clear description of what that mission is or what this world is like. Yes, an opening dream sequence mentions a magical crown, but it wasn’t clear to me until halfway through my first game that that was my real goal. And even then, I had no good understanding of why it was urgent to find this item that was lost to the ages, what kind of culture my people had (aside from a few undeveloped hints), or even why I was chosen to seek the crown alone. I spent the first half of my first game feeling absolutely no connection to the events in front of me, even less than I’d expect from a physical gamebook. Though the whole thing plays through in a matter of hours, it still took me a few weeks to find the motivation to get through it.

I tried a second time, though, and that went much better. The knowledge of my first game gave the second more of a purpose, and I enjoyed seeing a lot of the different results available. Though you keep returning to the same general path, there are a lot of major branches, and also very different choices within them. This isn’t just a matter of playing through two or three times to see every result, because a lot of encounters will go differently if you found items or information from earlier in the journey. I’m sure this would feel repetitive after another couple games, but I’d probably still be making some major discoveries beyond that point.

A couple other notes: The game has a magic system with many spells, but only a few available at a given time depending on “the stars’ alignment”. Most of the spells require ingredients that you’ll only have if you made lucky discoveries earlier, and because you actually “line up” the star symbols when casting a spell, it’s not always obvious which choices you’d have anyway. In my first game, I thought this was annoying and unnecessary, especially since you are only given the chance to cast spells at specific times. But on my re-play, I found a few interesting things to do that were not immediately obvious, and I see that this system provides a lot of hidden options for people who want to search for secrets. The system of “gods” fared less well, though: As you make choices, your spirit animal changes to reflect the personality you’re displaying. Each one has a flowery, full-page description of its attributes, and this was one of the things that first drew me into the game. After all, traditional gamebooks can’t keep statistics that you are unaware of. But before long, it became obvious that the various gods all offer the same limited options. If they ever gave me new opportunities or changed the results of my actions, I didn’t notice.

The bottom line is that Sorcery! is a huge leap forward for a game system that I thought was bound to old technology. I have more mixed feelings about the story they chose, though. It eventually won me over and proved that it had more subtleties than expected from a 1980’s gamebook, but I can’t overlook the fact that it did not seem interesting for the first couple hours. Knowing what I do now, though, I can recommend it both for its design concepts and as a story worth the time to explore.

Grade: B