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.)
The previous Windhammer contestant I covered, Tides of Chrome, is an intricate puzzlebox of a game, highly polished, with hints of serious themes. Isaac Newton: Badass Ninja Crimefighter is basically its opposite in every way: a simple plot, fast-paced narrative, and an extremely goofy tone. There are assorted typos and surprising noun/verb agreement errors that make me think maybe the game was drafted in the third person and then changed to second person partway through. There are loads of luck checks and a number of choice points where you have no real reason the first way to guess which of two or three choices is going to be your best bet. I had fun with it, but in a totally different way.
The premise is what it says on the tin, only more so. You are Isaac Newton. You are 53 years old, yet you possess a body like Schwarzenegger in his prime. You can restore willpower and hit points by eating apples. Your study of gravity and optics has endowed you with telekinesis, flight, and the ability to shoot blasts of rainbow power from your hands. You are highly opposed to counterfeiting, and you’re willing to kill any number of guards and flunkies in order to get at London’s most significant counterfeiter. You also have a butler named Alfred, and independently sentient hair. The ninja aspect doesn’t come into it very much.
Here’s Isaac Newton‘s plot chart (dotted lines for conditional transitions, grey dots for places where you can die). In Sam Kabo Ashwell’s CYOA-structure terminology, I believe this is known as “Branch and Bottleneck and Furball”:
The big knotted thing at the end isn’t as chaotic as it looks: it’s a huge number of nodes used for the game’s boss fight, each of which allows you to use any of a number of weapons for attack. So really all of those elements constitute a single scene. There’s a little bit of possible strategy here — if you play for a bit, you can find out some information that then allows you to make clever maneuvers in the fight. These do rely on you replaying some of the same nodes several times within the fight sequence, once to learn the information you need, and once to put it to work for you.
Despite the randomness factors, I was able to win the game on my first try, and when I went back to map, found that the content I’d missed didn’t significantly alter my sense of the narrative.
The real determining factor in whether you are going to enjoy this gamebook is how you feel about banter like this:
‘And I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation.’
‘I’m Isaac Newton. I realise the gravity of every situation.’
Or highly plausible crime-fighting scenarios like this:
You have no doubt that Chaloner will know of your movements before the day has ended. However, he will also know of the movements of the dozen or so Isaac Newton lookalikes that you pay to walk around the city all day.
It’s nontrivial finding a dozen look-alikes when you’re a muscle-bound 53-year-old man with an animate wig and the ability to fly, so you have to congratulate Isaac on pulling this scheme off.
At least every two or three minutes something made me laugh, either at the jokes or with incredulity that someone would write what I just read. So I kept reading. I did not work very hard to solve the game (aside from taking notes for the chart) and I also did not stop and think very long about any of its choices. And I consciously avoided worrying about the fact that the sole woman in the story is comedically oversexed, or about how many people dear old Isaac straight-up slaughtered on his path to glory. But not thinking about the consequences of violence is a prerequisite to enjoying most superhero games. Part of the Batman fantasy is that he’s able to kick people in the head in such a well calibrated fashion that they’re instantly knocked out, yet they never break their necks and none of their concussions are ever fatal or ever exacerbate an existing condition or anything like that. Isaac Newton dispenses with that fig leaf, but it never really was anything more than a fig leaf.