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.)
(Disclosure: the following review is the result of a trade. SA asked me to review their work, and I agreed, if SA would in turn review a currently-running IF Comp game. SA responded with a review of the gamebook-like Kane County, which I will also post on this blog.)
Instrument of the Gods is set in a post-apocalyptic version of the Parisian sewers, which — thanks to five hundred years of nuclear winter — have become one of the few outposts of human survival. The first action you take in the story is to glance at your own reflection in a pool of urine, which does somewhat set the tone for what follows. Though you have your choice of character profiles, they are all variations of hitman or hired gun, willing to do more or less whatever is necessary in order to put together some money. One of them is a serial killer whose impulse to kill you cannot control, but the others are not exactly saints either. Their environment, meanwhile, is full of brothels, violence, and dealers in weaponry.
Like some of the gamebooks I’ve played, Instrument of the Gods includes a way of resolving combat through repeated dice rolls and stats; playing out a combat sequence thus has almost no narrative content. It also does something similar with gambling, where you can enter a gambling tent and repeatedly bet any amount of money you like, then roll a die to see whether the situation resolves. And there is an option to gain money via prostitution. In this case, you have a 1/3 chance of catching a fatal sexually transmitted disease, a 1/3 chance of impressing your client so much that they reward you with the gift of a weapon, and a 1/3 chance of merely making some money.
The first section of the book, in branch-and-bottleneck style, serves as a combat tutorial. You can pursue one of several options, but no matter what you do, you’ll wind up in one hand-to-hand situation and one shootout situation. By the time you come to the main portion of the book (where you have the option to do things like buy extra weapons), you’ll already understand what’s at stake. These early combats throw you up against some fairly weak opponents, so it’s unlikely the protagonist will get killed during the initial phase of play. (At least, playing as Jax, I was strong enough to one-shot my enemies here.)
I appreciated this feature. Instrument of the Gods minimizes the amount of character prep and rules reading you have to do in order to get started — your character selection happens during Node 1, rather than as a preparation phase to it. Incorporating an in-story tutorial section for the remaining mechanics made me feel a little more like I was playing a video game — get into the thick of the action right away! — and less like I was reading out a board game manual.
After the bottleneck, we get a somewhat open world structure: there are five locations to explore, but keywords are typically needed to open up the interesting (but more linear) missions in each. There’s a consistent pattern that you can either have a useful keyword item from elsewhere in the game, or you can use a skill check — usually the Charisma indicated by purple in this chart — to get past the barrier instead. So structurally, it’s fairly consistent, though there are a fair number of “Go to N” transitions in the story.
As the premise might imply, the game’s setting is pretty grim. Playing is less grim, mostly because the writing doesn’t take that setting entirely seriously. For instance, when you consider having sex with a prostitute:
But the thought of the X2 virus keeps scratching at the back of your mind. You keep flicking it away though – how bad can a fatal STD really be after all?
Really really damn bad, obviously, and I wouldn’t try out the hilarity of this particular joke on anyone with a good memory of the early 80s. But one understands from passages like this that we’re not really meant to think seriously about the protagonist’s situation. There are all kinds of pointers within the game experience to how life is short and arbitrary, and some prefab horrific backstories for the different protagonist options, and yet really exploring what it would mean emotionally to live in such an environment? Not really what the gamebook is about.
There are some moments in the narration that made me wince:
His lazy-eye and body odor are distracting enough.
…since while it would be totally in character for the unpleasant protagonist in this unpleasant land to carry prejudices about lazy eyes, this isn’t obviously distinguished from the writer’s own view.
Also a little disconcerting, albeit in a different way, is how the protagonist (who has been born and bred at least 500 years after our own time) explains their present in the terms of our present:
Most of these dogs are sizable enough to serve as military steeds – they have effectively replaced the now extinct horse which once served that very purpose. You conjecture them to be the byproduct of breeding Great Danes for size, ferocity and strength.
This is a little like a present-day American looking at a bus and explaining it to themselves as an advanced development of a charabanc using some type of internal combustion engine. Except I’ve cheated, because charabancs existed as recently as the early 20th century, and there haven’t been any nuclear wars intervening to wipe out the majority of cultural knowledge.
The queen attempts jumping out of harm’s way but your shot decimates her left calf causing her to crash into a wall.
Even if we don’t get pedantic about the original meaning of decimate (“to remove 1/10 of”), this is an odd way to describe what it’s describing: sort of detached and dissociated. Elsewhere, you can give this same queen a poison that will cause her neck muscles to explode and her head to pop off like a cork. The author plainly knows this is implausible, but enjoys combat stylings in the Awesomely Grotesque mode.
For all that the narration feels artificial and anachronistic, though, SA has lavished a lot of attention — more than I’ve seen in most other gamebooks — on giving a genuinely distinct experience depending on which of the four prefab characters you select to play. There are missions unique to each one; there are side scenes in shared missions that only one person can perform. The variation is much greater than, say, the per-character asides you get in ‘Normal Club. Some of these missions function as a sort of commentary on others: in one case you’re enraged by the loss of a friend to the machinations of a drug-dealing pimp, but in another, you’re getting involved in that same drug trade in order to further your own ends.
We’re told repeatedly that this future universe is a horrible place where everyone is out for themselves. By making even the protagonists (potentially) unsympathetic to one another, the structure of the gamebook demonstrates that principle quite eloquently.