The 2015 Windhammer Prize is now running, which means you can download and play any of the 16 PDF gamebooks entered; if you play a reasonable number of them, you may also judge the competition by submitting a list of your top three favorites. (Full details are at the judging site.)
Tides of Chrome tells the tale of a robot — one of a whole society of robots, with their original “Architects” long since out of the picture — who is sent to explore a damaged ancient underwater station. From there, the story follows many standard tropes of abandoned-base exploration: there are various signs of what different inhabitants were doing here in the past, there are dangerous and/or secret areas, there is evidence that some parts of the station Go Deeper Than You Had Previously Realized.
Structurally, this thing is quite involved. A number of the Windhammer games I’ve played so far use a structure that consists roughly of prologue, hub-and-spoke middle with one central area you can keep coming back to, and then an epilogue section or three. Tides of Chrome splits almost immediately into a couple of major branches, then does a sort of hub-and-spoke bit in the middle; but there is a lot else going on. There are hidden options, where if you have the right knowledge, you can choose to go to a number not currently listed on the page, throughout the whole later part of the game. Sometimes that knowledge comes from one discovery node, and sometimes it has to be pieced together or puzzled out from multiple nodes. The state of player knowledge and understanding thus comes into play, as well as the state represented by whatever stats and keywords you have currently noted down.
I’ve tried to represent some of that in the mapping, but it’s impossible to communicate all of it without making the map rather a mess to read.
Below is the vast and glorious map. Green dots are endings in which you survive; black dots, endings in which you die; grey dots, points at which you might die, but might live to go on to another node. Yellow marks points where you gain status markers that affect your final score in the game. Dotted lines represent conditional transitions, where you can move from one node to the other only if certain prerequisites obtain — you have the right resources, or you’ve recorded the appropriate keywords for your character.
This structure is a pretty fair match for the content itself: you’re piecing together, gradually, what is really happening both in the present-day robot politics of your planet and what happened there in the distant past. The signs are not entirely encouraging on either front. But just as you-the-player are piecing together numerical clues to find useful new nodes, you-the-protagonist are piecing together disparate bits of information in order to reach useful conclusions.
The other major component of play is a resource management mechanic: the protagonist robot only has so much energy (which can be lost in combat or used to power up parts of the derelict station) and only so many memory sectors (which can be used to hold programs useful for different things).
This is similar to a hitpoints and inventory system as seen in various other gamebooks. But the fact that the energy can be expended on something other than combat makes it a bit more interesting than the average hitpoint setup; and the memory management includes an idea of size, so some data takes up multiple sectors rather than just one. So it’s basically an inventory system plus a concept of bulk: familiar in parser IF, not that common in the gamebooks I’ve played. And it has a different fictional flavor.
Overall, I felt the result was well balanced — all of the data you can load comes in useful at various times. It had enough complexity to be interesting, but wasn’t so complicated as to become daunting. There’s no randomness component in Tides of Chrome, and relatively few places where you can hit an unexpected sudden death by taking the wrong path. Bad ideas are often signposted as bad ideas, and death most often comes because you’ve been wandering around vulnerably with low energy.
Thanks to those features, I largely avoided an experience I have with some gamebooks, namely, getting irritated by the gratuitous failures the first two or three times I play. While I didn’t win Tides of Chrome on my first go, I felt the game had been fair with me. And I was motivated to keep playing and finding new endings because I was curious about the bits of the story I hadn’t pieced together yet. This is definitely the kind of gamebook where you will not understand everything that’s going on unless you’ve seen several endings.
As for the story itself, quite a lot of it involves exploration or combat, but there are still several effective moments that underline how you think differently from the Architects who made you. Your gradually evolving attitude towards your progenitors and their intentions is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Did they value robot life? Do you value it, even being a robot yourself? The very first choice of the game raises this theme. At no point does Tides of Chrome serve up any grand arguments about the definition of life or the nature of consciousness or the value of the individual, preferring to allow the reader a number of small opportunities to reflect on the question. This is for the best.
A bit of a sidebar: the setting, the puzzles, and the gradual uncovering of an epic-scoped science fiction backstory reminded me very strongly of Marco Innocenti’s Andromeda universe. Fans of that series who are open to playing gamebooks might also really enjoy Tides of Chrome.
If Tides of Chrome doesn’t sound like your style of gamebook, there are quite a number of other styles available. The Draconic Challenges is a fantasy involving dragons which looks a bit Pern-esque. In Sabrage, you play as a sword. And I haven’t gotten far into Isaac Newton: Badass Ninja Crimefighter, but as far as I’ve gotten, it’s… well, what you would expect from the title.