Necklace of Skulls, The Sinister Fairground (Cubus Games)

cubusCubus Games is a maker of gamebook apps, and they have released a version of Necklace of Skulls by Dave Morris as well as a game called The Sinister Fairground.

In both cases, I felt that the UI was a bit clumsy and a bit unpolished, compared with the sleekness of 80 Days and inkle’s other work, or the splashy dynamism of Tin Man Games’ Appointment with FEAR. When you encounter new objects in the text — things that you might write down as keywords in a paper gamebook — you have to tick off a checkbox to acknowledge them as part of your inventory. I didn’t realize this in my first playthrough of Necklace of Skulls and got really confused about why I seemed to be missing objects that the text said I possessed; and indeed it’s not quite clear to me why it’s useful to make the player do this.

Along the same lines, the navigation through the helper pages for Necklace of Skulls (map, items, journal, checkpoint, table of contents) had me thoroughly confused and tapping in circles: there isn’t a clear hierarchy of how these pages relate to one another, and the icons and back buttons don’t all do quite what I would have expected.

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Windhammer Prize for Gamebooks

The Windhammer Prize is a prize for short traditional-style gamebooks: distributed in PDF, but designed to be played with a pencil and paper and sometimes dice. Windhammer contestants have to be short — no more than 100 segments allowed — and the contest is run yearly. It feels a bit odd, especially now that the IF community itself produces so much choice-based literature, that there’s so little discussion of gamebooks or awareness of the surrounding community. So as part of my continuing mission to cover IF-adjacent material, I tried out a bunch of Windhammer contestants.

Some highlights follow.

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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.

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