You may recall a couple of weeks back that I was eulogising over the possibilities of seeing old-fashioned game books being given a new lease of life via tablets and smartphones. And some of you were kind enough to point out that although the traditional franchises in this sphere such as Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf had been slow to get with the times, there was one company, Tin Man Games, who were doing exactly what I’d been asking for and making all-new game book apps. They were kind enough to supply me with a copy of one of their latest releases, Temple of the Spider God, so I could see for myself whether or not I was right in thinking the format would work extremely well on mobile devices.
If you’re not familiar with game books, the concept is pretty straightforward. The book is divided into a large quantity of numbered paragraphs. You start at paragraph 1, and at the end of each paragraph you’re normally presented with a series of options, each of which has its own numbered paragraph to turn to. Sometimes the choice is restricted depending on whether you can leverage some simple game mechanics to win a fight, pass a skill check or on a decision you made earlier in the book. In this way you make choices to progress on a variety of paths through the book to your ultimate goal. If you are familiar with these sorts of books you’ll be right at home here. Indeed I was pleased to see the occasional nod to veterans, such as the fact the game still displays choices that are blocked off so you can get some idea of what else you might be able to do or what’s gone wrong with your path. Might seem like a tiny thing to a new player, but the nostalgia value of little touches like that is immense. And while it’s a legitimate worry that the game book format itself is out of date, and something to be enjoyed for nostalgia value alone, the app does a pretty good job of putting that concern to bed.
Temple of the Spider God was written by veteran Fighting Fantasy author Jonathan Green, and his experience shows. It’s pulp fantasy, but that’s what you expect in a gamebook: you didn’t come here looking for the intellectual reward of uncovering the next Tolkein or the new Thomas Covenant, did you? And for pulp, it’s very well written and serves the central purpose of feeding the imagination and conjuring thrills and excitement from the dry medium of text on a screen. Several times I felt my pulse start to rise at critical points in the story, and that’s no mean feat for what’s essentially an unresponsive medium. The are a variety of well executed illustrations to add to the sense of adventure and exploration. Although the book gets the vital basics of text and art right I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t make better use of the multi-media capabilities of the device. Audio consists of a pleasant enough soundtrack and the occasional rattle as you throw some dice, but where are the screams of defeated enemies, the rumble of approaching monstrosities or the buzz of tropical insects as you hack your way through the trackless jungles of the book? There’s also no attempt at novel approaches to puzzles and the like that make use of the touch screen or behind-the-scenes tracking or hidden information.
While the author may have done a bang-up job of constructing his prose, I’m a little less impressed by the manner in which he’s constructed encounters in the book. There are several places, including the very beginning of the book, where you face back-to-back fights. This in itself wouldn’t be problematic but the mechanics of the series were partly borrowed from Risk: you roll offensive and defensive dice, compare the highest of each and the higher number wins. If the attacker comes out on top, damage is equal to the sum of all his offensive dice. It’s an extremely chaotic system that’s prone to big swings of fate: one bad roll against a powerful enemy can kill you. It also has a push your luck element to gain bonuses which revolves around a “Fitness” statistic that also gets checked against from time to time in the story, making a high Fitness score a near-essential pre-requisite for success and yet Fitness is determined at the start of the book by rolling one dice and adding six. Again this isn’t so much of an issue in itself but combined with those back to back fights it becomes a problem. Imagine, right at the start of the book, thirsting for excitement and adventure, you have to face off against two reasonably tough enemies with no breathing space in between. It’s easy to die, or to end up in a state in which further combat is inadvisable. It’s certainly exciting, but rather than slaking your thirst for adventure it can leave the player frustrated. In paper format you could easily cheat and bypass difficult fights if you got bored so this wasn’t a problem. The app, rightly, forces you to make legal choices and stops cheating but again it feels a bit like the author was still treating the e-book like a purely text exercise and forgetting about the changes that transition to electronic format entails.
The app does offer a solution to this, although it may not be immediately apparent, and that’s its interconnected bookmarks and difficulty system. You can choose from three difficult levels that offer you incrementally smaller numbers of bookmarks to use. A bookmark just allows you to mark a re-spawn point in case you die. On the easiest setting you get a maximum starting 12 Fitness and 50 bookmarks, making it trivial to slot one in before a fight so you can restart if you die or take too much damage, and another in right afterwards if you’ve beaten your enemies without a hitch. That solves that problem. The higher settings give you ten and three bookmarks respectively and are much more challenging. If you want to try and beat the book on these settings then obviously it helps a lot to have some knowledge of where the toughest points in the story are, and that encourages replay value.
You’re also inspired to play through the book more than once by the inclusion of a set of achievements for you to tick off. This is pretty standard fare in mobile games nowadays but here it really works wonders. Replay value was a bit of an issue with the original paper format books, I rarely felt the need to work through all the different paths once I’d beaten the book. But the achievements here are cleverly designed to encourage you to do just that: it’s impossible to get them all in one play through, and I suspect it would take a goodly number, each focusing on a different story path, to tick off the whole lot. It really helps to encourage you to go back to the game repeatedly, and is ably supported by another clever idea which is the addition of book illustrations in the achievements gallery: if you want to see all the great artwork, you’ll have to keep on working through the different story arcs that the book can provide.
On the whole, Temple of the Spider God makes me feel like I was justified in thinking game books were ripe for re-invention as e-books. It’s a good read, and a fun experience. But there’s one thing we haven’t mentioned yet, and that’s price. Most of Tin Man’s books retail at $5. That doesn’t sound a lot and, given the peculiar logistics of actually having to author a book as well as a usable app, it’s probably a fair price. But ultimately at that price point, the books are competing against retro classics like GTA3, Pirates and World of Goo. It’s in the same price bracket as fully-fledged, critically acclaimed RPGs such as Rimelands and Across Age. And although I had a good time with Temple of the Spider God, price for price, those other games look better value. This is partly why my initial exploration of the space focused on re-publishing old classics which could be done very cheaply: original content costs. At a dollar, even two, I’d eat up game book apps like there’s no tomorrow, but $5 may be a stretch too far. Interestingly it seems that Tin Man may be aware of this: their latest offering Infinite Universe has a adopted a variant of the freemium model whereby you get the first chapters for free, and pay in-app for the remaining content or unlockable extras. I can see that working better, even if you ultimately pay the same if you want to see the final conclusion of the book. And with luck, I’ll have a companion review for the new book for you in a couple of weeks.