Posts Tagged ‘ Choose Your Own Adventure ’

Interactive Fiction Competition: Machine of Death and Trapped in Time

There are only a couple days left in IFComp 2013. (You can always play the games, of course. That’s the deadline to participate in the voting.) I have a couple more reviews today, and fortunately they’re more positive than last time.

I don’t expect to have time to post again by Friday. Even if I do, I’ll probably write about something else. I want to write my last IFComp article after I can see the full results.

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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 (Not to mention that the play-within-a-play of the original has been replaced by a gamebook-within-a-gamebook.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


Party of One (RPG Gamebook Review)

Party of OneKobold Press has a series of single-player RPG adventures released as Party of One. They’re simple gamebooks based on the Pathfinder system (a D&D spin-off), with all the stats, battles, and die rolls that that implies. However, they explain all the needed rules in the text and keep them streamlined (with no initiative, critical hits, or similar items). Presumably they’re aimed to bring new people into the Pathfinder world, though I don’t know how many people out there are interested in a Choose Your Own Adventure dice-fest but don’t already know the basics of D&D.

I’m reviewing all three as a single item, since each costs $3 and can be completed (with some time peeking at other paths) in about a half hour. They’re sold as downloadable PDFs, and average only fifteen pages each. That page count includes a title page, a page of legal details, and two different character sheets – even though the game explains all the stats needed without referring to those character sheets, and even contradicts them sometimes. Obviously, that doesn’t leave much space for the game.

Each one casts you as a low-level (pre-made) adventurer, faced with a crisis that can basically be resolved in one scene. Your chances of surviving all the battles seem to be about 50-50, and the choices seem fair without arbitrary death or sudden plot twists. However, your decisions do matter: Two of the scenarios have multiple endings, depending on what you did while playing. (The choices it offers frequently depend on past events, so the paths can keep merging together and then branching back off when appropriate.) The real challenge, though not a difficult one, is to figure out how to get the different endings.

These are simple fun, and I never felt like I was being jerked around by unexpected consequences of my decisions. They really are like playing through a story, and are more successful than I expected. They’re still very slight, though. I wonder whether these worked because they were so short that they didn’t need to offer many branches or hard decisions. I’d definitely be interested in longer-form work by author Matthew J. Hanson, but as far as I can tell he’s written no other solo gamebooks. Though these are decent, each one is like an introductory chapter that ends quickly. I’d expect more from a $9 book, let alone a PDF-only product.

The one I’ll highlight is Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach, which features the best and worst of the series. It has the least linear storyline. Once your Dwarven hero discovers his city is threatened, the choices are based around a central hub with options that the player can do in any order. It does matter which ones are chosen first, and that lets the story proceed in a natural way. Of course, I’d prefer a longer story with a few more choices, but it’s still a good structure. On the other hand, it could have used some editing. A supporting character’s stats change without reason (another story has the main character’s damage change as well), and if you choose not to do an important task and later return to that location, the book assumes that you had previously tried and failed. Even stranger, all of the endings give the impression of being “bad” ones, but there really isn’t one where the hero is satisfied with the outcome. Normal linear stories can get away with unhappy endings, but when the reader is an active participant in a challenge, there needs to be a chance to win.

Party of One is very different from the last gamebook I tried based on an existing RPG system. Unlike Tunnels & Trolls, this doesn’t expect the player to be an expert in the rules and it keeps the player on a fair path through a coherent story. It provides a template for RPG gamebooks that feel like a satisfying story experience. Being very short and a little rushed, it is only a template, though. I’m still looking for a completely successful one.

Grade: C+


Three Solo RPG Books

After trying a few (generic equivalents of) Choose Your Own Adventures last year, with mixed results, I was interested in seeing what else is out there. This time, I tried some solo RPG books, where stats and dice rolls play a part along with the branching choices.

I was surprised by how different the role-playing elements make these books. I always approached traditional CYOAs as something between a puzzle and a quantum story, where of course I’d keep placeholders at previous branches and go back and forth as necessary. The end result was a non-linear meta-story, in which I knew of all possible plot-lines at once. Once I have dice and a number of hit points, though, the book doesn’t work like that. These books were more about the adventure itself, and became a legitimate game instead of a story. I couldn’t jump around without invalidating my character, and that completely changed the experience.

However, the sudden deaths that are common in these books were very frustrating. I don’t mind them at all if I’m flipping through every path of a CYOA, but when I’m actually trying to follow a storyline, and my focus is on keeping a health stat above zero, it feels very unfair to have success ripped away by a single unpredictable choice.

Below the fold are the reviews of the three books I tried over the past several months.
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Paths of Doom Books

The Lost Sword coverSete-Ka's Dream Quest coverRealm of the Enchanter cover

Coincidentally, after writing about Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) stories, I happened to find three “Paths of Doom” books that I’d been given and stashed away years ago. They didn’t look like something I’d normally pay much attention to, but it was a perfect time to check them out.

For the most part, this line of books doesn’t stray too far from the classic CYOA formula. The simple journeyman writing leads to choices with often arbitrary consequences, the only real innovation being that the reader must find the single happy ending. I also found it interesting that these books are written in the third person, though most CYOAs are about the adventures that “you” have. The settings are consistently high fantasy, and are probably best for slightly higher age levels than the original CYOAs, due to the larger word count and frequent deaths.

Overall, I thought that these minor tweaks worked well. By featuring protagonists who were not supposed to be me, the books were able to offer a little more variety than I expected. The single ideal ending also gave them a puzzle-like quality, which should work well for anyone who carefully bookmarks the branching points and tries to read it all. It would probably be more frustrating for people who just want to read through a few times from the beginning. And while the writing certainly isn’t very good by the standards of standard linear stories, these do read more coherently than most branching plot books. However, the final result is still a little too silly and similar to the gimmicky 80’s books for me to truly recommend them, either.

It’s also worth noting how inconsistent the formats of these different books are. Two feature storytelling text in the bold sentences that offer choices, while one simply says “If the hero does this, turn to page XX.” One fits the instructions about how to use the book on the same page that the story opens, while the others separate those two parts. One uses a different font size than the others. And all three take a different structural approach to how the stories branch and whether two different threads can rejoin each other. While those don’t necessarily make the books worse, they do make me doubt that there was any real planning or long-term support for this line. It’s not surprising that, as far as I can tell, it went out of print almost immediately.

Here are my impressions of the books that I read.

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Jason Shiga – Meanwhile (Comic, Game AND iPhone Review!)

Meanwhile cover

Jason Shiga - Meanwhile

After looking at the way that some computer games played with the Choose Your Own Adventure mechanics, I searched around to see what other ways the genre had evolved. For the most part, it was disappointing. Books in that format are strongly influenced by the original ones, and seem to be poorly-written and arbitrary children’s stories. But I did find one work worth noting: A comic by Jason Shiga named Meanwhile.

Meanwhile is structured so that each panel has a line leading to the next. When there are choices to be made, that line branches, presenting two or more simple choices to follow. Each page has a tab on the side, so that a line that leads off the page can easily be followed to a tab on another page. It sounded a little confusing at first, but turned out to very easy to follow.

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Interactive Fiction Competition: Operation Extraction and The Play

Every year, the IFComp features a few web-based games. With the state of web design these days, these can easily include status screens and other formatting that compares nicely to the state of the art in old-school text adventures. However, they generally don’t feature any text input from the player. Text parsing is complicated, and if the designer wanted it, they would probably have used one of the established interactive fiction development systems instead of their own web application. This means that the web-based games may feel very different than the other works in the competition, but in some ways they are very like classic Choose Your Own Adventures.

That’s not to say that a CYOA story has to be bad. There are interesting narrative possibilities that the classic children’s books barely touched on, and telling them through a computer creates a lot of potential that books couldn’t offer. This review examines two of this year’s web-based entries, Operation Extraction and The Play.

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