Appointment with FEAR (Tin Man Games)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.16.05 AMAppointment with FEAR is an adaptation of a Steve Jackson gamebook, available in various mobile formats and also on Steam for desktop machines. It’s been polished up into a graphical-novel style interface — a juicy one that slides panels into place and makes stats expand bouncily when you click on them – but it retains a slightly disorienting early-80s mentality: there are jokes about “Michael Jixon”‘s new release “Chiller”, and “Vulture Club”‘s lead singer “Georgie Boy”. This kind of thinly-veiled reference is symptomatic of its sense of humor.

Content-wise, it’s straight parody superhero fiction. You have an alter ego who has a newspaper job (which you rarely have time to attend), and when you’re “in disguise”, your avatar wears a pair of Clark Kent-style glasses. There are various villains with various unlikely costumes. For yourself, you get to pick from a roster of jokey auto-generated names. I played first as “Sparse Manifestation”, a mind-reading black female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat, and then as “Apathetic Chicken Leg”, a flying white female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat. Once I had a fleeting chance to name myself “Absolute Chaos”, but I misclicked the show-more-options button before I could select it; that was pretty much the least bizarre title I was ever offered.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.44.40 AM

Goofiness aside, I’m struck by the colorful energy of the interface here; it really feels as though it has projected you into a superhero universe with BAF and BOW animations. The mechanics are on the simple side, but have been carefully blended into the story. There are combat sequences, in which you can pick from a range of easy-but-weak or risky-but-powerful attacks, and these get some context-appropriate narration. There is a detection component to the game, in which you gather clues from various events and use them to solve additional problems you run into: when there’s something you might be able to resolve with clues, you go to your clue notebook and pick the clue you think applies, in good Phoenix Wright style. There are some simple stats: luck, stamina (hit points by another name), and Hero Points, which track successes along the way.

I never played the original gamebooks, so possibly I’m about to take issue with something that is fundamental to the whole historic experience. But despite the surface polish and the similarity to a number of games that I do enjoy quite a lot, I found myself pretty frustrated by this as both a game and a piece of narrative design.

Over and over again, the protagonist is confronted with “do you turn left or turn right?” dilemmas — choices for which there is no indication why it matters or how it will turn out. Very frequently you’re simultaneously called upon to visit two different emergencies at once, but there’s no way of knowing in advance which you’re equipped to help with (it’s very possible to try to intervene but get beaten up instead) or which might give you clues that you’ll need for the overall narrative arc (because sometimes an important clue is basically lying coincidentally on the ground near some unrelated crime). In one playthrough I saw the president assassinated but had no way to help him; in the next, I got critical information I would have required to intervene, but somehow missed ever getting the chance to be present at the assassination attempt. In each case, the overall story experience I had was quite disjointed, with a lot of hints of many different storylines, but no clean narrative arc.

After several plays (including a bunch of rewinding), I came away feeling like I could win this thing, but only if I exhaustively mapped the narrative labyrinth first, working out all the places where clues could appear and all the places where they could be applied. And I don’t have the stamina for that: too much time, too much repetition, too much exposure to this brightly plastic world. I’d feel differently if this played like a proper puzzle, if I thought that some careful thought would clue me in to the best way to move through the narrative. Despite the considerable surface gloss, it’s a design that gives the player very little help to experience a story.

The story is weird tonally as well. It’s mostly bouncy, colorful, and silly, with exaggerated and implausible threats; no Dark Knight stuff here. But you’re pretty unlikely to get all your superhero interventions to work, and so at least a few times per game you’ll probably run into a situation where an innocent person dies in front of you (sometimes as a result of your inept meddling). The text really doesn’t address the implications of that much at all. You lose some Hero Points, but you don’t experience any trauma or have much of a reaction at all. Young kid eaten by shark because I made a bad choice about how to rescue him? Oh well! Time to go home and have a pizza.

It’s striking to compare this thing against the less flashy but narratively chunkier Hero trilogy from Choice of Games. Despite their shared tropes, they’re very different takes on the same thing. Choice of Games pieces don’t kill you off arbitrarily early in the story (something that happens easily and often in Appointment with FEAR); the protagonist customization is more substantial and is taken more seriously; and pretty much no matter what you do, you’re guaranteed an actual story out of the experience, rather than a sequence of partially connected incidents. They’re also low on challenge, usually, but that’s a trade I’m happy to make if the type of challenge I’m turning away is that of meticulously exploring every narrative pathway long after the story incidents have lost their surprise.

7 thoughts on “Appointment with FEAR (Tin Man Games)”

  1. The Fighting Fantasy gamebook was a little wacky but wasn’t really a parody. However, the way you describe this conversion in general (many arbitrary deaths, no way to pick important paths from unimportant, need to be lucky to hit clues, etc., potentially disjointed play) sounds very much like this gamebook, and like a lot of FF gamebooks in general. So it doesn’t sound like a revisionist take. Though it may look like one. IE The graphics you paste already remind me in no way of the book, while most of what you wrote does.

    1. As I recall, arbitrary choices, lots of deaths, and impossible to finish without both a complete knowledge of the plot and massive amounts of luck (or cheating on the dice rolls) was absolutely standard for pretty much all of the Fighting Fantasy series.

  2. Interesting post. Yes, the standard of early FF books did involve lots of arbitrary deaths and left/right choices. I do like the updated aesthetics, though.

  3. I read / played the original gamebook back in the 80’s and loved it (I still have it on the bookcase behind me right now), and I also loved this version. It’s not completely faithful to the original – you can pick and choose your gender here, and your appearance, and your name whereas in the original you were a male whose appearance was never shown called the Silver Crusader – but I think it does an excellent job of updating the original.

    The original wasn’t a gamebook you were ever meant to complete in a single go. Unless you got really, really lucky you’d end up dying over and over again until you figured out the optimal paths to reach the end, which could be frustrating but ultimately very satisfying when you finally did beat it. The gamebook was easier in this respect because you could always keep your finger in the page and go back if you made a bad decision, or quickly check out each option presented to you to see what was there, whereas with this version you can only “rewind” to certain points instead of whenever you want.

    The gamebook was also a lot more serious. I quite liked the humour in this version but I agree in some cases it got a bit silly at times.

  4. I own the original gamebook and played it quite a bit back in the day. I could never win it “straight”. I did some of that narrative mapping and still couldn’t beat it. I ended up browsing through all the numbered entries and backtracking to figure out how to win.

    Also, I don’t know if this is true in the conversion, but I found two of the hero builds (the psychic and the one that can shoot laser beams) to be worse than useless (I think I only found _one_ encounter where the psychic was useful).

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