So here at last we come to what I judged to be “the cream” of this year’s Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction. This part covers the entries that I ranked from 5th to 1st on my list. For my reviews of those I ranked 14th to 11th, see Part one and for my reviews of those I ranked 10th to 6th, see Part two.
These five entries below I considered all brilliant in their own way, eminently readable and more than compare favourably with published titles, some of which are considered classics in their own right. That there are so many amazing works coming out of the Windhammer competition I think is testament to how good writers in this scene are getting at delivering quality stories, compelling gameplay and pushing the boundaries of what gamebooks can be. I heartily congratulate you all (and just maybe, might be a little jealous haha).
But of course, as I’ve stressed before, these reviews represent just my (humble?) opinion. And I think it is certainly true that for any work, any work, they’ll always be someone that loves it and someone that hates it. So just because I didn’t rate your work so highly, doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t, so take heart! Just by being willing to enter and share your work with the world (and expose it to the judgement of others), puts you ahead of all the others who wanted to do such things, said they were going to do such things… and didn’t. (And that includes me!) So gamebook writers be proud of what you have achieved! J
Moreau (Zachary Carango)
DESIGN – 7
STORY – 8
WRITING – 9
CLARITY – 7.5
PLAYABILITY – 8
MY OVERALL SCORE: 79% (5th place)
What I liked: Excellent writing with interesting, distinctive characters and situations refreshingly without a moralistic overtone. A fun adventure using a diceless system.
What I didn’t like: System itself is unclear in its implementation and has a weapon table that makes no narrative sense. Railroading of choices make adventure arbitrarily difficult.
As many (most?) of you probably know, Zachary’s Final Payment entry won last year’s Windhammer competition, and I quite agree it was astoundingly good (I gave it 88% overall with 9.5 for Story and Writing, and placed it third overall – only because I voted for my own entry and Paul Gresty’s Ookle of the Broken Finger got my other vote).
So I was expecting great things from Zachary this year, and he did deliver… Well mostly. The writing is as excellent as ever (as I’ve come to expect from Zac) and virtually faultless (not sure why I *only* gave it 9 for Writing now, but it mustn’t have blown my mind to quite the same extent as the masterpiece he produced last year I guess), and there was only a single typo I noticed. The story is well introduced (Zac sets the scene before introducing the rules which is also a very effective way to draw the reader in), and has an excellent mood/tone with interesting and distinctive characters. There is also a great sense of fun/abandon in some of the situations (e.g. the drinking game on Section 12) which is a refreshing change from what I would call “overtly moralistic” themes where you are penalised for not following the “righteous path” (for instance a particular gamebook I may have happened to edit comes to mind where you are heavily penalised for having a drink or two).
I really like the idea of a diceless combat system too, and whilst it does “work” and seemed sufficiently balanced for the most part, it’s not without (what I perceived) to be significant issues. One of these issues, namely the weapons table, I found to be so ridiculous that it made no sense to me at all and actually broke the immersion of the gamebook for me somewhat. To discuss why I had such an issue with this weapons table, let me paste it here:
Machete ($0 Damage 5)
Magnum ($500 Damage 10)
Assault Rifle ($1000 Damage 15)
Rocket Strike ($2000 Damage 20)
Mortar Barrage ($4000 Damage 25)
Napalm Inferno ($8000 Damage 30)
Now for some reason never really explained you spend money for each attack (and it’s never explained when you are supposed to spend this money nor whether a spend is only for one attack, one battle, or permanent). -The only explanation given for why you spend money for each attack is “In addition to the machete and guns you carry on your person, the Vulture is equipped with a variety of powerful support weaponry. The stronger the weapon, the more expensive each use will be.” (The Vulture mentioned is your salvage ship). How this money is spent, nor why it should be on such a ridiculous scale in the first place is never explained, and I’m talking ridiculous in terms of both comparable costs and damage (as I believe will be quite obvious to anyone looking at the above table).
Now consider that each round you choose what attack to employ (e.g. I may have chosen to spend $1000 to do 15 damage with an Assault Rifle in the first round, to then choose to spend $8000 to do 30 damage with a Napalm Inferno in the second round), and then consider that this system is supposed to somehow be applicable in such situations ranging from stamping out a nest of fire-ants, to fighting a lobster man inside a restaurant, and you can hopefully appreciate why I had such a problem making sense of this table in any fashion. I understand that it was probably meant as a parody but even then it still made no sense, even to how the money was spent and affected ammo. I should add that Zachary had similar mechanics (consuming limited resources to influence damage inflicted) in his entry last year, but that made narrative sense there which here I found to be absent… So I found myself reimagining what the rules meant to something like this:
You have a supergun, but it has limited charge (measured in units equivalent to whatever your money is at the time). When attacking with your weapon, determine how much charge you wish to use at the start of each round by consulting the following table:
Rifle-butt (0 Charge, Damage 5)
Single Shot (500 Charge, Damage 10)
Burst Shot (1000 Charge, Damage 15)
Spray Shot (2000 Charge, Damage 20)
Super Shot (4000 Charge, Damage 25)
Super Mega Shot (8000 Charge, Damage 30)
…At least then I could imagine that it was somehow meant to be a “possible sci-fi” world, as opposed to I dunno, a dream or something where I alternate between firing gun shots and launching explosive onslaughts of mass destruction (that only do slightly more damage) against opponents including ants of all things. Anyway I think I’ve harped on about that point enough (but it really bothered me Zac! What were you thinking mate!?) so I best move on…
Whilst it really was the weapon table that disrupted the experience for me, I did have another issue that comes up as a common gripe for me in gamebooks: The “you can only check one place at a given location before the narrative forces you onward” convention. For me, unless there’s a very good narrative reason (there usually isn’t), this convention only serves to make a gamebook unrealistically and arbitrarily harder, not to mention more frustrating when you know you’re probably going to get screwed over later because you weren’t allowed to check the other places at a given location. (My point of reference is always to imagine it like I’d GM a role-playing session: if I tell my players something that they would complain is unfair – such as being told they can look in the chest or under the bed but not both – then I don’t do it without good reason. Anyway I digress…) So anyway, this gamebook does a bit of that too, and all of these things resulted in me only giving this 7 for Design (despite liking the innovations for diceless combat).
Somehow though, through sheer luck in choosing the right locations in the right order, I did manage to complete this gamebook successfully on my first go. And despite my rants about the design (and in particular the weapon table) I did have a ball playing this because the story and in particular the writing and characterisation were so good…
I never could figure out the safe solution though, even after doing a search for the phrase “The safe clicks open” to see if I could decipher the solution after knowing the answer… Fortunately I didn’t need to open the safe to complete the gamebook (so long as failing to open the safe didn’t kill me, which it nearly did but not quite!)
‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)
DESIGN – 8.5
STORY - 8
WRITING - 8
CLARITY – 8.5
PLAYABILITY – 8
MY OVERALL SCORE: 82% (4th place)
· Winner of the 2013 Windhammer Prize
What I liked: Well delivered humourous story with great innovations including team selection and integration of various character interactions using “filters”.
What I didn’t like: Quite difficult to obtain some clues, requiring luck and/or guesswork.
I actually wavered with this entry a bit. To begin with I thought “this is awesome!” but then settled with “this is very good but has some aspects I don’t like so much.” I mean I can certainly see why it won (having a pretty map and some eye-grabbing diagrams I think helps!) but in the end I decided I preferred the three entries I rated above this. Anyway it is a well delivered story that reminded me of something like Scobby-Doo crossed with Maniac Mansion with a very endearing funny tone throughout (even the rules, with comments like “If you don’t know what a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure is, it looks like you’ve got a cave to spend some time in and also a shark to be.” and in explaining clues: “They are mysterious and wonderful.”) The writing was solid, and well edited, but did strike me at times as repetitive or rushed and not particularly evocative. (For instance the phrase “hang out or whatever” comes up four times at differing points). I also thought that the clarity (rules and writing-wise) was fine, all things considered.
This entry features a simple design with a number of innovations I’d rate from “meh” to “amazing”. At the “meh” end for me is the inclusion of achievements that are only mentioned when you acquire them in the text that don’t seem to serve any purpose (while others are listed at the end), and a couple of puzzles that I thought were unnecessary – one is the “mindbending maze” (which is obviously a joke since the maze is so simple, leading me to question why it was even needed aside from “looking cool”), and the other is the block puzzle on Section 3 that I felt I’d wasted close to an hour of my life to solve for nothing other than a Delicious Chocolate achievement (that does nothing anyway). The use of the map (which is interesting, cartoonish and matching the “vibe” of the gamebook) and being able to select the characters for your team were good innovations, but the innovation I’d call “amazing” is the integration of various character interactions using what I call “filters”.
To elaborate on this point about “filters”, I’ve never seen a static (i.e. what is typically paper-based) gamebook do this, and I’m not sure if Philip realises just how significant this innovation is… You see there’s a recent innovation that Tin Man Games have started to employ for their digital gamebooks called “filters” (I’m also aware that the excellent digital gamebook Star Breed did a similar thing back in 2010 but on a much smaller scale, and I think quite possibly Inkle’s recent eye-catching digital conversion of Sorcery! has been using a similar idea). In a nut-shell this idea is that you “filter” the text displayed at a given section depending on certain criteria. It’s a great idea for digital gamebooks, meaning that you can do a lot more with the same number of sections, but it always struck me that this was a step away from static / paper-based gamebooks as it couldn’t be done in such cases… Then comes Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club to dispel that concern, because that’s exactly what he’s done. (It just means, by necessity, that he’s listed the various “filters” at the bottom of each section, with icons to mark where they appear in the section text). Wow.
Mind you, Blood Sword (which I feel compelled to add is I think easily one of the greatest gamebook series of all time) written by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson between 1987 and 1988 kinda did a similar thing with its four different player characters – it just had to split the “filters” across different sections given these could be being played by different players, and so limits the cheating (at least in theory anyway haha).
Anyway the further I got into this, the less sold I was on its design. Initially for instance you are travelling to various locations to gain clues figure out where the rival paranormal Academy has made their discovery, but it turns out that many of the clues aren’t obtained through good detective work, so much as being lucky on the dice (which I wasn’t really) or making lucky guesses on where to look, all of which took some of the shine off this work for me. I wasn’t able to get many clues and those I did get were mostly red herrings, leaving me with a case of pretty much having to guess out of nine possible locations, since you aren’t allowed to visit a given clue location twice (on a sidenote, check-boxes are used to track locations already visited which probably isn’t necessary since it’s quite easy to remember where you’ve already been). So I failed my guess and that was the end of my adventure, but I cheated onwards a bit to see what happened then: and it seems to me that the trend of needing luck over good decisions continues…
Overall this work does have numerous innovations and highlights and is supported by an endearing story with humourous writing, but the weaknesses I perceived in its design and writing weren’t enough for me to put it in my top three this year. But perhaps I’m in a minority in this regard as it won this year’s competition… So hey, just ignore me J
Gunlaw (Nicholas Stillman)
DESIGN – 8.5
STORY – 8.5
WRITING – 9
CLARITY – 8
PLAYABILITY – 8.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 85% (3rd place)
· Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards
What I liked: Good simple character generation and diceless system. Compelling, darkly hilarious, action-packed and deliciously gruesome story, with a hero who has all the attitude and survival instincts of some kinda badass movie (anti-)hero. Strong efficient writing that is imaginative, colourful and sets the mood excellently.
What I didn’t like: The jumpy nature of the story, from often one ridiculous situation to the next, and between differing character perspectives, can at times make things hard to follow. Story seemed to be over quite quickly considering there's a hundred Sections (but maybe that’s because I enjoyed it so much!)
Nicholas Stillman did an entry called Swordplayer for last year’s Windhammer competition, which I was really impressed by, not for its writing so much (although it still held up reasonably well on that front I thought), but for its design. It was complicated and amazingly innovative but I considered it lacked story, significant characters and often seemed bereft of detail. Anyway I’m here to talk about Nicholas Stillman’s entry this year of course, but I mention his previous entry because I did not see anything like this coming from him. Not only has he delivered a simple, elegantly designed gamebook that needs no dice, but one backed up by an incredible action-packed story, detailed world, distinctive characters and what I consider is perhaps the best writing of the competition: it couldn’t be more different from what he did last year… Is this even the same Nicholas Stillman!?
On a different day / mindset, it’s possible I could have even put this second on my list (maybe even first if I was drunk enough). This entry just oozes style and to me is a perfect demonstration of what you can achieve if you just “throw caution to the wind, trust your instincts and let your individual voice shine through”.
The design of this entry, while simple and incredibly effective (including being able to play as a male or female which is a plus), doesn’t even matter so much, because the writing and the story is so good (albeit at times difficult to follow but I’ll get to that). And in many ways this is a gamebook for the “non-gamebooker” who likes action movies and games, but gets bored with reading gamebooks, having to manage rules and trying to figure out a way to the end. It’s darkly hilarious, action-packed, features one of the coolest (anti-)heroes you’ll ever see and is deliciously violent. I listed that it was over so quickly as one of its “flaws” but that could just be because I was enjoying it so much that time just flew. In any case, I can always read it again can’t I? And again…
Certainly this won’t be to everyone’s taste (if games like Carmageddon and MadWorld didn’t appeal to you this may not be your thing) but so many passages in this I thought were just, well, awesome. Here’s just a tiny selection:
The mafia cops fire a shotgun through a senior citizen's rear windshield; his brains splatter on the front windshield like cherry pie.
Canfield enters a bar called The Hellhole. Nothing ever happens there except liver damage. Apart from the aging slobs embalming themselves, the place looks pleasant with its decor of houseplants. Lisa canes and cacti sit in a bath of techno music, wanting to die.
“Y'all look like turds,” Canfield says. The ranger puts a hole in five men at the table and kills the last one barehanded.
Reload. Travel. Like always.
Before Ray can flinch, a bullet hits his chin catapulting him over the table without his shoes. Maybe after surgery he'll have a cleft chin.
The city council would have goosebumps for a week, if Canfield let them live. Instead, they all get shot into a slump, spilling their brains on the tabletop. All goes quiet except for a moan from the floor and the patter of dripping blood.
Like I was saying, this won’t be to everyone’s taste (but what gamebook is really?) Oh and apparently he’s thinking of doing a graphic and disturbing horror next year (that presumably is a lot darker and more graphic than Gunlaw since he’d been reluctant to inflict it upon the competition yet).
(But honestly, I hope he does! I won’t feel so bad being the only one then haha).
The only (minor) criticism that I can offer here is that sometimes the action is coming so thick and fast, and jumping around between different perspectives so much, that it can be difficult to follow just exactly what is happening. That and occasionally I thought the intentionally ridiculous descriptions went so far as to become a little contrived (but that’s a personal judgement more than anything I think), for instance:
Canfield's gut doesn't bother tightening up anymore. This posse amounts to short stature diabetics with gynecomasti.
Oh and maybe it is a little difficult to get the ultimate ending? To be honest I’m not really sure… I didn’t get the ultimate ending but was having an absolute blast with this anyway so it didn’t matter. Definitely a fun gamebook that’ll leave a lasting impression for a long time. Highly recommended.
The Independence Job (Marty Runyon)
DESIGN - 9
STORY – 9
WRITING - 8
CLARITY – 9
PLAYABILITY – 9
MY OVERALL SCORE: 88% (2nd place)
· Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards
What I liked: Awesome Wager system that is simple, strategic, rewards risk and fits in with the world. Compelling story with interesting characters and interaction. Very clearly laid out and hugely replayable.
What I didn’t like: Action seemed a bit rushed on occasion (description too brief).
This was another entry that surprised me in that I wasn’t expecting the author, Marty Runyon, to produce something this good. You see I didn’t rate his entry for last year’s Windhammer, Academy of Magic - The First Term, that highly (I rated it only 70% overall – which equated to 14th of 22 entries on my scale). But this same entry was one of two entries that won a Merit award last year (meaning that it’ll also be produced as an app by Tin Man Games soon) and I’ve heard from a number of people about how much they loved this entry… Anyway after reading/playing The Independence Job and how much better the writing seemed, and in particular the overall design, I have to concede that I may have misjudged Marty… Either that or he’s gotten a lot better (it’s a shame that he didn’t win a Merit award this year, as to me, his entry this year was a lot more deserving than last year’s, but oh well…)
This entry features one of the coolest innovations I’ve ever seen in a gamebook, and that alone saw it shoot up my rankings. This together with a compelling story, interesting characters and solid writing delivers an awesome gamebook experience.
To address this innovation first that impressed me so much, Marty has used what can only be referred to as “the Wager system” where you as the player accumulate Fortune points depending on how much you “wager” on a particular skill check. Each check specifies the minimum number of Fortune points you must wager; where what you wager determines the difficulty of the roll you must make; as well as what you stand to gain in Fortune points should you make the roll. (E.g. a particular check against a particular skill may have a high ante –that is to say a high minimum Fortune points wager, but “pay 3-to-1” if you make the check, meaning you get three times your “bet” in Fortune points).
What is so awesome about this system is that in one fell swoop it ticks all the boxes of what (I think) a good system should do: It is simple, it is strategic, it rewards risk and it fits in completely with the “gamebook world” presented here. Not only this, but this amazing yet simple innovation (why has no one ever thought of this idea before?) promotes repeat plays of the gamebook: even if you make exactly the same choices in the gamebook, you can still “gamble” your way through these checks (maybe changing your strategy) to see if you can better your Fortune points score. Wow.
Many times these checks affect story outcomes, but many times they don’t (just your Fortune points). This is probably by design though and considering how this still reinforces replayability, it can hardly be considered a “flaw”.
Aside from this, the system is very clearly explained and implemented and offers a very simple character generation process. The story too is designed in such a way that your earlier choices have a significant effect on how the story plays out: affecting not just events but also your relationships with other characters. Oh and it was pleasing to see that Marty has allowed for the reader to play a male or female protagonist here.
I really like the way the story develops, with the introduction laid out in an interesting way, and the story being divided into chapters as events progress and the relationships between characters develop. The writing too is solid throughout and well edited (I only found two typos of note). About the only criticism I can make here is that occasionally the description of action scenes struck me as a bit “rushed” but again, this is a very minor (and somewhat subjective) thing.
Overall this is an immensely replayable, well designed and delivered story that is reminiscent of a lot of “bank robbery” movies in a good way. The system innovations here are quite stunning (and revolutionary I think) and it is only that I was sooo impressed by what I ranked the best entry this year, that Marty didn’t get my top ranking. But now I know better than to underestimate him, and he’ll certainly be one I’ll be keeping my eye on now!
Out of Time (Paul Struth)
DESIGN - 9
STORY – 9.5
WRITING – 9
CLARITY – 9
PLAYABILITY – 8.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 90% (1st place)
· Winner of one of the two runner-up Merit Awards
What I liked: An intriguing and innovative design that is deceptively simple and yet mind-bendingly intricate. Excellent efficient writing that conveys mood and tension, and has great attention to details of people, places and language. Rules and story very clear. Story has some great twists and ideas.
What I didn’t like: Can break the design by repeating a given "loop" to gain infinite Determination. Occasional but minor logic anomaly such as time of day.
It turns out I had a premonition about this entry, which is kinda appropriate given the topic(s) it deals with. You see after the entry Paul Struth did for last year’s Windhammer competition, AETHER, I wrote:
Oh well Paul, I really look forward to what you’ll come up with next year: providing you avoid such a pitfall next time, I’m sure it will not only be awesome but could quite possibly win :)
-The pitfall I referred to here was an erroneous plot device that unfortunately broke the experience for me, but aside from this, I could see what a thoughtful design it was and what an accomplished writer Paul was to boot. Turns out my prediction was right, as Paul has delivered a gamebook so good, so intricate and so compelling, that it’s damn near perfect… But alas, perfection is hard to achieve (and I doubt that I’ll ever rate something much above 90%), and so even in such a stunning masterpiece as I consider this to be, I could find “faults” (not that I have any ideas on how you could even fix these minor flaws in such a deceptively simple but incredibly intricate design, but I’ll get to those minor “flaws” shortly).
I would have liked to see this entry win, but it doesn’t matter so much as it won a Merit award anyway, which means that it’ll be available as an app before long and readers around the world will get to see just how good it is. It’s (IMHO) one of the most ambitious story designs I’ve ever seen and the amazing thing is that it actually works. Did you “die” because you made the wrong decision, failed a check or didn’t have a particular item? Don’t worry, you don’t have to “reset” the gamebook back to the beginning and start over: that’s actually just part of the story and yes, things will be different the next time around. Death is not the final destination here, no it’s just part of the journey… But even such a description doesn’t do justice to what Paul has achieved here, so take my word for it (if you wish!), you’ll just have to read it for yourself and see what I mean…
So to get a little more specific (I’ve hardly said anything about it yet have I?) this is an amazing story that starts off great and just gets better. There is great attention to detail here; including the setting, historical places, dress, terms and language; great setting of mood and tension, great interweaving of thought-provoking philosophy into the story, and great mind-bending twists that when they came, left me gob-smacked with just how impressive they were. It is obvious just how much work went into not just the execution of this story but the careful and intricate way in which it has been constructed… I was reminded of something like the novel Playing Beatie Bow crossed with The Time Machine crossed with By His Bootstraps (particularly the later which I highly recommend if you enjoyed this gamebook anywhere near as much as I did).
In terms of game system there is very little here (not that that matters at all in this case), but what there is, is very clear. You have a single Determination stat to track, and on the rare occasion that there is combat, you are given all the rules you need then. This is a cerebral experience not an action-orientated one.
But even in something as good as this, there are what I judge to be “flaws” (I know, I’m a harsh critic, but hey, nit-picking is my job here right?). On the design side, it is possible to “break the design” by repeating a given “loop” to gain theoretically infinite Determination (this will make sense if you’ve played it), and sometimes due to the way you can move between sections, references to the time of day aren’t always accurate or consistent. But really, it’d be nigh impossible to avoid such minor anomalies in the context of a hundred sections, so this is a very minor flaw all things considered. Oh and it doesn’t really invite repeat plays once completed successfully (apart from being so awesome in the first place), but that’s really only because it doesn’t “end” on the first play-through.
There’s the occasional instance (well two that I found) where things weren’t completely clear (where the narration states on Section 12 that you have Czech crowns that weren’t previously mentioned, and on Section 30 where the church attendant apparently says the same words as before –and yet that was in a different language, but maybe that was intentional). And the only other thing I can criticise is that occasionally I thought the writing did a bit of “telling” rather than “showing”, but that can be interpreted as a matter of style as much as anything else.
Overall this is an exceptional piece of work that ranks in my mind as one of the most ingeniously constructed gamebooks I’ve ever read. Like those classic movies with amazing twists, I almost wish I could erase my memory just so that I could read this for the “first time” once more and be amazed all over again J
So that concludes my (highly subjective) evaluation / reviews of this year’s Windhammer entries. It is interesting to note just how few of them dealt with the “standard fantasy tropes” that were so prevalent in the days when a good adventure often meant a dungeon/castle/cavern etc filled with treasure and monsters just sitting around for a brave adventurer to come along and slaughter. Honestly, I can only think of this as a good thing, and to see how far gamebooks have come; the great innovations and awesome story-telling; means I think, that gamebooks have a very bright future indeed.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed my dribble, I mean thoughtful commentary!
P.s. For further reading, Crumbly Head Games have also done reviews of this year's Windhammer entries, which are broadly consistent with mine I guess (but as you'd expect, there's some differences in opinion) and I'm aware of at least a couple of others who have plans to do the same, but I'll provide links here if and when they do…