m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

Death Cave

I’ve more or less finished Death by Halloween, David Warkentin 2013 (Kindle Unlimited and paperback), the first book in his Adventures You Choose series. A second was promised, but I’m not holding my breath.

I read my way through four or five deaths, all very different except once when the author scolded me so much for my cowardice that I decided to check out the brave option. (It was just as fatal.) If you’re looking for horror, it’s here in spades, but in that drawn-out, cinematic way where the decisions of minor characters never seem to save them or do much good at all.

So if you’re looking for interactivity, it’s not necessarily here. The passages are long and the choices at the end are often just between right and left like you’re back in the Cave of Time. The author even boasts of the disconnectedness of different paths:

When I started writing this book, I wanted to make it as interesting as possible, so I made a decision. I decided that the realities of each story would be defined after the choice, meaning that every time the reader made a choice, a new reality would be created within the story.

(The technical term for this is a Time Cave.) I agree that it makes the story more interesting, but less interactive for adult readers. I’d recommend this book to horror lovers for its encyclopedia of deaths, but not to modern CYOA readers, for whom part of the pleasure of reading is gaining some understanding of the larger structure of the story.

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While contemplating my forthcoming updates to PrePub and how I would make a dead-tree version of an e-gamebook, I found an old LaTeX gamebook package. It doesn’t actually do that much, but then there’s not much to do and it’s always handy when someone else has already done it for you.

Scree 3.0.3a

I’ve updated Scree3, my Scrivener 3 template for writing hyperfiction with Twine/Twee, to handle internal document links. That way you can auto-create scenes just by linking them (as in the Twine GUI), and also zip around your scenes within Scrivener by clicking the links. The new version number is 3.0.3a.

Scrivener 3 is still Mac-only at the moment, with the usual free 30-day-total trial for new and Scrivener 2 users.

The Butler Did It

I’ve more or less finished MURDERED: Can YOU Solve the Mystery?, book two in James Scannep’s Click Your Poison series. I’ve previously reviewed book one, INFECTED, a classic zombie apocalypse CYOA. MURDERED is a bit more down to earth; YOU play a non-lusophone tourist visiting São Paulo for Carnaval, who has stumbled across a murder scene. The victim was, allegedly, the fiancée of a famous expatriate scientist expected back in town for a convention during Carnaval and, if you so choose, YOU can quickly get yourself embroiled in the investigation from several available angles.

Despite the second person, this reads like a more traditional thriller in which you travel Brazil, encountering its impoverished, violent and rainforest-destroying underbellies while being pursued by a mysterious assassin, searching for clues, and chasing the prime suspect. Once you get into one of the the three threads (mentioned in a tagline on the back cover), the story becomes a bit of a gauntlet with quite a few apparent choices that either lead to immediate death or to a one-passage diversion from the main track that may or may not provide a clue. Then it’s back onto the main trail for you. There are longer asides of the same sort, so that even when the story seems to be branching it usually comes back down to a few common endings. In fact there is only a single “good” ending, which briefly congratulates you but encourages you to try again if you think you didn’t quite get the solution right—a disturbing thought, as the alleged murderer is usually lying dead on the streets of São Paulo at that point.

MURDERED is very good, but the scenes are both a bit too long and too much of a gauntlet to make rereading fun. This is unfortunate because, though the clues when you’ve gone wrong are clear enough, the “correct” ending isn’t the easiest thing to stumble upon even with that knowledge. Technology-wise, the most notable thing about the Kindle edition is a line, MAKE YOUR CHOICE, at the bottom of each choice list indicating that it’s over—a good idea for a format known for its widows and orphans, though it doesn’t solve the perhaps spurious issue of accidental page-turning that full-page warnings do. If you like a good thriller and a good challenge, you should definitely try MURDERED out. It’s available on Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback (with traditional turn to page n formatting).

Butler to the Dark Lord: A Grim Choices Gamebook by Sam Bowring is notable both for its perfect subject matter and its low-rent solutions to CYOA ebook technology problems. Your perfect assignment, should you choose to accept it, is butling everything properly for your Dark Lord’s virgin-sacrificing Big Event and the surrounding celebrations without irking your irascible master into fireballing you, while thwarting (or perpetrating) plots against him, and resisting the allures of the wine in the wine cellar and the virgin in the dungeon. Only so many duties and snacks can fit into the few days allotted, so you must choose your evil activities wisely. The jokes write themselves here; the paragraphs are short and funny, so it’s an easy reread to try out several entertaining paths to the Big Event and final plot resolution.

The title page credits the soon-to-be-defunct Inklewriter, and the how-to-read introduction explains that there were technical difficulties in getting the book to track your gamebook stats for you, though it doesn’t explain whether this was a failed Inklewriter conversion or some other disappointed ebook scripting ambition. Instead, you need to track your stats yourself by remembering certain character traits, past actions, and completed tasks as noted at the appropriate time in ALL CAPS. This means that many of your apparent choices are merely acts of reinputting information, yet this doesn’t feel nearly as railroady as it did in How To Be Bad, even though your adventure as a butler is a straight gauntlet leading up to the Big Event. The VARIOUS CLUES also fit into the comic theme in a way that might not work for a more serious book.

For some perhaps technical reason the Kindle links are all of the form An, where n is a number between 1 and 293, whereas in the paperback these are normal gamebook paragraph headers from 1 to 293. Paragraphs are inline in the paperback but on their own pages in the Kindle edition.

Shades of Bad and Plaid

I’ve more or less finished Fifty Shades of Plaid (Parody Brothers, Kindle Unlimited 2014), a bottleneck-and-bottleneck Choose Your Own Adventure story that’s a parody of Fifty Shades of Grey. The technical term is branch and bottleneck, but the branches never get much farther than a choice or two from the trunk before returning there, and at times you are even scolded for trying to make a silly choice (in a parody CYOA!), then sent back to the “correct” choice. Despite the tendency to railroad the reader, there are plenty of endings, though many seem jarringly random in their choice of whether you will stay with the tall, rich, and mysterious Christian Plaid or move on to other men. Still, there are some surprises you can miss if you happen to move on.

The story is far more effective as a parody than as an adventure; the problematic characterization of the original cast is only compounded by their satirization, and what few choices you have never lead to any notable character development or change in the nature of your subsequent options. There are fewer sex scenes than I expected, and most of them were more slapstick than erotic, though you might not want to let this tall tale fall into the hands of the traditional CYOA audience. Still, it’s worth a read for George Takei alone.

I’ve more or less given up on How to Be Bad (Michael La Ronn, EPUB 2014), which is not to say it’s a bad story, but it’s too linear to support much rereading; the bottleneck-and-bottleneck structure is harder to tolerate in a longer story like this one. You start out as lawyer passed up for promotion to partner who makes a deal with a devil to get revenge. Of course the deal is not quite what you thought it would be, and you have to collect some souls or else. Whether you lose your own soul in the process seems as arbitrary as whether you stayed with Christian Plaid or not in Fifty Shades of Plaid, though it wasn’t clear to me whether this was intentional on the author’s part or just an unintended result of bugs in the story.

Otherwise, the writing was good, the tale was entertaining, and there were some clever do-over options to keep the reader from having to start over after getting deep into your third soul. But I’m not expecting any sequels; though the author trademarked his series title (Decision Select: Every Choice Counts) and wrote a how-to book, he seems to have abandoned both the story (which is no longer available on his website, only at Goodreads) and the genre itself in favor of SFF.

I took a look under the hood (the EPUB is free as in beer and as in speech) to figure out how the games were done. They felt scripted, but there was no scripting inside the epub, only 2,776 individual files, of which 464 were oops, you didn’t make a decision pages. And not all of those followed genuine choices; about 170 such warnings followed single chokepoint links (Continue), and many of the remaining choices were merely a means of re-inputting the decisions you’d made earlier in the story. While the author discussed the book back in the day, he didn’t mention how he constructed it. Once upon a time Inkle Studios would convert stories with scripting to Kindle eBooks without it, and I wonder if that service was involved here.

In any event, scripting was definitely involved; there were some consistent typos that can only have been created and overlooked by a computer. For example, there were 64 occurrences of “n out 5” that should have been “n out of 5” in your trivia quiz results. On the other hand, inputting your soul colors sometimes fails—something a computer ought to do well—and my manual search around the book for the correct list may have led to my impression that the final outcome was unpredictable, because it turned out there was more than one way to reach at least some of the eight possible soul-color collections. A more serious failure of navigation was your opponent’s final decision in the game show showdown, which often contradicted both the previous events and the subsequent reactions of the characters; it seemed like another computer-generated typo.

Of course I’m a tiny bit tempted to code a Twine-to-EPUB converter not unlike the old Inklewriter-to-Kindle converter. The intermediate step of actually being able to autoplay an entire Twine story tree is something I’ve thought about before; it would be useful for testing. But I know the Twine ecosystem too well to underestimate the task; I’m not about to make a deal with that devil.