2013 Windhammer Prize reviews - Part 1: The Could-Have-Beens
Once again the annual worldwide Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction has concluded and winners have been announced. Now in its sixth year, the standard of competition and the level of interest generated is a credit to Wayne Densley for making this all happen, Wayne having this to say on it:
“In the six weeks of the voting period the number of visitors attending the competition webpage more than doubled over last year, with a commensurate increase in downloads and voting numbers.”
The breadth of diversity in the each year’s Windhammer Prize entries is a wonderful opportunity to look at what others are doing in the gamebook genre, their ideas and design innovations, and to (subjectively) assess what worked and what didn’t. I consider that putting together a (fairly) detailed set of reviews with scores as I present here serves a few purposes. One is to inform others that may or may not have yet read the entries, and present an opinion on their merits (with some slight spoilers I guess but with an effort to avoid that). Two is to assist the writers of the works themselves, by highlighting what I thought were its strengths and weaknesses. And three is to better my own works in this genre, by getting a better understanding of what I liked about others’ works and what I didn’t. Ultimately I think the more we can analyse and critique gamebook works, the more we can all get better at it, which has to be a good thing right?
The winning three entries were announced a couple of days ago (I’ll get to that in due course) and can expect to be seen in a Tin Man Games app sometime soon… Huge congratulations is owed to the winners for this and the three Commendation Award winners too (I’ll name them as I come to their corresponding reviews) and honestly, everyone who put the time into designing and writing a gamebook for this year’s Windhammer Prize deserves congratulations too. You are all to be praised and respected for submitting yourself to public scrutiny and are furthering the cause of creating better gamebooks that build on lessons learnt (well mostly!) and continue to “raise the bar”. Well done!
So once again I have reviewed and scored all the entries, and shall present them in ascending order from what I judged the worst to the best of the crop. I’ve used the same scoring system as I used last year which I’ll reiterate in a moment, but first I want to restate that these reviews and scores are merely the subjective assessment of one individual (like any review/judgement is), and so should be read with that in mind. It’s perhaps stating the bleeding obvious to say that, but I am conscious of how discouraging it can be to have something posted on the internet to the effect that “your work is poor” and certainly don’t wish to discourage anyone (even though I believe I did unfortunately in at least one instance following my reviews from last year). I mainly want to inform, to help others get better at what they do, and get better in the process myself J
Lastly, just consider what score I got in this year’s Windhammer Prize: 0%... I didn’t submit anything so that means that every one of the fourteen entries did a lot better than I did! But hopefully I won’t be making the same concession next year ;)
And now, here’s the explanation of my rating system from last year:
In order to rate and rank the Windhammer entries, I came up with my own rating system, based on what I considered is important. -Understanding the motivations and preferences of the person doing a review is as important (I think) as the review itself, so if you want more background on what I think gamebook design should aspire to, I wrote an article on it here.
I like putting numbers on things, to make them quantitative, but this has its limits too. Scores and ranks give the illusion of being definitive, but the score and rank you give for something can vary on any given day. -Even now I’ll look at these scores and think “hmm that score was a bit harsh” or “gee maybe I gave them a bit too much there”…
Anyway I scored each entry according to five categories, where I gave a score out of 10 for each category, and doubled the total of these scores to give an overall “percentage”. The five categories, weighted equally for the purposes of my score, are as follows:
DESIGN - The mechanics of the gamebook. Is it innovative? Is it an idea that works well? Is it fair? Is it too linear or too random? Is it too easy or too hard?
STORY - The plot of the gamebook and the setting created for it. Is it an interesting story? Is it too clichéd or predictable? Is the setting detailed and vivid? Is the setting consistent within its scope?
WRITING - The quality of the writing in the gamebook. Is it well edited? It is efficient? Evocative? Accessible?
CLARITY - The clarity of the gamebook. Are the rules clearly explained? Are the game mechanics as they are used through the gamebook clear? Is the action being described and the potential consequences arising from differing choices apparent?
PLAYABILITY - The playability and replayability of the gamebook. Is it fun? Does it lend itself to repeat play-throughs of the gamebook?
For sake of comparison, my ratings of the 2012 Windhammer entries ranged from 43% to 90% with an average of 72% and these 2013 Windhammer entries I’ve rated from 46% to 90% with an average of 72% (so roughly the same sort of spread). I might also add that I’ve made a start of assessing the Fighting Fantasy series in much the same way, with a range of 72% to 85% for the titles I’ve rated so far, averaging 78% (not sure if I should share these views though). But it says something about the quality of the Windhammer entries I think, that a number of them I rated higher than even the classic FF title Deathtrap Dungeon which I gave a score of 85%...
So now without further preamble (think I’ve done plenty of that already), I present my reviews. I’ve broken these into three parts, today’s Part One I’ve called “The Could-Have-Beens” those being those which I consider need a lot of work to be “good” (14th to 11th place on my list). Part Two I’ve called “Flawed Gems” with aspects of greatness but significant weaknesses (10th to 6th place on my list). And finally Part Three I’ve called “The Cream” those being the ones I judged the best (5th to 1st place on my list). In all entries I’ve tried to identify what I liked and didn’t like about it. Parts Two and Three will be posted on the blog here over the next few days…
DESIGN - 5
STORY – 4.5
WRITING – 6.5
CLARITY - 4
PLAYABILITY - 3
MY OVERALL SCORE: 46% (14th place)
What I liked: System has some innovations of merit. Generally the writing quality is fine and is the strongest element in this work.
What I didn’t like: An overly complicated system irreparably undermined by unavoidable and unbalanced battles and Section numbers that are erroneous or missing. Story and characterisation is mostly absent, the setting non-descript and the conclusion (having cheated to find it) is brief and unsatisfying. Difficulty of play is compounded by the lack of a character sheet, reference tables that are difficult to interpret, and rules not clearly explained.
This entry marks the first time I’ve ever given a score as low as 3 for any entry in any of my five categories. I guess I try to find something good in everything and I’m not sure what it will take for me to score something less than 3, but me giving this entry a Playability of only 3 is about as bad as it can realistically get on my scale. Sadly, it is hard to see how this entry is playable to anyone, and I suspect that it didn’t undergo any sort of testing or revision…
What breaks the experience of this gamebook so badly, rendering it unplayable, is not only that the complicated system is poorly explained and cumbersome, but it is badly balanced against the player making it near impossible to survive without A LOT of luck (at least early on). To make matters worse, references to Section numbers are erroneous or missing, so you can’t even cheat your way through this. The starting section for instance has you fight a creature far more powerful than you (and it’s just a “wandering monster”) or if you’re lucky enough you can go to another Section to avoid the fight, except you can’t as you don’t know what Section that is (the one it directs you to is the wrong one)…
Even getting to Section 1 is an ordeal as you have to (try to) get your head around a complex system that is poorly explained. There is no character sheet to help you figure out what you need to record and even the reference table provided for the resolution of combat is difficult to interpret (and I’m still not sure if I interpreted it correctly). The “paper-scissors-rock” implementation of the combat system, where you match various stats against your opponents in a chosen order to determine who wins each round, has some merit but is overshadowed by complexity, and a lack of clarity and balance.
I find that not only does this entry “fail” on the game side of things, it “fails” on the book side as well. There is virtually no story, no character background, no characterisation and the setting is quite non-descript (do you want to go East or West? Such choices!) I cheated to find the ending just to see if it actually had much of a plot and found that the conclusion was brief, unsatisfying and to me, seemed quite pointless.
The one redeeming element of this work is that the quality of the writing itself is fine, albeit with the occasional typo, but struck me as uninspired for the most part.
DESIGN - 4
STORY - 4
WRITING - 5
CLARITY - 6
PLAYABILITY – 4.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 47% (13th place)
What I liked: The idea of managing Rage and Frustration levels has potential. Writing is quite punchy on occasion.
What I didn’t like: Everything seems to either be boring, frustrating, rage-inducing or potentially game-ending where most choices seem to boil down to simply guessing or rolling the right option and regardless of what you try to do, you seem to be constantly berated for trying to do anything. Story is sparse, with little apparent point (apart from reinforcing that everything sucks and you hate it all), with no endearing characters (including the one you play) or any depth to them. Writing is mostly mired in clumsy/awkward punctuation, and erroneous tense, verb use and sentence construction. Action and world details often not sufficiently clarified.
E-42, the name by which the character you play in this is known, is not a happy camper. His job sucks, his work colleagues suck, the world he’s in sucks, his parents suck… Basically everything sucks and he hates it all. Unfortunately that also sums up my sentiments about this entry.
This gamebook for me mainly presented a challenge for me of how long I could endure it for. Given a threadbare world and no motivation, you merely try to get through a day of work without either “leaving” (having your brain burn out by your Frustration stat getting to the same level as your Rage stat) or “snapping” (losing control of your body in rage by having your Rage stat get to twice your Frustration stat). Most choices you’re presented amount to either random rolls or blind choices, and on the occasions you actually can exercise some degree of choice, this malicious gamebook seems to only berate you for trying. Everything you do only seems to either increase your Rage or Frustration. Try to speak to someone? Nah they hate you so you can gain Rage. Try to help someone? Nah they don’t appreciate it so you gain Frustration. Get to a meeting late? Get ridiculed and gain Rage. Get to a meeting early? Gain Frustration as you interrupt a meeting already there and get ridiculed. Even simple tasks like taking a shower, trying to travel to your meeting, and actually being in a meeting, are all exercises in Rage, Frustration or both. And it didn’t make sense to me that you needed to keep increasing your Frustration to reduce the risk of having a Rage meltdown and vice versa for Frustration. This idea has potential, but not with this implementation (although it needs to be said that it was at least easy to follow the rules).
The time schedule worked reasonably well and was usually (but not always) clear, so at least that is manageable. It was unrealistic however, for instance you have one meeting scheduled at 00:27 and another a minute later in another room. Seriously, who has one minute meetings? Most meetings I’ve had drag on more than 35 minutes, which is the entire length of the time schedule given here.
What story there is seems to have little point other than to reinforce the point that everything sucks and you hate it all. There are no endearing characters in this work, including the one you play, and none of the characters seem to have any depth or personality really – they’re apparently just there to make your life more miserable.
The writing itself is occasionally quite punchy in its delivery, but mostly mired in clumsy/awkward punctuation, and erroneous tense, verb use and sentence construction. In addition, action and world details were often not sufficiently clarified.
So ultimately, while this gamebook was “playable” (unlike the entry I gave 14th place to), I found that it was an unenjoyable experience. I was actually wanting my character to die so I could end playing this gamebook sooner than it did, but maybe this entry will present a worthwhile challenge for some?
DESIGN - 6
STORY – 5.5
WRITING - 6
CLARITY - 5
PLAYABILITY – 5.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 56% (12th place)
What I liked: Design shows promise. Some aspects of the setting demonstrate sound knowledge. Sentences are easy to read.
What I didn’t like: A lot of record keeping and cross checking, and railroading of choices at times. Story shows a lack of understanding of the setting, particularly in the case of 1790 Sydney which makes the whole premise of the story implausible. Writing lacks descriptive elements, characterisation and significant plot. Neither buying nor storage of cargo are adequately explained, which is a crucial flaw considering that this is the central aspect of this work.
From a design point of view, this entry shows some promise, casting you as a spice trader in command of a ship and crew as you travel across South East Asia collecting and selling spices, and having adventures and misadventures along the way. The text is clearly laid out, making for an easy read, but the rules are not clearly explained. This I found to be particularly damning in regards to the rules for buying and storing cargo; the central premise of this work. For instance when you have the opportunity to buy spices, you have a list of options like this:
Cargo Quantity Available Price
Clove 7 5 Silver
Nutmeg 3 5 Silver
-So does this mean I can buy 7 lots of Clove for 35 Silver? Or is that 5 Silver?
Your ship has only fifteen cargo spots (seventeen if you’re playing a British trader) but the rules don’t explain how these are to be used either. E.g. if I purchased 7 lots of Clove above, does that fill one cargo spot? Or seven?
Aside from the rules being unclear, they’re also quite cumbersome as they require a lot of record keeping and cross-checking of tables. Considering the theme of this gamebook, the detailed record keeping is probably fine, but the placement of the rules and tables could be made more accessible. For example it mentions on page 2 about forming your landing party and what base crew stats are, but the crew you select are only listed three pages later and you have to jump between the pages to get all the details you need to record. And the current European buying prices for the spices you acquire (a table you need to constantly refer to, to figure out what to buy and sell) is inconveniently buried at the bottom of page 8.
The story too is very weak, lacking descriptive elements, characterisation and a plot of any significance. Choices are at times “railroaded” (for instance following a fight in which I lost 3 of my 4 landing crew, I would have liked to be able to go to a marketplace to get more crew members, but instead the narrative forced me onwards towards almost certain doom if I was to get into another fight).
The biggest failing story-wise though, is the premise of the gamebook which shows ignorance of the setting being described and is consequently quite implausible. The story has you start in Sydney, Australia in 1790 you see, where step out of the pub “The Iron Ale” where you then head to the docks to inspect a merchant vessel you’ve just purchased from an old Captain “wanting to retire in New South Wales.” Before setting sail, a man present at the docks gives you a list of the going rates for spices in Europe and advises you to apply for a Company Trading License here in Sydney…
Now all that may sound fine if you don’t know any Australian history. But even a small amount of research would establish that the premise of this story is implausible. You see in 1790, Sydney was only a two year old penal colony with a population of about 1000, about 800 of which were convicts. These wretched souls from the “First Fleet” struggled with a food crisis that only began to be alleviated with the arrival of the “Second Fleet” in mid 1790 (mostly more convicts and various officials to maintain law and order). Actual trade only began in 1791 and the first “free settlers” began arriving in 1792. (1788 is the year cited as the year in which the nation of Australia was formed; then just called “New South Wales”; but this of course ignores the fact that Aboriginal tribes had called this land home for at least 50,000 years before that and were systematically wiped out by the British colonisers through dispossession, disease and violence and reduced to a fraction of their original number within a few short years). –But this gamebook seems oblivious to any of those historical details, and describes events as if you were in an established city with a vibrant trade… Whoops. As far as I could tell though, the historical details of the South East Asia region at the time (outside of Australia), and the details of the nature of trade and rivalry between European seafaring nations at the time, is at least accurate, but I didn’t investigate too far on that to be sure…
As far as the writing itself went, it was okay and clear, but lacked description and characterisation, had some punctuation and sentence errors, and did a bit of “telling” over “showing”. Overall, despite some good historical knowledge of South East Asia and European trade rivalries and generally quite clear text (but not rules), I found this to be quite an arduous and boring gamebook and I didn't persevere with it.
DESIGN - 7
STORY – 4.5
WRITING - 8
CLARITY - 9
PLAYABILITY – 6
MY OVERALL SCORE: 69% (11th place)
What I liked: An interesting "philosophical thought experiment" that is clearly presented with solid writing.
What I didn’t like: Too short, and your choices make no discernible difference in the outcome.
Here you play a character that has gone to see Dr. Mullan for “the experiment”, and during this experiment Dr. Mullan concedes that “I'm the authorial voice of someone who didn't leave himself enough time to do a proper entry for this year's Windhammer competition.”
At least you’re honest Kieran ;)
What we have here is less a “gamebook” than it is an exceedingly brief "philosophical thought experiment" on free will and choice with particular emphasis on gamebooks. For what it is, it’s actually fine, it’s just that it’s over in five or so minutes with no real need to read more than once, as regardless of what choices you make (including stat choice), the outcome is the same. Sorry that’s a spoiler I guess, but it does strike me that it is a significant flaw to have a “gamebook” about choice and free will where in this case, your choice actually doesn’t seem to matter. That this is the case, seems (to me) to somewhat undermine the points the author was trying to make about the existence or absence of free will. I could agree with many (most?) of the points raised, but some of the conclusions I thought were inaccurate generalisations, for instance the assertion that Strength is generally more important than Intellect in gamebooks, and the statement that “Since every choice has a cause, free will itself does not exist. Gamebooks offer alternative choices, but the choices made are the only choices that reader could ever have made.”
But leaving philosophical objections aside (the philosophical debate on free will is quite intractable besides, although I would argue that the existence of quantum reality disproves “Laplace determinism” but that’s a big tangent), the writing itself is solid and well-edited without being anything special. There is no real system to speak of, but in this context I think that’s okay. However the absence of any real story doesn’t leave the reader with anything that they can immerse themselves in. I like the philosophical musings this work prompts, but I think the way in which this was done in Paul Struth’s “Out of Time” entry was far more effective and interesting.
Overall, I think of this as a good intermission between other gamebooks that will keep you entertained for a few minutes but little more… Kieran's entry was short and by his own admission rushed, but I think if I'm not mistaken, he's the only one who has entered the Windhammer Prize every year that it has run (quite possibly Stuart Lloyd has too, I'm not sure EDIT: Stuart has informed me that he has indeed entered the Windhammer Prize in every year that it has run), so he's doing a lot better on this front than the rest of us! (And in addition he has a number of other published gamebooks to his credit, including the excellent Revenant Rising which I helped to produce, so he's certainly got a good track record!)
So that’s my wrap of the “Could-Have-Beens”, those being the entries I judged the weakest entries (and of questionable playability). Things only get better from here, so stay tuned for Part Two of my reviews - the “Flawed Gems” - in the next day or two J