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.)
After the Flag Fell tells the story of the life of Peter Lalor, an Australian rebel and politician of whose life story I was embarrassingly ignorant before playing this game. As a piece of historical fiction, it’s pretty light: it serves up an intense-ish scene of battle and wounding and possible amputation at the beginning, but then backs off into a much more summary mode for recounting subsequent events, while allowing very wide branching of Lalor’s life. You can get married or not; you can enter politics (as the real Lalor did); you can run away and hide among Aboriginal peoples. One of the more sustained exchanges after the initial battle involves your romance with another character, and this is portrayed in a highly stylized fashion.
Even for a Windhammer book, this is a short piece. It uses only 63 of its permitted 100 nodes. Of those one is a choiceless introduction, one is a bit that isn’t reachable from anywhere and exists (I think) only to throw people off about how the romance plot might go, and four are easter egg nodes that contain authorial commentary. Brevity is fine, but in this case it also reflects a kind of oversimplification in the story’s later stages. Though the opening of the book suggests that it wants to explore why Lalor behaved the way he did and his effect on Australian history, the segments that deal with the political realities of his age are the briefest and least developed. For example:
“Forgive my impudence, sir, but are you sure you want to prevent women from voting? Your people elected you because they believed you would uphold democratic values.”
I refused to risk the good life I had. Letting women vote was too much.
Go to Page 38.
Under the circumstances, I signed the bill to let women have the vote.
Go to Page 26.
Presenting the situation so starkly gives little sense of how the contemporary people felt about this issue, what ideology (justified or not) might have supported each side, how the politicians were motivated, and how Lalor compared with his colleagues on the issue. So we’re left really only with our own inclinations on whether female suffrage is a good thing, and some of these choices felt to me a bit like “Do you like sexism Y/N?”
Add to this that one of the biggest successes you can achieve for Australian democracy is to die an accidental martyr, and the result is a story centered much more on the fact that Lalor was (apparently) in a linchpin position in Australian history than on his particular choices or historical context. It’s a kind of power fantasy, though of a very different kind from the power fantasy of being ninja Isaac Newton able to bend gravity to your will.
Commenting on one of my earlier Windhammer reviews, Felicity Banks mentioned that several of this year’s entrants had come to the competition from the Choice of Games forum. I’d like to think that, even without this clue, I would have guessed at some of the influences behind the design of After the Flag Fell, which is structurally quite distinct from most of the other gamebooks I’ve looked at so far. (Sam Ashwell has also covered — and diagrammed — this piece, though I didn’t know about his review until after I’d drafted mine. But if you want to compare diagrams of the same plot, this is an opportunity!)
The overall structure is a Branch and Bottleneck, with stats-based delayed branching, as Choice of Games advocates. (That one lone trip back up to the top of the chart is really something like a flashback, and you have to leave again immediately — you don’t go back and replay the early phase of the story — so there’s no cyclical structure happening there.)
Second, those stats partly describe personal character rather than ability (in common with a lot of CoG work) and are developed during play rather than selected at the beginning of the gamebook. The two major personality stats in play are Trust and Caution. If you do something trusting, your Trust rises (up to a maximum of five); if you do something cautious, your Caution does the same. (I don’t think you can lose either kind of stat.) On the diagram, solid orange lines raise caution and solid green lines raise trust; dotted orange lines are available if your caution is higher, and dotted green lines if your trust is higher.
The bold red line, incidentally, represents (what the book claims is) the historical experience of the real Peter Lalor: one of the easter egg nodes provides the chart for this. This idea of an “official” vs alternate choices turns up in Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be, where you can choose to play the Shakespearean path through Hamlet if you absolutely insist on it — though there, it’s handled with a marker at each choice, rather than as a separately available list of links. So there’s a difference of emphasis there. To Be or Not to Be is constantly riffing on the relationship between North’s rendition and the real Hamlet, and exploring Shakespeare’s artistic decisions, whereas After the Flag Fell treats the historical Lalor more as a footnote.
Then later in the story, we start to encounter choices like this:
If your Trust is higher than your Caution, go to Page 49.
If your Caution is higher than your Trust, go to Page 37.
(If Trust and Caution are equal, choose which you prefer.)
This is an odd choice as a piece of protagonist agency — what does it mean to “choose which you prefer” when you’re selecting one number or the other? — and it throws the player back on meta-agency concerning the protagonist’s personality. “Would you most prefer to experience the rewards of trust, or the rewards of caution?”
In any case, Trust/Caution are behaving a lot like a ChoiceScript opposed stat, in which one quality is the mirror of the other. (For a true opposed stat, one should go up exactly when the other goes down and vice versa — not true in After the Flag Fell — but the tests are always based on which of your two stats is higher, not on the overall numerical value of either.)
Meanwhile, there are a couple of skill stats — mechanical skill, sharpshooting skill — and one resource stat, your health. It all reads as a gently scaled down version of a standard set of CoG stats.
That’s not to say that the piece has no influences from the gamebook side. There are several early deaths available — something that CoG’s house branded work, at least, rigorously avoids. And the use of inventory feels a bit gamebook-esque: it’s possible in a Choice of Games piece to track variables that represent things you’ve acquired, of course, but most of those works aren’t really modeling physical objects so much as larger life choices. In After the Flag Fell, your possessions represent turning point events in your life — really a hybrid of both approaches.
In any case, I found this fascinating from a formal perspective. Stats-heavy gamebooks and stats-rich ChoiceScript fiction might seem quite similar, but they have distinct design traditions, and nothing demonstrates that point quite like looking at a hybrid. On the story side, I tend to be interested in historical stories, but I wish that this one had gone a bit deeper into the era it explored.