Wednesday, October 31, 2012
2012 Windhammer Competition Reviews and Analysis
(Originally posted on the goodreads group, but I decided to repost it here for fans without accounts.)
Voting for the 2012 Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction has now closed. We shall know the results shortly, but in the meantime it's time to open discussion. It was a breakout year for the competition. The current gamebook renaissance, plus Tin Man Games' generous offer off releasing the top three entrants as an app, attracted a record number of entrants, and I can only guess how many voters. I myself was one of the newcomers, submitting both an entry and a vote for the first time.
In its stated goal of promoting innovation and supporting new authors in the gamebook community, the competition was a resounding success. Some of the 22 entrants were long-standing members of the community, but there were an even greater number of newcomers and first-time authors. Everyone was experimenting with new ideas, either mechanical or from a broader theoretical perspective. And while I won't say all of the entrants produced good work, most of them showed at least some potential. Whether this potential will eventually pan out into artistic or commercial success remains to be seen, but my hat is off to all the entrants, even the ones I'll be bashing on shortly, for going the distance.
While the competition was run fairly and efficiently, I do have some minor issues with the format. Two votes per judge is too little in a field of twenty-two entrants. A lot of good gamebooks are probably going to draw naught. A new voting system should be considered for next year; perhaps rate the games instead of just nominating two. I also am a little leery of the randomization method, i.e. none. Yes, the entry list was appropriately randomized, but every voter got the same list, and thus most of them probably played the games in the same order. This may seem like an odd nit to pick, but for me personally fatigue set in about halfway through, and I didn't feel like I was giving the subsequent games a fair shake. (Incidentally, I played the games in reverse order, just to be contrary.) Lastly, a month and a half is, IMHO, more time than necessary. I had things wrapped up in half that time, and spent the rest of October tapping my foot awaiting the results. It was also bad timing for the competition to be closed at the end of November, when the community could easily get distracted by Halloween revelry on the U.S. Presidential Election. (Or a massive late-season hurricane, but I won't blame our organizers for not predicting that.)
That said, overall the competition was run well, and I thank and commend Mr. Densley for his effort and the people at Tin Man Games for supporting the competition.
I've provided honest reviews for each of the entrants below. They are listed in roughly descending order, and subdivided into three categories: The Good, The Average, and The Ugly. (It was going to be "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", but there wasn't really any middle-of-the-road bad in the competition. It was either unremarkable or awful.)
The Evil Eye, by S.J. Bell
Yes, I voted for my own book. Don't give me that look. Every author votes for themselves, why do you think we have to vote for two different entries? Anyway, for obvious reasons, I can't really review this honestly, but I will be doing a post-mortem in a few days, after I've sorted through any comments I've received. Watch this group!
A Knight's Trial, by Kieran Coghlan
Kieran Coughlan has been producing indie gamebooks for some time, including one of my personal favorites, Hunger of the Wolf. So it's no surprise that his entrant is a book of the highest caliber. A Knight's Trial is a tough gamebook, but also eminently fair to the reader. Death in combat is a very real possibility, but you're seldom screwed by the dice directly. Rather, the solution to your problems is to take a route that either avoids the fight or gets you to it in better shape. As well, the dungeon itself is marvelously twisty, and although there seems to be only one correct path, the right and wrong decisions are obvious enough in retrospect that you can learn from successive playthroughs. What impressed me most, however, is the plot. This is one of three books that tried the "false reality" idea this year, and IMHO the only one that did it right. The hints are subtle; at first they seem to be just the kind of random weirdness that dots your typical dungeon-crawling gamebook, but as you see more and more the recurring themes start to emerge. This, in turn, allows the author to get bolder with the surrealism. By the time you get to a pair of knights sliding down an iced-over water slide with glee, it makes perfect sense in context. And unlike the others who tried this tack, at no point does Coghlan condescend to explain the plot to you outright. Not even at the end, really. He just leaves the clues around in plain sight and trusts the reader to put things together. Great job!
Sigil-Beasts, by Karalynn Lee
I was back and forth between giving my vote to this book or A Knight's Trial. Trial eventually won because it was just better put together, but this is a well-made book on its own merits, with good writing and world-building. This is the only book in the competition that actually gave multiple routes through the story. Others were linear, or had many branches that ultimately converged on the same place, but Sigil-Beasts actually gives you three very different ways to go about reaching your ultimate goal. Even more amazing, each path is well-paced; I am shocked that Lee managed to cram so much into just 100 sections. That said, there are some issues. For one, the final battle is way too hard unless you take the phoenix path. Characterizations are also inconsistent; the main character's relationship with his brother varies wildly between paths, and one path has a romance with the rival beastmaster coming out of nowhere. And (though this is a nitpick) the author describes a basilisk as having a beak and talons. A basilisk is a SNAKE. You're thinking of a cockatrice, or perhaps a griffin. All that aside, this is still very compelling work, especially for a first effort, and I hope to see more from Ms. Lee.
Ookle of the Broken Finger, by Paul Gresty
I was fatigued by the time I got to this, so I didn't enjoy it as much as I felt I should. But I did enjoy it. It's light and humorous (at times darkly so), with interesting characters despite the slapstick plot. However, it suffers from what seems to be a recurring problem this year: there's too much focus on the dice. You can know the right path and still not make it through without a fair amount of luck. And while we're at it, the right path is really obscure. You basically have to wander around the festival stumbling upon things and hoping you don't trigger the endgame before you've got the items and knowledge to win. But the humor and the strength of the writing make up for these problems, even if I did cheat through a good portion of it.
AETHER, by Paul Struth
I wrung my hands nervously when I read this, because the author did the same basic thing I did in The Evil Eye, only better. The clues are hidden a lot more naturally, and the flow of clues is more intricate and makes a lot more sense. Main weaknesses: bland writing and too much dice work. You're not rolling for everything, but you are rolling a lot to earn clues. The talisman helps, but bad luck is still frustrating. Overall, though, a very solid effort that should be a model for future investigative gamebooks.
Final Payment, by Zachary Carango
By all rights, this should be one of The Average, as neither the plot nor the mechanics are all that impressive. I bumped it up because it has the best innovation of the competition: it's "spell" system, which is tailor-made to address all the petty annoyances that come up in gamebooks. Pick the wrong skill at the start doesn't mean you get screwed, it means you have to decide whether to spend 4MM on the subcontract. Getting bad rolls in combat can be countered by spending money on re-rolls or for a full heal. Of course, these abilities are limited, and they should be, but a bit of breathing room to enjoy the story does wonders for what could otherwise have been a very frustrating adventure with a tedious combat system. EVERYONE should rip this off.
Academy of Magic - The First Term, by Marty Runyon
I actually liked this one a lot. It's got the whimsical tone just right, and the branching is adequate. But it's got a few too many problems to put in with The Good. The main plot, gathering components to rebuild your sabotaged term project, is fine. But the mystery subplot fails hard. There is literally no solid clue to the culprit anywhere in the book; all the evidence you find is circumstantial, and a lack of character development for pretty much anyone means that it's not clear who has a motive, either. You're apparently supposed to find some smaller clues and figure whodunit based on the process of elimination, but this relies on the basic assumption that the perpetrator is someone in your class. That's the kind of detective work that gets Dr. Watson chided repeatedly. (Well, it did before adaptations started portraying him as competent.) Also, the game balance is way off, overwhelmingly favoring a high Mind score and leaving some of the skills nearly useless. However, I give it a lot of credit for a similar idea to Final Payment: a separate pool of points that you can dig into when in a tough situation. Coupled with a mind of 6, it meant I never failed a single roll on two playthroughs. An enjoyable book, but it bit off more than it could chew, in terms of both plot and mechanical complexity. Still, I'd read the sequel. Of note: Most gamebooks have a main character who is gender-neutral but implicitly male. This book goes the opposite way with a main character who is gender-neutral but implicitly female. Interesting.
Day of Dissonance, by David Walters
I don't have much to say about this. There's nothing especially wrong with it, but unfortunately everything it does right is done better by A Knight's Trial, which also had a much more compelling story. Bad luck for Walters that they had to be in the same competition. Still, it has merit. I quite liked the ending.
Golem Gauntlet, by Simon Chapman
Standard-issue dungeon crawl, albeit with an original gimmick: you've lost your body, and must inhabit a series of Golems to get it back. Competent, but doesn't get the most out of its premise. There are some interesting bits: a clay body can be baked and hardened, while your wood body can blend in among trees and hide. But a lot more could be done with this idea. I expected to be swapping back and forth to get different abilities, but instead the plot is mostly linear, and you upgrade to better forms as you go. It feels like a waste of a good idea. It also needed better playtesting. Twice the reader is thrown into battles that are nigh-unwinnable.
Legacy of the Zendari, by Ashton Saylor
Saylor produced last year's Peledgethol, which won second place and was, IMHO, better than the actual winner. (Or at least it was once you realized the battles were unwinnable and cheated through that shit. 3 SKILL, Saylor? Seriously?) [EDIT: Actually, looking at it again, it turns out I misread the rules. Erm... Moving on...] Anyway, Legacy of the Zentradi is not bad, but it's a bit of a disappointment because it's just not up to the same standard. New mechanics streamline combat, which is good. But damage lowers your offensive and defensive powers, meaning that every round you lose makes your ultimate defeat more likely. Annoying. We've also got a "Random Encounter" system which, as in the other three books that used one this year, is pointless filler that wastes time and page space. The writing is generally strong enough to offset these problems, but then at the end it devolves into a mess of cliches and melodrama. Not a bad read, but could have stood a few more revisions. BTW, unless I'm missing something there is no way to reach the end with all 12 achievements, regardless of the author's assurances. The best path available still gets you to the end too late.
Call of Khalris, by Stuart Lloyd
I'm a fan of Lloyd's blog, but this is the first actual gamebook of his I've read. And it pains me to admit that it is at best hopelessly average. It has a generic setup and is kind of listless. His major innovation is to make you stop at certain points of the story to make you answer essay questions about your character's motivations. Ummm... what? If this is supposed to be a way to draw the player into the story and make them role-play, it fails hard. REALLY hard. The spotlight it shines on the artificiality of the book jolted me OUT of the story.
Trial of the Battle God, by Andrew Drage
This fantasy version of The Hunger Games has you and seven NPC heroes thrown into a dungeon to fight to the death for glory and your respective nations' prosperity. I am of two minds on this one. On the one hand, a LOT of effort has gone into the game mechanics, which allow your enemies to wander the dungeon the same as you, gaining strength as they loot fallen foes and such. And these mechanics work marvelously, as does the point-based character creation. The writing is also pretty good, for a dungeon-crawl. And it has multiplayer rules, too! For a second time I am amazed by how much an author has crammed into 100 sections. On the other hand, it's an INCREDIBLY combat-centric game. On occassion, you'll find some new weapon or armor or have to negotiate some obstacle, but for the most part you're wandering the maze, battling. And every battle is hard. The enemy heroes are built using the same rules as your character, which means they all have average to above-average stats. So Trial of the Battle God winds up unintentionally spotlighting the biggest problem with dice-based combat: no matter how powerful you are, you have to get lucky or die. You can search for (or loot) new gear, but the way the combat system is set up that hardly matters; I got stronger, but doing so didn't improve my chances in any given battle. Compare The Enchanted Windmill, which used a similar system for resolving combat, but made sure that a boost to your stats actually had an effect. There's an excellent idea for something here, but that something ain't a gamebook. I'm thinking something more like a gamebook/board game hybrid. Something that lets the multiplayer rules really shine. As a single-player gamebook, it's a lot of good, solid craftsmanship put into an idea that just isn't fun.
Guild of Thieves, Andrew Wright
Curious. Wright won last year's competition with Sea of Madness, a non-linear but otherwise fairly standard gamebook. But instead of continuing in that vein, he's decided to ape Peledgathol, the runner up. Maybe he, like I, thought it was a stronger entrant. In any case, the basic structure of Guild of Thieves is almost identical: you run a series of missions, Mega Man style, gathering allies and building your forces between missions, all leading up to a big final battle. Despite extra polish and streamlined mechanics, though, Guild of Thieves feels like a step back. Peledgathol was a mix of meta-puzzle (you had to get the right keywords at the right times) and story, the latter aided by a small but distinctive cast and a unique voice. You felt like you were playing a fragment of epic history instead of the pulpy adventure stories we're used to. Guild of Thieves? Well, mostly it feels like busywork. Choose your target, roll the dice to succeed or fail, collect money, hire new thieves, etc. etc. The factions you're attempting to control are all pretty much the same. They have nearly-identical stats, and though the flavor is different, it's all so much filler. The game balance is another big problem. Like Legacy of the Zentradi, the author has set up combat (and the broader strategic game) so that if you're winning, you continue to win, and vice versa if your losing. So the game becomes either an exercise in frustration or a trudge where nearly every conflict is a foregone victory. It's dull either way, and the ending turns it all into a shaggy dog story. Disappointing.
The Enchanted Windmill, by Bert Van Dam
This book feels like a demo or proof-of-concept rather than a complete book, but it's simple and relatively painless. The author seemed to be trying a small-scale tribute to Fabled Lands. Now, I only played the app version of Fabled Lands, and while I had a good time with it, I could see it being very, very annoying on paper. So many passages have to be devoted to housekeeping - shops, towns, etc. - that it cuts into space available for the actual story, and a large body of your time is spent not reading, or even rolling dice, but flipping pages. So it is with The Enchanted Windmill. The mechanics are respectable, but a weak story and lots of bland passages means the book is boring. BTW, that trading minigame thing was done in last year's Sea of Madness, and was stupid there for the same reason it's stupid here: you can set up an infinite loop (in this case, Herbs to Wouwse, Wheat to Heerle, and repeat) to get infinite money. Some players wouldn't even consider it cheating.
A Familiar Story, by Richard Penwarden
Decent writing and adequate world-building, ruined by a grand trifecta of newbie mistakes: too linear, too complicated mechanically, and too much dice work. Way, way, WAY too much dice work. You roll for everything in this game. You roll in combat, you roll for random encounters, you roll for treasure. You even roll for the abilities you get when you level up! It felt like everything was completely out of my hands. I wasn't playing the game, I was watching the dice play the game. And unless you roll lucky for those treasures and abilities, nearly every enemy in the book will have you out-classed. A horrendous misfire.
The Ravages of Fate, by Ulysses Ai
Putting this one here hurts, because it's got far and away the best writing of the competition: it's a great heroic fantasy yarn with a well-developed supporting cast. The problem is that it's not a gamebook. It's nearly 100% linear. The entire first half is an overlong intro where you journey the frozen mountains with a party of less-than-trustworthy companions. Again, it's marvelously well-written, but almost completely non-interactive. The second half is a big fight between your party and the troll they've been sent to kill. This part I liked a lot, at least in concept. The fight has a lot more detail than just rolling some dice for awhile. You set traps, defend your party (or not), choose methods of attack, and so forth. Even here, though, it feels very scripted. The major events all occur in the same order every time, like a long-winded quick-time event. This should have been a work of static fiction, jerry-rigging it into a gamebook is an insult to both mediums.
Nye's Song, by Robert Douglas
The same problem as above, really. Good writing, but the story is oppressively linear, and the player never has the opportunity to make a decision that matters. The only real decision you make is how many side-trips to take in the beginning before storming the hall. After storming the hall, you go to the escape, where you can't make any decisions at all. The entire book from that point on is dice work. Granted, I made most of the rolls. Maybe you get more branching if you miss one and things go pear-shaped. But that's still ass-backwards design. Luck should be the fallback when decision-making fails, not vice-versa. And while I respect the old-school Fighting Fantasy mechanics (I used them myself, after all), rolling your stats in this day and age is bullshit.
The Massacre in Black Scythe, by Mikael Bergqvist
For the most part, this horror story is dull rather than offensive. This is one of those games where there is only one true path, and any deviation eventually leads to a dead-end. That's not bad by itself, but it's tricky to pull off horror using that format. Horror relies on surprise, and you can't be surprised at something after going through it for the 12th time. Badly-written dialog, heavy on exposition and light on personality, also breaks the mood. None of that makes Black Scythe one of The Ugly, though. What does that is a needlessly gory and singularly unpleasant finale where YOU butcher and dismember a bunch of brainwashed children. Ah, no. No thank you.
Emancipation, by Jake Care
Jake Care is a stalwart proponent of the economy-sized gamebook, so I won't blame him for producing a book that kept me occupied for less than twenty minutes. I will, however, blame him for everything else he did wrong. Like Day of Dissonance, Emancipation is handicapped by the fact that A Knight's Trial did the false-reality idea better. Having played this book before the other two, however, I can confidently say that it stinks regardless. Care does the exact opposite of Coghlan by spelling everything out for the reader. Even overlooking that, the truth is as obvious as it is cliche, and scientifically dubious as well. This book just feels like no effort at all has been put into it.
Swordplayer, by Nicholas Stillman
It's a rare book that has me pissed off right from the intro. But the author of Swordplayer accomplishes this by declaring it "the most challenging short gamebook ever conceived," which tells me right away that A) he's got a bit of an ego problem, and B) I'm gonna be cheating like a motherfucker. The rules also insist that I can't map the dungeon until I find a particular item, to which I mentally respond "Try and stop me, blowhard." Vitriol aside, Swordplayer actually did some things I liked. It offers a completely deterministic battle system, a crude manner of experience points, and encounters scaled to your level, all very interesting ideas. But it's just not very fun. Or any fun, really. The quest is bland, the dungeon is bland, the anagrams are unsolvable, and the puzzles stink. It reminded me of a Sierra game; you carry around a bunch of items and use all of them on every puzzle until something works. When it does, you say "Huh," then repeat the process with the next puzzle. Or say "How the hell was I supposed to think of THAT?!" and ragequit the game. I made it through about half of them before hitting that point. I mean, come on! Using a cap to bail out an acid lake? Wish I knew what the author was on, because I'd like to try some of that...
Hwarang and Kumiho, by Leidren Sweever
This is awful, but at least it's entertainingly awful. There seems to be a decent tale hiding in here somewhere, but the author's grasp of English is extremely deficient, and the spell-checker doesn't do him any favors. For example, the hwarang's warrior code commands that he "Thrust among friends". Kinky. The mechanics aren't bad, but the design is awful, substituting completely blind choices for die rolls (Section one ends with the instruction to "Turn to 2, 3, or 4"), and making little or no effort to balance the skills. Plus, bugs. At least twice I was directed to a section that could not logically follow from the previous one. The author has the folktale tone and atmosphere down, and the plot is reasonably well-paced, although rather linear. But if you can dig all that up out of the malapropers and mistakes, you're a better man then I.
Dating a Witch, by Ivailo Daskalov
Ugh. I hate to put this last, because I like the idea and the author seems to be in earnest, but his (her?) English is even worse than Sweever's. Not only that, but the characterizations are awful. Even with perfect English, that would have been a deal-breaker, because a love story depends on the reader identifying or at least sympathizing with the characters. These characters do not behave like any human beings I know. They meet on a rooftop, and for no apparent reason they decide to go out on a date right then and there after dropping awkward exposition about their respective power sets. It grated so much that I couldn't read more than 10 sections into it before giving up and moving on to the next entrant. I'm sorry, I like the world-building and wanted to give the book a chance, but the best summation I can think of is from Simon the Mean Brit: "You can't sing, you can't dance, so what do you want me to say?"
Important lessons in gamebook design learned from the 2012 Windhammer Competition:
- Don't stick a bunch of die rolls in an otherwise-linear story and call it a gamebook.
- Don't implement a random encounter table. It's just time-wasting filler.
- Don't hinge too much of your book on die rolls.
- If you're going to ape some other book, don't come off worse in the comparison. (See Guild of Thieves)
- Don't skip playtesting, especially if you're using new mechanics.
- Giving the player a bit of leeway works wonders (See Final Payment, Academy of Magic.)
- Know your limitations. Several games bit off more than they could chew.
- Don't be afraid to innovate.
- Don't use the player's combat stats as his hit points. It just makes battle annoying. (See Legacy of the Zendari)
- Don't write in a language you don't know.
And that's all I've got to say. Feel free to add your own comments, or reviews of your own!